Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Whats makes up good ambiance in a MMO dungeon?

Dungeons or Instances are one of the key parts of any fantasy based MMO. As much as jaded gamers like to make fun of the men in tights genre there's just something to be said about exploring the depths of a tomb or the heights of an ancient castle. It worked back in the age of pen and paper RPGs, it worked for console RPGs, and it still works for massive multiplayer RPGs. A good dungeon gives players a feeling of tension and danger as they slowly make their way through the bosses to the final encounter. Of course over time the challenge of a good dungeon may fade as you repeat it for loot but its overall coolness factor never entirely disappears.

Thinking about my favorite instances in World of Warcraft I came up with four main areas where well thought out design contributes to making an excellent dungeon experience.

This is perhaps the area where game designers do the most experimentation. Sometimes developers try to inspire the roleplayer in their customers and put something stirring and heroic into a dungeon soundtrack. I prefer the opposite approach when the developers choose music that conspires to put you on edge and makes you check over your shoulder. In the Burning Crusade I think the Mana Tombs does this best with a dark, slow melody that sounds like someone slowly sneaking up behind you. However, if you want to hear the best dungeon music ever check out some of the early zelda and megaman games. These two genres produced some of the best dungeon crawling music ever and it shows by how often its remixed on such sites like

Every dungeon consists of walls usually constructed of stone with a limited view of the outside world. Popular settings include tombs, castles, caves, and the occasional lost city. How believable such settings are usually comes down to the art of including the proper visuals. If you're in a tomb you should be surrounded by other stuff then just undead and graverobbers. You should see rats scurrying in the corner and have to walk through cobwebs. The details of a good dungeon brings the place to an almost electronic life. Well, at least a Hollywood version of what we expect such places to look like. Take some time to look at the details in Scholomance and you can spot all sorts of cool little visual effects which add up together to make the place especially spooky.

Interactive Features/Puzzles:
One of the reasons that Adventure games tend to be more popular then most RPGs is because their dungeons are more interactive and puzzle based. The best example of an interactive feature in World of Warcraft is Dire Maul north where you can use all sorts of tricks like Ogre Suits and Frost Traps to leave the guards alive. At the end of the dungeon once you kill the boss you get more loot depending on how many guards you managed to avoid. In games like Tomb Raider and Zelda you are constantly having to interact with the environment to proceed to the final boss. WoW is starting to experiment a bit more with interactive content like the Simon type game involving the crystal shards in Ogrila. Still its a shame that we don't see more interactive group puzzles in MMO dungeons.

(sidenote): Dire Maul was the last non-raid dungeon content that was patched into WoW. All free patched in content since then has been raiding dungeons which I think accounts for a lot of animosity between raiders and non-raiders. Demand for new dungeons is higher then most other content.

Boss Encounters:
The make or break part of any dungeon run is of course the boss encounters. Dungeon bosses should be challenging and cool looking while giving out good enough loot to keep players coming back consistently. One of the best encounters in World of Warcraft was Ragnaros the Firelord which met all of this criteria. He had the first piece of the T2 set which kept higher level guilds clearing him and provided an amusing opening dialogue whenever you fought him. About the only mistake Blizzard made was making him a require ultra high fire resistance for the main tank which slowed down raid progression.

In the Burning Crusade Blizzard made great strides in improving single group dungeon encounters by making sure most bosses weren't simple tank and spank fight. As early as the first dungeon, Hellfire Ramparts, they had complex bosses which used dragons and weird aoe curse auras to confound adventurers. About the only thing that seem to go downhill in the expansion were the raid bosses which often required strict class balance with little room for mistakes. Still with the future release of Zul'Aman which is supposed to be the spiritual successor to Zul'gurub hopes are high for some fun boss encounters which don't pound new guilds repeatedly in the face.


Ryan Shwayder said...

Good post. The one thing I'm confused about...

"One of the reasons that Adventure games tend to be more popular then most RPGs is because their dungeons are more interactive and puzzle based."

RPGs are ridiculously more popular than Adventure games. If you are talking about action-adventure games like Prince of Persia and the like, that makes more sense and may actually be true, but not traditional adventure games (that genre is barely alive).

Joyd said...

I agree big time on the music thing; most of the dungeon music in WoW is very subdued, barely noticeable even with the music volume turned up all the way, and even then not particularly engaging. Gnomer, for instance (no pun intended), just has a sort of wind sound punctuated by faint machine rattling. I feel that the zone would feel much more alive with a driving, industrial score. Of the WoW music, only the log-in screen song is really memorable. (Although I also like the Exodar music.)

Sean said...

Personally, I feel the general artistic design of a dungeon is the most important part. Thinking back on the dungeons I like and dislike, the look of the dungeon makes a huge impact. I feel that Karazhan is one of the best artistically-designed dungeons, which is one of the reasons I enjoy running it every week.

Relmstein said...

I mean the action-adventure games that involve puzzle and rpg elements. Zelda was on my mind the most when I wrote that portion of the post. I like elements in WoW like the Cache of Hakkar in the Sunken Temple or the Dire Maul North tribute run.

Karazhan was designed very well visually and shares a lot in common with Scholomance. The idea of the opera event alone makes the dungeon ground breaking though I think the boss encounters were tuned a little too much for the "ideal" group.

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