I really love Blackrock Depths. It’s genuinely one of my favourite places in WoW. It is the epitome of a school of dungeon and game design which vanilla WoW itself was the culmination of in the broader spectrum of MMOs. I bet you loved it too, even though these days you look down upon it. What did it ever do to you?
It’s the kind of dungeon you could endlessly get lost in. That was one of the best things about it: it was never again matched in scope, except maybe by the equally wonderful Karazhan. I mean sure, there were some BIG dungeons and raids over the years. But the labyrinthine quality of BRD, its corridors with no end to them, its vast variety of settings from the jail to the inn to the forge and that place with the seven dwarves to the Lyceum, it surprised you again and again and just kept going. Forever.
And partly because of that scope, but also because the art and variety of settings were so well executed and effective, it was one of the most wonderfully realised places in all of WoW. When you entered BRD you were expecting a CITY for the dark iron dwarves inside a volcano, and that is essentially what you got. A fully exploreable, densely populated, absolutely huge city. This is no small feat: one of the primary crimes of current-day dungeons is (at least to me) that they don’t seem to communicate the sense of place and lore as effectively. Simply because Blizzard have constrained themselves and are shoehorned by their current design philosophies into making dungeons fairly quick and easily navigable. Naturally that’s as much a bad thing as it is a good one, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Take Lost City of Tol’vir, which I just completed today. It sounds impressive. Lost City of Tol’vir. It sounds VAST, like it’d take you hours just to scratch the surface of the secrets and mysteries which lie contained therein. An explorer’s dream, too: a Lost City, something that’s been buried for ages, who knows what treasures it might hold? Instead what we get is a couple of corridors tied together with little room for exploration or possibility to walk off the beaten path.
But hey, Tol’vir is actually okay in that respect. At least there we can explore what we see around us. In WotLK I was tremendously annoyed by Ahn’kahet. The place LOOKED absolutely gorgeous, once again an explorer’s dream. The giant temples in the distance, the valleys with sparkly mushrooms down below. It effectively felt like a city underground in dungeon form. And yet the actual experience was anything but. Not only were we limited to a select few corridors, the place was riddled with invisible walls left and right, all the beautiful scenery being just out of reach at all times. I felt like a child being continuously taunted by a piece of candy. What could’ve been an explorer’s dream turned into his worst nightmare: trapped in a glass box shut tightly on all sides in the middle of the Amazon.
That to me is about the worst possible crime a game/level designer can commit against my ideals to create a sense of place in a game. It quite effectively destroys, or at least significantly diminishes, the feelings of.. “immersion”, for lack of a better word. And BRD did the opposite. It didn’t even need cutscenes, or clear storylines set up throughout huge quest chains in accompanying zones (although it had those too, to its credit), it said everything it had to say simply through its art direction and level design.
To further develop the idea of scope, take a look at the number of bosses in there. I can’t help but be amazed by the huge breadth of content in there even now, after the long, LONG list of improvements and huge swathes of content the expansions brought us. I mean sure, the bosses were mostly just tank and spanks and varieties on that theme. But most of them served a purpose in the storyline and weren’t just random upgraded trash mobs. Hell, most even had quests attached to them.
The sheer scope of BRD also meant that back in the day, it was basically impossible to complete in its entirety in one evening. I remembering spending hours upon hours in there and only scratching the surface of the total amount of content in there. Simply clearing the jail and adjacent areas for a Jailbreak run was considered an achievement and took you quite a while. I don’t think I ever saw Thaurissan in vanilla WoW, and probably only got past Ambassador Flamelash once.
Behind every corner there seemed to be something new and surprising, every boss was a huge victory, another important step towards a finish line you could never quite reach. It didn’t matter much that the loot was quite crappy indeed. It didn’t matter that you never really finished it, because it wasn’t ABOUT just rushing to the end boss. Every boss was a goal in itself, and the scope and non-linearity meant you could approach it in many different ways, always discovering new places and bosses. It was the very definition of Epic, a word I’ve come to hate a bit as it’s thrown around so liberally and become synonymous with the shallowness of the geek culture Blizzard so brilliantly exploits (not that I have anything against geek culture in essence).
In that sense it’s the antithesis of the dungeon design WotLK popularised of course, the exceedingly quick rush for the final boss and complimentary emblems, communication optional, one corridor-no exploration, entirely linear dungeons most of us know very well. That’s not to say that design is inherently WORSE, on the contrary, I think a lot of people prefer it over the old one. One of the necessary consequences of BRD’s sprawling nature, its vast stretches of space you could navigate, was that that space needed something to populate it. And despite all melancholy reflections on days gone by of 5 hour dungeon runs, even I can hardly argue wading through millions of trash mobs is “fun”. Sure, BRD felt like a city partly because it was so densely populated, but at what cost?
But obviously that stuff most of us are already familiar with. What I want to point out here is that instead of looking at BRD as some great evil we should always stay as far away from as possible (as the designers seem to occasionally represent it) we should embrace its lessons as much as its failures. Because no matter what your view on the place, it’s difficult to think of it as anything else than something special. Ignoring it entirely as an irrelevant relic seems like a silly thing to do.
I know I’m not the only one arguing for a move away from (or at least not entirely towards) more linearity, more single-corridor dungeons. It honestly makes me sad, going through a dungeon like Throne of Tides and thinking what could have been, if only they’d looked at what BRD did RIGHT slightly more carefully instead of outright dismissing it and heading in the other direction, to the other extreme.
What’s next? Honestly, I believe we’re more likely to see more one-corridor dungeons than we are to see more BRDs. I mean sure, the Cataclysm dungeons aren’t entirely without their sense of place or scope or opportunities for exploration. But they’re generally terribly linear affairs which don’t even come close to what BRD accomplished. The radical shift in design we’ve witnessed over the years isn’t likely to take another 180 degree turn anytime soon, which is exactly what’s required to bring us more BRDs. Because behind BRD’s success is an entirely different philosophy on dungeon design which players (and designers, obviously) have simply grown out of. It’s about the journey being more important, more satisfying, than the eventual potential destination. BRD didn’t care that you had that other thing which really needed doing. It didn’t care you were probably not going to reach the final boss. And that’s why it was equal parts awesome and terrible. In a design based on quick satisfaction, this idea simply has no place. Perhaps other MMO designers will be braver and design another BRD, one with all the same ideas and magic, but one that’s not forever remembered as the worst dungeon ever?