Game design, WoW

Worst. Dungeon. Ever.

This is a terrible example of what this post tries to point out as one of the main reasons to love BRD.

This post is by Razzmatazz.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.

"Wait a minute... Didn't we pass this place before?"

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.

Look at all that sparkly stuff with the mushrooms and the things just DYING to be explored. Oh, what could have been...

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.

BRD fact of the day: you can take a random screenshot anywhere in BRD, and there will be a 75% chance that the screenshot will contain a boss creature with a quest attached to him.

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?

Every time I look at the Halls of Reflection map, I die a little inside.

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.

Well at least they look pretty.

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?



5 thoughts on “Worst. Dungeon. Ever.

  1. There was a time when Blackfathom Deeps was exciting and the Scholomance was terrifying, back when I was still exploring the WoW world and before the rigours of raiding had turned me into a cynical minmax meritocrat. Back then I used to wonder what might lie underneath Uldum or in the recesses of Alterac Mountains and dream of vast underground labyrinths and mysterious buried cities filled with unimaginable creatures. I remember talking in guild chat about how cool it’d be to experience stuff like that and how they’d have to add underground flight points and stuff like that.

    But yeah, WoW has moved away from that stuff. I did plenty of Emperor runs back in vanilla and a hideous number of Jailbreak runs, and I can’t say I miss enough to want it back. For better or worse, WoW has prioritised accessibility over world building. The worlds they build are still fantastic, but there’s a certain sense of vastness that can only be captured, perhaps, with a similarly epic time requirement. And I’m frankly really glad that the game doesn’t require that anymore.

    Nevertheless I’ve noticed countless clever little ways the game makes relatively quick instances seem like much bigger areas with much greater mysteries than we will ever be able to see – like the tantalising sublevels in Grim Batol or the misty spires in the clouds of Vortex Pinnacle – and I really respect those. Again because at the end of the day it’s all packaged so that I can play for an hour or two at a time without penalty. (Though arguably the “log in every day for a few hours” model is pretty punishing in various ways too, and the game has a fair bit more it could do to really realise the accessibility goals they seem to be setting!)

    I do think it’d be totally awesome to have sprawling BRD-style environments and truly epic journeys to undertake with suitably adventurous chums, but that either means sacrificing accessibility or designing the entire game around making such environments accessible and ‘worthwhile’.

    I’m also aware that I’m so pragmatic and cynical about my playing time these days that it’d be really hard for me to really feel any genuine sense of excitement or wonder if I was faced with a big mysterious dungeon to explore 🙂

    Posted by Charles | February 10, 2011, 3:33 am
    • Oh, also, meant to say – you do mention raids, but nowadays isn’t it raids rather than dungeons which fill the kind of niche you’re talking about? You know, big honking great massive areas of massiveness that take a serious time investment to explore and experience? Particularly thinking of Ulduar here (the first raid to be both truly vast and truly accessible), but even Blackwing Descent gives a pretty good sense of “wow, big place” when you first go down the elevator after being deceived by the Magmaw and Golem rooms 😀

      Posted by Charles | February 10, 2011, 3:46 am
      • Raids have the potential to fill that niche, yeah. And Ulduar partially even realises the ideal. It’s not quite as sprawling or meandering as BRD, but it definitely has a huge sense of scale to it with plenty of bosses to kill in varied areas.

        That’s where the realisation of that potential stops for me though. I didn’t think ICC felt all that big at all. Mostly because everything seemed to have that same dreary look to it. And while the Gunship in itself is still a great idea and a well-executed one, it also had the negative consequence of reducing the height differences and verticality of the dungeon to almost nothing. Considering the potential there with the spire, I think that’s a real shame.

        If you look at something like Karazhan or even BRD, and as you mentioned, Grim Batol (even though it’s an illusion there), part of what makes those dungeons feel BIG is the multi-tiered nature of them. In Karazhan you were actually climbing this tower, and gradually heading towards the top. To me that was a pretty amazing feeling, it really strengthened the sense of progress and place. Karazhan didn’t need silly elevators to create height either.

        A lot of the more recent raids have similar problems as the dungeons for me. Obviously their scale is more impressive than the dungeons, and often there’s also a non-linear element to them. But how much room for exploration is there in Blackwing Descent? Its structure feels like it’s set up in such a way that navigating the thing isn’t even something players should consider as the layout is so self-explanatory. Which is obviously part of the design, I just think it’s a shame and there’s potential for so much more (looking at places like Karazhan again).

        Posted by Razz | February 16, 2011, 12:47 pm
  2. Though admittedly I can’t say much for other MMOs, with WoW it seems to be following a similar mentality to dungeon design and immersion as the rest of the video game industry.

    This post made me think of a picture I saw a couple months ago: Link detailing how even something as seemingly simple as an old FPS had more immersion than a current generation one. But this may also be along similar lines to what you were speeking of.
    I started playing shortly after patch 1.10; roughly in the last 1/3rd of ‘Vanilla.’ I did probably 20 ‘Jailbreak’ runs into BRD, but never went past the bar, normally because by the time we got there, it had been 4 hours. Magni’s daughter is pregnant? There’s a boss before the entrance to MC? Never did it, thanks to lava jumping. Never found out, at least back in the day.

    Which may be the concern with the shorter instances and cutscenes. Blizz realized that for better or worse, not everyone was being exposed to the story in those sprawling places, with their unique and iconic quest chains. (I’m looking at you people who didn’t do the SHORT questchain in Coldara, so you had no clue why Keristraza was in The Nexus.)And if there’s anything that has been bred from current WoW, it’s that the populace is impatiant.

    Posted by Talius-LH | February 10, 2011, 11:01 am
    • Exactly, it’s part of a broader shift in design philosophies that’s particularly visible in FPS and action games. Games in general seem to be evolving towards more and more of the movie ideal (this is a generalisation obviously): taking control away from the player, strict linearity, cutscene extravaganza. I don’t think it’s a positive evolution. Not that I can’t appreciate that type of games at all, on the contrary. I just think the real potential of this medium lies elsewhere, partly because designers shouldn’t just slavishly follow the ideals established by another medium.

      Something like the whole discussion about a player completing an entire level of the latest Call of Duty without firing a bullet is an extension of that. Obviously that’s an extreme and WoW isn’t there yet or even implying that it’s moving toward that. I’m just trying to point out that that OTHER school of design, which we could see in BRD (among other places), shouldn’t be abandoned because it has a lot of good in it, and an unequivocal move in the opposite direction IS a bad thing.

      Not in the least because it indeed breeds the kind of players you described, and has a negative impact on the community. I’m not saying BRD dungeon runs were inherently more FUN than the WotLK LFD ones, for example. But the fundamental nature of BRD’s design meant you HAD to communicate and you HAD to be patient, you simply couldn’t rush things. And again, it’s not like every player back then did in fact communicate and was super patient, but I’m pretty sure a larger portion of it was.

      Posted by Razz | February 16, 2011, 1:02 pm

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