Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unpredictable Dungeons

Today’s dungeons are highly predictable. Most dungeons are designed for a specific number of people and, if they are supposed to be challenging, they can only be beaten once they are known. This is a working system, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t build on it and add unpredictable dungeons as well.

First, let me list the advantages of predictable dungeon design:

- Since a predictable dungeon is created by humans and tested many times before it is released it does have a very high quality. Therefore it looks visually stunning and has a number of additional advantages:

- A predictable dungeon contains no locations where the camera angle is a problem. You always have a good view at your character. This is especially important for 3rd person perspectives that most MMORPGs use nowadays. (It turned out to be a good compromise between character-immersion and tactical overview).

- The dungeon is ‘balanced’. No encounter in the dungeon is too hard for a targeted group. This is important for small and large groups alike. A dungeon for a small group needs to take into account that not every class the game offers is part of the group. Some abilities may just not be available and thus must not be necessary to complete the dungeon. Therefore, challenging dungeons need to be designed for large groups and, due to the challenge, balance is even more important.

- You have the control! It’s a rather general advantage, but shouldn’t be overlooked. The issues that can arise in a randomly-created dungeon are manifold. People falling through the ground or becoming stuck somewhere are just two examples. There are probably a lot of other things you never thought about before that can go wrong. A predictable dungeon can be tested for all of them very easily. Consider these the unknown unknown in contrast to the known unknown.

Predictable dungeons, however, also have some disadvantages:

- Since you know everything about the dungeon, abilities like sneaking, scouting, tracking, clairvoyance, monster expertise or even smelling become meaningless. This is a difference between PvE and PvP and therefore creates additional balance problems. It also hurts immersion.

- To make every class equally valuable, every predictable dungeon has to require every class(ability) in some way. That severely limits the design options. If the dungeon were unpredictable, you wanted every class(ability) to be present just to be prepared. (Ironically, we were prepared, because we have been here before, Illidan!). Predictable dungeons thus create even more balance problems that might even need to be countered with equalizing every class; something that is not desireable at all under normal circumstances.

- To develop a strategy to beat an encounter is a lot of fun. Predictable dungeons don't allow this, because they lead to strategy guides available all over the internet. The challenge to beat the dungeon is transformed into a challenge to follow a script. Although this can be fun, a game that focuses on predictable dungeons alone, ignores the potential fun players could have by developing a strategy on their own.

- Predictable dungeons become a race-through for groups who need to go there although they already know the dungeon. The challenge is no longer beating the dungeon, but beating it as fast as possible, which is not very immersive at all. You would expect adventurers to move forward carefully in a dungeon.

- Predictable dungeons make players require other players to ‘know’ the dungeon if they want to join them. Even if you manage to get into a group that knows the dungeon, while you do not, they tend to race through it much too fast for your liking. Many players never had the time to actually look at the dungeon, let alone read a book in the dungeon. Nor had they the time to listen to the story that is presented. That's why it is so much fun to be the first at max level in MMORPGs. You actually can take the time to look at the dungeon and listen to the lore. It's new and interesting for everybody.

- Predictable dungeons become boring very quickly. You know exactly what is behind the next corner. They offer little replay value. The only way to get players to replay them are carrots, like loot or badges.

- 'Trash mobs' in a predictable dungeon are just not fun to fight. Historically some 'respawn timers' have been heavily critizised in MMORPGs. A predictable dungeon design tends to contain more and more 'boss fights' and less and less 'trash mobs'. The original idea of a dungeon that you explore, transforms into a succession of massively scripted arcade-like fights. These can be fun, but to focus on them alone drastically diminishes credibility and variety. It's also a lot of work for the designers.

- Depending on the exact implementation of unpredictable dungeons, they may need only a fraction of the time of a predictable dungeon to produce, once the dungeon-generator mechanism is developed.

- Unless the lore supports it, unpredictable dungeons are, of course, not much more credible than predictable dungeons. In a predictable dungeon only the mobs respawn; in an unpredictable dungeon also the dungeon itself changes every time you visit it. Given the right lore, however, unpredictable dungeons can solve both dilemmas and become more credible.

Unpredictable dungeons require more communication between the players. This can be seen as an advantage and a disadvantage.

I mentioned that there are reasons to assume that unpredictable dungeons are harder to balance. However, I also listed several reasons why they are actually easier to balance.
The balance problem can also be adressed by changing the goal of the party in a dungeon. Today’s MMORPGs usually demand the players to 'kill everything that moves' – at least the ‘bosses’. It’s a kill-mission. More immersive, however, and less susceptible to balance problems is a get-through or exploration mission. The role of a treasure hunter.

If the mission is to get through the dungeon alive while gathering as much loot as possible, you can allow large groups of monsters and require the players to judge themselves, whether they are able to deal with them or should circumvent them. This is an aspect that is missing completely from nowadays MMORPGs. Already mentioned abilities like sneaking, scouting, tracking, clairvoyance, monster expertise and, yes, even smelling, can become important. You might take along a character that is not as good at fighting, but is very good at telling you whether it is worth the risk to attack a group of enemies. This adds to immersion once again.

Todays dungeons are linear, because players follow a mindset that makes it very boring to walk back some of the way they just 'cleared'. Following an exploration mindset, however, a dungeon does not need to be linear. It can be a labyrinth without frustrating the players, but adding to the atmosphere, instead.

Building on the prior thread I suggest to reduce the importance of 'bosses' and 'boss fights'. A well scripted boss cannot be created randomly and a predictable boss should not be implemented often in an unpredictable dungeon. The fascination of an unpredictable dungeon does not stem from the brilliantly scripted boss fights, but from the curiosity and tension of exploration. It can be self-balancing as players themselves judge what fights to start.

In my opinion a good MMORPG should offer predictable and unpredictable dungeons. Predictable dungeons are great for a short 30 minutes distraction after work. Unpredictable dungeons are better suited for several successive hours of gameplay and tend to be more challenging due to the required communication between the group members.


  1. Your comment about dungeons that you explore filled with trash mobs really made me have some nostalgia for Blackrock Depthes and Lower Blackrock Spire... massive dungeons the size of cities filled with their own populations, and BRD has probably as many bosses as Naxxramas.

  2. Hi Nils, I think modern gaming technology can do a lot better than the random number generated dungeons of Diablo.

    The state of the art in procedurally generated content is probably the "Director" in Left 4 Dead. This uses static maps with different placing of the mobs every time you play. The spawning of monsters is not random but is instead "directed" by a clever AI. The result is a new and gripping experience every time you play. It doesn't take very many plays through before you conclude that the "Director" is (a) smart and (b) out to get you.

  3. Blackrock Depths is still my favourite dungeon in WoW. Soloed it with my mage a few days ago and it still was a lot of fun. Also took some two hours. Then I beat Anub'arak and .. well got two badges.

    I haven't played "Left 4 Dead", but I think maps should be dynamic to some degree. Dynamic mob placement is a start, though. Good to hear that this seems to work well nowadays.

  4. Amen - this would do so much to revitalize the WoW experience and would change the 'grind' to an actual gripping adventure. I would LOVE to see the addition of dynamic dungeons in Cataclysm (or even before it if possible) and if Blizzard isn't reading this, perhaps they should.

  5. Yeah, I used to sneak my mage through BRD to smelt Dark Iron for dark iron bombs for my twink. Very fun to figure out how to get through there and back out while fighting the fewest number of enemies possible.

    I would also like to point out that it could be possible to have a compromise between random and nonrandom. Perhaps consider a labyrinth that is largely made up of premade sections, with movable walls at certain points. Or simply consider a dungeon that has many doors that may or may not be open on a given crawl.

  6. "Already mentioned abilities like sneaking, scouting, tracking, clairvoyance, monster expertise and, yes, even smelling, can become important. You might take along a character that is not as good at fighting, but is very good at telling you whether it is worth the risk to attack a group of enemies. This adds to immersion once again."

    I'm reminded of instances that require a rogue to lockpick, or someone to craft a key else you couldn't do that section or didn't have access at all. While interesting at first, it becomes a pain on repeat visits.

  7. I'm reminded of instances that require a rogue to lockpick, or someone to craft a key else you couldn't do that section or didn't have access at all. While interesting at first, it becomes a pain on repeat visits.

    I agree. Requiring a certain class or profession in a dungeon is bad game design.
    Requiring lockpicking, if most classes have the option to learn to pick locks, however, is not.

  8. Great ideas, especially the tracking, smelling kind. I like it.

  9. Hi, great post here. I think some of the ideas you outlined could do a great good to MMORPGs (Wow in particular). Reminds me of an article by Shamus Young I read yesterday, talking about procedural map creation (The Future is Procedural - Good dungeon creators (with good heuristic rules) could revitalize the experience of instances in MMORPGs.

  10. In D&D (notably, Neverwinter Nights) all classes have the option to engage in stealth, and can all train in the skill to some degree, though Rogues and Rangers can train in it the most.

  11. Great link, thanks Fantomas.
    I added a section of links to the right side of the blog that will contain the latest 10 interesting links that have been supplied by commenters.

  12. Whenever skills like especially sneaking become important and make the experience much easier it's prone to the so called stealth runs.

    The players tend to take the easiest road to clear a dungeon (or make it to the treasure chest). Classes like the druid in WoW that can stealth, tank, heal and damage would be overly benefited in unpredictable dungeons. The same goes for classes like the Sorceress in Diablo.

    So to conclude, unpredictable dungeons would also require a certain class balance to make the game fun. E.g. adding them to WoW in the current state would not work.

  13. @lowtec:

    Ideally, stealth runs are not only important, but the way you behave in a cave full of mosters. Careful.
    You try to circumvent the fights that promise no 'gain' and to fight the fights you came to fight.

    It's the responsibility of the game that this doesn't lead to players circumventing 95% of the game.

    If the chest behind the group of 10 bandits contains good loot or the staff you see this one monster wield is actually powerful, is not predictable in an unpredictable dungeon - nor is the position of the 'treasure chest' known.

    Skills like clairvoyance could offer limited help here.

    I agree that the implementation of stealth in WoW and the versatility of the druid class are not suited for an unpredictable dungeon.

    I actually do not think that Blizzard should implement unpredictable dungeons in WoW. It's time for a new MMORPG, isn't it?