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WoW – Unfulfilled Potential Part 7: Dungeon Burnout

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This series of articles is my personal critique of World of Warcraft based on my experiences and observations of ingame issues. I firmly believe that the game could’ve improved in numerous fields with just a bit more thought put into the game design, and that it had numerous opportunities to do so throughout the years. The first page will commonly address and analyze the issues in the game (some which are well known to the playerbase, some which are usually overlooked), while the second page will hold an attempt to present a viable solution for those issues.

Before anything else, I would like to say that World of Warcraft has been one of the best games I have ever played, as no other game had me want to play for over 6 years. There was so much to do, to see, or to experience. Playing with thousands of others ensured I would meet different kinds of people and see something new every day. But good stuff never lasts, there’s really no denying that the game has become something less over the years. Blizzard has continuously worked, updated and adapted the game throughout its life cycle, making some decisions for the better and some for the worse. The game has become more complex, more rich in terms of quantity of the content and game mechanics, yet still on the far end of their design decisions there are those that simply sucked the charm right out of the game.

Part 1: Quest Design
Part 2: Character Progression
Part 3: A Living Breathing World
Part 4: Gameplay Difficulty
Part 5: Profession System
Part 6: Player Activities
Part 7: Dungeon Burnout

Intro – From the ground up, MMORPGs are in almost all cases designed to be never-ending. There’s content that is supposed to be consumed once and never again, and then there’s repeatable content. While WoW excels in its Raid design, which provides relatively long lasting content for larger groups of players where teamwork is put to the test, the Dungeons are often very short and quickly become old and repetitive experiences.

When you run a tutorial, or a review video of any newer dungeon, what do you hear? Math, math and then some more math; percentages, timers, warnings, big numbers, small numbers… How did the dungeons end up as an algebra class? Well, it has a lot to do with “making them more efficient”, as is the current practice. Blizzard has however done a fantastic job with the encounters in the latest expansion, so some praise is in order.

The dungeons in MoP provide some great scenery.

Mists of Pandaria – Almost without exception, all of the new dungeons are visually gorgeous, while providing entertaining fights at the same time. Trying to kill the first lich boss in the new Scholomance before the traveling wall of ice instantly kills you, only to be attacked by flying books while his spirit returns to his phylactery, repeated a few times, is certainly a neat detail.

When considering the effort has been put and some old dungeons have been revamped, Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery (the combined former Graveyard and Scarlet Cathedral dungeons) have turned out amazing. They are fun, engaging and have some clever tricks. Scarlet Halls (combined former Scarlet Armory and Scarlet Library) not so much on the other hand… But many of the Pandaria dungeons also have excellent design when it comes to mechanics.

However, this article isn’t addressing that side of the dungeons. No matter how entertaining the boss fights are, there is a fundamental problem in the core design that is causing a burnout in many players after only a few runs. That problem being – the dungeons are a polygon sprint. They are short, they are designed to “be done with them as quickly as possible”, they offer absolutely nothing new after you’ve seen them once, regardless of which path you take (if there even is a choice) or who you are and what you can do (the player’s class and professions). In other words, while they are sometimes entertaining, they are very shallow. Why? Because “that’s what the players wanted”.

The typical length of the newer dungeons; three rooms and two hallways.

History - From Vanilla all the way up to Mists of Pandaria, the dungeons have been made shorter and shorter, effectively losing that sense of place, the feeling that right now, you and your party members are somewhere you were not supposed to be, that you are intruding into someone’s hideout, lair or a city. There is almost no difference between today’s Scenarios or dungeons other than the fact that, ironically, dungeons are more streamlined than scenarios which guide you with what you’re supposed to be doing with big flashy instructions over the entire screen.

Throughout the game’s entire life cycle, players were always asking for shorter and shorter dungeons, claiming they didn’t have the time to put a few hours into a single run. Based on that feedback, Blizzard made their wish come true; the dungeons are now a pretty forgettable couple of rooms while players are, again, not satisfied with how long a run takes. But the problem was never with the length of the dungeon, it was because of the reason players wanted to go there in the first place – to get gear.

The Ultimate Time-waster – There was one obstacle players needed to get past in order to fulfill their wishes – defeat the infamous RNG (Random Number Generator) Boss, or in other words, get lucky enough that the dungeon boss will drop the item in question. Too bad the item has a 0.35% drop chance, along with 10 other items that the player doesn’t need. And when the item finally drops, all the player needs to do is to roll higher than everyone else in his party who might also want that item. Favor was never on your side, as there were always more variables to take into equation. This was one of the most common sources of frustration and the reason players complained that “dungeons take up too much of their time”.

No one had a problem with going through Upper Blackrock Spire for two hours if they got the gear from bosses, they had a problem with going there for the umpteenth time over and over and over again with no guarantee they will ever see the item drop, let alone win it on a roll fair and square. The RNG was the problem, because that’s what forced players to try again in obtaining gear.

Currency – Blizzard made a step in the right direction by the coming of TBC; they implemented Badges of Justice (later Justice Points) as a form of currency to buy the gear directly from a vendor. Badges of Justice could be earned by killing bosses in Heroic mode dungeons, and everyone in the party got a certain amount. The RNG Boss lay severely weakened, as the players now knew that as long as they keep killing any bosses in any Heroic dungeon, they would eventually get the item they want.  However this also removed the chance for players to get lucky in obtaining their desired item in their first few visits, which for some made things worse now.

Sadly, Blizzard first reduced the length of the dungeons and only afterwards revised their currency system as a viable way of obtaining any gear the player wanted. But since they can’t let the players win immediately, they set a very high amount of currency tokens needed to buy a single item, and arrived right at the start again – the players complaining that the dungeons take too long to complete. The trick is that the players mean “complete” as in “I never need to go back to that place again” while Blizzard sees it as how long does a single run take. They then test and test the dungeons if they can be completed in around 20 minutes, apparently disregarding the notion that players need to run through those 4 rooms for a hundred times.

As Fast As Possible – Unfortunately, this is where the real “farmfest” began. Since a large number of Justice points was required to buy a single item, players were going only to the shortest possible dungeons. Not only that, but even within the community and on various WoW websites a new train of thought appeared – “tokens per minute”, taking into account the average run time to kill all of the bosses and the total amount of tokens that drop. That’s how obsessed with currency tokens the players have become. The community started to evaluate the dungeons based solely on how fast you can get the most tokens. The Dungeon doesn’t matter, the bosses don’t matter, the items they drop don’t matter, all that matters is the number of currency points. As was mentioned in Part 2: Character Progression – Consequences of the Sense of Urgency, this resulted to the player behavior where insulting other players is common practice when someone makes a single mistake and takes up everyone’s precious time to acquire tokens.

Every new content pack had its own currency.

Over the course of WotLK, numerous simultaneous currency types were in play all at once across several tiers of content, with the option of downgrading one token type into another. Blizzard decided to place a daily or a weekly limit on how many tokens could be acquired in order to reign in the over-farming of dungeons. This continued into MoP, as Blizzard again tried to ease the over-farming of dungeons by allowing the acquisition of currency gear through daily quests. This created two types of players who voiced their opinions; the first type are those that complain they have reached the weekly cap in a couple of days and that they have nothing to do now “because of that stupid cap”, and the other type are the players who complained that they simply can’t reach the full cap in one week and are therefore “lagging behind everybody else who manages to acquire the gear before them”. Both of these groups are of the opinion that the game is “forcing them” to fill in the weekly cap.

Ticket to the Party – An issue on a whole other level comes from the concept of dungeons, at its core. The primary idea behind dungeons was overcoming challenges with other people, which then transformed into simply obtaining items, which evolved into obtaining as many tokens as possible into the shortest amount of time.

Since it is an absolute imperative to clear the dungeons as fast as possible, the whole idea behind tackling challenging content with other players was turned on its head. Instead of getting to know and learn the encounter with your fellow party members and defeating it with combined effort, you won’t even get invited into a dungeon run if you don’t know the whole dungeon inside-out beforehand, unless you present undeniable proof to the party members that you have defeated it before via Achievements and an acceptable average item level (previously Gear score during WotLK).

So the common everyday looking for group chat looked like this: “Looking for one more for X, link Achievement or don’t whisper! Item level 490+ only!” No persuasion was allowed, the rules were set and you aren’t allowed to join the party. Instead of actually playing the game and completing the challenge on your own through trial and error, it now all boils down to reading all of the strategies, tips and tricks on various websites before you even attempt the challenge yourself. Trying and failing isn’t allowed anymore, as that only wastes time. That’s why dungeons began to suck.

You want to try the Normal mode of Temple of the Jade Serpent but you don’t have Heroic gear? Sorry, we don’t need you!

The Burnout – But ok, players could deal with that, somehow. However, even if one actually gets a whole party, the dungeon (every dungeon) was boring, mindless and forgettable, as it was designed that way to be completed in under 20 minutes, and the dungeon was exactly the same every time you went in there. It doesn’t matter which class you play, what your talent spec is, what your professions are or which items and skills you have at your disposal, every run the player will be doing the same thing: “Tanking and spanking”.

Even if some dungeons had the option to choose which way to go first (like the Nexus in Borean Tundra), the players stick only to the chosen optimal (shortest + easiest) path. More often than not, the dungeons are a series of straight corridors connecting a couple of rooms with a boss here and there, with absolutely no surprises anywhere if you’ve been there once or read about it on a website. The closest that the dungeons ever got to a surprise, something out of the ordinary, was a rare boss spawn in the old dungeons.

The Remedy – When Blizzard announced the Random Dungeons, a light at the end of the tunnel instilled glimmers of hope. What a letdown that was. If anyone in the whole world could deliver truly randomly generated dungeons, it’s Blizzard, as they clearly demonstrated with Diablo 1 from 1996 as well as its sequels and expansions. Instead of taking that approach, they appeared with a “genius” system that will randomly select one of the already in-game dungeons for you instead, “to break the monotony” of you making your own decisions.

Randomly generated dungeons in MMOs aren’t a far-fetched idea at all, as they existed in Anarchy Online which was released back in 2001. Anarchy Online is still very much alive today and has new content brought into it every now and then, with a full engine overhaul in the works as well. In Anarchy Online, players could have accessed randomly generated mini dungeons which were presented as one of many apartments in huge skyscrapers. By using simple sliders, players were able to adjust how these dungeons would be generated. Choices ranged from simple head-on to stealth scenarios, more loot or more experience, open or hidden, chaos or order, and many more. These were (and still are today) similar to how Diablo generates dungeons, randomly placed and/or rotated preset types of rooms and corridors, populated with enemies and treasure. One would think that Blizzard would have improved and taken this concept to a whole new level by now, what WoW players got instead was a system that flips a coin for them.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 2>>>

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Greg is in fact a cute little fluffy kitten that likes cake, games... and undead. Thinks that Zombies are so 2008, and would like to see some skeletons and wraiths take the spotlight for a change, they need love too!