6 March, 2012
As I wrote before, I went back to EverQuest 2 with the intention of trying out the new Dungeon Maker system. I figured I might expand upon some of my thoughts particularly as I look at what I am doing in my current work. How does EQ2's Dungeon Maker get the creative juices flowing?
I'm going to dissect this feature a bit, and as usual I want to give the standard caveats: I really do understand what it takes to add a whole new system like this to a game getting long in the tooth. I realize that there are a lot of issues the developers had to deal with to even make this possible. I don't intend to demean their work, but I want to take a look at the specific design and that means that I'll spend a bit of time looking at the parts that don't quite work the way I might prefer.
A look at making instead of playing
I discussed what it was like to play the dungeon maker dungeons in that previous post. You had an initially limited number of monster characters you could play with while running the dungeons; you aren't (currently) allowed to use your own characters, likely for balancing reasons. Running the dungeons gives you experience and currency rewards for the character you initiated the dungeon with. Of course, you don't know exactly what you're getting into before diving into a dungeon; it could be a deathtrap or an impossible layout intended to merely waste your time, or it could be a wonderful layout.
But, let's look at what it takes to actually make a dungeon.
Randomly catching them all
The first issue I found was the severe limitations on what I could do. My initial selections for monsters were mostly orcs and gnolls, rather common and really rather mundane enemies in the Shattered Lands of Norrath. Unless you shelled out for the collector's edition (which didn't add much), you had a very limited selection of dungeon optionns. This means that everyone looking to make a dungeon initially is going to have a dungeon that looks a lot like every other starter dungeon out there.
Of course, you can also pay for more options in the cash shop. If you want a wider variety of monsters, you can also collect them by killing monsters and getting random drops. (You can also buy the monsters from the auction system, but you have no indication if you already have the monster in your collection, so it becomes a gamble if that monster is one you need or if you're wasting money on buying something you already have.) As I've been taking my time working up a new character, I've been getting a fair number of monster drops, but the monsters are restricted to the individual character so they are not sharable between my own characters. (Anyway, the Dungeon Maker is restricted to people in the hard-core guild, as it's from the most recent expansion.)
This means that you have a problem with differentiating your dungeons from others.
Without content to set you apart, that means you have to rely on other ways to get people to try out your dungeon. This means that our dreaded enemy marketing appears on the scene. As I said in my previous post, the most popular dungeons used the name as a way to appeal to people rather than being an interesting name to get you in the mood. "Easy mark grind!" was a common sentiment in the names of most popular dungeons.
That's the other complaint: the dungeons are ordered by popularity. This means that the popular dungeons tend to become more popular, and a newcomer has to work hard to join. As far as I can tell, nobody has even tried out my dungeon in all the time it's been available. I've only done a tiny bit of marketing for it (I mentioned it at a special get-together organized by the guides to talk about the dungeons), but like most indie marketing it's been not particularly productive. There are others that have done a much better job; one high level crafter said he/she would make certain desirable items at no cost if his/her dungeon got enough positive votes. My character that is not at max level doesn't have quite as much to offer, sadly.
Decoration instead of design
But, what of the actual process of making a dungeon? Honestly, it's less like game design and more like dungeon decoration. I have a bunch of objects I can place, a bunch of monsters I can place... and that's about it. It doesn't feel like a player would have a lot of creative options available to make a dungeon. The dungeon decorator as an extension of the wonderful house decoration tools is obvious, even if it seems to put a focus on decoration instead of design.
As I mentioned briefly in the previous post, I wanted to make a little story to go along with my dungeon. Using the initial assortment of orcs and gnolls, I made a little story about the gnolls raiding an orc stronghold; this was mostly done by how the monsters are facing (invading gnolls toward the inside of the dungeon, defending orcs toward the outside), and naming the monsters. (Tediously, one by one.)
But, there's no way to communicate this idea of an invasion directly to the player. The text "barks" a monster can give seem to be randomly triggered, so there's no guarantee that they will communicate anything to the player on a particular run through of the dungeon. You can't place an NPC to interact with the player, only to fight. Only a few items can be used in the dungeon; notably player-editable books that some people have used to tell stories. But, this limitation on interaction really limits the meaningful ways you can communicate with the player. So, I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the most popular dungeons are almost entirely about earning resources rather than telling an interesting story.
As outside, so inside
But, something struck me as I was going through a few of the low-level dungeons with my new character: this isn't that much different than may of the existing dungeons. Sure, you might have a few NPCs that give out quests, but for the most part the dungeons are mostly filled with monsters that you need to destroy. Maybe you have some objective to kill X enemies or click on some macguffin, but that's only slightly different than the goal of finding the exit of a player-made dungeon. The text given by the NPC that sent you to the dungeon is probably ignored more often than not. So, is the dungeon maker really crippled when held up to the rest of the world?
But, does this have to be the case? EQ2 is a fun enough game, but it was released a little more than 7 years ago. What more can we do with MMOs now? Can we incorporate more elements of real storytelling in games, perhaps approaching the long-standing dream of some people by incorporating some elements of tabletop RPGs? As we work on our project, these are some of the issues we keep in mind.
Aspirations beyond decoration
So, what do you think? Is storytelling a fertile area for us to explore? Or is MMO storytelling destined to be ignored and skipped? Is the dream of bringing tabletop RPG type stories to people worthwhile? Or is there something else that will tickle the creativity of the players in these games?