Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 March, 2012

Being a game decorator
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:27 PM

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.

Dungeon marketing

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?


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6 Comments »

  1. Another post on the Dungeon Maker is on my to-do list for Inventory Full. I’ve made two dungeons now, one of which is in the Hall of Fame on Freeport where the other will soon join it. This is not because they are any good (although I am pleased with them). It’s because I have access to six accounts that can vote on them and another three or four guild-members who are happy to pop in once a week and vote as well. The numbers voting outside the HoF are sufficiently small that 6 to 10 votes, maintained over time, will easily get you into the Hall. Most people who just want to play through dungeons don’t look any further than the HoF and not often past the first page.

    I couldn’t quite understand your paragraph above called “Randomly Catching Them All”. The dungeon avatars that you play are indeed not tradeable, but the placeable mobs, which appears to be what you are talking about definitely are. I trade them through the guild bank all the time and you can buy vast quantities of them for next to no thin on the broker, at least on Freeport. The Legendary “boss” mob drops are Heirloom, I believe, but there is a huge variety of free or very, very cheap standard mobs to use.

    It’s my impression, reading and listening to the various Dev interviews before the Dungeon Maker launched, that it was intended to be used by decorators. I believe they thought that decorators would make the same fantastic creations they have been putting up on the Housing Leaderboard, only with the addition of combat and rewards the non-decorating population would pile in en masse as users. In fact, on Freeport at least, the decorating community has largely shunned the Dungeon Maker. A few have dabbled and most seem not even to have bothered. Mrs Bhagpuss is in a cabal of decorators including most of the best known/most successful on the server and she tells me none of them are paying even lip service to the Dungeon Maker. They’re just not interested.

    Lots of people have complained about the mobs randomizing the speech you give them and there is an excellent “wants” list of functions that should be added on the forums but I doubt we will see much of it. It will be another of SOE’s famous Good Ideas that dies on the vine for lack of time, attention or interest.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 6 March, 2012 @ 1:12 PM

  2. This reminds me of almost all of the criticisms I levied at City of Heroes’ Architect system. The usable objects as “loot drops” is a frustrating burden to creativity for new and/or infrequent players. The small set of designer chosen interactions (although apparently more and wider variety in Architect than EQ’s Dungeon Maker) seemed to reveal the paucity of existing interactions more starkly than before working with the Architect.

    I’ve been following Cryptic’s work on its Foundry system for a while. Partly as a STO player and partly because Cryptic seems to see it as a key component of their MMO engine moving forward. (Supposedly it is critical to their forthcoming attempt of the Neverwinter banner, believably as a harkening to Neverwinter online days of yore.) I’m still somewhat surprised it hasn’t been launched into Champions Online as well. Cryptic’s Foundry is interesting in that it already supports somewhat deeper interactions than Architect. Plus interesting rumors of more to come…

    Of course, I would love to see one support offline script writing in writing/Dev environments of my choice. I’d personally also love to see a “hard mode” with even basic support for lua or python or similar scripting…

    I’d be interested to see one of the Storybricks demos sometime, too…

    Comment by Max Battcher — 7 March, 2012 @ 8:14 AM

  3. I would expect a modern “dungeon maker” to include interactive objects that can:

    a) display text (either dialog, “text your character is reading,” or even just “information your character notices”),

    b) set a variable (“Set widget_clicked to YES”), and

    c) check a variable.

    I’m not a programmer, but it doesn’t seem too difficult to set up, and the creator could do quite a bit, in terms of story, with just these simple elements. I haven’t seen Cryptic’s Forge system, so I don’t know if they have this, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

    Comment by Darrell — 7 March, 2012 @ 1:45 PM

  4. I’d second STO’s Foundry as a good example of how users can create, and how tools can support, storytelling. I’ve looked at it, but haven’t studied it, but I’ve played many “recommended” or “top” player created missions, and many of them were at (or if you count the current Featured Episode arc, above) what Cryptic is putting out for STO content, IMO.

    I actually prefer the “story heavy” creations made in the Foundry because they can take the risks that the game operators can’t: not everyone needs to run Foundry missions, but at some point everyone will probably get funneled into the official missions. They need to have broad appeal (story, space, ground), whereas the Foundry missions can be all space, all ground, or all story.

    Comment by Scopique — 7 March, 2012 @ 3:40 PM

  5. One thing that I’ve become more and more conscious of over the years is that the concept of the dungeon crawl, though central to these games we love, is a rather contrived and ridiculous idea for the most part. So often we’re presented with these arbitrary underground lairs which don’t make much sense – why do these people live underground? Why do they wander the corridors instead of doing something productive? For that matter, why are there so many corridors between the rooms?

    As a youngster I remember DMing a D&D adventure shortly after playing a Warhammer adventure, and my friends found the D&D adventure very boring because it was really just the traditional dungeon crawl, from room to room collecting treasure and killing monsters, whereas the Warhammer campaign we played had a lot of character development and interesting settings. Dungeons don’t carry much narrative value and aren’t intrinsically interesting unless the combat and the treasure discovery makes up for it. And I think this is the crux of the problem: how can you tell a story, ie. some sort of structured narrative with an implied dramatic arc, with a tool that is designed for creating inherently nonsensical constructs?

    So maybe the question is really “how can we make perilous exploration interesting?” And once we’ve decided what an interesting ‘dungeon’ crawl would look like, then the tool perhaps needs to reflect that. Perhaps ‘dungeon’ creation needs to work more from the assumption that it is creating a space for opponents to live in, or for guarding a certain person or object, or to bar the way from one side to the other. It needs to be about purpose rather than appearance. If you can imagine the needs of the people inside, and how they conflict with the needs of the adventurers, you can work to create more interesting dynamics between the two factions that hopefully lend themselves to better storytelling.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 8 March, 2012 @ 1:51 PM

  6. (It looks like some site is translating a few of my articles into Chinese.)

    [...] Or is there something else that will tickle the creativity of the players in these games?(source:psychochild) ???? QQ?? ???? ??? [...]

    Pingback by GamerBoom.com — 28 March, 2012 @ 11:39 PM

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