Monday, November 12, 2012

In A Hole: GW2, Everquest

It's Dungeon Month in Guild Wars 2. Along with perennial "favorite" 50 WvW kills and three rows of question marks, sure to relate to That Which Must Not Be Missed , new to the Monthly Achievement shopping list for November comes "Dungeon Participation", which has us running five dungeons.

Or not, in my case. I can't be bothered, frankly. Not that not being bothered bothers me. One less thing to do this month? Great! What does bother me a bit is the general state of MMO dungeons these days.

Somewhere around the dawn of MMOs, or 1999 as we counted time back then, I played a game called Everquest. My understanding of what a "dungeon" is in a shared virtual world derives mostly from those formative years in Norrath.

A fish in a dress. Whatever next?
Within a few weeks of stepping out into Qeynos Hills I understood that the above-ground world was for everyone but the depths were for the brave or the foolhardy alone. Soloists, kiters, xp groups, most players clawing their painful way up the scree to Level 50 stayed outdoors, where they were looked on with amused contempt by the Dungeon Players passing by on their way to Lower Guk or Sol B.

At lower levels everyone gave it a go, of course. I spent some of the best sessions of my entire MMO life down the gnoll-hole in Blackburrow. Come Sol A or Castle Mistmoore, though and I was making my excuses. Dungeons were hard. Dungeons were dangerous. Dungeons were damn scary.

First you had to find people to go with, then you had to get there. That could take most of a session in itself, especially if several people died on the way, as they often did. Then you had to force your way in past the indignant residents, often "breaking" a room at a time by a process of careful pulling. Get more than you bargained for and you'd be back at your bind spot (which for a melee character might be on another continent). Remember how much trouble you just had? Now you get to do it all over again, only naked. Good luck with that!. 

Makes you wonder why anyone went in the first place. Well, duh! Treasure! Dungeons were where all the best loot was. And the best xp, provided you didn't lose it all with multiple deaths. Of course, to get that treasure you didn't just have to kill the monsters who had it. You had to get to it before anyone else. You didn't get a nice, cosy instance all to yourself, where you and your best buds could take your sweet time making plans and divvying up the loot. That came later.

Beneath the sands of Ro lies...more sand.
The first instances I saw were in EQ's sixth expansion Lost Dungeons of Norrath, which arrived in September 2003 bringing with it six months of the best MMO gameplay I ever had. Suddenly dungeons were for everyone. The entrances were (relatively) easy to get to, there was a huge critical mass of players just itching to help you explore them and best of all the mobs didn't respawn.

No respawning mobs meant no breaking and holding rooms. No longer did we need to fight to a spot where a known named spawned and camp him for three hours hoping he'd bring his "good drop". Now we were dungeon crawling! Scout the corridors, clear out the nests of evil and move on.

In essence this brought the whole thing back to where it presumably began. The non-respawning, group dungeon crawl is the staple of tabletop fantasy gaming from a decade or two earlier. For a while it was good. I learned more about dungeon tactics and etiquette in six months than I'd learned in the previous four years and so did most of the EQ population. You could see people becoming better players week by week. I also got a real taste for dungeoneering that I still savor today.

All too soon, sadly, as tends to happen to any successful innovation the whole experience began to be codified. One set of undesirable behaviors (camps, trains, corpse runs) was replaced by another (gear scores, speed runs, dungeon grinds). Pick-up groups, which had been the equivalent of joining a scratch game of soccer in the park, gained a reputation more akin to being locked in a holding cell full of drunks and muggers. Even at their best, dungeons became something to learn and perfect, not to explore in fear and wonder.

Where did everyone go?
There never really was a Golden Age, of course. Lower Guk was once so camped that I strolled down there at level six and filled my bags with valuable Fine Steel weapons that people couldn't even be bothered to loot. In a popular MMO the biggest challenge in an open dungeon was probably finding a spot that wasn't camped and in an unpopular one you were lucky to find anyone at all to help you even get past the guards at the entrance.

We must be right at the end of that cycle by now. Past the end. There must be another way to do Dungeons that isn't either of the above. A way that will seem new and fresh at least for a while, until, inevitably, relentless iteration polishes it to a soulless sheen. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are no better ways to go down a hole in the ground and come up loaded with gold.

One thing's for sure, though: it'll take more than hanging a few jugs of Karma on the end of a stick to lure me back into that once-welcome darkness.


  1. I shall not mention the first try of Ascalon Catacombs in story mode....Lets just say there is a certain cosmetic reason for running around in your undies with boots on.

    And I hear that the loot is sub-par, unless you count the pimp hat.

    1. Well according to the information starting to filter out about Lost Shores, all existing dungeon loot will be sub-par after the weekend.

      Kill Ten Rats

  2. Why did you have to bring Phinny into this? My stomach just started revolting over this obviously spineless fish. A dozen attempts, no spine. Had to MQ. I hate you.


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