Why MMO Dungeons Are Irrelevant & 5 Ways to Change Them

The Problem

Modern MMO design emphasizes two things in dungeons above all else: clear progression and teamwork. Players group up – usually in a group of five – to bust through content and show designers that they can handle the challenges thrust upon them. It’s a great design for making players feel empowered and connected. Clearing an instance in World of Warcraft always feels like an accomplishment, even if you’ve done the instance a hundred times before. Teamwork can make any tired, old genre cliche fresh again.

That’s the issue. Dungeon staleness is obscured by teamwork. Lost in the heady daze of taking down a boss, you forget that there can be more to this experience than simply pushing through and doing what the designer tells you to do.

The obvious problem, and the only one without a clear solution, is that dungeons are completely linear. While this makes running dungeons far easier and more accessible than they might be otherwise, it has the added effect of making a dungeon run more about rote repetition. There is no rush of exploration other than the loveliness of the art. While that’s certainly a nice consolation prize, I want more. I want dungeons that capture my imagination, rather than simply being vehicles to hand me better loot. Completing a dungeon should feel like an accomplishment, not a chore.

Dungeons are also inherently non-dangerous. This may seem silly, I know. After all, dungeons are dangerous because they require a team of players to take down, right?

Well, no. Danger is only really dangerous if you are unaware that it is coming. You can be aware of vague details (a trap is here, enemies wait behind a door in this area, etc) but specifics ruin the suspense. That’s why horror games – and most games in general – lose their edge on multiple playthroughs. When players are aware of exactly what their fate might be, it takes away from the thrill. While there are definitely good things to be had from mastering execution, the best game experience will forever be the one where you have little to no clue what you are doing.

So dungeons aren’t dangerous. They are lethal. It’s an important distinction to make, as the status of how dangerous a dungeon is changes as you play through it. All dungeons have high lethality by design. But they are intended to only be dangerous once. Maybe a few times if the dungeon has an especially hard boss. But once the execution is mastered, all danger leaves. Only lethality remains. Since danger provides novelty to running a dungeon, thus bringing in more players, it is in the designer’s best interest to make dungeons less about grind and more about that nebulous concept called “fun.”

Dungeons also don’t have good rewards for end-game players, and are often completely wasteful time sinks for lower level players. Some games – specifically World of Warcraft – have done a lot to alleviate this issue, such as increasing XP rewards in dungeons and making old dungeons relevant again via high-level reworks. Even after these improvements, the issue of relevance persists.

Why do players run dungeons? Three reasons: loot, XP, and achievements. When you are a low-level character, all three of these reasons are bunk. You outlevel loot fairly quickly, you can often get better experience by spending your dungeon time to quest instead, and achievements don’t matter except to show-off vets. The issue with irrelevance persists – albeit less so – even if you stagger out dungeons along the level path to make loot drops more valuable.

Finally, there’s finding a group for your dungeon. This is the worst part of any solo player’s experience, and easily the most frustrating part of doing dungeons. Unless you have a group of people to play with already, finding some other players to join you in the dungeon can be tedious and frustrating. Doubly so when the group falls apart after failing to down the first boss. You feel bitter frustration towards all those ragequitters. It’s a feeling that I know far, far too well.

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2 Comments on Why MMO Dungeons Are Irrelevant & 5 Ways to Change Them


On February 8, 2013 at 11:43 pm

The best dungeons I’ve been in have all been a part of the original EverQuest. They were massive maps with different paths, different endings, different styled areas, paths that went down and up rather than a straight line. They were large, confusing and very fun.

Modern dungeons are a straight line from A to Z, but then again, so are the games. You follow the set path of this quest to that quest, to this quest hub to that quest hub, until you hit the end. Freedom has gone from almost all new MMO’s, until the developers can open up the actual worlds, the parts inside those worlds, the dungeons, are going to be just as linear as everything else.


On February 9, 2013 at 6:27 am

I’ve played World of Warcraft for several years, and being a dedicated healer I’ve always enjoyed dungeons more than anything else – and yet I agree with your points. Personally, my favourite dungeon areas were Blackrock Dephts and the Dire Maul complex (East, West, North): vast, diverse, with extraordinary landscapes and many different challenges. Bar fight? Check. Arena? Check. A run when the party had to avoid the bosses instead of killing them? Check! It was extremely rare to find a group wishing to do it all, but the very few times I could clear the entire DM and BRD with decent parties were some of the best hours I’ve spent in WoW.

Of course, such dungeons fell out of flavour. The Burning Crusade still had some interesting ones (and a great raiding dungeon, Karazhan), but The Wrath of the Lich King consisted pretty much on short, linear and pretty much irrelevant dungeons.