The Lazy Designer

Do Gamers want Dungeons?

A few months ago I was asked if gamers — mainstream gamers — are skittish of dungeons, perhaps finding them too geeky or unappealing or whatever. This was a part of a series of emails I received from several of you shortly after Dragon Age 2 was released… most with the intent of trying to determine how an RPG might appeal to mainstream players while not sacrificing core qualities of what defines a fantasy setting inspired RPG.

Firstly, any answer I give would be merely my opinion of what I think.

A true answer, if one were actually going to throw money at a game, would be to try to answer that question by looking at the data available. I would look at sales figures on recent games that had dungeons or dungeon-like environments.┬áThis is not entirely that simple of course… A game that was less expensive to make that sells ‘okay’ might be more of a success than a game that was more expensive to make but has a larger audience.

At the end of the day I think the data would support the idea that whether a game has dungeons or not would have little impact on sales. I would dig further though and maybe try to isolate whther there are parts of a tradional dungeon crawling experience that gamers don’t like. Maybe there’s a dislike for puzzle-heavy dungeons? Or dungeons that seem “too fantasy’y” Or maybe even just an aversion to a fantasy setting in the first place (i.e., maybe dungeons in a first person space shooter are okay but the idea of a dungeon full of goblins and elves and whatnot is unpopular.)

Basically I would try to get data on as specific questions as I could, if I really wanted to say one way or another.
On the other hand, as much as I am a ‘data loving designer’ if I felt inspired enough by the game idea I wanted to build and knew that inspiration and effort, combined with my experience and the ability of the team working on it could build a great game, I would disregard the data. I’d rather work on a game I was interested in than one that might seem inherently less popular than a more design-by-numbers approach.
So data is very important but needs to be tempered… it is hard to build a quality product if you can’t be excited by it.

To get back to the specific question of using dungeons in RPGs I should add that many RPGs (including several I have worked on) have used generic dungeon interiors (and often reused them). Bland levels, reused levels, whether they are dungeons or cities or spaceports, *will* be unappealing to any gamer. So perhaps because most RPGs tend to have a few filler dungeons here and there, there could be a little dislike for dungeons out there… a worry that a game with dungeons might not be demonstrating the most inspired design.
But any area, whether a dungeon or otherwise, if designed well can be an exciting experience for players. In an earlier post I discussed some thoughts on building strong and memorable gameplay areas. 
As a designer you need to understand what sorts of levels in other games have had long lasting effects on players. And so, I ask those of you reading this… have there been any game areas that have stood out for you… levels that made a lasting impression as much as any character you encountered or storyline twist you discovered?

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.