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.


  • Cori

    I loved, loved, loved driving around in the mako in ME1, viewing the landscapes. I hated trying to *fight* with the mako. But I loved driving around and seeing the gorgeous vistas.

    For dungeons, Yaron’s crazy hard dungeons in the NWN expansion packs always stick out in my brain – like that one with the jumping islands.

  • PsyCoil

    I don’t know If there is a single area that made a lasting impression on me, Maybe The Witcher 2 did but that’s just because of the amazing graphics.

    If the story is good enough, And what I mean by this is If I know what am I doing in that cave or that dungeon And what exactly Am I fighting for than I just love to explore everything because the story always get me, There could be something related to the plot in that dark corner, Some character or maybe a some codex.

    You brought up a good example, Dragon Age 2 didn’t have those long and unending dungeons but when I was in those small caves and and that very small area of the deep roads, I just couldn’t give a damn whether they are short / long , I just couldn’t give a damn about them because there was nothing to keep me there, Not the story, Not my companions, They were very small but god, They felt like forever for me.

    In the end If the story is engaging enough and you are not just there to kill hostiles, And what you do have some consequences on the main story, Than I really don’t care If you use the same map over and over again, That’s just cosmetics. Sure, Maybe It means you are lazy or don’t enough resources but If the story manage to cover that…

  • C.S. MacCath

    If I may, I’d like to illustrate my answer to this question by pointing to a really bad call designers made in the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion game. Once the Oblivion Gates began appearing all over the landscape, and it was the player’s job to close them, it became apparent fairly quickly that there were only about four dungeon designs for maybe twenty gates (an estimate on both counts). I was eventually so bored I found the cheat code for walking in, grabbing the stone at the top of the gate and walking out again. It was really tedious.

    I understand that for economy’s sake, game designers are going to structure dungeons or quests with a stock set graphics, sounds, etc., but I really love the sense of place a truly individual dungeon offers. For instance, Cori is right, HoTU’s hell was the best dungeon experience I’ve ever had. Each level was unique, each puzzle fresh and interesting. Many of the same graphics and textures appeared again and again in that part of the game, but they were the backdrop to an engaging (and sometimes frustrating!) puzzle experience (I can’t tell you how many times I died trying to cross that @&#*^% lava hallway).

    So anyway, yeah, I love dungeons, but they have to be more than twisty hallways with treasure in them. They have to be an integral part of the story. Heck they have to *tell* a story themselves.

    Great blog post!

  • Brent Knowles

    Thanks for the comment. I had the same issue with Oblivion (and loads of other games).

    The NWN Expansion packs were a lot of fun to work on… basically we had most of the tools/art/code we needed and it was just up to the designers to play around with things to build fun.

    Take care,


  • Anonymous

    I don’t really know alot about the PC RPG genre – I played a bit of Baldur’s Gate back in the day and am trying to get through Fallout 3.

    The game areas that have stood the most out to me were therefore the ones in the console RPG Xenogears. Being real time 3D on the Playstation 1, they were horribly low-fi, but each city and each dungeon looked to have been crafted with love and care. Everything looked like it had a purpose in the game world, each dungeon had a place in the plot and an explanation for how it looked. Each city was filled with characters with their own stories to tell, sometimes coming together with other small stories ten or twenty hours later in the game.

    In short, very little in the game seemed insignificant or as though it was thrown in to generate a few extra hours of “content” – Infamously, the game suffers from a second disc that is just rushing through the plot as fast as it can, simply because the team making it ran out of time and money.

  • Neno Ganchev

    I have to agree with a poster above – the landscapes in ME were absolutely breathtaking, there are so many that I still remember vividly.
    As another example – the dwarven kingdom of Orzammar was so beautifully done, it made me return to it several times after I had completed all quests there, just to look at it (and hear the background music, too, it contributed significantly to the overall experience).

  • Anonymous

    While I don’t think it’s really your style of RPG in any way, if you’re just interested in the presentation of a game world, I think it’s worth it.

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