Monday, December 28, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Micro-Dungeon

As the name of the blog implies, it's been quite an arduous and epic journey to the place I am today. And there can truthfully be no story without a beginning. You would think then that now would be a great time for me to tell you a bit about myself. If you thought that then I say, screw you, I feel like writing about something else at this moment, so deal with it.

Dear readers, what I really want to yell at you about is a certain little feature that Blizzard seems to be keen to hastily get rid of. What I am talking about is one idea they called the 'Microdungeon'.

From the Wowwiki page on dungeons:
"Players will come across two types of dungeons while playing World of Warcraft: micro dungeons and world dungeons. There are more than a hundred micro dungeons throughout the world of Azeroth, ranging in size from small to quite big. Micro dungeon locations will include tombs, haunted mines, ice caves, and sunken ships to name a few. The transition into and out of these dungeons will be seamless, and you'll be able to run into other players anywhere along the way."

There are thousands of these microdungeons, and often you do not even notice you are entering them; the cave filled with ravagers in Hellfire Peninsula, or the seafloor where you pick up those annoying tablets swarming with murlocs in STV are but a few. They are where our questgivers send us; Kurzen's Compound or Raven Hill or any other of many surrounding ourselves. They are essential to solo-play and leveling, and will not be going away any time soon. I would be very surprised if Cataclysm did not add many more of such micro-dungeons to help smooth out the leveling process as they have talked about quite frequently. However, if you are quite astute you may have noted that all of these micro-dungeons are not so small - some are, in fact, "quite big."

These are what wowwiki has coined 'Elite Areas'. Locations such as Jintha'Alor, Deatholme, Tyr's Hand, Darkwhisper Gorge, and other sprawling areas were once prime grouping spots, being the objects of several quests rewarding powerful green and sometimes even blue items, far more powerful than other items in that location. There were a few bosses in such locations, and a few were as large or larger than some Some team of developers at Blizzard must have had a grand idea for these in sight - these locations were not limited by instancing, allowing for a grand open-world experience. But simultaneously it seems like the team for micro-dungeons were given a much greater task than that team who ran the instances. There were only 8-10 of these areas upon release, none were added through patches, and 5 or 6 were added in Outland. But this team existed all the way through the Burning Crusade, in areas like the Vector Coil the area outside of Gruul's lair. It was a noble vision, to be sure, and so you might ask - why are there none of these Micro-Dungeons in Northrend or the entire WotLK expansion? What prompted Blizzard to shut down these group quest areas entirely?

As grand as these elite areas were, the issue with them was dependant upon the sole fact that you no longer were contained by the the artificial boundaries of instancing; you could charge a raid into these zones and complete quests for more than a single group at a time, trivializing content; kill-stealing and farming were possible, as was camping and griefing on PvP servers. They lent themselves quite nicely to being really annoying areas if the community surrounded them was annoying; while meanwhile if the community was kind and friendly, inside of one you could find great rewards and simultaneously have a blast. But too often people sat in the center of Jintha'Alor, grinding quest mobs there for silk, or killing the lowbies who were trying to save sharpbeak, or generally being a menace to the people around them.

It would be counterproductive to not mention another, similar feature which tread the same path - the Outdoor Raid Boss. Packed with lore, a perfect post-instance opportunity, these too lasted throughout the Burning Crusade. They roamed the land we quested upon, under names like Doom Lord Kazzak and Doomwalker, spreading terror and making quite a name for themselves throughout the community. But they felt the same neglect in our most recent expansion, due to peoples same idiocy. One passerby who walked into the middle of a fight with Kazzak would heal him immensely, causing a wipe. If people were just wanting to be mean, they could cause 40 individuals undue grief by just wandering onto the scene. And, more often than not, they did.

Now, it is not entirely all the fault of the idiots that these have been removed. Blizzard made some very silly decisions as well. Why in the gorram world would you put a daily quest hub at the feet of a world boss? I mean, what were you thinking? And why were players not given some sort of a warning before entering the Dream Bough, perhaps a druid at the entrance that just stood and yelled "Abandon all hope, Ye Who Enter Here! This is a lvl 60 raid zone! Watch out!"? They later added the feature to know how difficult quests were, but why in the world was the Tower of Azora 10 levels too high for the zone you placed it in? Is that really necessary? As cool as some places like Stromgarde Keep were, it really kills the mood when you find out that the group quest you and your buddy were about to do actually requires 5 players, not 2. But they were slowly taking steps to bring the ignorant ones into the light - but no number of resources would be able to stop idiots from being idiots.

Blizzard saw all of this unveil over the course of vanilla and BC WoW. Some game designer must have, somewhere along the line in Wrath development, just said "Nope, it's not worth it. From now on, all bosses are in raid instances, and all dungeons will be instanced too." It just wasn't worth their time anymore. So around patch 2.2 they nerfed all these current elite areas, making them all (or most) soloable, and vowed to put none in Northrend. It was a real loss for the whole of Azeroth on that day, though the community cheered because no longer would they have to worry about griefers ruining their fun. A piece of vanilla was cut out then.

But what made me think about all of this was the fact that the entire old world is getting remapped in the Cataclysm coming. I am afraid that Azuregos will lose his stronghold, and the portals to the Emerald Nightmare might end up closed forever. New players will never again get to charge through Jintha'alor, discovering the Hinterlands' deepest secrets. But more is lost. With dungeons now cross-realm, it's much harder to invite that random PuG to join your guild, add him to your friends list, or even do something with him again. Its getting much harder to just make friends in this game which balances upon the complex social webs beneath it. I sincerely hope that Blizzard does not take further steps to make this MMO a single player game; it is community that keeps me here, community that makes it so hard to tear myself away after 5 years playing.

Perhaps... perhaps in the end, all that I can say, is don't be an idiot. No matter what game you play, if you're doing something that hurts someone else, stop. Think about what you're doing. Whether you're buying gold, griefing, or botting, you're just making someone else feel worse - but not only that. When people feel worse, grand ideas like the micro-dungeon can get removed by the designers, because what should have worked, didn't - because of you.

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