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The Underbog: Technical Limitations and Design Reflections on my First Solo Dungeon

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Game Element: The Underbog, a 5-man Dungeon
Discipline: Content Design

Today, we’ll be discussing the very first dungeon I was fully responsible for on my own and how I learned how that sometimes “less is more”.

Take a look into the price I paid for not taking technical limitations into consideration and embracing the notion that “more” is always better.

Enjoy my struggle.

Daelo: “I want to try an experiment.”

Me: “???”

instance the underbog

Daelo: “We’ve been making a number of dungeons where we all dogpile them, doing bosses and sections separately.

Instead, I want to try having everyone create spawn an entire dungeon on their own.”

Others: “That sounds fun.”

Daelo: “Great. Paul, you’ll be doing Slave Pens. Geoff, Steam Vaults. Joe, start on Auchindoun Undead side.”

Me: “Oh, what should I do?”

Daelo: “Take a first pass at the Underbog.”

Me: “Alrighty.”

And away I went.

I spent the next couple days doing patrol paths, swarms of creatures, then spent the remainder of the next day setting up flying formations of sporebats that did loops de loops around the map, and finished it off with a cave filled with Silithid which looked vaguely like this:

insect swarm

I proudly grabbed Scott the next day to show him what I had wrought.

Daelo:

mother of god meme rage face

(This is pretty much how he talks in real life too)

Me: Amazing, right!?!

Daelo: Did you even pull test this?

Me: What?

Daelo: Pull test. How long does it take to clear this dungeon?

Me: I dunno. Maybe half an hour.

Daelo: Tell you what, turn on god mode, aggro each pull, wait 20 seconds, death touch the pack, then try again.

Me: Alright…

*2 hours later*

Me: Yeah, okay… this dungeon might be a little too long.

Spawning in Two Parts

There’s two major components to spawning.

  1. Pull composition
  2. Placement

1. What is good pull composition?

Let’s talk a little bit about what composes a good camp. (Hint, if you’ve read the rest of my lectures, you’re ahead of the game.)

dungeon23

When you look at this pull, what do you see? Some orcs, right.

Here’s what I see:

  1. Non-standard 5-pull
    • Composition: heavily melee
      • One long-range unit, 2 high-damage dual wielders, one two-handed slower attacker
    • Shape – linear
    • Variance – none, units remain static
  2. Silhouettes
    1. Tanky warrior – on point, clear shoulder-pads indicate higher hit points
    2. Hunter – good use of animation to break silhouette and indicate fragility
    3. Dual Wielders – hunches
    4. Two-handed warrior – weapon causes shape to break from the rest of the pack
  3. Texture
    1. Color drain – too much red between the characters and environment causes the individuals to be lost
    2. Armor/weapon pop – to compensate for the above issue, the designer uses strongly contrasting colored armor and weapons to help the stand out

Now, this single pull was done by Tigole (Jeff Kaplan) as Lead Designer in the Burning Crusade.

It’s pretty well done.

If you factor in the extra time he spent making them run up into formation, I’d give it a B+ considering the contextual difficulty.

Most designers would have done worse in this situation – making Red orc stand out in a Red dungeon with Red lighting is very hard.

Some of the difficulties that keep this pull from being an A are as follows:

  • Unclear target order
    • In WoW, ranged units tend to be more fragile than melee units.
    • Typically, you want to disable risky characters who bring CC while you kill the healers or vice-versa.
    • Normally, you focus those first, however, the exception to that is generally Hunters
      • (Hunters in the player’s mind usually stack extra armor and are tough to deal with)
    • Thus, it muddies the player’s instant decision making upon looking at the group.
    • Similarly, its unclear if the two-handed sword guys are more or less dangerous than the dual-wielding axe guys.
  • Unclear ability expectations
    • This is endemic to WoW, but creatures in WoW can pretty much have any ability. Holding a sword doesn’t tell you much. Even being a Wolf doesn’t mean you’ll have the same behaviour as other wolves.
  • Minimal optimizations
    • Sometimes you can improve your clear rate on a dungeon by separating, splitting or waiting for a patroller to walk a way

I could nitpick further, but let’s be honest here: If every single pull in a dungeon was an A, dungeons would be extremely difficult to build and it would be a rare situation where people appreciated the intricacy.

However, sometimes you need to make the individuals pop a bit better:

highkingmaulgar 3e33474

Here on Maulgar, Geoff Goodman made the major, dangerous creatures larger, while the accompanying units have dramatically different color and weapons.

If you’re familiar with the Warcraft world at the time, the weapons and garb communicated roughly the same class that was associated with each monster.  (Drunkard??, Priest, Warrior, Warlock, Mage)

This made the colors and shapes a bit more memorable.

The unique names also helps a bit.

2. Placement: Back to the Underbog

When I spawned the Underbog, I did it from a place in my mind where there was a bunch of “realism” occupying my mind.

It was very homogenous.

Everything was clusters of the same creature or creature type spread out over an area.

Now, this works very nicely when you’re in the outdoor world – everything is safe, monsters kind of just chill out. If there’s 10 wolves in an area, that’s just fine.

In a dungeon, that’s exactly the wrong kind of pacing.

Dungeons are (generally) built to be run multiple times.

Constant flatness within the area leads to rapid ennui, while varied packs of creatures, in discrete buckets, makes it clear when you can stop and take a break.

This meant you never knew when a flying pack of Sporebats would rush in, ambush you and make a pull 10 million times tougher.

So I went back to work.

With Daelo’s guidance, I scrunched the monsters into packs, set up pairs of linked pulls and made the patrols shorter and tighter.

However, I’d still only give myself:

C+

Next time, we’ll talk more about the Underbog – specifically the bosses and mini-events you never see.

Lessons:

I really wanted to hit the theme of an organic, living dungeon and went the extra mile with flying patrols and bugs that swarmed around the zone.

Sounds pretty epic, right?

Unfortunately, I dramatically overspawned the dungeon, creating massive visual overload, causing graphics cards to overheat, and the animation system to break down.

So almost half of my spawning work needed to be removed from the final game.

Keep in mind at that time, the adding and removing of spawns was done manually.

Two weeks down the drain…

The lesson is to understand the technical limitations of the games you’re playing and designing for.

Often, when you’re developing a game, you’re using a computer 10 times better than the average computer your audience has on the open market.

You need to keep this in mind and learn how to pull it back in for everyone else.

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting, is it the designers job to get the graphical details, colours of monsters etc right as well, or is it somewhere in between what artists and designers usually does?

  2. I ran this dungeon again at the intended level not that long ago on an alt.

    It’s very interesting to see the iterations and design decisions that you have to make.

    That pull up the ramp is the worst! Gave me nightmares in Heroic mode back in the day:)

    It’s great to see you posting again too!

    Edit: Capatcha on here needs some work! http://i.imgur.com/sAWtVGE.png

  3. I’d love to hear some more about how you “decide grades” for different designs. Is it just number of good things design does vs number of bad things design does, or is there another sense to it?

Xelnath:

Xelnath:

Hi there! Quick question 👇

Xelnath:

Xelnath:

Thank you,
enjoy rest of the post!

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
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  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
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    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
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[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

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(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
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[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

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[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
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Game Design Keynotes:

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