State Of The Game: Dungeon Crawlers

What follows is a fairly comprehensive bit of exposition at what a Dungeon Crawler is, where it’s come from and where it’s likely going.  The short version: “from misguided Diablo clone lust and straight down the toilet.”  If you want the full story, however, read on.

Origins of the Dungeon Crawler

The very roots of Dungeon Crawlers could probably be found even before the infamous Rogue, on mainframes possibly as far back as Zork.  But then, judging by the safety measures discovered in the average pyramid, thieves have been raiding tombs for treasure since time immortal.

The excitement of overcoming the dangers within for a payoff continue to captivate the mind, and this is what makes a Dungeon Crawler a very conductive background for adventure.  Indeed, the old Atari 2600 series that bears the very name Adventure highly resembles, you guessed it, a Dungeon Crawler.

However, was Rogue or Adventure the true origin of the modern dungeon crawler?  In truth, any genre of gaming can be seen as branching out in several directions just like any other genre of art.   While my primary focus is on Dungeon Crawlers, I think I should briefly visit Adventure Games and Computer Roleplaying Games in general.

Adventure Games

It’s quite a jump to lump Adventure Games in with Dungeon Crawlers, but lets cover that angle.  Text-adventures like Zork branched into the Adventure Game genre from which we can see the King’s Quest and several Lucasarts games as being the backbone of a great deal of Adventure Game evolution. 


Monkey Island remains an excellent example of the Adventure Game genre at the height of its style.

Today, the adventure game genre is largely in recline – it would seem most gamers found the First Person Shooter more exciting than the rather terrible design decisions (at least according to Old Man Murray) that brought adventure games out of favor.

However, the occasional adventure game continues to be released even today, such as the rather excellent Jack Keane recently re-released on Gametap.  It received a very lukewarm reception, but its very existence proves the adventure game genre is not completely dead.  Developers with a passion for storytelling and a capacity to maintain a trim budget to serve a niche may yet be able to bring this genre back.

The Computer Roleplaying Game

However, despite carrying a common origin, what we call Dungeon Crawlers today are clearly not Adventure Games.  They are distinct in that they are usually computer roleplaying games involving wandering about in an open-ended environment, defeating monsters, and accumulating wealth.

The 1980s game Rogue could be seen as the game that popularized the Dungeon Crawler, but is it the first?  I seem to recall playing a great deal of Dungeon-Crawler like games in my youth on my Commodore 64 long before I played the PC version of Rogue.

The Temple of Apshai‘s original TRS-80 version predated both Rogue (Unix) and Adventure (Atari 2600) by a year.  Temple of Apshai featured a protagonist who walked about a dungeon slaying various monsters by either sword or bow and recovering treasure.  It included a character generation system, and was amongst the first games to actually save your character’s statistics for later resuming.

Temple of Apshai (Apple 8-Bit Version shown here) was possibly the earliest example of what today is known as the Dungeon Crawler genre.

Temple of Apshai (Apple 8-Bit Version shown here) was possibly the earliest example of what today is known as the Dungeon Crawler genre.

However, where the gaming industry went next was a far cry from a dungeon crawler.  Throughout the 1980s, the computer RPG exploded in many interesting directions.

Prominent examples were the tile-based RPGs such as Questron and the Magic Candle.  There was also an entirely three-dimensional party-based dungeon crawl series such as The Bard’s Tale and Wizardry.   Garriot’s Ultima series was often a combination of both 2D maps and 3D dungeons.

I’ve a special place in my heart for the Moebius series – this actually integrated a tile-based RPG with an early side-perspective martial arts fighting game for combat resolution, and was a highly-stylized artistic achievement in general.

Autoduel, Wasteland, Mars Saga, and the SSI Dungeons and Dragons… I could go on like this for an entire Blog entry.  Gaming had moved well beyond the mere “dungeon crawl” of Temple of Apshai and into epic adventures that took place over large tracts of virtual land, of which dungeons need only be small part.  The genre had moved on to advancing not only one character but often a whole party, and in some cases there was even a storyline to advance.

Today, the computer role playing genre is so widely branched out that it could range from anywhere between the average Massively Multiplayer grind and a quasi-action roleplay mechanic such as seen in Mario and Luigi or arguably even first person shooter RPGs such as Deus Ex and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.

Birth of the modern Dungeon Crawler

Though the appearance has changed substantially, the heart and soul of Diablo is little more than Rogue given a great deal of Blizzard's game-talent polish.

Though the appearance and execution had changed substantially, the heart and soul of Diablo is the humble roguelike game.

I think the point where we really returned to the dungeons is when Blizzard’s Diablo successfully marketed a graphical roguelike in such a way as to shatter sales records.  Of course, whenever a game is this successful, there will be many imitators, and this could arguably be said where the Dungeon Crawler genre is defined: as a Diablo clone.

In other words, while it is true that Rogue and Temple of Apshai had done “dungeon crawler” before, the genre had since moved on to other things, and only Diablo’s phenomenal success forced the industry to rethink the viability of a dedicated dungeon crawl.

As most modern gamers know, Diablo was a game where you choose one of three classes and delve deep into the dungeon beneath the infernally cursed town of Tristam, revisiting the surface many times to sell your loot between runs.  This became the model for the modern Dungeon Crawler.

From here, innovation becomes sketchy.  Now, there are hundreds of Diablo clones, and the trouble is just picking out the noteworthy ones that are worth a try.

Evolving The Diablo Clone

At first, there were not that many Diablo clones, because they were largely still in development, the industry readjusting its processes to try to capture the appeal of Diablo.

An early example would be Darkstone, the first fully-3D Diablo.   A fairly good game, but it wasn’t quite as deep as the original Diablo in terms of gameplay mechanic sophistication.  Little did we know that this would be a common trend amongst dungeon crawlers.

(2000) Nox, by the now-defunct Westwood Studios, featured both online competitive and cooperative play as well as an extensive single player campaign.  One of the more fast-and-furious dungeon crawls, a considerable amount of foes were thrown at the player and this required unusually high reflexes to accurately counter.  Although it was largely forced offline due to Westwood Studios’ closure and exploits, a handful of players still enjoy Nox.

Transcending the usual clone, Divine Divinity exuded a great deal of craftsmanship.

Transcending the usual clone, Divine Divinity exuded a great deal of craftsmanship.

Belgian Larian Studios was responsible for (2002) Divine Divinity and its sequel, (2004) Beyond Divinity.  Though the Diablo similarities were certainly in place, the Divinity series removed the randomly generated maps in exchange for an overland epic adventure.  There can be found in either game a great deal of attention to detail, with pixel hunting often proving rewarding.   Divinity 2 – Ego Draconis is still in development and slated for a 2009 release.

German Ascaron Entertainment created Sacred (2004) and the recently-released (2008) Sacred 2.  This series has a somewhat unique backdrop that pulls together separate elements such as dwarves, demons, angels, and vampires and makes them playable characters.  The balance is rather loose, and you can soon build a considerable juggernaut of a character.  Sacred Gold is currently available for free play via Gametap.

Space Siege, despite a widely-propagated monotonous reputation, very much represents the highest generation of Dungeon Crawling technology.

Space Siege, despite a widely-propagated monotonous reputation, very much represents the highest generation of Dungeon Crawling technology.

Space Seige is very much among the most recent big-budget dungeon crawler, it is a considerably streamlined and advanced Dungeon Crawler and represents the state of the craft today.   It’s also considered by many to be rather monotonous, perhaps too streamlined, and punctuated with meaningless morality choices.   However, say what you will about Chris Taylor: the man knows how to create a solid game engine.

There’s innumerable other clones to be found, such as Fate, but there’s been so many Diablo clones I simply don’t have time to mention them all.  The number of western Diablo clones pale in comparison to the many in the East, most of which we’ll never see here, but you can see the same influence in many Eastern MMORPGs re-released here such as the wildly popular Ragnarok Online or Lineage.  Some Eastern games have even returned to Diablo’s roguelike roots, such as in your average Mystery Dungeon game.

The State Of The Game Of Dungeon Crawlers: Quite Dubious

In terms of evolution of the Dungeon Crawler genre, I’m afraid the answer is that it has not evolved far from the original Diablo.  Just as with Darkstone, few (if any) Diablo clone had ever managed to capture that same spirit that made the Diablo series so popular.

Hellgate: London actually featured a great deal of the original Diablo talent along with a practiced intent to recreate that same Diablo vibe, but fell rather flat, actually being shut down due to lack of player support by the end of January 2009.

Though Final Fantasy fandom helped shore its sales numbers, neither Squaresoft's incredible artistic talent nor complete support by Nintendo could save Crystal Chronicles from the bargain bin. Does this herald the doom of the Dungeon Crawler?

Not too long ago, Squaresoft turned their extensive talents to creating a Diablo clone series… Crystal Chronicles did not fare well with many gamers, judging by how many copies were returned.  (Though perhaps the smaller-scale roguelike Chocobo series did better, a lot of Final Fantasy fandom and marketing cuteness may have went into that.)

In most modern roguelike games, things are the same for the average Diablo clone as ever.  Silverfall, from what I’ve heard, was just awful – but it’s hardly objective me to say such for a game I never played.  NCSoft released an online, massively-multiplayer dungeon crawler named Dungeon Runners – this, too, received a poor reception, and it was freeMythos was another free, online, massively-multiplayer dungeon crawler, and it wasn’t a bad game, but it was really more of a testbed for Flagship Studio’s Hellgate: London netcode, and when Hellgate failed Mythic was lost by the wayside.   Space Siege was also very poorly received, although I found the engine to be superb.

[Edit: Thanks go to Retro for reminding me about Titan Quest.]

There has been the rare gem that invites some hope for the dungeon crawler, and surely Sierra’s Titan Quest is one such gem.  Titan Quest was solidly based on Greek mythology with a stable engine sporting impressive visuals and, much more importantly, much greater depth than the average Diablo-clone.

Titan Quest remains an excellent Dungeon Crawl. However, is it excellent enough considering it was made 7 years after Diablo II?

Somehow, Titan Quest slipped my mind earlier.  However, I when I think back to the game, I can guess why: despite being technically excellent, and with the kind of depth I sorely missed, Titan Quest just could not fish me in.   The main reason why was because it did not innovate enough from Diablo II considering it was made some 6 years later.  Consequently, Titan Quest was neither noticeably bad nor cutting-edge good, and thus forgettable to me.

The specifics of Titan’s Quest apparent mediocrity are important to consider in terms of how to advance the dungeon crawling genre.  Diablo II had a whole skill tree system, and the skills had considerable variation between.  Titan Quest’s skills were in a less purposed tree, and often felt like the same thing with a slight difference, though thankfully your character had some ability to mix and match professions.   The design of Titan Quest’s inventory also seemed to lose something valuable in the transition, seeming somehow less interesting than the Diablo cubic inventory despite heavily resembling it.

In the end, Titan Quest sports a gain in graphical capability, but is otherwise merely supporting the previous bar that was set by Diablo II instead of setting it higher.  While that was an impressive achievement, in all art forms the bar needs to be continually raised to keep the attention of its public.  While Titan Quest came much closer than its predecessors, it was not quite capable of doing that.  The Titan Quest problem remains the same as it was for other dungeon crawlers: why could they not transcend the Diablo series?  Where is that missing magic?

The most recent good dungeon crawler I’ve heard about lately is Sacred 2, which was rightfully dinged by reviewers as being a dreadfully buggy game, but has a very warm reception amongst players regardless.   From what I’ve heard, Sacred 2 embodies the opposite of Dungeon Siege: it’s a technically unsound game that may yet prevail because the gameplay is deeper.

Having been released only a month ago, I’ve yet to get a really good look at Sacred 2, but I know enough about the original Sacred to hazard a guess that the reason why it is doing so well is because Ascaron Entertainment enjoys pushing the genre in a wild direction.  Where many were distracted with making Diablo better, Ascaron Entertainment developers have been focused on making Diablo differently.

Once a game becomes different enough, it loses that mental association of being a dungeon crawler anymore.  Is it possible that the Spellforce series is a dungeon crawler that has successfully emulated enough as to transcend Diablo, yet is not considered a dungeon crawler because of this?  It would seem the dungeon crawler concept is an interesting mental box indeed.

Diablo III: Make It Or Break It For The Genre

Diablo III‘s release is figuratively right around the corner, with an uncertain release date but a plethora of gameplay videos suggesting one is pending.  No doubt many of us are wondering if Blizzard can do any better than its imitators.  After all, Hellgate, with much of the same talent behind the original Diablos, failed.   Blizzard managed to reproduce Diablo’s appeal with Diablo II, but it was with a surprisingly outdated 2D platform, and Diablo III hopes to bring Blizzard’s franchise to 3D at last.

However, Hellgate: London’s fate, along with the poor reception of most Diablo clones, indicates a strong possibility that – much like with the Adventure genre – the Dungeon Crawler genre has run its course.  It’s possible that Diablo and Diablo II were a two-hit wonder that a great deal of effort has been wasted attempting to replicate.

If Diablo III fails to entertain, I think the final definitive proof will have fallen into place:  the Diablo and Diablo II really were a two-hit wonder, and a considerable amount of effort has been wasted in attempting to replicate them.

10 Responses

  1. Cool, fun read. Is it just me or does Rings of Ziflin remind me of the original Zelda?

  2. It certainly has the 4-bit graphics down! But now that you mention it, yeah, the way the character walks into stores and stabs things is pretty similar. Rings of Zilfin was more of an RPG, though, being controlled kinda like an old Ultima game.

    I wish I could have got a video of the C64 version, it would have been better emulated with 16 colors and better sound. There’s actually some pretty cool integrated arcade sequences in Rings of Zilfin, like a Space Invaders-like flyby of enemy monsters.

    Really, Rings of Zilfin probably has more in common with an open-ended Oregon Trail. Set overland routes and attempt to survive the journey by engaging in the occasional conflict. Collect wealth, skill, and spells along the way.

  3. Your article seems incomplete without the mention of Titan Quest and its expansion, TQ is one exceptionally decent Diablo clone.

  4. You absolutely right, Retro, and I feel remiss about forgetting Titan Quest. I had so many Dungeon Crawlers going through my head at the time it somehow was buried beneath them. I’ve revised the entry to include Titan Quest.

  5. It seems MMOs and dungeon crawlers are two halves that need to be merged at some point.

    MMOs have the huge world and massive amount of content and variety, but require very little skill and the combat is typically outdated. Dungeon crawlers feature fast paced combat that is actually somewhat deeper, but have a tiny world and are very linear.

    Both genres fall for the trap of thinking that level grinding will replace actual variety, because in both genres you do the same thing over and over and over.

    Let me know when the first MMO-action-RPG-shooter comes along. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be existing already, considering neither Diablo 3 nor Warhammer Online is a significant evolution over Diablo and Everquest respectively, after 8 years. Of course, if you can milk existing genres because it’s easier and faster…

  6. A good observation. I often think of RPGs these days as consisting of an outside (the world and overall content count) and an inside (the depth of the gameplay mechanic). Often in designing an MMORPG, the inside is neglected. Often in designing a Dungeon Crawler, the outside is neglected. An all-encompassing game that adequately fleshes out both the inside and the outside is one truly worthy of the title RPG.

  7. Upon finishing the read in your article and agreeing with you, an idea crossed my mind, something’s wrong with Sacred 2, and also in Titan Quest, Hellgate London…
    They lost their RPG portion…
    I mean, the way you interact with the NPC characters in these games, the way you develop your character story, it’s pathetic… The story is always either uninteresting or badly told.
    In D2 you are presented with your objective right away, and you struggle to reach your objective, and the NPCs are actually helping you reach such objective, at least this happens in your first play-through, you can’t deny that on D2 first time, you pay attention to story and get amazed by the videos, the videos, the story is perfectly told with very good movies between acts, ART ! Does any other game have it ? NO ! The way the other games tell you the story is by a beatiful transparent textbox with text scrolling in your face and some actor reading the text for you !
    In D2 you ARE pointed to a nice objective, in the other games I mentioned above, is the opposite, in all these games you play like if you are a mercenary right from the start… You are thrown in a area with some chaos and you have to help the local populace to get some lame prizes, you don’t help them because you care, you help them to get their MONEY/ITEMS, and then there´s 500 pointless quests to do, that are completely unrelated to the main plot…
    In D2, 90% of the quests are related to the main plot somehow ! And it didn’t need 500 random “bring something somewhere”, “kill something somewhere”, “get something from somewhere” or “take person/thing A from point X to Y”…
    Of course long games are good, but only if the game is good… It’s a lot better to play a shorter good game than a long bad one… Dead Space and Call of Duty 4 have better stories than MOST rpgs, and they’re extremely shorter.
    GTA 3, GTA vice city and so far to the point I played, GTA 4, have better stories than most RPGS…
    If you ask me what the future of action-rpgs is, I say : GTA4 with some inventory and skills…
    GTA NPCs are better introduced than Sacred2/HL/TQ… Way better… Story is infinetely better told !
    You can see that I didn’t mention San Andreas as a good GTA, it was a 5 out of 10 gta, cause rockstar almost did the mistake the RPG developers do, adding too much pointless content. I played every GTA more than once, but San Andreas, I was happy when I finally finished it…

  8. Have you looked at D3 lately? It has the magic. Like you, I’m not exactly sure what it is that Blizzard knows that other game developers don’t, but it is with absolute certainty I know that they do in fact know it.

    One look at D3 and the D2 magic comes right back to me. I wasn’t one of the first ones to jump aboard the Diablo train because I never really have been one to enjoy RPG’s, but then I met a guy at work that I became good friends with and we shared our experiences in video games and he insisted that I go out immediately and purchase Diablo. This was maybe about a year before D2 hit the shelves. I was instantly engrossed in the game and could not quit playing it. About a year later, just as I was about to get bored with Diablo, D2 was out and again I was hooked for another 2 years or so of play.

    I had given up on any dream that there would be a Diablo III since as you had mentioned some of the team members had moved on, but as soon as the announcement was made and I visited the website and saw some of the gameplay video’s, I knew then and there that it would become a reality.

    Prepare to lose a couple years of your life.

  9. We’ll see.

    I’ve definitely looked at games before and thought they had the magic, but then played them and discovered that it wasn’t quite right.

    It should be clear that it wasn’t from lack of experience – you just can’t tell until playing it. Movies or screenshots or other preview information can be misleading, they get you closer to the game, but they lack that essential interactive layer. Even when you are playing it, you won’t know in just for a few hours, but rather after the “new game buzz” wears off, which can take weeks.

  10. With the really really great ones, you know 10 minutes after playing, at least I do. Over the last 17 years, there’s been 8 games that I knew the instant I started playing, I wasn’t going to stop playing for years.

    1993 Myst
    1993 Doom
    1995 Descent
    1998 Starcraft
    2000 Diablo II
    2001 Halo
    2004 Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
    2004 World of Warcraft

    I can’t say for certain that Diablo III will be one as well yet, but it has all the earmarks at this point.

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