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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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 free. Mythos 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.
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.
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