In April 2010, Dungeoneering dropped out of the sky. Or rather, it popped out of the ground after being teased with strange occurances of energy on the overworld. The Dungeoneering skill broke with all the previous skills not only in its level cap of 120, but also in its training style. Even today, there are people convinced that Dungeoneering is a minigame, not a skill.
Dungeoneering was not only the first skill of its kind, but it was also the first piece of content to make cooperative group play widely available. Up to that day, group content was limited to PvP activities such as Castle Wars and Soul Wars, or PvM/bossing. For all the criticism it received around its release, Dungeoneering has kept its place as – arguably – the most popular group activity in RuneScape.
Looking back at it today, it appears Dungeoneering was the start of a series of attempts to bring group content into RuneScape. The high level group experience of many other MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 is centred around high level instances that can be repeated regularly for some solid rewards. These raids are often balanced in such a way to cooperation is necessary to succeed, even with high-level characters. This makes for a compelling challenge, making the activity both fun and rewarding.
Given the success of raids in other games, it was no surprise that Jagex took another stab at bringing raids into RuneScape with the Liberation of Mazcab in July 2015. Taking a very different approach from Dungeoneering, Liberation of Mazcab was aimed at high-level players with the hardest bosses in-game at the day of release, providing a new tier of armour as reward. Raids are only accessible through the group system with groups of ten players, and rewards can only be gained once every two days.
Liberation of Mazcab was troubled with problems from day one, with a badly functioning group system and general difficulties getting a group of ten high-level PvMers together in the first place. While the Liberation of Mazcab is by no means dead content, it didn’t even come close to the success other games had with raids like these. While the group system has been updated since, the somewhat arbitrary limitations to start an encounter is a large bottleneck in starting an instance. It isn’t hard to understand the reasoning behind forcing a larger group size – it is meant to be a group activity after all – and only rewards every other day – limited supply keeps the prices of the rewards high. However, the fact that these limitations needed to be built in explicitly should have been a red flag around the design of the content in the first place. If people are doing raids in a smaller group than designed for, maybe something needs to be done about the balance.
The fact that a second raid never made it into the game is probably enough of an indicator that raids didn’t really turn out the way Jagex expected. Now, almost three years after the release of raids, Jagex is bringing us something entirely new: Elite Dungeons. In many ways, it reflects raids in other games even more, since you progress through a dungeon fighting monsters and bosses to get the rewards at the end. Announced to be created for smaller groups and not necessarily limited to the highest level players, Elite Dungeons appear to address the largest problems Liberation of Mazcab has.
With a group size of only up to three people, and the content being entirely soloable as well, it is hard to see this as the new standard for group content. To really take on the role as repeatable content to be played with friends, clan mates, or random strangers, there needs to be value in having others come with you. Sadly, it appears that there are very few mechanics that provide benefits to having people with you.
It is important to consider that RuneScape is not inherently a game about cooperation. Apart from player skill and fashion choices, every max-level character in RuneScape is identical. There is never a need for help from other characters because they can do something you really can’t. You might need more money or skill, but in theory your character is capable of doing everything another character can. There is no class system in RuneScape, and precisely that class system is what makes group play in other MMORPGs so interesting: to be successful in a hard encounter, you need more than somebody to do damage. There are specialisations in healing, tanking, mob control, etc. Attempts to introduce these roles into RuneScape through Seren spells and armour types have only had very limited success.
This is a hurdle that RuneScape will have to cross were it to become a successful community game. There needs to be some form of reward for heading into that group system and finding people to play with. I am not sure if I would get enough value out of looking for a group, either using the group system, or even among my clan mates and friends. We have seen this done right in the past, in for example Dungeoneering and even some PvM bosses. We’ve seen it done wrong too: Raids forcing you to find nine other people to play with, or bosses like the God Wars 2 bosses or Nex that are essentially soloable, even though it may be nice to have some extra DPS come along with you. It’s hard to tell where the Temple of Aminishi sits on this scale. The effects on rewards and experience of having a large group are not yet quite clear.
Raids have another alluring factor in other games: interesting challenges that makes for fun gameplay. In RuneScape, people either love or hate Dungeoneering. Dungeoneering can be liked on different levels. You can enjoy the individual puzzles and combat, you can like the exploration of the dungeon, or most likely: you can enjoy getting that timer down as low as possible. There is a certain skill to doing Dungeoneering efficiently, or rather, there is a set of skills. This is what makes it so interesting, in my opinion. There are a lot of decisions to take in the scope of a single dungeon that verge insight beyond single combat encounters.
Elite Dungeons cut out a lot of that. This was to be expected in more story-driven content, and yet I find myself disappointed at the blandness of it. The combat feels generic, only the final boss looks visually spectacular, and there is no real change in pace as there are no intermezzos such as the jellyfish in Liberation of Mazcab or the puzzle rooms in Dungeoneering. The combat is not easy either: I expected something on par with medium to hard quest boss fights, but the Elite Dungeon bosses have a bit more power to them, without notable mechanics to make them difficult in interesting ways. Of course, this is offset with some pretty solid rewards both in terms of item value and experience. Since Seiryu is not the next Yakamaru (despite their similarities), the difficulty is not a deal breaker on this piece of content.
Despite it being marketed as a new thing, it is hard to not see Elite Dungeons as an extended PvM encounter. Given the relative dullness of the combat, I wonder if it will become popular among the existing PvM crowd. There is still a nice chunk of Dungeoneering experience to be handed out though, so Elite Dungeons might well become a preferred training method for those who dislike the exploration and puzzles in traditional Dungeoneering.
So, will Elite Dungeons be the actual raids of RuneScape? It sounded like Elite Dungeons have all the components to be successful: groups, interesting combat, and rewards. Playing through it, the Temple of Aminishi doesn’t really seem to embrace the opportunities these give. Relatively simple combat is not unseen in other MMORPGs, but at least there is a difference in roles among the players that make cooperation and different party arrangements an interesting factor in tackling an instance. Elite Dungeons seem to bring the problems of limited character variation back to the surface, so it remains to be seen whether Elite Dungeons will emulate raids in other games.
Only time will tell whether Elite Dungeons are here to stay. Jagex is committed to releasing more of them. If they are willing to iterate on the concept, and keep working on getting it right, then we’re off to a good start. If history has taught us anything, it is that the success of an update can’t always be predicted. Over the next few months, we will find out whether RuneScape’s basic combat and skilling system will keep limiting the success of Elite Dungeons, and possibly other combat updates alongside them, or whether the game will evolve to birth the next Leeroy Jenkins.