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Open Letter to Trendy Regarding “Dungeon Defenders II”

View Nelson Schneider's Profile

By Nelson Schneider - 10/20/13 at 01:08 PM CT

Dear Trendy:

On October 8th, your Studio Director David Loyd wrote a blog/forum post announcing that “Dungeon Defenders II,” which was initially revealed to be a MOBA-style PVP game, was being rolled-back to square-one and restarted as a true sequel to the original hybrid of Tower Defense and Hack ‘n Slash RPG. This announcement was met with great enthusiasm by Nick (MeltedJoystick’s software engineer and obsessive “DunDef” player) and by some of our site’s most vocal and active members. As someone who once loved “Dungeon Defenders,” but came to barely tolerate the game as it progressed, I can only say that my enthusiasm at this announcement was tempered by a large dose of skepticism.

Trendy, you are a company that does not have a long or spotless track record with making games. Outside of various iterations of “Dungeon Defenders” and DLC for that game, your only other finished release is an obscure (and unsupported) iPhone game called “Chicken Coup” that nobody cares about. “Dungeon Defenders,” however, is a game that a great many people have cared about over the past two years. Yet it is a game that you managed to completely screw up over the course of one year, while continually ignoring the incessant stream of suggestions made on your forums. Now, the sequel to your greatest achievement/screw-up is having nearly a year’s worth of work scrapped, apparently because you finally realized that nobody played those dumb PVP bonus stages in the original game. Is that really progress? Is that supposed to instill confidence in your current and former fans?

Since David Loyd asked for people who love “Dungeon Defenders” to provide suggestions for “Dungeon Defenders II,” I decided to write this open letter to air my biggest grievances with the way “Dungeon Defenders” ultimately turned out (and it’s not even Festivus), in the hopes that “Dungeon Defenders II” can avoid most of the same pitfalls, while also providing a few ideas to expand the scope of the game in some small way. Until you reveal, as David Loyd promised, what the Five Pillars of “Dungeon Defenders II” design are, I have no way of knowing whether these suggestions will jibe with the direction you wish to take this sequel. Regardless, here are my Five Grievances of “Dungeon Defenders:”



1. Balance
It was gratifying to see that some of the first comments on David Loyd’s blog/forum post were people talking about balance. Loss of balance is the single worst thing to happen to “Dungeon Defenders” over the course of its life, and subsumes all of my other grievances. Adding new content is great – adding new content that isn’t balanced in the same way as existing content is not! All of the ‘recommended levels’ listed on the Lost Eternia Shards and bonus stages were completely meaningless, as every single one of those stages was more difficult than anything in the base game. This kind of flaw is called a ‘difficulty spike’ in the gaming business, and they are to be avoided at all costs.

2. Maps
How did the game become unbalanced? For one thing, the maps increased in size drastically, frequently eliminating lanes and choke points – the keystones upon which the entire Tower Defense genre is built – and also making it far more difficult for a single player to cover the entire thing by themselves. While some of those huge maps (like Karathiki Jungle) were expressly designed for large teams of 6 players, most of them were not. Always think of single players as well as teams when designing maps!

Even worse, as the maps became more and more complex, they suddenly gained multiple vertical levels. While this kind of stage design is fine in theory, the way the game’s mapping system was designed rendered it utterly useless for vertically-stacked stages. If you want to make stages like these in “Dungeon Defenders II,” the stage map needs to be able to support displaying all vertical tiers simultaneously. Also, on the higher difficulties, most of the challenge in “Dungeon Defenders” comes from flying enemies and other ‘new’ mobs introduced in each of the Lost Eternia Shards stages (and, misguidedly, added retroactively to other stages)… yet spiders, wyverns, and copters almost never have their spawn points marked on the stage maps. That needs to be corrected.

3. Strategy
I liked the base (no DLC) version of “Dungeon Defenders” for the way it blended strategy with RPG-inspired leveling. This merger of genres allowed weak/inexperienced players to gain some levels and equipment in order to boost themselves through stages that gave them trouble. However, the base game never revolved around stats. Strategic placement of defenses combined with actively offensive characters carried the day every time. In the DLC, on the other hand, there is exactly one strategy that works: aura stacks (an Ensnare, Strength Drain, and Electric Auras placed on top of each other) and minion walls (Series EV Buff Beams with lines of Summoner Archer Minions standing on them) directly around each Eternia Crystal. No other strategy matters simply because everything in the DLC revolves around stats and mitigating the ‘new’ mobs, which all seem specifically designed to render useless the defenses belonging to the characters in the base game. The Monk only gets by due to the bizarre scaling of his auras from tiny blobs that barely cover a lane to monstrosities straight out of a Stephen King story.

Why would anyone use a Harpoon Turret (which was an amazing defense before the DLC) when an Archer Minion can tank way more damage, barely slows down when webbed by a spider, can’t be de-summoned by a djinn, will walk back into place when pushed by a sharken, and can fire at targets a full 360 degrees around him? These overpowered DLC characters were nice at first, as they made it possible to actually clear some of the first DLC stages on the hardest difficulty without going crazy, but later DLC stages simply cranked up the difficulty even more. And how did they crank up the difficulty? By throwing out tons of ogres and flying enemies – including flying ogres! Ogres were originally designed to be a one-or-two per wave experience to make players scramble a bit. But with the massive stat inflation that came with the new stages and the new tiers of equipment, someone on the stage design team must have decided that the only way to keep the game ‘challenging’ (read: frustrating as frack) was to have stages spit-out a never ending stream of ogres that could come from anywhere. With no way to predict where these enormous, lumbering stat-checks would come from and with the other enemy types reduced to ignorable cannon fodder, is it any wonder the Aura-Stacks-and-Minion-Walls strategy came to be the ‘wash-rinse-repeat’ of “Dungeon Defenders?”

4. Stats
As I mentioned in my grievance about strategy, stat inflation is a severe problem in “Dungeon Defenders.” It might even be the most severe contributor to loss of balance. When characters start out, they have 0 points in each stat. By level 100, they have quite a few points to distribute, and can easily waltz through the entire base game on Insane difficulty, naked. However, nobody cares about Insane difficulty, as the ‘end game’ is all about Nightmare difficulty. Not only does Nightmare difficulty require character stats that are at least 10 times higher than Insane (the final stage of the base game can be beaten on Insane with ~150 in pertinent stats, whereas Nightmare requires ~1,500 for the same stage) and unattainable without powerful equipment, but the hardest difficulty also messes with character stats, making it difficult to plan strategies when a character’s damage per second and health (as well as other, less obvious things) change arbitrarily. Even worse, the role-reversing Assault Mode missions, which could have been quite fun otherwise, arbitrarily reduce character stats… but not in the same way as Nightmare difficulty (thus Assault Mode on Nightmare difficulty has TWO arbitrary stat adjustments applied). Don’t do this anymore! If a player is trying to build a character and a strategy, they will need to be able to test and analyze their capabilities. Don’t worry about characters becoming overpowered… this isn’t PVP!

5. Loot
Finally, we come to the elephant in the tavern: The Random Number Generator. I’m not a fan of random loot-based games, but “Dungeon Defenders” initially disarmed me with its laissez faire attitude about equipment. It was never really a big deal in the base game, not even on Insane difficulty. Players found some equipment and wore it, set bonuses were nice but not mandatory, and each difficulty dropped gear that would allow players to proceed to the next higher difficulty.

But with Nightmare and the introduction of Mythic+ equipment, all that changed. Instead of being able to play do-able stages on Insane difficulty and find some usable Mythic gear, players wearing sub-par Godly gear were forced to run screaming through one or two waves of Nightmare hell in order to even have a chance at finding anything Mythic. Then, once they had a few really low-quality Mythic pieces, they were forced to struggle through a few waves at a time in Nightmare Survival Mode (a mode I had never planned on touching) in an attempt to get more, better Mythic loot. THEN they were forced to grind Survival maps endlessly (well, hundreds of hours seems endless when doing something as un-fun as grinding and failing). And just when the player thought lightning had struck, and they saw a pink, yellow, or dark blue loot dot appear on the map, they’d run over to it, risking death at the clubs of purple ogres, only to find that the Random Number Generator had taken a poop and turned what would have otherwise been a spectacular piece of loot that would have justified all that grinding into a 58 mana-value piece of garbage with 6 massive stat penalties and one moderate bonus.

But wait, there’s more! Upon completing a Nightmare stage, the tavern shop, which is supposed to refresh with a random assortment of ‘good’ gear based on the difficulty of the last completed stage NEVER did that. Instead, after crawling back, bloody and broken, from a 20+ wave Nightmare Survival map, the tavernkeep would not offer the defenders the chance to buy some expensive Transcendent gear, but would instead display some of his collection of incredible Worn, Torn, and Polished gear. Perhaps it is the tavernkeep’s thumb that appears on loot to determine whether it is ‘better’ than what the player already has?

I’m going to lay this right out on the table, Trendy: FIX YOUR RANDOM NUMBER GENERATOR OR I WILL NOT PLAY YOUR NEW GAME. PERIOD.

That is, if you insist on keeping the same style of loot as in the original “Dungeon Defenders.” I liked some of what you did with loot: The upgrade system was great, and I really appreciated the variety in the types of Huntress weapons (some with multi-projectiles, some with piercing capabilities, some that could shoot through walls). If you applied those same good qualities to a revamped loot system, I think the problems of the first game could be completely avoided in the second.

I’m thinking that the new “Dungeon Defenders II” loot system needs to have an unmovable baseline for each loot level (Epic, Legendary, Godly, etc.) that distributes a set number of stat points on each piece of equipment, with NO penalties. That’s right, remove the penalties and only have equipment provide bonuses. It’s not like any sane blacksmith would design a helmet with razor blades on the inside to reduce a character’s health! Another solid change to the loot in “Dungeon Defenders II” would be to expressly divide it into three categories: Hero, Tower, and Hybrid. Hero loot should distribute all its bonuses to Hero stats, Tower loot to Tower stats, and Hybrid loot could mix it up between the most popular stats in each (please no Hybrid loot with bonuses in only Hero Casting Speed and Tower Range) – but it should be possible to change any given piece between these three categories at the Forge. And if you really want to emulate the Hack ‘n Slash sub-genre of RPGs, you could even add percentage based bonuses for various things (damage for a specific defense, damage vs. a specific enemy, etc.) that randomly appear (or can be added by slotting-in a gemstone) on loot… just so long as these bonuses stay ‘bonuses’ and aren’t interpreted as ‘requirements’ in the difficulty balancing of new stages.



I’d like to end this letter on a positive note and provide a few simple suggestions for how to make “Dungeon Defenders II” a bigger, better experience than the first:

I’d like to see the realm of Etherea fleshed out with additional non-combat locations. Why not have the defenders move from town-to-town, as in any other RPG, meeting interesting characters and taking a few side-quests in the process? I’d like to take a stab at defending something other than Eternia Crystals, and side-quests would provide ample opportunity to defense something else, like a flock of sheep or a keg of ale. Even better, side-questing would allow for a more streamlined implementation of alternate gameplay modes, like Assault Mode. Just don’t turn the side-quests into MMO-inspired iterations of ‘collect X copies of item Y from monster Z.’

Next, I’d like to have good, fixed rewards drop at the end of each stage. If you fix the Random Number Generator and employ the new loot system I described above, this system of rewards won’t seem out of place. I just feel like every other loot-obsessed Hack ‘n Slash has a boss or final treasure chest in each dungeon that hemorrhages good equipment. While many of the more evil bonus stages in “Dungeon Defenders” do provide presents for completing them, these presents don’t have fixed stats, and are still subject to the Random Number Generator’s gastrointestinal distress. For example, every Classic’s Eagle Crested Standard should be identical, and they should all be worth using! Giving away presents is never a bad idea, and if the player has done something to earn a present, they deserve to get a present worth using.

Finally, get rid of Ranked Mode and Open Mode. The players who get erections thinking about their place on a leaderboard aren’t worth catering to if it sacrifices the fun of less obsessive players. Don’t segregate the two groups into their own sandboxes; it just divides the community and reduces the player pool. Hackers found their way into Ranked regardless of your endeavors to stop them, so why not just keep everything laid-back and happy with Steam Workshop compatibility for everyone? I’m not sure how your proposed Free to Play business model will affect the online/offline capabilities of the game, but I certainly hope it more closely resembles “Torchlight II” than “Diablo III.”

Thank you for reading this long epistle and bearing with my blunt criticism. I want to still love “Dungeon Defenders” as I did before the release of the Lost Eternia Shards and other DLC, but I just can’t. That game has just gone so endemically wrong in every way that I don’t think it can be saved. Looking at it from the perspective of a new player, I can’t imagine how anyone would want to start playing it now in its broken and unbalanced state. Active MeltedJoystick commenter and frequent Featured Review winner, Jonzor, even posed a challenge on the old “Dungeon Defenders” forum stating that the playtesters should start from scratch to see just how badly unbalanced the game has become, but as far as I know his exhortations have gone unanswered.

I want to love “Dungeon Defenders II” as much as I originally loved “Dungeon Defenders.” I want this sequel to be a clean slate that will wipe away the layers of problems that crept into the original game over the course of its first year. I want to, once again, feel the joy of devising a solid strategy, either alone or with friends, and not having to worry about my defenses being shredded like paper by an endless army of flying purple brutes. I don’t want to grind, I want to enjoy. I don’t want to work, I want to play. If you can do that for me, Trendy, I’ll come back and embrace “Dungeon Defenders II” with open arms. If you keep doing what you’re doing, I will stay away – it’s not like I don’t have plenty of other games to play.

Respectfully,

Nelson Schneider
MeltedJoystick Editor

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Anonymous

Wrote on 02/21/15 at 01:03 AM CT

this is dumb . i can agree with the gear stats and only giving bonuses but man . al i see here is some dude whining about how a game is too hard. or how much you want to nerf the mobs so you can play the game easier. or talking about removing pvp stuff. I for one love the pvp content. also QQ about how gear is random and you never get what you want so youd rather be able to farm for thing syou need instead of randomly doing things until you see it drop at an appropriate level of difficulty. you mustve NEVER played diablo. complaining about this ONLINE MMO TEAM GAME is unbalanced because you cant play the larger maps with a single player? come on youre not really even supposed to be playing the game solo. thats just there for people with no friends or a really slow internet connection. i like how hard the game is and i like how time invested is greater than difficulty level kills or clears lol.

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Nick

Wrote on10/21/13 at 11:15 PM CT

Even with flaws, I do have to say, finally beating the Old One on nightmare difficulty with my friends was extremely gratifying! Maybe more so than any other game I remember playing. I feel I'm in a small group that accomplished it without hacking, cheating, or having the luxury of game progression before the updates adjusted everything to make things near impossible.

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Jonzor

Wrote on10/21/13 at 12:42 AM CT

If I could fix one thing about Dungeon Defenders, it would be the amount of sheer WASTED. TIME. required to succeed. Hours and hours and hours of Survival rounds yielding actually, honestly, and truly NOTHING useful. And then, in the face of just... hours... of wasted time, Trendy never really took it upon themselves to do anything about it.

Ultimate gear with one MISERABLE stat rendering it completely useless, because the odds of rolling a negative stat makes the game more fun, apparently.

or

Reward items for completing a goal that were no different than the garbage dropping during play, because crappy rewards make the game better.

There are plenty of games out there doing the random loot thing, but Trendy took that "random" thing and REALLY went whole-hog with it. Borderlands doesn't drop guns that are actually WORSE for you than having no gun equipped at all. At least when playing Borderlands, when random, rare loot finally drops, your search is usually OVER.

Trendy never put any steps in place to limit that mindless suffering by ENSURING payouts. They never promised payouts, and then they never promised payouts that would actually be useful. When they named the RNG, they meant it, and they were going to take that randomness to the absolute GRAVE.

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