tldr: moba keystone dungeons
Traditional cRPGs are, in general, united by a strong emphasis on character progression. By playing the game, and completing challenges, your character gains experience, sometimes represented by literal experience points, and becomes stronger, more capable, and better equipped for even more challenging encounters. This is frequently associated with numerical increases (allowing you to crush old content with pure numerical advantage), and in many cases, although you grow stronger your enemies do to at a carefully controlled rate that matches yours, and in some cases comparatively exceeds yours, making later enemies harder and harder to kill so the gameplay still has a positive difficulty curve. This model isn’t unique to, nor originally developed by, cRPGs, and was instead first developed by table top RPG, although the ability of computers to do annoying calculations and keep track of pointless things means that cRPGs have refined the model quite carefully. MMORPGs are a comparatively simple variation on this system, providing a multiplayer world, although the technical differences can’t be understated.
With a multiplayer world comes PVP, the ability to use your experienced characters to kill your fellow player. Modern MMORPGS focus PVP primarily structured (and in some places equalized) arenas, but many have some kind of “world” PVP, where players can encounter and kill each other in the same places you might find monsters.
Another aberration on the MMORPG genre is the MOBA genre. MOBAs are a very particular mixture of mechanics from MMORPGs, with an additional novel mechanic. Directly from MMORPGs, MOBAs take the regular character progression, arena combat, PVE combat, and PVP combat. The novel mechanic MOBAs bring is an incredibly compressed character advancement system. In normal MMORPG PVP combat, your characters experience (along with any personal customization) are directly relevant, either because they are used in the same PVE context, or imported at the start of a PVP arena. MOBAs, however, have no concept of an overarching character; characters are made anew for each game, beginning with no experience, and gaining experience through defeating PVE enemies or other players. Character progression felt quickly and capped early, allowing you to maximize a particular character in a single game that is under an hour in length (specific length varies from game to game).
For a moment, let us consider Mythic+ Keystone Dungeons from World of Warcraft. WoW has for some time featured “dungeons”, instanced areas you enter with a party of allies, containing carefully designed encounters meant to challenge and reward you. Some of the game’s rules change: monsters no longer stop chasing you if you attack them, and when you die, you must either be resurrected by an ally, or returned to the start of the dungeon alive; both of these rules are different in the open world. Dungeons are frequently repeatable sources of both experience and gear. In WoW’s “Mists of Pandaria” expansion, Challenge Mode dungeons were introduced. Challenge Mode dungeons add another set of rules to the existing dungeon rule set. Character power was limited to keep the dungeon dangerous (character progression outside of experience tended to trivialize normal dungeons), and the Challenge Mode dungeon was timed, and completing the dungeon within a certain time granted extra non-power rewards and community prestige. Challenge Mode dungeons were relatively niche through “Warlords of Draenor”, but were reworked in “Legion”, and turned into Mythic+ Keystone Dungeons, adding another set of rules. These dungeons no longer limit character power, but keep the timer: by completing the dungeon within a certain time, you receive additional gear. Further, the dungeons can now be accessed at increased difficulty levels, also granting better and better gear as reward for harder content. Players are encouraged to push themselves to complete the most difficult keystone they can for the best possible reward (although this is tempered due to complicated game design and social reasons: WoW is a very complex game). The design of Keystone Dungeons also includes the “Keystone”, an in game item, but the details of the design item and its systems are not relevant, and their discussion is too deeply mired in the broader World of Warcraft design context.
This sort of increasingly difficult time trial system can also be found in another Blizzard product, Diablo 3, and its Greater Rifts. In this case, the power of gear doesn’t scale directly with the level of the Greater Rift, but the quality and quantity of gear available upon completion does scale with level, so the most effective way to find good gear is to complete the most difficult Greater Rift you can in a reasonable time.
Particularly aggressive thinkers can probably see where this article is going. One particular niche that isn’t being filled particularly well is this sort of increasingly difficult time trial dungeon content with the accelerated character progression of a MOBA. Let’s call this combination a “Compressed Dungeon” game. There may be a reason this niche isn’t filled: it ignores the reason why character advancement through experience began as a mechanic in RPGs, it has a lot of complexity, and it’s ultimately a messy frankenstein mashup of existing RPG design mechanics.
The central conceit of experience is the mapping of character progression in the game to the way people progress in the real world. By overcoming challenges, people gain experience and knowledge they can apply to the next challenge, making it easier to overcome. Similarly, a character in an RPG gains experience from overcoming challenges, making subsequent challenges easier (in a quantized and artificial way that generally ignores weird skill-experience transferences, except for segmented skill systems like Skyrim). But in a “compressed dungeon”, characters enter the dungeon at level 1, and complete the dungeon, after 30-40 minutes of gameplay, having learned everything they can achieved the highest power level they ever will. This is a pretty substantial departure from the standard RPG treatment, and just doesn’t quite make sense. Expert dungeon delvers (for lack of a better term) would undoubtedly gain experience from completing multiple dungeons successfully, and surviving early dungeons by luck long enough to begin surviving on purpose. This game idea totally ignores fact for the sake of its central conceit.
I think this idea, though strange, has enough merit to explore further: see a more detailed description of the game in part 2, coming soon.