On game shelves everywhere there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of dungeon crawlers out there that you can sink hours into. However, while programmers and designers log hours and hours into creating these beloved games they can fall flat. Some of them are great, but none of them are by any means considered "perfect".
So how does one cook up the a "perfect" dungeon crawler? We have to start with the four most basic of ingredients.
1 part interesting story
1 part complex dungeons
A dash of difficult enemies
Garnish with massive loot
While any combination of the four basic ingredients above can create a dungeon crawler, it takes careful preparation, arrangement and just a dash of creativity to make the perfect dungeon crawler out of them.
A dungeon crawler can be made without an overall story. However, a nameless hero delving deep into dungeons for no particular reason is not exactly the most involving thing in the world. Adding even a simple story can really appeal to the senses of the imbibers.
The story can be as simple as a lone bawdy bard and his dog traversing the world and slaying the dangers deep in its depths like in A Bard's Tale to something more complex. Today's gamers have been spoiled by non-linear storylines like Bioware's Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Dungeon crawlers always have a fairly basic story, so if you want to wow your audience with a killer story, try something non-linear where you can change the story based on your decisions like Arcanum did.
An integral part of any story are the characters. Ideally, one should be able to choose which character they want to play from a list of the following:
These characters can be reinvented in a number of ways, like the warrior is a Templar or the archer is a ranger, but deep down all characters fall into the above classifications. A cleric or healer is also an option, but because dungeons are filled with all sorts of rabid beasts, it is not a good idea to have a cleric who cannot hit hard nor take a hard hit delve into dungeons alone. The cleric class only really worked in Champions of Norrath where the High Elf Clerics were equip with some decent holy damage spells. The three characters classes above should be afforded with healing abilities or ability to bring along a follower to brave the dungeons alongside them.
The gender of the character should also be able to be chosen in the perfect dungeon crawler. However, the men must be bearded and well muscled manly men and the women should be flawlessly beautiful and large breasted. Also, one of the male class options, usually the mage or archer, should be smooth-faced and entirely too handsome.
Dungeons are the most important ingredient in a dungeon crawler. See there? It's even in the name, dungeon crawler. This is not to say that every area of a game has to be some dark stonewalled underground filled with cobwebs. Sure, a game should have some of those underground dungeons, but the outside world needs to be present and explorable in the perfect crawler.
Even the outside world can be seen as a dungeon with addition of an overhead map, but an overhead map that reveals everything right at the get go can render even the most complex and inventive dungeons dull. The perfect overhead map should be present, but be filled in as you explore the area like the overhead map in the Torchlight series. This way you know where you have been and where you still need to explore to find the entrance, exit, or ever elusive downward staircase. Think of your dungeon delving character as both a hero worthy of songs and an accomplished cartographer.
Underground levels should be more than just a hallway leading up to a perfectly square room filled with a large boss. This is not to say that a dungeon should consist of nothing but hallways and rooms going all willy-nilly in all directions either. A dungeon should have hallways and rooms arranged in some semblance of a logical order. If it is a dank dungeon under a castle, it should be lined with jail cells and/or torture chambers, as well as a have a few misleading hallways leading to nowhere just to throw off any intruders or escaped inmates.
Some of the most well designed dungeons also have multiple levels, like the dungeons in Torchlight which is really just one big dungeon with many floors. The dungeon diver will often feel a feeling of jubilation when they reach the downward staircase knowing that their adventure is not yet done. However, after enough levels, this jubilation can soon turn to surly rage, especially if there is not a quick travel sort of device placed at the end of the dungeon to get out without another hour of backtracking through nothing but empty hallways and already dead enemies.
So we got our epic story and complex dungeons all mixed together, now we need to add a dash of something to make it challenging: enemies! You can add any amount of beasties to your dungeon crawler games, but the more innovative the monster, the more it turns out to be like some sort of Pokemon reject. Now your typical dungeon crawler enemies consist of:
Undead skeletons who are vulnerable to magic, melee weapons, and the arrow (no matter how befuddling that is).
Giant rats, the bigger the better.
Giant spiders which are usually led by and even bigger queen spider.
Orcs and Ogres in great masses.
Ghosts, Ghouls, Banshees, Zombies or any other form of undead that is formed by more than a few bones held together by tattered armor and magic.
Ooze or Slime monsters that, by logic, should be unrelenting no matter how many times you slap your sword against their wiggly essence.
Dragons if your fantasy world presents a world where they are present. I mean, what is a dungeon without at least one dragon, right?
Any assortment of the above monsters are appropriate in any dungeon as well a variety of others that can be found in the world of fantasy. You can add them in any great measurement. However, in a perfect dungeon crawler, these monsters should grow in strength appropriate to the level the hero should be at when they enter that area. The same monsters should not be present in every dungeon either. The perfect dungeon crawler has monster variety in between dungeons. You can only fight off so many hordes of giant rats and spiders before it becomes tedious.
After the plethora of random cannon fodder in a dungeon, there should be bosses within each dungeon. A dungeon does not need to be limited to one boss per dungeon, there can be a variety of them. However in the perfect dungeon crawler there needs to be one major boss that marks the end of the dungeon. This boss should either be some baddie that has been appropriated by the plot of the game or just some overly large monster.
Most importantly, this end boss should drop some fat loot.
Loot is the dash of sweetness that compliments a job well done and an enemy well slayed. It is that the embodiment of that sense of accomplishment we feel when we finally kill that boss. While the littler enemies we slay around the world and random dungeon hallways should drop loot, it is the boss loot dungeoneers look forward to. In the perfect dungeon crawler, lesser non-boss type enemies should drop things as useful as health and mana potions to things as pointless as low-level equipment.
In the perfect crawler, equipment should have some sort of classification system. It does not have to have the white, blue, yellow, orange rarity classification of Diablo (as well as many games, just with different colors), but it should have some quick way for the player to identify the item other than just looking at the stats.
As well as advancing equipment, the perfect dungeon crawler should have some way to augment this equipment. Whether it is the gem system of many ARPGs that add stats or the gem system of Path of Exile that adds additional abilities.
If the perfect game has long and extensive dungeons, as it should, it should also have an appropriately sized inventory system. There is nothing more frustrating in a dungeon crawler than not having room for all your loot and having to go back to town. If a dungeon crawler has large dungeons, it needs a large inventory, or else a way to return to town and then consequently return back to the point you were in at a dungeon, like town portal scrolls that are found in almost every dungeon crawler ever. This is one of the major complaints of games like Path of Exile that encourages people to choose which items to pick up by having a tiny inventory. Sure they were just trying to differentiate themselves from Diablo III, but it is just came out a little bit irritating.
With a excess of loot, there must also be something to sell all the worthless loot for. Gold, Gald, Rupees, Diamonds, whatever. There must be some form of currency present as well as merchants that sell things a dungeoneer needs. Of course, all shop owners must sell equipment that is good at first, but becomes utter rubbish as you advance through dungeons. The currency is provided for purchase of that initial gear as well as more useful things like potions, runes, gems, and scrolls.
In conclusion, the basic recipe of a dungeon crawler appears to be a simple recipe indeed, but the creation of a "perfect" dungeon crawler proves to be a complex and near impossible effort. This explains why there are so many dungeon crawlers out there, but none have achieved perfection. However as long as there are chefs out there that sauté programming code and broil story creation, the perfect dungeon crawler continues to be within reach.