As Pilf has rightly pointed out, the word "dungeon" has a pretty loose interpretation in WOW. We old D&D hands sort of know what it means - a big base full of enemy mobs that you have to fight your way through, but in WOW the meaning has been diluted. Does the word "dungeon" include only five-mans? Raids? Does it have to be instanced at all?
I've taken the latter route when thinking about my favourite WOW dungeon. Jintha'Alor is interesting in a number of ways. Of course there's the strong lore connection to the trolls (Vilebranch in this case), combined with a strong series of quests that lead through it.
But it's also an interesting glimpse into an alternate reality, where Blizzard had taken the non-instanced, open world dungeon route that games like Everquest and Vanguard followed and it tells us a lot about their thinking and the consequences it has had for game play.
Jintha'Alor started life very close to that original EQ model. The mobs inside were all elites and needed a party to defeat. But it wasn't cut off from the world in the way other dungeons were. Everything else was instanced, so that multiple parties could progress through the content in parallel, without ever meeting. In fact that model has become so dominant in WOW now that the word "instance" is itself used as a synonym for "dungeon".
Going down the instanced route was a controversial move at the time and for some people it still is. The open-world model has a number of strengths:
- It feels more realistic than the instanced world, where people walk in through a door ahead of you and then vanish from your sight.
- It encourages social interaction between the players - it's very easy to team up when there are a number of people in the vicinity and coordination is needed to prevent conflict over resources.
- It also encourages good behaviour on an individual level. Act like an arse in an open-world dungeon and it's not just a bunch of anonymous strangers who notice, it's all the people on your server of a similar level.
- Having all those people in the same place can induce huge loads on both the server and the player's computers. Think Dalaran with combat! Ultimately, though, this is a technical problem that could have been resolved using beefier servers, carefully placed walls and doors, etc.
- The real killer-problem is the flip-side of the increased social interaction discussed above. Whilst open-world dungeons encourage cooperation on an individual level, they vastly increase the level of conflict between different groups. With only one boss to kill between them (on a long re-spawn timer to prevent him becoming a loot piñata), kill-stealing and boss-camping was commonplace. Ultra-competitive guilds would log-off en-masse where the boss spawned, then take turns to watch for the re-spawn to prevent anyone else getting it. When he reappeared, the watcher would summon everybody back from real life and they'd kill the boss. Essentially, being a leading progression guild required you to be available 24/7.
- "Cock blocking" was common, where leading guilds deliberately camped bosses below their gear level to prevent others from killing them and catching up.
Instances solve a lot of these problems - you can't kill-steal, you can't be blocked from progressing and you don't have to give up your whole life to raid. Initially, they seemed great, but as WOW has developed, they've become increasingly detached from the world. Remember when the "summoning stone" was once just a "meeting stone" and you actually had to travel to a place to enter it? Now we're in an era of cross-server, instant-teleport in instances that may as well not be in the game world at all. It's more like a separate mini-game. In the rush to make everything "more convenient", we've lost a lot. The joy of travel, meeting strangers who actually mattered because you'd probably meet them again in a few days and an any sense of a broader community beyond your specific guild.
Open world-dungeons were deeply flawed as a concept, but it seems to me that the Wrath way is even worse. It just doesn't feel much like an MMO any more; just another cooperative online game like Left 4 Dead. It's all rather sad. To paraphrase Larkin:
And that will be Azeroth gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,The friendly PUG of strangers.There'll be solo content; it will linger onIn empty expanses that no-one visits;But all that remains for us will be "go go go" and emblems.