December 2009 is expansion/patch month for several MMOs, and one of the things that I love about content patches and substantial expansions is that you often see developers trying out new ideas in their established worlds. LOTRO is getting a lot of praise for its skirmish system, which definitely sounds right up my alley if I was still playing it.
In what’s most likely the last big content patch before Cataclysm, WoW has rolled out patch 3.3, which includes (among other goodies, like a ripoff of QuestHelper’s map aid) a nifty feature called the Dungeon Finder. This might be the first move on Blizzard’s behalf that’s really impressed me in quite some time (and others as well).
The Dungeon Finder is replacing past failed experiments in grouping aids for WoW, such as the meeting stones and the LFG utility. It supposedly takes the annoyance out of forming a group to run a dungeon by either letting you queue up for a specific dungeon or a random one, designating your role (tank, healer, DPSer), and then matching you up with others across several servers. If you’re willing to brave out PUGs — and not everyone is — this sweetens the deal by offering incentives: a daily goody bag for the first random dungeon run, and a non-combat pet after grouping with enough other puggers. Plus, the system teleports you right into the dungeon once the group is formed, and returns you to wherever you were in the world after you’re done.
That’s convenience. And, I think, it’ll breathe new life into dungeon running in WoW. From my experience in the game, I always loved 5-mans, but they were painful to form and travel to, wasting gobs of time where you just sat around waiting for your party to get to the dungeon itself. Now it’s one click and you’re in like Flynn.
Reading up on this made me think of an odd comparison to Dungeons & Dragons Online, but for a good reason. While I don’t play DDO these days, I cannot praise its dungeon system enough, particularly its ease of getting people together (their LFG interface works really smoothly) and the minimal travel time to any given instance (since the city functions as a hub for all the dungeons).
Plus, I always liked how DDO would reserve loot in chests for each player individually — it never felt like you were competing against others for loot, but that the dungeon would reward you personally. WoW’s goody bags have that same feel.
Despite what some people may claim is the trend of the industry, I don’t see grouping as becoming irrelevant. What I do see are dev teams recognizing that the obstacles between a player and a group need to be dealt with — travel time, party formation, lack of incentives for grouping — and then devising new systems to do just that. And as a solo-happy player, I feel more comfortable with grouping than ever before when that happens.