If you ask a lot of lapsed WoW players (or current Classic players) to detail the moment at which they sort of fell out of WoW, you might expect a handful of answers, most tied to a specific content tier or expansion. However, I would bet that a fair number would cite the addition of the Dungeon Finder as the point they dropped out of the game or at least knew it wasn’t for them.
I’m going to restrain my first-draft history lesson for the basics – added in Wrath of the Lich King patch 3.2, the dungeon finder grabbed 5 random souls out of a line in-game and teleported them to a dungeon together. They could be on different servers (first within the same datacenter before today’s regional approach) and the game bolted on supplemental rewards to make queueing for random dungeons worth doing – removing the daily Heroic dungeon lockout, adding more currency for loot purchase along with gold, and later adding caches for in-demand roles to balance queue times. This was expanded in Cataclysm with Raid Finder, an extension of the existing matchmaking infrastructure designed to pull 25 random players into a raid group and teleport them to a neutered, simplified version of a raid, split into wings and with additional rewards for joining in.
Until the Dungeon Finder, groups were a pure social experience. You had to bark in trade chat, guild chat, or both, depending on your social circle and role, until people came together, and it wasn’t uncommon that a group took 30 minutes or more just to form. After that, you had to get to the dungeon entrance, run the content successfully, and then say your goodbyes. You might expand a friend list this way, find people you liked running with, or even find a guild. Sometimes you might find people you’d excise out of your social circle and warn others about on the realm forums.
Matchmaking was a positive for a lot of players. If you were pressed for time, you could generally ensure a group came together and ran a dungeon in around an hour of play time, maybe less. If you were an introvert, you no longer had to take deep breaths before whispering group leaders for invites. If you played at weird hours for your server, you were no longer at the mercy of the limited pool of players on that one server. If you were a DPS player, you had more likelihood of being able to find a group.
If you view the MMO genre as a social-first experience, matchmaking kind of robs that from you. You’re no longer really able or empowered socially to commend a player or report their poor play (obvious TOS violations aside). It creates a repressive social environment, because standard niceties like greetings and thank yous to bookend your runs are no longer necessary, given that there’s no real social recourse for poor behavior. Loot obsessives could roll on anything they were allowed to, and even now under WoW’s personal loot systems, begging isn’t uncommon. Player power progression was accelerated substantially, because more players were running more dungeons with fewer lockouts or limiters to keep the gear curve in-check. Lastly, and probably most worth mentioning as a downside for those who left WoW in displeasure at the matchmaking systems for PvE content – the Dungeon Finder was such a business success at bringing players in and increasing retention that other games adopted it. Today, many MMOs have some form of a matchmaking system – FFXIV has the duty roulette at the core of the daily gameplay loop and allows matchmaking for almost ALL content, and a large handful of titles that came out since 2010 have also had it.
So there are clear pros and cons to the system, but why is that?
Server Community: I find this point very interesting, because it is valid and worth considering, but somewhat difficult to pin a value onto. For the social experience, there are two ways to look at this – the first is the good player, engaging in good faith with the community, who has no social capital gained from smart play in dungeons, raids, or other matchmade content. The second is for the bad player, the scoundrel, who suffers no meaningful consequences for being a poor sport, a bad team-player, or just unteachable. If a player queues for a dungeon group, does the first boss, doesn’t see the loot drop they want, and then drops the group, they might have a limiter on queueing again – WoW has a Deserter penalty that locks you from all matchmakers for 30 minutes if you do this – but that limit is only meaningful if a player cannot do anything else in the game, and that is rarely the case as games aren’t in the business of policing player behavior outside of obvious TOS violations. So bad players can just bail or be toxic and awful, and good players rarely benefit from being good as they gain no increased standing in the player community.
Drastically-Increased Player Power Progression: This one is also a double-edged sword. On the plus side, more casual players can gain access to more gear than they would have had prior to matchmade content, even without other restrictions lifted like loot lockouts or dungeon limits over time, simply because more players can run dungeons more easily. Coupled with other restrictions being lifted, and power inflation at the more mainstream player level is more pronounced. In Burning Crusade and early Wrath of the Lich King, you were limited to running each Heroic dungeon once per day, so your loot options were similarly constrained. With the Dungeon Finder removing that limit (provided you run random dungeons), you could run random dungeons back-to-back and have more chances at loot. Sure, you were at the whims of the matchmaker as to which dungeon popped up, but on a fresh level-capped character, that mattered less, and even when you were down to needing one last drop off a specific boss, you could queue the specific dungeon, get ported to it, run it, and fail, and then queue random hoping to get it, because if it popped up in the random queue even after getting locked, you could run it again for loot!
WoW in the day also compounded this by adding gear currency rewards that would allow players to save up and purchase a selection of raid-level loot from the lowest item level of the current tier, as well as building up the prior-tier’s currency to shore up weak points. I think this was actually great – FFXIV still uses a model similar to this today – but it did then create questions of the value of content and fiery debate raged on. (For the record, even as a raider, I think this was a net good and valuable for alts and increasing retention of casual players – which gave raiding guilds a larger recruit pool and increased the likelihood that a player would decide to migrate upwards in content to raiding.)
Reduced Sense of World: This one is a point I find quite often discussed and agree with. In WoW, one of the things that was cool is that the dungeons existed in the world, at least in a sense. You went to a portal and there was a sense of where the dungeon was, why it was, and how it belonged to the larger world and story being told. Utgarde Keep is so cool because you go to Howling Fjord and see the imposing structure looming over the zone from the center, and then you get to it, complete some quests, and walk up to a front door – a portal. You walk in and the dungeon now has this sense of place and belonging, and the bosses in the dungeon all make sense and fit the quests you just did.
Being teleported to the dungeon creates a disconnect – if you’re able to just be brought right into the dungeon without doing anything, is the threat within the walls of said dungeon actually…a threat? Over time, this also erodes the sense of place in the world – quick, WoW players, what zone is Necrotic Wake in? Okay, there is an exception for modern WoW, but we’ll get there – don’t worry! FFXIV, though, the dungeons have a similar dissociation problem, made worse by the fact that not every dungeon entry point is even mapped to the actual dungeon. A lot of the Shadowbringers dungeons added in the patch cycle have you clicking a portal in some other zone with the implication of a journey to the front door, but short of the initial MSQ and first run, you never get that sense of place. The dungeon could just as well be in space and it wouldn’t make a practical difference. Raids are even worse in that the core 8-player raid series are often all shared by a single portal, or one per patch. ALL of the Weapon trials for Sorrow of Werlyt are launched from the same spot, assuming you even go to it, because even in an organized group, the game never asks you to go to the entrance to actually do the content – you discover it through an unlock quest and then your entrance is, for all intents and purposes, is the Duty Finder menu.
This is a real shame too because artists might often make efforts to give dungeons a sense of belonging. Warlords of Draenor had each dungeon fully realized in the world to scale – the Iron Docks are a real place you can see and visit in the world, and all the other dungeons are either explorable to a point in the open world or have a proper sense of scale instead of just being a portal in a wall that seems to go nowhere. However, most players may never even notice that, because the game calls no attention to it and gives you no reason to even notice.
Rewarding Social Behavior Is Difficult: WoW has no meaningful way to reward or punish players for their behavior in matchmade content. FFXIV tries with player commendations, offering mounts and cosmetic rewards to players who receive a large number of player commendations from matchmade content (excluding players you group with prior to queueing from voting for you to keep it fair), but even that system is fraught with issues. Generally, a DPS will struggle to set themselves apart in a dungeon or raid and thus struggle to get commendations, while the default for a group is to give commendations to a tank or healer based on play. A DPS can get a commendation if they work beyond expectations – using resurrection abilities when applicable, being overly friendly and highly performing, or the like, but even a bad healer will often get commendations if the group just makes it to the end!
Fixing The Damage That Is Done
So I think I would personally land here – I like matchmade content and think it has a genuinely good role to play in games, including in MMOs, but it also has an undeniably negative effect on the social aspect of an MMO on both sides of the coin.
World of Warcraft has, for its part, recognized this, sort of. With the addition of Mythic dungeons in late Warlords of Draenor, there is now a higher end mode of dungeon play that does NOT allow matchmade groups. You have to get 5 people together, get to the portal, and zone in just as normal – even on the non-keystone standard Mythic difficulty. The problem is that much of the damage you could attribute to matchmaking is from a lack of server community, and because modern WoW does still focus on convenience for players, you can still assemble groups cross-server. Further, the game has a new LFG tool (well, “new” as in “since 2014” haha) and that tool allows players to find groups with relative ease and often without speaking. You can apply by role, and with a high-enough item level (or in the case of Mythic Keystone dungeons, Raider.IO score) you can still join a group wordlessly, say maybe 2-3 lines of total chat to one another, and then complete the content and disband. If you play poorly, there won’t be any real consequences, and if you play well, there’s no greater reward.
Alongside the role of Mythic dungeons and their grouping limitations and requirements, the WoW team has also de-emphasized the role of queued content, whether intentionally or not. Normal and Heroic dungeons kind of…don’t matter anymore? Normal is fine for leveling, and Heroic can be fun as a steamroll, but they are clearly not designed to be all that important – world quests and Covenant armor will quickly offer better gear more reliably. Likewise, LFR is in the same boat at this point – world quests beat the value of it, and the Covenant campaign will give you a full set of armor at a higher maximum item level and with an LFR weapon to boot! In Shadowlands, WoW’s matchmade modes of play offer far less value than ever before, and that seems like it won’t change much, as catchup mechanisms will push players to other modes of play that offer higher rewards, at least for dungeons. Raid Finder gains some small value as time moves on depending on design, but in patch 9.1, it seems likely that LFR will offer some power acquisition to players who don’t run Mythic dungeons or other raid difficulties, but the audience for these modes is continually rewarded with less and less actual value.
A big part of it is that you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Players of the modern game value the convenience of these systems too highly to ever take them fully away – you can move to reduce the value of them, and make new modes of content that exist outside of matchmaking, but even then, the convenience of elastic servers with full regional playerbase access means that players have grown conditioned to expect to be able to find groups easily, with players from all over their home region, at any time of day with a minimum of waiting. WoW Classic is the remaining bastion free of this type of gameplay, and even then, it looms on the horizon – with TBC Classic coming in a few short days, Wrath Classic will be next, and the Dungeon Finder will be a hot topic.
The funny thing is that I would argue that I’ve still had a social experience thanks to Mythic dungeons. I’ve had to work more within my guild, learning more about the people I play with, them learning more about me, and us building on that to run content. Likewise, I’ve probably played with a larger base of players who I’ve said hello to and had friendly runs with – but at the same time, I’m unlikely to see any of them again and I couldn’t tell you most of their names. One Mythic Keystone group I joined invited me to their Discord and in-game Community to arrange groups, and that is great, but that also feels more like a convenience for getting a group and less like a meaningful social group with rewards and consequences for quality of play or manners. It was pretty binary – hey, we enjoyed playing with you, here’s an invite if you want it – and if I had been a prick or just bad at my role, I likely wouldn’t have gotten that.
But I agree with the sentiment that the Dungeon Finder and matchmade modes of MMO play has had some negatives, even as I also think it has been a net good from a pure gameplay perspective and I can’t envision what it would be like to play an MMO with group content that doesn’t have such a thing.