Exonerating the Dungeon Finder - Tales of the Aggronaut (2022)

by Belghast

Exonerating the Dungeon Finder - Tales of the Aggronaut (1)

With the upcoming release of Wrath of the Lich King Classic, there has been quite a bit of talk in the Twitterverse and greater blogging community about this expansion. I have no plans to go back and try out the classic experiment because across the board I think it has failed. World of Warcraft Classic was quite a bit of fun… until we all remembered the work commitment that game required for doing anything serious at the endgame. I think I personally petered out somewhere in the mid-50s and I ultimately lasted longer than a good number of my friends. Those who remained however represented some of the more toxic players, and I’ve heard stories from folks who played like Namaslays about the sexual harassment represented in that community.

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For years I have idolized the Wrath of the Lich King expansion as the last truly good time in World of Warcraft, and similarly, I have placed the transition squarely on the shoulders of the Dungeon Finder tool. It was late in the Wrath patch cycle that we were first introduced to this tool, and rapidly folks stopped forming groups on their own and instead relied on random chances to throw them together with other players. As someone who used to cultivate a wide network of social channels and friends lists so I could rapidly pull together groups from a huge pool of hundreds of “known good” players, this was an earthquake that shattered the infrastructure that I had built. However, as I look back on this era, I am pretty certain that I have been wrong about the Dungeon Finder all of these years.

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I think the larger truth is that “online social interaction in a video game” no longer held the novelty that it once did. I very much remember my early days in Everquest were spent being amazed that I could be online with that many other players at once. We went into these games carrying with us the lineage of MUDs and IRC chat rooms… that were by nature deeply social enterprises. So the fact that we could play a game and do it while chatting with friends, was a groundbreaking scenario. World of Warcraft was probably the first MMORPG I played that was legitimately by its own merits a “Good Game”. What I mean by that is a game that was capable of enthralling someone who had no interest in “Online Worlds” and only really cared about the mechanical moment-to-moment gameplay. I think those of us who came to these games for the social interaction that they provided… eventually “aged out” of it. It isn’t so much that we lack the desire, it is just that real-world responsibilities eventually replaced the ability to maintain in-game responsibilities.

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Since then I have played a lot of different MMORPGs at a good number of different levels of seriousness. It is really Final Fantasy XIV that proved to me that the dungeon finder tool could be a seriously good thing. The key difference here is that Yoshi P and crew wanted to create a structure that rewarded the player for good play or at least good behavior. The subtle pressure of wanting to win a commendation has been enough to curb most of the worst behavior for years. That is not to say that a good deal of toxicity has not crept into this game as well, but most of that can be seen at the highest levels of play and not necessarily in the “duty roulette”. It did plant the idea in my head though that with the correct social structure and systems that reward fair play, you might be able to rehabilitate even the worst of environments.

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I’ve also played a good number of games since then that have had no grouping functionality built into them at all. While I can go through the social labor of trying to find groups, it is so much harder for me to be willing to put myself out there when I am grouping with strangers. There has been a long series of games lately where I have been the last one playing or one of the last few playing. This means I am spending almost all of my time soloing, and do not have a ready-made pocket healer to go with my tanky nature. If I could somehow transplant the Final Fantasy XIV Duty Finder and its social structure into New World for example… I would do so in a heartbeat. I know with the removal of dungeon keys, they are putting in some manner of group finding tool, but I believe it is a manual process and not an auto-matching system. Regardless having even that minimal infrastructure is an improvement over spamming trade chat.

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Guild Wars 2 has a lot of grouping options for certain segments of the game, but thus far has done little to help me ease into other areas. For example, if we are talking about Open World or WVW content, I can simply click on the commander tag on the map and join the group (pending the group is open, which most are). If it is some daily objective like bounties in a specific region, there are also often manual group finder groups active for folks trying to accomplish that. Similarly, big reoccurring meta events have group finder groups allowing you to drop into RIBA in Silverwastes at will. However, up until this point they have not been a terribly viable way of finding a Dungeon, Strike, or Raid group because those communities tend not to use them. Arena Net knows this and is trying to implement some changes to make them more random player friendly… but still it is not “push button get group” easy.

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I think the thing that the Dungeon Finder tool did do, was limit the importance of a server community and the social structures that are entangled with that notion. At the time… I mourned this greatly, but modern me is generally in favor of just completely abolishing the concept of a server and opening up grouping freely across the entire game. One of the greatest faults that I can find in both Diablo Immortal and New World is the deeply limiting server infrastructure that almost guarantees that over time server merges will be consistently required. At the end of the day, the ethic that I care the most about in an Online Game is the ability to play with my friends, regardless of what region they might be playing in. Sure it might be a pain in the butt to organize a play session, but having any sort of basic social infrastructure greatly improves my experience in the long run. Given that it is deeply difficult to keep players engaged for more than a few months at a time, the ability to hop around between different pools of active friends is key to the long-term success of a game.

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Essentially for the last decade and some change, I have branded the Dungeon Finder as the great killer of games when in truth that was a flawed perception. I’ve realized that Wrath of the Lich King is a specific moment in time for me that could never be replicated. While some of that experience was wrapped up in the social infrastructure that I had built, probably more of it was associated with the deep depression that I was in at the time. I was clinging to World of Warcraft and the friends I had made in it as a lifeline to keep me from fading away. It is weird to me that I hold the game in such nostalgia when I was playing it through quite possibly the darkest period in my life. I can’t go back to the way I felt at that time, and I honestly would never want to knowing how close I came to ending it all. Instead of realizing it was me that was changing, I placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the biggest innovation to be brought into the game that I loved.

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The hard truth is, I would love to see the Dungeon Finder or something similar to it in more games. Even with the toxic community of players that it brings along with it… having access to run dungeons and harder content is far better than having to expend the emotional energy to make it happen without one. My more modern mindset is that all of the barriers that keep people from doing content, easily with friends should be leveled. Constructs like the Trust system in Final Fantasy XIV are great, but could be even better if they were more flexible and allowed you to build a group of what you had available, and then use NPCs to fill out the rest of the party. There were so many times I wish we had systems like SWTOR where you could run content with two people and two companions. No game has really nailed these systems, but I now have to fully admit that we are far better off with them than without them.


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