So if you missed Justin’s recent column, he mentioned how bad leveling feels these days in World of Warcraft and some of the reasons that it can be a better experience in WoW Classic. I’m not going to summarize his whole column here, but he cites a number of things that the game has done to make leveling faster, and one of them is the dungeon finder. As I am a strong proponent of dungeon finders, you might think I disagree with this, but you’d be wrong. I do agree that yes, the dungeon finder in WoW absolutely helped damage the game’s leveling experience.
It didn’t have to, though; it was how Blizzard chose to implement it. And I think that’s worth examining and understanding because in many ways, it’s an example of how smart designs in microcosm can have negative effects in the larger sense. So how did a good thing – letting people form dungeons painlessly and spend more time enjoying the game – have a pretty negative effect on the game’s leveling experience?
I want to establish a couple of prior facts. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that WoW’s leveling structure as it existed in the original game was loose and flexible, but it was generally bent a fair bit more toward solo questing as opposed to running dungeons. That’s not to say that you weren’t supposed to run dungeons or anything, just that a lot of your experience was going to be gained by questing out in the world. A lot of the game was structured around questing and just roaming around doing stuff.
Second, while it feels almost absurdly obvious to point out, for most of WoW’s history there has not been a single leveling path. While each race has a starting zone and then an obvious point to funnel off toward next, there’s not much firmly enforcing many of these directions. Heck, while most expansions offered one or two starting points, they fragmented off into multiple directions very quickly. It’s only Shadowlands and Dragonflight that have enforced a linear direction, although Legion and Battle for Azeroth both experimented with variants along the way.
And last but not least, there’s something I talked about back when I was doing my expansion tour: Blizzard, as a whole, tends to focus on one thing and one goal, the newest implementation. As a studio, it has never really been keen on examining the overall structure of its games when making changes.
So with all that out of the way, let’s talk about that dungeon finder.
When the dungeon finder was first implemented, it was introduced to address what was an actual major problem with the game’s structure. People had been complaining for a long time – with good reason – that shouting to assemble a group to do the game’s regular heroic quest was kind of a giant pain in the rear. There was a definite issue with the fact that people wanted to do dungeons, but you had to temper that with “how much time am I willing to spend looking for people?”
I remember interviews back when it was first added that mentioned developers saw insane increases in the people regularly running dungeons. This isn’t shocking in the abstract – what, when you make forming a group less of a chore, people will do something more frequently? – but it definitely led to a lot of the sort of elitist pushback against people just queueing up and running dungeons that has defined the game for the past decade-and-change. But extrinsic problems are not what we’re here to talk about.
The intrinsic problem that Blizzard faced with this new tool was, of course, how to incorporate it into the leveling structure of the game. And thus a decision was made: Dungeons would be gated by level bands. Reach the right level and you can queue up for a dungeon. It was a simple and elegant solution.
It was also a terrible one.
See, the nice things about leveling dungeons being optional is that they felt a little bit special. They weren’t just level-appropriate hallways, and they went hand-in-hand with the open pseudo-public dungeons stuffed with elite enemies. You would probably have areas you ran into over the course of the game that required a group, and you could group or skip as you so desired. But you knew where you were.
By contrast, the dungeon finder would just fling you into something that was level-appropriate but could be in a zone you never visited concerning a story you never saw. Do you know what was going on in Blackfathom Deeps? I don’t know, and I actually ran it before The Burning Crusade. You almost definitely didn’t have an idea when it came up in a random dungeon group.
And that dungeon group, I should note, might easily kick you up to another level band and another dungeon you’re going to do with no idea what the story behind it might be.
Now, if you’ve already played through the leveling game a few times, this is probably not a horrible fate on the face of it. The problem is not when you decide to just power-level your 12th alt through dungeon runs because you’ve already explored the game. The problem is when you’ve got dungeons totally disconnected from anything you’re doing, they’re at once faster and more efficient than leveling by questing and can completely replace questing…
So why are you bothering? Who cares, right? The point is to level quickly and get to the level cap because that’s where the important stuff happens.
You may note that I mentioned in the introduction that this didn’t have to be the way things went, and I stand by it. If Blizzard had decided to actually enforce restrictions around quest lines or even just finding the actual entrance to the dungeon first, it would have done a lot to alleviate a sense of “level up, unlock the next dungeon, queue and sit in Stormwind or Orgrimmar.” But that would have required more work, and frankly, who cares, right? You want to be at the level cap because that’s where all the players are.
There’s not one singular thing that has shaped this particular thinking, but every component has been aligned in this way, and the fact that the dungeon finder was set up to solve a real problem but with little concern for how it would affect other elements of the game is a problem. It wasn’t a mandatory one, nor is it one that couldn’t be fixed, but the people who could do so considered it not a bug but a feature.
At the end of the day, leveling in WoW is problematic because the developers want it to be a chore you have to get through in the most efficient fashion. There’s a lot that’s gone into that, but it does us no good to pretend that even the good features that the game has added over the years have sometimes been added with less of a delicate touch and more of a sledgehammer design.