What Makes a Good Instance?

Dungeons and Raids are the core endgame content when it comes to an MMO. These are the things that keep players enticed with playing the game. But what makes a good dungeon or raid? What makes an instance of content that is memorable, enjoyable and is something players will either revisit in the past or pine for the “good old days” when it was current content? I decided to analyze some of my favorite instances and raids from “World of Warcraft” to find common links. I’ll preface this that most of my time was in Wrath but I played a little of every expansion save for Warlords. With that disclaimer, I’ll continue.

B.U.N. Content

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B.U.N. is the term is use to describe content that has the three core tenants of what I consider a good raid: Balanced, Unique and a “New Take” on something. Each point has merits worth discussing because there’s a lot of nuance cut down into a single word or two. Many of this will likely seem obvious at a glance but it’s worth bringing it up to distinguish an OK fight from a fantastic one.

Balanced: Balanced is something that comes from a variety of levers, but it all comes down to how enjoyable it is to run the dungeon itself. Besides how easy and/or hard the bosses are, part of the balance also comes from how long it takes to complete the dungeon itself. A prime example of time ruining balance would be the “Return to Karazhan” instance in Legion. Originally one massive dungeon, the instance was split into upper and lower sections because of just how long it took to complete. Conversely, instances like the Argent Tournament instances were often too quick, forcing the fights to be harder to compensate for the lack of trash and travel. Another good example in balance is difficulty, albeit it’s more surface level. Wrath dungeons often were the subject of much criticism because of how easy they were. Conversely, the Cataclysm dungeons ended up being so difficult Blizzard had to patch them for the playerbase. A fair but challenging difficulty curve is what should be aimed for in every dungeon, not just locking the real difficulty behind ten-to-twenty modifiers like Mythic +35 with bursting swarming tenacity minions.

Unique: It’s difficult to make a truly unique situation because someone will always draw comparison, be it a model, a mechanic or otherwise. Still, sometimes old mechanics can be combined in new and interesting ways. For example, The Lich King fight of Icecrown Citadel is often remembered for both the spectacle of fighting the Lich King and the mechanics: The crashing platforms. The spreading plague. Being killed near the end of the instance to experience Arthas’ cinematic downfall. It all combined into a grand spectacle. Unique doesn’t always mean better, however. The Spine of Deathwing is often (and still) regarded as one worst boss fights despite the fight having unique mechanics such as Deathwing rolling, managing blobs and peeling off plates. A “good” unique mechanic should make a fight interesting while being balanced and not frustrating. Managing insanity with Yogg’saron is fun! Nefarian breaking your gun as a hunter is frustrating.

“New Take”: In many MMOs, you’re often going to a place that holds major significance in the lore. If a player approaches an instance less as “Oh my god we’re going to the Black Temple to fight Illidan” and more as “We’re going to this new raid because this is the best gear we can get right now”. There’s always going to be a subset that care more about the raw numbers or gear but one should still strive to create a major, significant take on a canonical instance. Assaulting Ulduar. Facing against Deathwing. Diving into Onyxia’s lair. As a counter example, part of the reason why I felt that Mists of Pandaria felt so flat was because of the lack of lore significance or take on a new area. There wasn’t much interesting sights to see because Pandaria was such a mysterious land. We had very little emotional stake and it reflected on how the instances really didn’t mesh until we ended up fighting Garrosh in Orgrimmar.

With these three pieces put together, it becomes clearer to tell what fantastic content is and what has fallen flat. In addition,  it’s also possible to dissect content that may have been great but didn’t quite hit the mark in every category.

Examples, Faults and Triumphs

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In my opinion, almost every main raid of Wrath was a success. The one outlier, if you were curious, was the Argent Tournament raids. The main raids of Naxxrammas, Ulduar, and Icecrown Citadel all served to make fun, interesting fights with thematic hooks that drew you in. They were also tough but fair, fights like zero-light Yogg’saron taking quite a while to complete while other raids like Naxx were made easier so gearing up wasn’t a chore. The five mans were also fantastic, from the iconic Culling of Stratholm to the thrilling Icecrown assaults. If there was one complaint about Wrath, it’s that older raids became trivialized quite fast. With as many instances as they had with both normal and heroic content for five, ten and twenty five players? Gear began to inflate, a problem that persists even to this day with Legion content ranging from A 750 ilevel all the way up to almost a thousand.

Cataclysm and Pandaria succeeded in some ways but failed in others. Most of the Cataclysm five mans and raids ended up being quite challenging, with only Firelands being the true standout raid. The hard swerve into extreme and challenging content came as a shock to players, which ended up causing Blizzard to revisit this. It’d also be the basis for creating challenge and mythic modes. The instances were interesting and unique enough but not always in a “good” way, sometimes provoking ire because of poorly designed fights that focused on a neat mechanic rather than a healthy fight.

Pandaria’s fights were a step up in balance and unique aspects but they sold on things that look cool more than established lore. It was difficult to establish a connection because we had to grow close to these characters with little connection outside of it. Legion has this problem to a degree but they make sure to establish connections with pre-existing characters or lore so that we’re not fighting with absolutely zero emotional connection outside of what we make in the zone.

Legion’s Current State

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So where would Legion fall on this scale? After going through most of the raids and fights, I think certain raids will be more fondly remembered than others. Emerald Nightmare and Trial of Valor weren’t fantastic raids but serviceable, easy to run and complete. The Nighthold, however, was far more entertaining and enjoyable. I think it’s likely my favorite raid of Legion. Tomb of Sargeras is alright but it has a huge problem of raid-finder not preparing you for the normal raid at all, lacking major mechanics that you find in normal which make transitioning into them difficult if you ONLY play raid finder.

The five mans are, unfortunately, forgettable in my mind. They don’t really have that many interesting mechanics and most of the fights grow tiresome after you’ve done them a few times on alts. I’ll make special mention, however, to the Karazhan and Court of Stars instances. Karazhan is a bite-sized version of the old raid and, while it needed to be cut in half, was still enormously entertaining to do. Court of Stars had a bunch of small mechanics in the instance itself that made it quite entertaining to do. After all, what kind of madman poisons a boss before the fight even starts?

It’s hard to say how people will remember Legion but if I had to guess, Nighthold and Karazhan will probably be the standouts when you look back. The other raids and instances were…serviceable. The connection to cool content was there but I never felt that the fights were all that shocking or interesting. In the end, I think Legion satisfies most of the B.U.N. scale but falls a bit flat in unique. Which is a shame, because there is some stuff to love in Legion.

Moving Forward

Legion was a revitalization of Warcraft and it shows. They’ve successfully recaptured some of the old success of Wrath and Burning Crusade but they’re finding their footing after a few years of rough releases. For the next expac, I hope to see more fantastic mechanics that challenge my perception of a five man. The raids I’m not too worried about but I sincerely hope that the five-mans grab me and make me invested in what is to come. Other games could also learn from this approach and, in my mind, Warcraft is still quite above the competition when it comes to instance-style content.

Legion was a decent step forward but with some stumbling after falling down. I only hope WoW can continue the forward momentum with fresh, original dungeons and raids.

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