Today the dungeon finder has been out for ten months (in Europe). I looked back at my "first impressions" post about it the other day, and it's strangely funny to be faced with those initial thoughts again, because in many ways they are very different from the way I look at the whole thing now. For example I was highly worried about players from the other realms in my battlegroup not being as skilled, and then there was all the hoohah about people needing on frozen orbs... all yesterday's news. Many of the things that people consider downsides of the dungeon finder these days also became apparent very early on, but I think I wasn't the only one who simply didn't foresee just how bad things were going to get over the course of a few months.
But let's start with the good stuff: The one thing the dungeon finder has done brilliantly, and I don't think anybody can deny that, is revitalise five-man instances throughout the whole game. I'm not just talking about how convenient it is to find a heroic group these days, because while it requires considerably less effort than it used to in the past, it was still very much possible to get level eighty groups together before the introduction of the new LFG tool.
Levelling instances however have been the real beneficiaries of the change. I vaguely remember trying to put a Zul'Farrak group together way back in the day... and when I did a /who 40-50, I couldn't even find four other people in the right level range online, and that's without even getting started on the question whether they were even interested in running the instance or whether we had the right classes to fill all the necessary roles. These days I can hop on an alt of any level, queue for a random or specific instance, and even as dps I'll find myself in a group for Scarlet Monestary or whatever within only a few minutes. It's absolutely amazing. I don't have any numbers for this, but I reckon that most levelling instances see a lot more traffic now than they ever did before. And I think that's a good thing, because I consider them fun content and anything that helps people to experience that is good.
Unfortunately it hasn't all been rainbows and sunshine, and the dungeon finder quickly started to show some ugly sides too, for example a major loss of immersion. The developers made no effort whatsoever to disguise the new tool as anything than what it is: a UI feature. You press a button and you get to play, that's it. In hindsight I really find that kind of strange, because it's so easy to explain things in WoW away with the good old "a wizard did it" excuse without breaking immersion, but for some reason they didn't bother in this case. Imagine if instead of having a hearthstone, you just had a UI button to take you back to your home location, and instead of taking those portals in Dalaran, you'd just open a tab with a drop-down menu to take you to the city of your choice from anywhere. Wouldn't that be kind of strange?
I know that not everyone cares about immersion in the same way - I didn't actually care that much myself at the beginning, but my concern quickly grew as time went by. Back on that first day I was kind of surprised to just be able to teleport at will, but it didn't particularly bother me because I had run to all those instances a dozen times before and was just eager to get into the action. It wasn't until later, when I realised that I was hardly leaving Dalaran anymore, that I began to feel a little awkward about the whole thing, wondering whether it was really such a good idea. Running into pugs where people didn't even know where they were, as if they were the confused victims of some kind of magical teleportation accident, or groups where people couldn't find their way back into the instance after a wipe because they didn't even know where it was, only asserted those feelings.
In Cataclysm one will need to discover the instance entrance first before being able to queue for a dungeon - we'll see how much of a difference that will make and whether they'll dare to take any further steps afterwards.
However, the biggest issue with the dungeon finder hasn't been immersion, it has been how it's changed people's behaviour. Again, it's kind of funny to look back at my initial worries about getting grouped with bad players... because player skill is the one area where I haven't noticed a major difference in the average pug. Instead it's everything else.
People hardly talk anymore. And I'm not just referring to idle chit-chat here; I've been in many groups where people were just completely ignoring anything said in party chat, even if they were being asked direct questions. This was unthinkable pre-dungeon finder, because if you didn't talk, you didn't get a group.
People are more prone to ninja-ing and generally being inconsiderate of others, because there are little to no consequences for being bad and few rewards for good behaviour. Even if you pissed off your whole party, you won't get called out in trade chat for it because the people you offended were all on different servers anyway. Worst case you end up on someone's ignore list, but that only has so much room and what are a few ignores in a mass of thousands of players anyway? In the same vein kicking someone for even the most trivial of reasons often has no repercussions either, because the dungeon finder instantly gets you a replacement anyway.
On the other hand, if you pass on a piece of loot for the undergeared guy from a different server, you can't go on another run with him tomorrow where he'll help you get your piece. Even if you get along really well with someone from a different realm and just want to play with them again, you won't be able to once the group disbands, because you can't be cross-realm friends without Real ID.
I've seen people suggest to limit the dungeon finder to the server you're on, or at least give the option to build a group that way. I don't think this would work. Yes, I do think that people would tread much more carefully around players from their own realm regardless of everything else, but it would also completely negate one of the dungeon finder's main benefits, the revitalisation of low-level instances, because many servers simply would't have sufficient numbers in the right level range most of the time if they only had their own population to draw from.
Personally I would mainly focus on two things: making people care more about the instance itself and allowing more positive cross-server interaction.
As far as "caring about the instance" goes, I think that at least part of the bad attitude many players display is not just down to lack of social cohesion, but because they simply don't actually enjoy dungeon runs that much. It's only natural to be happy and friendly when you're doing something you enjoy, and more prone to crankiness when you feel forced into something you don't want to do. The thing is, Blizzard tried so hard to make the dungeon finder attractive to people to ensure that enough players would use it that I think they went kind of overboard with it. Press that button and be teleported to a place where you can gain two levels in twenty minutes - you'd never level that fast from questing or grinding. Press that button and you'll be rewarded with currency that allows you to buy some of the best gear in the game. People will do anything if you only dangle a sufficiently large carrot in front of their noses, but that doesn't make the experience in itself that much more enjoyable.
How often have you heard the argument that "we're all just doing it for the two frost emblems anyway" or something similar, especially when people try to justify skipping a large part of the instance? I think it says a lot that so many openly admit to not enjoying the content, doing it only for the rewards, and even assume that everyone else must feel the same! As someone who enjoyed running instances for their own sake almost from the moment I first set foot in one I find that incredibly sad and off-putting. It's not fun to play with people who don't actually enjoy your game and are only participating in it as a means to an end. Don't push them quite so hard, Blizzard. Enough people will still do five-mans if they take a little more work and aren't quite as rewarding - have a little faith in the quality of your content!
Positive cross-server interaction is an easy one. Allow people to not just ignore players from other realms that they dislike, but to also friend those they do like, without immediately requiring Real ID. It doesn't necessarily have to be unlimited cross-realm chat (though that would have something going for it too, I suppose), but even something as simple as being able to send instance invites to friends on another server would already help a lot - as long as you allow people to connect in a positive way instead of just promoting /ignore as a solution to everything.
Looking back at the dungeon finder's release with all the knowledge that I have about it now... I'd still want it to be introduced again, because I think the basic concepts of automating the group-finding process and enlarging the pool of available players are absolutely worth it. I just hope that the developers don't close their eyes to the problems that the tool still has and will continue to tweak and improve it. (And just fiddling with the vote-kick cooldown doesn't really count.)