While link-hopping the other day, I stumbled across a post by Doone - which is admittedly already several months old - in which he talks about why the dungeon finder sucks. It's widely known that the dungeon finder has a bad reputation, though people will quote different reasons for it: no consequences for bad behaviour, too much anonymity, being grouped with players from other servers in general etc. Doone on the other hand looks at the issue from an angle that I honestly hadn't considered yet: he says that the problem with the dungeon finder is mainly that it takes away the player's choice. You have no say in who you get grouped with, and if you do take matters into your own hands by leaving or initiating a vote-kick, there are systematic punishments involved. We are basically being herded into groups like sheep.
Whenever I see the subject of the dungeon finder come up anywhere these days, I have to admit that I'm overcome by a certain defeatism. Yes, it's had some very bad effects on the game, but what is the alternative? Not getting groups at all? Clearly future MMOs will have to implement a dungeon finder too. Doone's post was a nice reminder that the issue is not as black and white as that, and that there are ways of providing players with group-finding tools that don't take away their choice.
This got me thinking about the way WoW's looking for group tool worked before the dungeon finder. Personally I always thought that it worked quite well actually - as evidence let me refer you to this old post of mine in which I talked about completing the daily heroic on four different characters within only two hours, with groups that were formed manually, by people using "looking for more".
Looking back at it now, I think the tool's main problem wasn't actually anything related to its technical implementation, but that people simply weren't ready for it mentally at the time when it first came out. They had loved their old LFG chat channel, and I remember there being lots of complaints when it was removed, with players stubbornly refusing to use the new tool and spamming trade with LFG requests instead. Whenever I hear people complain that finding groups before the introduction of the dungeon finder was so hard, and that they spent hours sitting in trade without getting anything done, I can't help but think that maybe they should have just used the damn tool instead of sitting in trade? But what do I know.
Fun fact: The old tool also had an "auto join" option, to automate group formation if enough people were available, but nobody in their right mind ever used it because obviously you didn't want to risk getting grouped with some random schmuck you didn't like. Kind of funny to look back at that now.
Aside from simply having an undeserved bad reputation, I think that the old looking for group mainly had three problems: First and foremost, a lot of the time there simply weren't enough people using it, partly due to the aforementioned stubbornness, but partly also because a single server generally couldn't sustain a large enough player base interested in dungeons across all levels. If you wanted to get a group for Zul'Farrak, nothing could really help you except maybe for spamming general chat in the right levelling zones and some helpful guildies.
Secondly, for some reason you were only ever allowed to queue up for a maximum of three instances at once. This made things quite awkward if you just wanted to run some heroics, any heroics, as a lot of people would not even see your availability on the tool if they happened to look at one of the other thirteen you weren't queued up for.
And thirdly... well, some of it just felt kind of clunky to me to be honest. For example there was no option to "view all" players in my level range who were looking for a group, you had to go through sixteen different screens for individual dungeons to see them all. Actually putting the group together also felt a bit mindless and involved sending lots of messages that you might as well have macroed for their sameness: "Hey there, I'm putting together a group for [instance], would you like to join us as [role]?" Or you could just throw out ninja invites, but those were considered rude by many people.
Looking back at that now, those problems could have been fixed quite easily without turning the whole thing into the fully automated dungeon finder that we have right now. For example we already have the option to queue for all instances in our level range at once instead of just three. I would think that making the default view show everyone in the right level range, with optional filters by dungeon, role, level or whatever, couldn't be that difficult either. Finally, they could implement a special invite window for the tool, similar to the current guild invite and dungeon finder pop-ups, that says "[Name] wants to invite you to play [role] in [instance]. (x/5 spots filled)" or "[Name] wants to join your group as [role] for [instance]" and saves you from having to type slight variations of the same questions all the time.
That only leaves the admittedly major issue of not having enough players to work with - but I think that if players were actually able to choose who to group with, allowing cross-server grouping wouldn't be that much of a problem. It could simply be another filtering option to only see people from your server or to see everyone in the battlegroup.
You ask, what's the point of choosing among a huge bunch of strangers? I think there are still a lot of factors that can influence your decision even then: maybe you like or hate someone's name, maybe their guild name rings a bell, maybe you really want to have a certain class in your group... you could also check out people's gear on the armoury. Are all of these things a bit superficial? Absolutely, but we are also happy to heavily judge people by first impressions in real life, and it's not completely without merit. Also, if you make a wrong choice, you can learn from it and do better next time: okay, so that guy's guild name sounded cool, but he was a total jerk so you'll avoid him and his mates in the future. And so on and so forth. Over time you'd probably be able to find some friends and make a name for yourself even in an extended cross-server community, because people would actually have to pay attention to who they play with, and acting like a twit would increasingly cause others to avoid you.
Of course a system like that would also need proper group leaders again, but I think that's okay. Clicking on a bunch of people of the right classes to invite them is not exactly a huge amount of work, but it shows some investment, earning that person the right to retain group leader status in the actual dungeon as well. There would be no need for vote-kicking or deserter debuffs because it wouldn't be random. You get to choose your groups anyway, and if you're not happy with the way things are going, you can always try again and do better (instead of queueing for the same amount of randomness again and blindly hoping that your next group will be less obnoxious).
Finally there's the issue of teleports. While they are not directly connected to the process of group formation, I'm not a fan of them in the current dungeon finder and would happily get rid of them as well, partly to emphasise the dungeon's place in the world again, partly to increase people's investment in the run by making the whole endeavour take a little more time. I'd probably put a summoning stone inside the instance portal though, which could be operated by a single person to mass-summon the entire rest of the party inside, across servers and all.
There are still some issues for which I don't really have a solution: For example the tank shortage would probably persist, so getting a tank for your group might come down to who can "snipe" an invite the quickest as soon as a tank appears on the list of available players, which isn't really desirable. There is also the awkwardness of multiple half-formed groups floating around that can't really merge without kicking anyone. And on lower levels, with few available players even across multiple servers, one might have to "camp" the looking for group window for a while to find enough people, which would be pretty boring - maybe the optional "auto-join" feature could make a comeback for that.
The main things that a system like that would change about instance groups compared to the dungeon finder would be that people could choose who to play with again and filter out unsavoury elements more easily, and that dungeons would require a bit more organisational effort again, thus becoming a bit rarer. Still, I'd rather have a really fun experience every so often than lots of half-baked runs that I end up being completely sick of after a few months.
To be sure, I have no illusions that Blizzard is going to take the current implementation of the dungeon finder back out of the game. They must be really proud of whoever designed the thing. But sometimes it's nice to dream.