What makes an instance good?

I have quite a few thoughts on the new five-man instance, but I figured that before I start rambling about what I do and don't like about it and why, it might be useful to create a point of reference for what I consider positive and negative qualities in an instance. So, without further ado, eight factors that play a role in whether I like or dislike a dungeon:

1. Accessability

Accessability means something different for levelling and for endgame instances. For a levelling instance it basically means "how hard is it to get there at the appropriate level". For example Ragefire Chasm is very accessible to Horde characters (in the middle of a capital city where even lowbies will usually spend a lot of time) and virtually inaccessible to Alliance - can you imagine a group of players between level 10 and 15 even trying to get to the heart of an enemy city?

A less extreme example of an instance with low accessability is Maraudon. It's located in a zone that's pretty unpopular and annoying to get to initially, as it's far away from any major settlements. If you actually do end up questing in the area at the right levels (that is to say in your thirties), you'll still be too low to run Maraudon since it's tuned for characters in their high forties. Thus running it would require you to go back to Desolace long after you've outlevelled the rest of the zone and are glad to be gone. This is very counter-intuitive and definitely adds to Maraudon's unpopularity.

At level cap the question of travel times and the like becomes a lot less important, as nearly all the endgame content is limited to one continent these days, and within that area people are used to travelling a lot anyway (plus they have access to flying). What matters more is whether the instance requires a key and/or some kind of attunement. Obviously dungeons that don't are going to be much more popular since anybody can enter at any time, but since I'm quite fond of attunements personally, I definitely wouldn't consider some kind of requirement for entering a negative point.

2. Atmosphere

Whether you think that an instance has a good atmosphere or not is obviously something very subjective, but for me personally it could probably be summed up like this: Is this the kind of place you could see Indiana Harrison Jones exploring? There's a reason we also refer to them as dungeons - there's a certain expectation for the place to be dark, somewhat hidden away perhaps, and officially abandoned except for a big baddie and his lackeys.

Many low-level instances have a great atmosphere: Wailing Caverns, Shadowfang Keep, Blackfathom Depths, Zul'Farrak... to name just a few. On the other hand I always felt that the Tempest Keep instances for example were a bit lacking in that regard - they definitely have a personality of their own, but something feels off about wandering over transparent floors and past walls that glow pink.

3. Story & Quests

I'm not really a lore nerd, but I do like the World in World of Warcraft, with all its little quests and stories. As such I really appreciate it when there are multiple quests related to an instance; it makes me feel like I'm going in there not just to get experience and better gear, but also to make a difference (even if I know that all the mobs will respawn afterwards). Fortunately most instances have quests associated to them. However, if there aren't any or they are at the end of long chains that are easy to miss, I always feel that something's lacking.

4. Length

I think it's quite obvious that an instance can be too long. Some people may praise Black Rock Depths for its great atmosphere and due to fond memories they have of it, but most likely not even they would like to run it on a daily or even weekly basis. Having to spend several hours in an instance to get from the beginning to the end is simply not practical.

From a purely practical point of view you'd think that the shorter the better, but personally I think that there's also something like "too short" for an instance. This wasn't an issue for me pre-Wrath, but in WOTLK both Azjol-Nerub and the new Trial of the Champion introduced me to the sensation of: "What, that's it already?" In part that may just be related to atmosphere (if the boss had so few obstacles to throw in our way he can't have been all that), in part I think it's related to practicality again. Sure, anyone can run an instance that only takes fifteen minutes, but if it also took you fifteen minutes to assemble the group it doesn't really feel like a good investment of your time in terms of effort and reward.

5. Layout

This one is relatively simple: Don't make it too bloody confusing! I still largely avoid Wailing Caverns purely because of it's confusing layout with all the criss-crossing tunnels that make it easy to run in circles. Even maps can be deceiving and set you on a wrong track since they are only two-dimensional. BRD is another prime offender in this category. I'll admit that I might feel less strongly about that point if they actually implemented in-game maps for those low-level dungeons, but as long as there aren't any it's way too easy to get lost.

Also, completely linear instances where you just run through a long, straight tunnel lose some points in the atmosphere department. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Shattered Halls.)

I thought Blackfathom Depths is an example of an instance that does it just about right in that regard, lots of winding tunnels to make it feel like a natural system of caves, some nooks and crannies with hidden bosses that make it more exciting to explore, but you'll never run in a circle so there's no way of getting backwards and forwards mixed up.

6. Trash

This is strongly related to the overall length of an instance. We can all agree that too much trash is boring, but if there's too little it feels lacking in a way.

There's also the question of what kind of trash it is. Instances can gain fun points for offering a wide variety of opponents with different abilities - beasts, humanoids, elementals - and lose some if you're just killing the same kind of mob from beginning to end.

Finally, it should also be balanced to not be too difficult - BC had some heroic trash pulls that were harder than any bosses, which seemed a bit wrong.

7. Bosses

Boss encounters should be memorable, preferably in a positive way. Obviously wiping a lot on a particular boss will also make him memorable, but it also makes it less likely that you'll want to run the instance again. It's quite possible for bosses to memorable in different ways, for example by having unique fight mechanics (like the stairs event in Zul'Farrak) or simply by including good dialogue and voice acting - who could forget the "demon couple" from Arcatraz?

8. Loot

As much as people like to claim that they don't play for the loot, in the end upgrading your gear is definitely a major part of developing your character - that's simply the nature of the game. People will most likely run any instance once or twice just to see it, but if it wasn't for the loot they wouldn't be coming back repeatedly. Thus, a good instance should offer good quality loot for a wide variety of classes and specs. At level cap it also needs to offer incentives to come back once you've progressed past the available loot, such as emblem drops or daily quests.

You might notice that I didn't list "difficulty" as a factor of it's own, but that's simply because it's more or less included in some of the points I already mentioned: an instance shouldn't be too long, trash shouldn't hit too hard, bosses shouldn't wipe you a gazillion times.

In summary, in my eyes a good instance should
  • be easy to get to
  • feel like a proper dungeon
  • have a story and quests associated with it
  • be neither too long nor too short
  • be impossible to get utterly lost in but still be fun to discover
  • have a reasonable amount of trash
  • have memorable (if not necessarily hard) bosses
  • contain good loot
We'll get to which ones live up to these requirements and which ones don't!

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