(This is my blog post #3)
The official Battle.net page for Dungeons, Raids, and Scenarios—activities collectively referred to as instances by players—introduces the game mechanic by saying “[T]he world of Warcraft is filled with mystery, peril, and, most of all, conflict,” and concludes by saying “Few would dare explore these distant and dangerous places; fewer still would expect to return. You are one of those few.” This outlines the two defining characteristics of instance play that distinguish them from the questing and exploration of standard play: an all-consuming emphasis on combat skills (as opposed to the previously mentioned dimensions of mystery and peril), as well as a player gratification system that is complicated by the necessity of teamwork. These characteristics allow for a ‘classic’ style of ‘minute to learn, lifetime to master’ play that broadens the appeal of World of Warcraft.
It’s not difficult to think of dungeons and their kin as a game within a game. And the primary distinction between standard world play and dungeon play is the orientation of the conquest that is executed in each mode. World play rewards horizontal, outward conquest. Quests can only be completed once, and once a certain area of a game is exhausted of its available quests, players must explore other territories (an activity that in itself rewards players with experience points) in order to continue gaining experience and improving their character. Revisiting areas of Azeroth is only valuable once one’s character has improved enough, or enough time has passed, that something about that area’s narrative has fundamentally changed or has prospects for development. The unknown, perilous and dark regions of the world are conquered, and the light of exploration develops narratives by facilitating the advancement of NPCs’ feuds, careers and love stories.
Dungeon play, however, only rewards one thing: combat skill (not necessarily in the amount of damage that a single player can inflict, but certainly in their ability to expedite the process of killing NPCs and monsters). There are also a limited number of instances available to players, especially those at lower levels, so repetition becomes necessary after enough play. Thus, the sense of conquest here is vertical. Grinding, a term which no doubt shares part of its metaphorical meaning with its real-world counterpart ‘honing’, refers to any repetitive activity that a player executes in order to quickly level up or develop particular skills. Very little of the thrill of dungeon play comes from encountering new dungeons, because this novelty wears away so quickly. Rather, the satisfaction of performing any dungeon (they are all more or less the same, objective-wise) particularly well is foregrounded. And the more a player has encountered a specific dungeon, the more familiarity a player has with the nuances of that dungeon and the more rewarding the play is. Finally, there is the issue of self-interest. Although it is tempting to say that the mandatory teamwork of dungeon-running marks it as the less narcissistic activity, the simple fact that pre-determined roles and straightforward unspoken protocol dominate makes players’ actions too predictable for this to be the case. An NPC could easily be programmed with the behavior that is rewarded by the dungeon system, and betraying this behavior is often seen as betraying the team.
Dungeons offer players a ‘classic’ arcade game experience, where levels are normalized by denying low-level players’ access to high-level dungeons, resulting in a valuing of skill and protocol over each player’s individual circumstances. This also allows for and rewards the honing of skill through repetitive action as opposed to the exploration of world play. It is a simpler mode of play, but it is also one that demands to be mastered and performed with maximum efficiency, which was required to make games compelling before the construction of massive worlds like Azeroth was made possible.