Casual Instance Running
For those not inclined to PvP (or to augment their PvP activities), the bulk of their end game is spent in casual instances. These instances are capped at 5-15 players (about to be reduced to 5-10 depending on the instance in the upcoming 1.10 patch of World of Warcraft). One thing to point out about World of Warcraft, is that initially, dungeons can take quite long to clear out, especially if the group is not competent. An adventuring group needs to learn how to the “trash monsters” (non boss monsters in a dungeon) as well as the bosses. Due to the age of the game, the process to beating most encounters and dungeons in the game are already well known. The exception is for new content, which comes along every 2-3 months.
After this initial learning curve, most Blizzard “casual” instances take no more than 1-3 hours to complete by a skilled team. This is usually around 1-2 hours for 5 man material, 2-3 hours for 10 man material, and 3+ hours for the 20 man dungeons (which are “casual hardcore, more on that later). Of course, for casual instances, these dungeons have been around for so long that they have been reduced to an economy artform: how to clear the place as soon as possible, get your treasure, and start over for more treasure(or go somewhere else).
Here’s a sampling of the instances currently available, the time it takes to run them, and their 1.10 population caps:
A big destroyed/haunted city. 2 separate “wings” to explore, about 1-1.5 hours to clear each wing. Can be run separately, the wings are nonlinear. 5 man cap.
A big haunted house. Takes 1.5-2 hours to clear fully. A few “optional” bosses but no “wings” per se. 5 man cap.
A huge collection of ruins. 3 separate distinct wings which are loosely connected (but typically people will run one of the wings in a given run). Takes 1-1.5 hours to clear each wing. 5 man cap.
Giant orc and dragonkin infested castle. The “hardest” of this group, although the rewards in Dire Maul are arguably better. 10 man cap. No optional bosses.
Mainly obsolete dungeon due to poor loot compared to the others. Technically a “wing” of Upper Blackrock Spire. 10 man cap.
The defining characteristic of all of these dungeons is that the required populations are quite low, so it’s easy to put together a pickup group (or PUG) in order to run them. Because they are so easy to get access to, a player in a small guild can easily find guildmates, or find any number of PUG’s on a given weeknight or weekend night in order to participate in these counters.
These instances make up the bulk of post 60 “advancement” for most players. Of late, Blizzard has been improving the item drops in order to give casual players more opportunity to improve their characters by running these same instances.
The disadvantage is: even with new treasure it’s still the same instances. These instances have been the mainstay of raiding for many players since the game came out over a year ago. The only “new” one was Dire Maul, which is still 9 months old (the rest being over a year). Since that time, two 40 man instances and two 20 man instances have been added: but nothing for the 5-10 range. As a result, many players who can’t raid at the 20 or 40 man level find themselves with the same items and a lot of boredom as it pertains to these instances: you can only run Stratholme so many times before you want to quit forever.
The good news: The Burning Crusade expansion, due out in May (or later) of this year promises to focus heavily on 5-15 man content. The bad news: it’s not due out until May (or later) of this year. Knowing Blizzard, I’d vote on (or later).
This brings us to the next category of content, the “bridge” between the casual and the hardcore…
Casual Hardcore Instances
These instances include two dungeons: Zul Gurub (known as ZG), filled with angry trolls and a hateful god, and The Ruins of Ahn Qiraj (known as AQ20), filled with evil insects, a la starship troopers. These dungeons were Blizzard’s response to people’s complaints of 40 man dungeons being too tough logistically (you try getting 40 people ranging from ages 13-49 all together at the same time for a 4 hour stretch), and 15 man dungeons being too easy: the idea was to offer a challenging experience, with very good rewards, but that only requires 20 people to accomplish, as opposed to the 40 required by the “hardcore” dungeons (listed below).
Can someone give this poor raid boss directions to the circus?
Additionally, Blizzard intelligently incorporated faction related rewards for both of these dungeons, to add do that “double dip” flavor of reward. Also, due to the fact that most “hardcore” guilds only have time to seriously run the 40 man dungeons, there are some sweet rewards for the 20 man dungeons that only the “casual hardcore” player will see (and the absurd hardcore players who play the game ENTIRELY too much).
Whether or not this “bridge” instance of casual hardcore content has worked is unclear to me: my guild primarily focuses on the 40 man content, with 20 man content in offtime (we basically have time to run one of the 20 man instances once or twice a week, but no more). But the items from these dungeons are often comparable to the weaker 40 man content, and the boss fights tend to be the most fun in the game, period. This is probably because the 20 man content came after the 40 man: by then, Blizzard was much better at dungeon and encounter design, and it shows: the 20 man dungeons are some of the most fun in the game.
In conclusion: instance running is where World of Warcraft is at. Although much of the “small group” content is extremely tired, Blizzard has made a strong effort at a “middle ground” in the form of 20 man instances. The true test will be the expansion when new content is created en masse: the next dungeon planned for release is also a 40 man dungeon.