LotRO
When World of Warcraft released its dungeon finder in late 2009, the online gaming community fractured into two distinct camps. There were those who loved and embraced the dungeon finder for its ease of grouping, its bonus rewards, and its accessibility. Then there was the other camp, whose members grew to loathe this system, claiming that it fractured the community (especially when it went cross-server) and trivialized the teamwork and bonding that dungeon groups cultivated in the past.

Love it or hate it, the dungeon finder was a massive hit and quickly became a staple in many other MMOs, such as RIFT and yes, Lord of the Rings Online. I've always been a huge proponent of the system because LFG tools and channels are typically insufficient and inefficient. Plus, dungeon finders cater to those of us who aren't as naturally outgoing and chatty when it comes to finding or starting groups, and I think this is why it became so embraced. Many of us felt denied this content simply because we weren't in a gung-ho guild or weren't proactive enough to build a group, but this became a game-changer.

Instead of releasing LotRO's instance finder in its full glory all at once, Turbine's rolled out the replacement to its lackluster LFF interface in stages. With Update 6, we now have an improved system to examine, although there's certainly work that needs to be done.

Halls of Night
Adventures in waiting

Ever since Update 6 hit the servers, I've made sure to take advantage of the upgraded instance finder by queuing myself up while I'm logged into the game. As I said, I'm a big fan of these systems, and I've never really run that many instances in LotRO versus other MMOs I've played, so I've been hoping that this will immerse me in a part of the game that I've only skimmed so far.

Unfortunately, most of the evenings, nothing ever pops for me. I queue up as support and damage (being a red-line Captain) and select every three-plus man instance and skirmish on the list, but nothing doing. In two weeks of queuing up, I've gotten into just a few skirmishes, but that's all. I do want to put on record that when the finder does pop for me, I've had a blast! Skirmishes are so much more fun with others, plus the marks start rolling in like crazy.

Now, this could be a combination of a few factors. I'd probably get in more if I were open to tanking (no thank you), and I'm sure that there will be a far larger population pool to pull from when I tip over into the 70-75 bracket. But I'm also wondering whether the instance finder, like the LFF tool before it, simply isn't prominent enough. This is what worries me the most. You can have the greatest grouping tool in the world, but if people don't see it, don't know it's there, and don't use it, it's worthless.

Interface interference

I'm assuming that if Turbine has put this much work into the instance finder and made it a major selling point of two updates now, the company doesn't want to see it wither away due to player neglect. Yet I find it really odd that it's only accessible via the drop-down (drop-up?) menu instead of a button or some other visible UI element. Seeing as the LotRO store icon is so very visible on the UI, I know this can be done -- and I'll even show you where:

Toolbar
Right there -- the big auto-attack globe that nobody but nobody uses. Wouldn't that be an excellent spot for an instance finder button or perhaps two smaller buttons? (My rant about the UI's need for an overhaul will be saved for another time, however.)

Honestly, anywhere is better than the pull-up menu if you want your players to see and use said system. It's a tool that functions best the more people notice it and use it, and where it is right now is eerily similar to where the old LFF system was: out of sight, out of mind.

More than wanting the instance finder to have a home in the UI, I'd really like to see the game deliver more information to players when they first log in -- including any dailies and bonuses associated with the instance finder. I always liked EverQuest II's splash screen because it's like a condensed newspaper that gives you some key information before you start out on that day's journeys. We could certainly use something like that in LotRO, perhaps a pop-up screen that shows your kin note, kin calendar (if, y'know, we had one), any lock-out timers, events, and daily bonuses. I'd even be fine if the game would promote a daily skirmish or instance with special rewards, just to funnel a critical mass of players to one spot.

Update: As a commenter pointed out, there is a new button on the UI for the instance finder. I totally and completely missed that -- it's on the right-hand side -- so I apologize for the mix-up!

Rewards: Are they good enough?

One of the reasons that WoW's instance finder worked so well is that it gave players a huge incentive to use it. You'd get a bonus piece of loot, money, or high-level barter tokens that could be saved up to purchase the good stuff. Everyone felt the pull to do at least one dungeon a day to get the bonus, and that really helped to get the ball rolling on the dungeon finder's popularity.

In my opinion, LotRO's incentives are well-intentioned but somewhat underwhelming. Actually, I'll start out with some praise here: I really do like that Turbine's offering a scaling reward depending on how many instances and skirmishes you sign up for. It gives players a choice between going for the exact instance they desire or widening their scope to get extra goodies. The more instances that players are willing to run, the more chance there is for the system to actually pull together groups.

The bonus in question is a bump in all currency earnings (gold, marks, medallions, etc.) and more morale and power while you're in the instance. It's nice, it's solid, and it's -- at least to me -- completely non-sexy. "More currency" doesn't serve as a huge incentive, even though I know that I can get more things with these. It's a good start, but the rewards need to be more substantial.

What I propose is a mystery bag (or a lootbox with key) that has an extra item tucked away inside. Maybe it's a second-age weapon, maybe it's potions, maybe it's a housing item, or maybe it's the jackpot of a single rust dye.

Saruman's rooftop
The cross-server question

The final push to increase instance finder usage is a very controversial one: Make it cross-server. The anti-instance finder crowd might howl at the notion of this, saying that's exactly when WoW's dungeon finder murdered the communal bonds and plunged the game into the dark ages, but allow me a minute to offer a suggestion or two before leaping to that conclusion.

The larger the pool of interested adventurers that are available, the more groups can be filled faster. The issue of LotRO PUGs turning into no-talking, wham-bam-thank-you-Hobbit affairs could be avoided if a few steps were taken to turn this into a positive, community-building experience, akin to a pen pal exchange across worlds. Why not allow players on different servers to be able to add each other to cross-server friends lists and queue up together? Why not let us add people we meet in these cross-server instances to that friends list and build on those friendships both in and out of the game? Why not even incorporate light roleplaying moments (such as what LotRO did with Frostbluff Theatre) into some of these instances?

I'd like to think that the community is mature enough that it could handle cross-server grouping without these extra steps, but they couldn't hurt. I'm sure there are devs more clever than I who could come up with ways to grow the community instead of degrade it with this tool (which is a much-desired side-effect of the current instance finder, I might add).

I'm glad that Turbine's gone through so much effort to get the instance finder in the game, and I want to see it succeed. Grouping does a lot of good to bring a community together, and cutting out the annoyances of forming a group and getting them to a specific location is applause-worthy. I hope that this isn't the final iteration of the system but merely a stepping stone to future greatness.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.