First off let's talk dungeons.
In my perfect MMORPG, there will be two types of dungeons; open-world crawl dungeons and instanced dungeons.
The open-world crawl dungeons are a throw back to the glory days of UO. Big dungeons with no instancing, and different "levels" or areas of ever increasing difficulty. You simply walk in and start killing stuff. The further into the dungeon you get, the more difficult and numerous the enemies become. Why is this? I want crawl dungeons to be accessible by everyone. Solo players or small groups should be able to handle the first couple of areas, with the deeper areas being more difficult and designed for larger groups and even full raids.
High respawn rates, ownership of enemies going to whoever attacks them first. Very classic, old school, competitive PVE gameplay. Sure, you'll end up with campers and people who try and steal kills, even uber groups farming the spawn of some powerful named "boss" enemy...
But that's what classic MMOs are all about. Because of the way gear works, groups won't have to farm big named bosses for item drops, if your group gets ownership and kills the enemy, everyone in the group is rewarded. That way you don't have to farm ten times in a row to get some special drop for each group/raid member. If you can get to the boss, and kill him, you deserve to get a reward. Plain and simple.
Why have this in game? It's fun going on an old school dungeon crawl, it's open world, it's competitive PVE gameplay, and it's WAY easier to create then fully scripted and perfectly balanced instanced dungeons.
But you still have to have balanced and instanced dungeons. Yes, just like in WoW, but with a few differences I want to add to make them unique.
First off, the group size for a dungeon will not be a hard cap. Your typical 5-man dungeon could be completed with 3-7 players, and the instance will know how many players you have and adjust mob difficulty / population accordingly. Because of the way the other game systems work, it's must more about skill then level and gear, you won't have instances for level 20-25 and 40-45 for example. Instead, the dungeons will be organized into layers.
Think of layers like a difficulty scale. Other modern MMOs have different wings or branches, but they are all catered to the exact same group size and level range. Not in my perfect MMO.
The first layer will be the easiest, for the low level players and will include the fewest number of scripted encounters and the mob difficulty and population will scale itself to a lowest common denominator. The more advanced layers will be much more difficult, there will be more mobs with higher skills and better coordination, more scripted encounters like mini-bosses and events. Pretty much it'll still scale to the size and level of the player group, but will set to the highest common denominator rather then lowest.
This way you can do an instance once and get everything out of that layer that is possible. No farming over and over again for drops, if you go into the dungeon and kill some boss or complete some event, you'll be rewarded. You'll then repeat the instance later, but not the same layer. You'll move into the second layer and it'll be more difficult and of course give better reward, take longer to complete, etc.
It's kind of like the basic idea WoW had with the heroic difficulty dungeons. But I want to have each dungeon with 4-5 layers that are not all just the same exact area/content but more difficult, but rather each layer opens up new wing/branch of the instance. All of course culminating in some great uber boss battle that will take players of high skill, level, coordination, and courage.
Throw in "save points" at the end of each layer. That way you don't have to repeat the earlier content if you don't want to, and only will have to if one of the players in your group hasn't yet completed the earlier layer. No grinding for reputation to unlock the different difficulties, if you beat one you unlock the next in the chain. Plain and simple.
This way, you can make a single instance dungeon feel more like 4-5 separate instances. You remove the hard cap on group size to allow more flexibility, you eliminate the need to run the same instance over and over and over. You spread out the content so players come back and revisit the location instead of just completing and moving on.
So you complete every layer of the instance, get your rewards, what motivation do you have to come back? Not much, but that's OK. You can help friends who haven't done it of course, but I'd rather have really good content you complete once or twice and move on to the next thing then grind the same instance 40 times in a row for reputation or some special item drop.
This also doesn't keep content "stuck" at the end-game or trivialize earlier game content. The first layer of the dungeon you did at level 15 with 3 people, but you couldn't complete the final layer and end boss until you hit level 40 and brought 6 people.
Raids will work in the exact same way as the instance dungeons, but allow for more players. Still variable numbers, not set in stone at 10 people or 20 people etc. In terms of group size vs. loot quality, the game isn't all about gear so there is no comparison. Raids are for larger groups of players then dungeons. Plain and simple. The difficulty comparison between raids and dungeons is dependent on the layer you are doing, and the organizational level of the group.
That being said, the initial layers of a raid won't be just for end game, because they scale to player level and group size you can really do them at any time. The harder layers will scale to the highest common denominator, so you will have to advanced your character much further to have the skills to complete the challenges.
So why raid instead of just do the instance dungeons? The loot isn't any better, it takes more people thus making it more challenging, so what's the point? The point is that because they are designed for a larger group of players there will be more content, larger areas, more enemies, difficult challenges, and different varied rewards and titles for raiding.
People may have a hard time with the idea that the 5-man dungeons are not practice for 10-man raids, 10-man raids are not warm up for 25-man raids, 40 person raids are not the "end" of the end-game... instead of a linear progression from one to the next, it's a radial progression.
Get more players together, go do something really cool and fun, get rewarded. I don't say loot because it's not about loot, it's about the reward of completing a difficult task with your friends and guildmates, about bragging rights and titles, and it's about having fun. Even between the different raids there won't be a progression where raid A is first then once you clear it you move onto raid B etc. etc.
Get your guild/friends together and go raid this cool place, finish all the challenges of that layer and then move on to the next layer, or go to another raid area and complete a layer of that raid dungeon.
Without uber l337 gear and Tier X item sets and what not from raiding, I do admit that the motivation for raiding isn't as strong as it is in gear dependent games like WoW or EQ2. But I find that to be a good thing. I'd rather give players SO many things to do that the idea of running the same raid every night four nights a week for five hours straight week after week is just ridiculous.
I'd rather make raiding and running instanced dungeons more casual and laid back. Got enough people online in your guild? Group up, form a raid, and go tackle the next layer of a raid dungeon. Not enough people? Hop into a smaller dungeon, or get some people and go do a dungeon crawl, go PVP, run some trade routes, participate in the PVE siege warfare...
It's a game and should be about fun, not a second job. If you and your guild go and complete some epic and difficult raid, everyone on the server will know through the titles you and your guild can display and you'll still have the bragging rights. They'll all know you came together and completed something really difficult. Only difference is you won't have 4/5 set pieces of Tier X raid gear like 50% of the people the same class as you also have.
(If you can't tell I'm a very jaded ex-WoW raider!)
PVE siege warfare... coming next post!