"We're sitting here, and I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we're talking about practice. I mean listen, we're sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we're talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last but we're talking about practice man. How silly is that?" -- Allen Iverson, former NBA star
I've floated this idea before, in various venues, but I thought I'd write a little piece about it here. It would be nice to have "practice instances." A version of each of the level-cap instances (dungeons and raids) that are meant only for training purposes. You can enter solo or with other people and the missing slots are filled with NPCs. A role check ensues and whatever roles you (and any friends) don't assume are assumed by the NPCs.
These practice instances would not drop any loot, any currency, any gray items...nothing. There would be no material benefits. No reputation gains, either. Perhaps no durability loss to deaths, but I can go either way on this. Blizzard has to decide whether another gold sink is needed in the game.
The purpose would be to practice either playing your class/role or handling encounter mechanics, or both. And doing so without the social pressures of wondering whether you will be attacked for a mistake and not wanting to disappoint others if you do make mistakes.
Now, obviously, if you want the rewards (valor points, purples, esteem from arrogant stone giants) of running instances, you need to accept the social pressures. Running instances is meant to be a social activity. However, it seems reasonable to allow players to practice free of social pressures. This seems especially true of someone trying to learn a new role. If you leveled up a paladin in retribution, and then later decide you'd like to try your hand at tanking...it can be rather daunting to do so before the eyes of four critical strangers, over and over again.
This would be a benefit for both the learner as well as the population at large. Very few people enjoy queuing for a random and getting someone who's still learning how to tank or heal. The many, many mistakes lead to a lot of deaths. But there's no good way to learn tanking or healing outside of instances. You can understand the concept and theories quite well, but the actual execution in the dynamic heat of battle is quite different.
The idea of NPCs trying to emulate players might seem like a reach. After all, there are very few AIs that have reached human levels of intelligence, and they're all currently unemployed (it's a tough job market). However, end game content, to a large extent, has players function like robots. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but handling encounter mechanics is a very synchronized, repeatable process and the design of DPS, tanking and even healing can be formalized into rules that would allow an NPC to do a pretty good impression of a competent human. Most of the challenge is processing information and reaction time, both of which computers do better than humans (and Blizzard would actually have to be careful not to make them overpowered).
Blizzard could even have these NPCs occasionally print Recount stats to party line, toss in a "LOL" occasionally or a "srsly blizz? omg" and it would feel just like an instance with real people. Except you'd have the comfort of knowing that there's no judgement behind those cold, dead, pixelated eyes.
I think this would go a long way to improving the skills and confidence of the player base, which would lead to improved results in the actual random dungeon finder. Plus it would just be fun. Sometimes, even when I'm not learning an encounter or a role, I just want to experiment with something...it would be nice not to subject real people to it.
So, in conclusion, I'm very generous with Blizzard's time and resources and I encourage them to program this functionality.