Instancing, A Player Perspective
Dec 14, 2005 21:47:00

Recently, some very respected members of the MMORPG community pontificated at considerable length regarding the merits and shortcomings of instanced environments within our favorite online games. Both great wisdom and despicable drivel was spooned out to those of us with the interest and patience to wade through the lengthy discussion. After studying these articles and discussing the points with various individuals, I have decided to add to the discussion. I call this ?a player perspective? because, I am merely an armchair designer, a wanting developer, and a pretentious gaming theorist. In order to fully appreciate the material presented here, it is necessary to review that which spawned it.
The Library

Chasing that Old Loving Feeling: Away with Instances! by Ted
Brad McQuaid on Instancing!
Raph Koster on Instancing
Scott Jennings: A Rare Instance of Thought
Jason Booth on Instancing
Brad McQuaid Responds to Jason Booth
Let us first set the stage, by taking a look at the way instancing has been handled in the predominant MMORPGs.

EverQuest Classic ? Lost Dungeons of Norrath - Many claim this is one of the best EQ expansions SOE has released and it is true that it had plenty of excitement swirling around it. There is no argument; it was groundbreaking, and well received. Players of all levels and guild affiliations were able to run instanced old-school-dungeon-crawling adventures (much like the D&D adventures Brad and many of us pine for). The dungeons were well designed, the objectives were varied and challenging, everyone had a blast until they realized they would have to run those same adventures literally hundreds of times if they wished to capture the top rewards. It became the worst kind of grind. My primary EQ character was a monk, and I spent 55 hours camping one particular epic item (Karnors) and this experience I faced with anticipation and considerable patience. On the other hand, a long day of LDoN instances was something to be dreaded. This brand of instancing seemed to work exceedingly well when it came to immersion, fun factor, and community building. Where it fell down was in the reward system. The error in implementation had little to do with the instancing itself, and everything to do with the reward system that motivated visits to the instanced content. This is a prime example of a case where instancing encouraged additional community development, but only because it was hosted in the context of a game system that already had an incredibly strong community aspect.

EverQuest Classic - Plane of Time Instancing - As access to the Plane of Time was achieved by more and more guilds, raid scheduling conflicts ensued. This is in fact a resource contention problem, but it was self-inflicted by the SOE design team. The non-standard zone reset schedules of many of the post-Velious raid zones contributed to this problem. Why does the Plane of Fear reset in the manner that it does? Why doesn't it follow the normal zone re-population rules? Contention for Vindi, Vox, Grummus and the Chardock Royals (to name a few) rarely was an issue despite the fact that many many guilds had the capability to engage these encounters, while few had PoT access at the time of the decision to instance the zone. The difference between these two scenarios is obviously zone mechanics. While
this brand of instancing has no dire impact on the game, it was a bandage for a problem that could likely be fixed in other ways.

City of Heroes - Warehouse Missions, AKA: The Worst Instancing Ever - City of Heroes instancing takes dungeon instancing to a new level of suck. The reason is simple, if you've played one mission, you've played every mission. The missions are cookie cutter time sinks: Kill Boss A in Warehouse Map C. Lucky for CoH, a player can keep themselves busy just rescuing the city on a day to day basis without frequently warehouse missions. This particular brand of instancing stinks of laziness and/or lack of proper budget. This is unfortunate and was probably beyond the development studio?s control, but it is far more unfortunate for the players who paid the same box price and subscription fees as one would pay for other games that do not suffer from this problem. There is an endless list of factors to consider along this line of thinking, not the least of which is the fact that NCSoft probably knew the market for a superhero-themed game was not as large as a swords and sorcery-themed game, and wisely decided to keep costs down, in part by implementing this awful use of dungeon instancing.

EverQuest II - Major Zone Instancing ? EverQuest II employs three distinct kinds of instancing, and while each is technically accomplished in the same way, the context of each is vastly different. Poor player distribution forced EQ2 to instance major zones like Antonica and the Commonlands. Poor player distribution refers to the fact that all players are centrally concentrated at the game's beginning. EQ Classic spread the races out to numerous home cities where they would learn to be adventurers in relatively peaceful and private environments with characters of like-level. Everday, a new wave of players would grow up and graduate from these starting areas, and then venture forth together to explore the rest of the world. EQ2 did precisely the opposite, creating two PoK situations right out of the gates. With heavy player concentration (within a heavier graphics engine), EQ2 Devs absolutely had to instance to keep the lag down and the content available. In an ironic twist, WoW replicated the EQ Classic model to fantastic effect, distributing new players far and wide, reducing the load on their content and their servers, while effectively instilling the notion that "it?s a big world out there and you have many discoveries ahead of you". Meanwhile, EQ2 plops new players square in the middle of a majestic city. What exciting new visions await them outside the city gates? Meadows and deserts, and swamps (oh my.) This is yet another case of the EQ2 design team not recognizing the strengths of EQ Classic. (See Happy Birthday EQ2 article.) It is one thing to instance dungeon zones that will be lacking in content volume, it is quite another to have to constantly tell teammates, "I'm in instance three of this major travel zone."

EverQuest II - Non-private Dungeon Instancing - This works well. The dungeons are filled with players to meet, talk, and cooperate with. Surprises happen and you don't feel alone, and yet, the content is available and not overcrowded. Non-private instancing of intimate adventuring areas works well in EQ2, and while the cons of these instances are the same as the major zone instancing, the negative impacts are reduced by the scope and frequency of the visits.

EverQuest II ? Private Zone Instancing ? EverQuest II also includes private dungeon instancing for raid content and some specialized quest conditions. This keeps raid teams from experiencing scheduling issues, but on the other hand? it keeps raid teams from experiencing scheduling issues. Any good story teller will tell you that conflict and its resolution is what great entertainment is. Not everyone should get what they want every time, even in a game. It should be hard, there should be disappointments. Alternate plans should be made. Compromises should be str
uck. Persistence and planning should prevail. Serving content to raid teams on a silver platter dramatically drops the sense of accomplishment that is to be had at the conclusion of a successful adventure.

Guild Wars ?Persistence? What is that? - Brad, Raph, and Jason all classified this one accurately. From a technical perspective it works more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. It is no more than an instanced hub with many many more instances attached to it. As a result, the immersion factor is far lower (read: nonexistent) than a ?true MMORPG? and the itch-cycle is reduced to that of a single-player console game. A fine development effort it is, but I?ll side with Brad when I say, it isn?t a virtual world, it isn?t a MMORPG, it isn?t the kind of game that MUDders, EQers and WoWers expect from the genre. I believe many players were misled by the marketing.

World of Warcraft ? Private Dungeon Instancing ? Blizzard implemented a system akin to the LDoN experience and EQII?s private raid instancing, but instead of making it a pit stop, the instanced dungeons are threaded into the storylines of the world. For better or worse, all paths lead to instances (FYI, my vote is ?for worse?). Instanced PvP Battlefields, Dungeons, and the subterranean mono-rail are the only zoning situations in an otherwise seamless world, but it isn?t overly distracting, especially considering that MMOGs without some ?loading? screens are still a rarity. Much like LDoN, WoW?s failing here is in replay value. Most 60th level characters spend evenings trouncing the same content over and over and over in order to get the good drops. They cannot go elsewhere because, there simply isn?t anywhere else to go, at least until they get those drops. Much of this issue is related to the ease of advancement within World of Warcraft. For the most part, it takes little to no skill to advance to the top levels. This results in top-heavy character distribution. These characters need something to do and their only option is to repeat these instances night after night.

Summary

There are a number of positives and negatives to be observed. So, what is the bottom line on instancing? The magic, or lack thereof, lies purely in the context of the specific game?s overall design and objectives. In a game like Guild Wars, instancing is the only reasonable choice. For purposes of this manifesto, games like Guild Wars should be given a free pass to do as they please because they do not qualify as a MMORPG in the classic sense.

The classic sense, IMNSHO means, ?A persistent virtual environment and community where long term and sophisticated character development and progressively challenging adventures take place.? In a game like EverQuest Classic, EverQuest II, Vanguard and (hopefully) Lord of the Rings Online, instancing has little place, or no place at all. If the wizards of Diku or LP MUDS felt content was lacking in scope or diversity, they didn?t instance the orc village, they built a gnoll village somewhere else in the world, and a fairy village somewhere else, et cetera. They healed the problem, instead of bandaging it. EQ Classic largely did the same to good effect.

If the goal is to create a game that has a short timeline, a breakneck pace, and convenient (read: simplistic) game play, instancing is an extremely valid option. If the goal is indeed to create a MMORPG as defined above, shortcut solutions to content shortcomings and resource contention are not appropriate. True MMORPGs must take the high road by building more content, distributing the player based properly, and recognizing that the market for a challenging (and sometimes frustrating) game will be smaller, but that market will be grateful and loyal.

-The Prognosticator

Submitted by Brent on Dec 14, 2005 21:47:00 CST (comments: 0)


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