I recently stumbled upon a blog entry here on MMORPG.com by “MikeB” which addressed the concept of instancing within a MMORPG. He quoted many different players who all had different viewpoints on this mechanic which effectively can “section off” certain areas of a game and limit encounters. The idea is simple and has some merit, but is this truly the way to go?
I remember a time, back in the annuls of video gaming history, when the online RPG was about experiencing encounters out in a persistent world amongst your fellow players. You had to fight for everything you wanted from grind spots to boss mobs. Even resource gathering was contested and a struggle within these early realms. This is what separated the game from the single player console RPG’s. This is where the term “MMORPG” was born.
As readers of my past blog posts could attest to, my favorite online game to date is pre-trammel Ultima Online from way back in 1997. This title introduced me to an online gaming style which incorporated one world and one instance for all. The genre was still in its infancy, so everything was new and the waters were untested….We were the guinea pigs. If you wanted that mining vein you had to take it. If you wanted to farm for cash you needed to prepare to fight other farmers who all needed money as well. In short, the players themselves were your best friends and worst enemies in this world with no instances. PvP occurred at places that the players deemed important. There were no pre-determined objectives or artificial zones where one had to go to find any enemies….They existed around every corner! You could be attacked anywhere and at any time, even in the center of town in broad daylight!
Bigger games such as World of Warcraft feature world PvP as well, but due to “instancing” fighting outside of the battlegrounds has quickly fallen out of favor with its gaming community. Long gone are the days of hanging around Blackrock Mountain with the intent of attacking unsuspecting foes that had the misfortune of wondering across your path. I am not talking about killing low level players or jumping those who were in the middle of killing monsters, but referring to good old fashioned 1 on 1 combat. Being a good character in a 1 v 1 World PvP setting required a much different skill set then being a good team mate within an instanced battleground. There were no rules, no objectives, and no one to hear you scream. The only goal that existed was to defeat your opponent by any means necessary, even if it meant mind controlling them into a group of angry mobs.
Why did instancing become so popular and World PvP fall out of favor with the masses? There is no easy and clear cut answer, but I have a few theories.
For starters, let’s go over some of the issues that exist on the technical side of the spectrum.
Lag is always the first and foremost of a player’s complaints. When something goes wrong, it’s because they lagged. This excuse is common for all gamers from Super Street Fighter 4, to Counter Strike Source, to even Bomberman across the Sega Saturn network (which still works by the way), it's always about the lag. Not even chess or spades online is free from this constaint complaint!
What is the best way to fix this legendary issue, other then asking people to stop playing on a 28.8k modem? The developer's solution came down to limiting the amount of interaction possible at one time by instancing off parts of the game. Some games even took this to the extreme like Guild Wars and even instanced off parts of the world where there wasn’t even any fighting! Will the issue of latency continue even after these changes? The developers know they cannot please everyone, but instancing is about the extent of what can be done on their end.
You can still play with up to 10 people in a game of Bomberman with the Sega Saturn modem or on one television screen with 2 multitaps and 10 controllers!
Another attribute to decreased performance can be seen and best illustrated with a game like Age of Conan. Their graphics are state of the art, but most players do not have a powerful enough computers to engage in large fights without seeing a drop in frame rates. Every game has to deal with this issue in varying degrees depending on the engine (Anarchy Online was such a resource hog) and the year (Age of Conan is very recent), but instancing is once again the solution. If a majority of people upgraded their systems this wouldn’t be such an problem, but not everyone can have a gaming rig that can run Crysis at 100 frames per second. The explanation for this fix is very similar to that for lag. If you limit the amount of characters that are on screen, you can prevent those players from losing too many frames.
The biggest factor I believe for the rise of instances, however, is more personal and severe then these convenient technical excuses. Reasonable people can have differing views on what kind of system they enjoy within their MMO's, but the following opinion has been reached through experience and research into most of the MMO's that hit the market in recent history.
I feel most players have grown weary of the constant bloodbaths which characterized most early MMOs. Most would rather be protected during their travels instead of the having an ever-present fear that death may be around every corner. To put it bluntly, most players have grown “soft” when it comes to player versus player combat. Old Ultima Online and other early MMORPG’s were so brutal and unforgiving during the dawn of this now mammoth genre. If you came across an opponent and lost, much more than just your dignity was at stake. UO had "full loot" deaths, so if you died in front of any other player he could help himself to your items! Full loot as a concept has been abandoned almost entirely, including in Ultima Online itself, due to a growing frustration by players from losing their items...and many would say this is for the best. Slowly making the game friendly to the casual gamer turned out to be a slippery slope, however, and that slop would begin to claim many more gaming mechanics before finally the act of "dying" itself in the world came up next to the chopping block. It became inconvenient to run into players and end up having to fight instead of just easily passing through, saving the fights for pre-determined locations.
World PvP was always spontaneous and unexpected. It gave players a rush that can’t be experienced within any pre-determined encounter. Battlegrounds provide predictability and repetition, while world PvP provides apprehensiveness and fear.
What is my personal opinion on this subject?
World PvP provides an experience that cannot be duplicated or recreated. Once your game decides to add instances and battlegrounds, you lose a large aspect of what set this genre apart from its inception…..from what originally drew me towards MMO's. I, as a player, enjoy the fight no matter the medium. On consoles I am drawn to competitive games like fighters and first person shooters. There is an inherent skill to be worked on in order to improve, and without an active human opponent to test yourself against you no longer need to adapt your playstyle. Without this unknown factor, games are reduced to memorization and recognition of patterns.
Instanced PvP has its appeal, especially within battlegrounds that are timed with a clear objective. BG's provide an organized set up and give certain players the incentive they need to actually participate in a little friendly competiton. If you have a team that is willing to work together, you can have alot of fun and success within these instances. After the initial novelty of the fighting in these battlegrounds has worn off, however, these scripted encounters begin to move away from satisfying and dynamic experiences slowly, becoming more and more like a dungeon.
Think about it. Go back to the last battleground you have participated in. What was your first thought?
Generally mine would involve moving from point A to B to complete some sort of objective. Where is the unexpected? Where is the anticipation? Where is the fear? All of these emotions are lost. Players are not in these instances to fight, but usually there simply to grind out “points” or “gear”….you might as well just be fighting against NPCs. As BB King would put it, “The Thrill is Gone” when it comes to PvP these days.
What do you all think? Make sure to leave your thoughts if you agree or disagree with some of the points I have brought up in this article. As always, I enjoy the responses and hope we can get a dialogue going over world PvP.
This has been another installment in the Blade Wars Development Blog, and hopefully you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it.
PS - Closed Beta for Blade Wars begins on May 13th at 4pm PST. Make sure to check it out :)
Josh Forester (Jaynestown)
-Community Manager, Changyou.com