Since watching the Age of Conan threads, I've been keen to the debates over instancing...whether they can make or break a MMORPG. There are clearly many opinions over the matter.
Fundamentally, instancing should be defined. There are two levels of instancing:
1) When a player or group moves into an area that is exclusively theirs to work in, this is a fully exclusive instance. This occurs in quests mostly. World of Warcraft, for example, uses this concept.
2) When a player moves into an area that is inclusive to some, but not all the other players, this is an inclusive instance. This occurs mostly as "zone" instancing. For example, City of Heroes/City of Villians is a game where, after a number of people are in a zone, a duplicate zone is created, hopefully with less lag, for the other players to use.
Instancing can also be permissive or forced. Basically, a permissive instance is one where you are allowed to choose the instance. For example, Guild Wars lets you choose your instance of a city. Forced instances basically remove that choice.
Here's the argument:
Does instancing contribute to an outstanding MMO and are there ways to make it more immersive?
My opinion is that instancing contradicts immersion. Even when instancing is used on a limited basis, it removes you from others. You could be standing in the Fighter's Guild of "instance 1", waiting to duel, while your opponent is waiting at "instance 2". This gets even worse when you are trying to group or adventure with your friends. Imagine telling your buddies, "Gather at the ancient rock bearing Cthulu's likeness". Will they be able to meet you? Or do you need to tell them, "Gather at the ancient rock [at instance 2] bearing Cthulu's likeness."
Bear in mind that there is a reason to have instancing. It helps the server load. Too many people in one instance mean lag for all in the instance. This is the balancing issue and this is why I believe instancing is necessary.
So, how can instancing be used effectively?
Use Roleplaying and in game techniques. It's the most immersive way to handle the game.
1) How would you handle an overfilled city? I would have the guards shut the gates. If a player inquires as to why, the guards would respond that the officials are having problems with theives and "foreigners". In my game, I would allow the city a limited number of residents, called "citizens", which could travel into the city because of their status.
2) Wouldn't that method anger many of the players? Certainly. Until they found out that they could quest, bribe an official, try to get another citizen's status removed, have another person thrown out of the city, or they could simply move to another city, become a citizen, and slowly fill that place up. The goal is to create options that allow them to eventually acheive their goal. Most people never thought that entering a city could be an adventure...but yet, it can.
3) How would you handle overfilled zones? Lower spawning rates. In developmental terms, if you keep spawning rates high, then there is an obvious reason for lots of people to be there. However, if you drop the spawning rates, people will adventure to other areas. In terms of reality, if every hunter is out in the woods killing bears, the bears would become extinct. Eventually there would be no more left. And to be honest, if you're in an overfilled forest and there are no monsters to fight, you probably don't have to worry about the lag.
4) Wouldn't an upopulated zone ruin the overall gaming? It would if there was nothing else to do. However, it would end the grind. Spawn rates are the key and they would have to be lowered or raised based on the traffic. If you head to the plains to hunt some creature, and there is another hunter there clearing the area, you have choices...you either leave that hunter alone, hunting elsewhere....oppose that hunter and resolve the issue [an rp solution'....or work with that hunter and resolve the issue [another rp solution].
5) How would you handle quests? Much differently. In this aspect, I can see why instances are useful. I'm not entirely against instancing in quests. However, I might be tempted to treat a quest as a living entity. In other words, let's suggest that a graveyard starts off unpopulated. Down the timeline, some ghouls and zombies start appearing. Later on, one of the ghouls begins to take power. Later still, this ghoul transforms into a Lich and instructs his minions to build an undead city where he can increase his influence. In this example, the players can enter the scenario at any time...they don't just walk into a preset module. I can easily imagine low level fighters clearing the graves...but later on high level warriors leading a charge on the undead keep. What happens if left untouched for too long? The Lich orders an assault on the nearest city and players are attacked.
Overall, I'm just trying to attack the "immersiveness" problem that comes with instancing. Personally, I despise instancing. Yet, I understand why it is used. What I feel resolves both problems at the same time is using in-game roleplaying responses.
So, next time you're about to walk into a city...preparing for the "wait....load" screen, imagine seeing two guards barring your path, telling you that "they don't want your kind" around. And then imagine that you quickly draw steel at their insult. If you beat them, who will stand in your way....