Forumgoer pencilrick has sparked an interesting discussion on our forums entitled “’Instanced’ gameplay is really ‘offline’ gameplay.” The subject of instancing is always sure to light a few fires under the most passionate members of our community. After all, many of us are pretty divided on the issue, and the thread reflects this. There is a good bit of angst and trolling, but also some level headed arguments on both sides of the issue. Pencilrick’s argument is that, “If your gameplay is "instanced" or separated from the community by "phasing", you might as well be playing offline. And if you are with a group, then okay, the group might as well be playing offline, maybe at a LAN party at someone's house.
MMO's are about many players sharing a world, and not meant to be about isolated segregated experiences. The player who brags about having spent 10,000 gold on his instanced housing makes no more sense than someone bragging that they have an offline castle. If you cannot see it, it does not exist (in the gameworld). The player who goes into and comes out from an instanced dungeon, might as well have been logged off the whole time, as far as the community knows or cares. The player who "phases" into some solo quest against an 80 Elite mob and uses some gimme item that is part of the quest chain and which zaps the creature into a non-elite mob that is easily defeated, has no more bragging rights than if he had been offline.”
Obviously, this is a pretty heavy argument being leveled here, but member Maligar isn’t quite as nostalgic as some, saying, “Yes, because we all know how realistic and cool it is it is to plow through a non-instanced dungeon for 2+ hours to finally reach the end boss, only to have some other party come in, kill you and you entire team, kill the boss, get the loot and then walk away laughing. Thus forcing you and your team to respawn, start the whole dungeon over again, just to have the same thing occur right at the end. Yes, this sounds like an AWESOME time. Not.” And yes, I realize that a lack of instancing doesn’t have much to do with PvP, but Maligar’s point about the other team getting the boss kill still stands.
Having had my start in Star Wars Galaxies, which despite all its issues was still a non-instanced sandbox game, I can definitely appreciate the potential for good times to be had in a mostly non-instanced world. I remember being a newbie in that game and tackling Ft. Tusken with a bunch of other newbies and having a blast. I recall many of us lying prone along a ridge overlooking the Fort and using rifles to shoot the Banthas and Raiders below as the lower group tanked or kited them around. A pretty simple experience, but as a new player to MMOGs I found it quite refreshing and fun. Out of the 20-40 people present, I only knew one person going in, but I made friends for the rest of my years playing that game by the time we were done there. Unfortunately, though, for all the good times that can be had, a non-instanced world is rife with potential for griefing as in the example Maligar provided earlier, and so your experience with a particular game can largely depend on the idiot ratio of your server.
I do think that many of us intentionally or unintentionally wear rose-tinted glasses and simply want to be able to at least have the potential for those good experiences we had in past MMOGs once again. I spent many years playing City of Heroes, which was a total 180 from Star Wars Galaxies, and I can definitely see some truth in the arguments of anti-instancing players. I think people are so passionately against instancing because while a non-instanced game has a potential for grief, it also has the potential for the many amazing social experiences and relationships people have forged playing games that thrived on their community.
A fully instanced game on the other hand is almost guaranteed to lack the potential for these experiences, and I think this is why heavy instancing is an instant deal breaker for a number of MMO fans. It doesn’t matter how exciting the other features of the game may be, they know that the heavily instanced game everyone is talking about doesn’t have the potential for the aforementioned experiences that the non-instanced games of yore provided, and that is at its core, what they want from their MMOG experience. I believe these players are as interested in all the cool advancements that have come with the evolution of MMOGs that many of these games promise, but they simply believe it is all for naught if the game doesn’t allow for what really differentiates it from a single player game, and that is the community experience.
Making MMOGs more like single player games is a futile endeavor, as they always have and always will be behind the curve due to all the limiting factors developing an MMOG entails. Instancing is often touted by developers as allowing for the kinds of directed, high production value experiences that single player games offer, but the real question is, at what cost?
I’ve spent significant amounts of time in games on opposite sides of the spectrum (CoH vs. SWG) and so having experienced the benefits of both, I think somewhere in the middle is probably where it needs to be. Even the original poster Pencilrick acknowledges the merits and the “necessary evil” of instancing later in the discussion, “What I have resolved in my own head about this is that "sometimes" you need "some" instancing. To prevent over-camping of boss mobs, for example.
Still, I see instancing as a necessary evil at best and not a desired feature to implement in the absence of a compelling reason. For example, you would not want to instance a zone only for the reason of separating players, without over-camping being a mitigating factor.”
The issue of instancing is also a bit overblown, as there are a number of other factors that have contributed to the trend of many later MMOGs lacking that community experience. As user decoy26517 says, “Instancing is only a mechanic which can be used for good or evil. Let's not blame the instance but rather the developers who USE the instances for ill purposes!” Of course, it’s not as villainous as the language would imply but there is some truth to this point. A combination of factors, namely the decoupling of interdependence amongst players along with the instancing are in part contributing to the perception many people have of instancing today.
Newer games are simply too easy and don’t require players to really rely on each other at all, and this issue I would argue has a lot more to do with the problem than instancing ever could. After all, Warhammer Online wasn’t incredibly instanced. Sure there were zone lines, but the world was largely open. Yet a strong community wasn’t forged there. Why? Because the game was too easy and lacked any incentive to really socialize, as Mythic’s Executive Producer so candidly admitted in a recent article over at Gamasutra.
In the end, I’m going to have to side with decoy26517 on this issue: instancing is a tool, and tools can be used for good, or can be abused intentionally or unintentionally to ill effect. The merit of the tool has been proven; I don’t think we should be arguing that. Instead, we should be discussing the best ways to use it, as whether we like it or not instancing isn’t going away. But we might have a say in how much it is being used and to what extent.
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Community Manager Michael Bitton. Each week, Bitton takes to our message boards and examines a specific topic raised by our community. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.