I find myself thinking about instances a lot lately. While they make sure that mobs and raids are not dominated over by a single group and available to more than one at a time, and give players access to types of content that the world and its zones don't contain, it seems that instancing is on the rise of late. With the era of customization and user-generated content models that aim to make up for the swarms of so-called content locusts eating away at developed content, instances are something we expect in today's MMOs. Yet, when we look at the greater community aspect, is this uptick in instanced content a net loss?
Some older games rely on instancing to a degree, and it is most often a component of themeparks, but having instanced raids or some quests is not the same as opening up a game world and then sticking a bunch of doors in it, open only to four or five people at a time. There lies the problem with the rise in instanced content. There have been plenty of complaints and observations about studios redefining MMOs (or even misidentifying them) if they contain lots of instanced content. After all, the term "massively multiplayer" doesn't refer to those four or five people. The outside game world might exist, but if most of what you actually do shuts other people out, then it also closes doors of opportunity to meet and interact with others outside your personal circle. Dungeon finders and the like can add a random or two on your team, but the focus for many on smaller group content can predispose players to only interacting with a small circle and then perhaps moving on.
Neverwinter, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, and more all have a reliance on instanced content for either a significant portion or a significant section of the game. Player housing is often an instanced affair these days too. Some might place the blame on the desire to tell a personal story or follow an individual narrative with choices for the player to guide his or her path. That's fair for some games, but can't a game find and elaborate upon its lore without removing the player and group from the greater virtual world at large?
Player choice is not necessarily a bad thing. The City of Heroes Mission Architect let players create missions, create associated characters, name the bosses, and then share them. Sharing and getting others to play your missions was key, since the creator could earn rewards for doing so. Not only was this a place for the creative to give mission design a shot, but it was a social program with incentives for the creator and fun for players. The feature's success from a community side was helped by the fact it came later into the game's lifetime, when other aspects of the community were well-established and the game already had a lot of existing content.