While you can bring friends along in your story quests in a game like SWTOR, it can make the experience feel a bit disjointed. Although your choices for your character are recorded and kept on record, a friend along in your party might choose something completely different and you have to experience completely out of character dialogue and outcome. Sometimes, as in things like dungeons and with resources (which GW2 did a good job with, in my opinion), giving players their own shot reduces competitiveness and wait times. Some might balk at a missed opportunity to clash over nodes or dungeons, but others would pipe in praising the ability to gather or do a dungeon on their own time. I recall running to dungeons with a group only to find them cleaned out in the past, with respawn downtime to kill. That said, the downtime led to some social downtime among my guildmates and I, as well as with any strangers who might wander in. Today's games often have the downtime to a minimum and the content ready to go for each group.
Upcoming games like Shroud of the Avatar and Star Citizen (which, to be fair, aren't exactly classic MMORPGs) almost seem to utilize instancing (including running your own shard) as a type of middle ground between large massively multiplayer games and the rise of the solo-er and players rapidly devouring content. Shroud of the Avatar can even be played completely solo and offline. Having private copies of the world to go online in can also, once again, limit a player's exposure to other players significantly, causing a bubble effect. Sure, the result might be fun gameplay and a good time with friends, which is all some people need, but the effect on a greater game community is sure to be felt.
MMORPGs are huge undertakings, both in development and budget, and there's no saying whether or not a particular game will get to enjoy a long life like a City of Heroes, so these features are now commonplace early on. Neverwinter and Star Trek Online share the Foundry, and Neverwinter had it right off the bat. SWTOR, The Secret World, and GW2 capture an epic RPG feeling with their stories but the time spent in those instances can segment the population. With today's players spread across so many game options and generally speeding along developed content, the emphasis on offering repeatable content remains key, so the fragmentation brought about by some of this instancing overload might be here to stay for a while. Are there alternatives to so much instanced content in today’s games? If so, aside from single shard games with completely open worlds, what might they look like?
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez