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Dana Massey Asks Why Not? Instancing

It's become a dirty word to some, but is instancing in MMOs really the boogieman it's been made out to be?

 “Instancing” has become a dirty word in some segments of the MMO community. It’s easy to understand why. By its very definition, it limits the number of players in what is supposed to be a massive, shared experience. Yet, on the other hand, for game designers, instancing – when used correctly – is a powerful tool that allows them to create more dramatic, meaningful gameplay experiences. So, today, I wonder why games cannot have the best of both worlds and use instancing, without making it into a single-player game?

When it comes to instancing, I honestly believe the fan objections are far more about an ideal than a reality. Sometimes, we get caught up in what an MMO is supposed to be and limit things that would make them better or more fun based on that ideal.

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On MMORPG.com, we define an MMO as a game that has large, shared common spaces of several hundred players, persistent characters, and some kind of advancement system.

It opens up a slippery slope when it comes to listing games on our site. Take Global Agenda, which won our Best of Show at E3. Every time we post about it, one persistent forum poster reminds us that, to him at least, it’s not an MMO. Yet, we list it. The reason is that at its core, it fits our criteria. There are large common areas, and players control persistent characters that do grow and change over time. The argument comes down to instancing. In Global Agenda, almost all the content is in small, instanced areas. It’s like a wagon wheel. Everyone “lives” at the center then goes out to enjoy content with small groups. There is no massively multiplayer gameplay, for all intents and purposes.

How is that different from a game with no instancing at all though? Say you go on a dungeon crawl in a game with no instancing. You still form a self contained group and run down that rabbit hole. The only difference is that other people may be there ahead of you. This creates other problems like kill stealing, which many MMOs have cleaned up by locking monsters to the group fighting it first. The irony then being that once you lock the content to a group, it’s basically them in an instance others can see.

Now, granted, this eliminates the heroism factor. Some of my best online experiences are being saved or saving a life in a Dark Age of Camelot dungeon. But is that little piece of refreshingly human gameplay worth the other problems?

Let’s take golf for example. Do you think real world golf courses wouldn’t love real world instancing? It would allow them to get as many groups on the course as want to be there and no one would need to wait for that slow trio a head of them to play out their hole.

In some ways, MMO dungeons can become like crowded golf courses. One group moves through in search of the Golden Pants of Hoarding +3, while another follows behind, killing things for XP as they wait their turn.

Now of course, some people like throwing beer caps at that slow trio in front of them on the golf course. So I don’t argue that open dungeons should be abolished, just that there needs to be both in a well rounded game.

With instancing, this golf-course like phenomenon goes away entirely.

And the above are just the practical reasons instancing, when used judiciously, can improve the MMO experience.

The real advantage of instancing is the ability to then improve that dungeon in more than just efficiency. Instancing allows for a more mutable environment. Characters can set off traps that lock doors, collapse walls, or take divergent paths through the content in an instance in a way that is impossible in a shared space.

Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa actually did a remarkably good job of this, in theory at least. The creator of the most famous sandbox, shared-space MMO (Ultima Online) became an instancing convert. He wanted to tell epic stories like he used to do in the earlier single-player Ultima series and instancing allowed him to do it. Every Tabula Rasa demo included some epic, cinematic dungeon crawl with environment changing events.

Tabula Rasa may have tanked spectacularly, but I would say that had more to do with the game’s lack of general content, odd storyline and setting than any ideals Garriott had about instancing.

Recently, I traveled to Edmonton to see Bioware’s Dragon Age and touched on that in a blog update about choice and how MMO designers could learn a thing or two.

But really, it’s about more than choice. It’s a core problem with MMO dungeons. In every MMO dungeon, people go in for a specific goal. They want to get a piece of equipment, slay a specific boss mob, or grind out the XP. In games like Dragon Age, you head into the dungeon because that’s what your character needs to do to save the world. You do the same thing, but you don’t pay attention to experience points, just progress.

Instancing would allow more emotionally impactful stories to be told in these dungeons. I realize that in an MMO, everyone cannot be the hero of the story. But you can be the hero of that particular situation.

A smattering of deep, hand-crafted, story-driven and instanced dungeon crawls in major MMOs would give people the ability to get together with their friends and recreate those LAN parties we all tried to do in Baldur’s Gate.

And if they came with proper and significant rewards that equaled the time investment people spent, they’d even be a big part of the advancement experience and the game in general.

I am not saying every MMO has to be a sea of instanced content. The fact is, sometimes MMOs and RPGs don’t totally work together. There are times when it’s great to take advantage of the openness of an MMO, but storytelling just isn’t one of those times. So, give people the option to do these quests and really have a fun time.

It’s also time for fans to give up on everything needing to be so black and white or intellectually pure. If a traditional fantasy MMO has a bunch of instanced gameplay added on, does that make it any less of an MMO?

It could also open up some fascinating new end-game options.

Too often, MMO endgames are just about PvP or raiding with no in between. Developers seek infinite content, which is understandable, but what if they also tacked on a story driven end-game?

Single player RPGs prove that people will participate in epic, hand-crafted fantasy adventures purely for the entertainment of doing it. Once the designers were able to assume max level characters, they could create some pretty tough and dramatic content for small groups to work their way through.

And just like Baldur’s Gate, where party members come and go in different stages, so too could an MMO’s content. One day I may play with Jon, one day with Garrett. It still moves forward.

If paired with other forms of less finite content, it would alleviate endgame boredom, keep people around longer and maybe even add more replayability as people want to unlock the different campaigns.

I believe there is room out there for many different kinds of gameplay. Instancing is one thing that should be a positive, not negative in an MMO. Like any other tool, though, it’s just about the developer’s ability to use it correctly.

As fans, though, we need to broaden our horizons and stop arguing absolutes. Instancing unto itself is a great tool, one of many out there. There is nothing anti-social about it.

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Dana Massey Asks Why Not?
Dana Massey is the former Editor of MMORPG.com and The WarCry Network. He recently returned to MMORPG.com as its PR Manager. Dana was also the Co-Lead Game Designer of "Wish."

Each Thursday, he asks the question "Why Not?" about some element of MMOs.
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