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On game features from a student game developer

As a second year bachelor student of game programming and development, there is nothing that interests me more than exploring game features, and discussing the effect they have on games and gamers.

Author: Dreamstrider

On the hate towards instancing in MMOs, and the potential of the feature.

Posted by Dreamstrider Sunday August 10 2008 at 1:03PM
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Quite a pompus title I must admit, but it was the best I could think of while my thoughts are still fresh in my head.

First a small introduction is in order I think:
I am a second year bachelor student at the Norwegian University Of Information Technology (NITH)
Where I study game programming and design.  My biggest dream is to be the lead designer of an MMO, and I work (almost to death according to friends and family) every day to get closer to that goal. One of the most important things to do if you want to make a game, in my opinion, is that you know what the audience / customerbase is actually looking for. And thus I spend a lot of time hanging out in forums such as this, and discussing with players in game, about the features they enjoy, and don't enjoy in massive online games.

Anyway on to the actuall topic of my blog:

I have read lots and lots (and lots) of threads on the forums here about peoples' hate for instancing in MMOs. They claim it ruins immerision (which I must agree with to some extent) and more importantly, that it is a real stick in the wheels for social interaction. When everything is instanced for just a few players, how are you supposed to meet anyone else? This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest drawbacks to the instancing used today. Today instancing is generally thought of as a solution to put a few players into a zone with just them and the scripted path it will take them through. However these are not the only functions of instancing.

By instancing a zone you allow the zone to be rerendered every time a new group of players join it. This allows you to actually change the zone layout while it's active on the server. This would be impossible in a non instanced world because there is no way to make sure no players are in the zone, except by taking it down. If  you instance, you can close down that part of the game world and change it, while the rest of the game world is active.

Instancing can remove traveltime. This is, in my opinion, a very important feature that can be implemented through instancing. Why should the player waste time on walking to the location of the battle, or the event, if all he has to do is step through the portal and be instantly moved? Maybe not the most immersive solution, but it gets you there without wasting your time. And what is more important than having time?

Now imagine if you will, part of a game: You are standing on a massive space station, around you are fifty, maybe a hundred other players, chatting, forming groups and preparing for the actions that is to come. The space station is completely cut off from the rest of the game world, you can't actually move in real time from here to anywhere else. Yet, from here, you can through shuttles be moved instantly to any part of the game world. Each instance can holds a few hundred players, and are quite massive in size. Imagine striking down on such a battlefield, just created randomly by the server, populated by enemies working in a fashion you have never encountered before in the game, using a fortress layout also generated randomly.

Would this be a type of instancing acceptable to you as a player? Or would the instance in itself serve to annoy you, because of the loadingscreen, and the cutoff from the rest of the game world? It would be great if you could post your opinion below!

Thank you for your time!
-The Dreamstrider.

qombi writes:

I am sorry but if you are the future dev of MMORPGs, I think I will not continue playing MMORPGs. Apparently you don't understand what a immersive world is. You like a lot of other devs today believe convenience is the only thing that matters instead of the living breathing game world. Why make a big beautiful massive world if you just want people to instant port where ever they are going? Just make a stupid guildwars if that is what you want. Just make your little guildwars or age of conan, I don't care where the MMORPG genre is headed.

Sun Aug 10 2008 1:34PM Report
Dreamstrider writes:

Quite harsh I must say! I think you might have misunderstood me however. The point of this blog is not to tell you what game I would make, but to discuss features' pros and cons, and what you think of them. Thank you for replying either way.

Sun Aug 10 2008 1:41PM Report
Vekuru writes:

I on the other hand, rather liked your idea about the space station. The person above I think is just a Troll in all honesty, and you can't really ever please a Troll. It would be nice to have a random factor to MMO's, so that the world wasn't always the same, especially since exploration has always been one of my favorite part of MMO's, by actually making it so that in a Space-Based MMO like you're saying you could have multiple different areas, and they'd all be different just by space pod, to me that's awesome. Instances aren't going anywhere, people worrying about immersion, or any of that other crap can shove it, because ultimately what brings people to video games isn't 'immersion' it's having fun, and without having fun you won't be immersed in the very first place.

On the other hand, I've noticed that randomly generated maps also pose a problem, in Diablo II sometimes the layout just doesn't make sense, and you'll go wandering around trying to find some objective that just seems to be beyond your reach. It'd be really nice if the random factor could be structured to make more intelligent maps.

Sun Aug 10 2008 1:51PM Report
Akkuma writes:

Perhaps I am misunderstanding your example, but let me introduce you to something called the logical fallacy. One of your reasons for instancing is the ability to travel instantly to another part of the world; however, this is can be accomplished all the same in a noninstanced world and really is not a valid reason for instancing.

The first part of your argument is legitimate, but really amounts to nothing more than really theory. How many MMOs regularly update the layout of a zone or need to make changes? If they need to do it 1x a week, which would be a lot, they can do it during maintenance. Unless your MMO thrives on some sort of random layouts, which itself would for most kill immersion regardless of story, there should almost never be a need to take down a zone and make changes.

Sun Aug 10 2008 1:58PM Report
Dreamstrider writes:

See, from the real world point of view, your reasoning is indisputable here. The problem with games however is that you don't have access to unlimited processing power. With instancing you would be able to, for example, have players torch a village, and then, the next time somone enters it, have it be a burned down ruin. If you had enough processing power this could obviously be done live, but in game development it's all about getting as much as possible out of what we have available. Mind you, I am not saying that there is something wrong with not liking instancing. I am merely asking if it would be acceptable to an extent if it served a better purpose than it currently is.

Sun Aug 10 2008 2:07PM Report
UncertaintyP writes:

Players don't want immersion, they want easy fun.Immersion is just a buzzword people like to use.

Sun Aug 10 2008 2:39PM Report
Death1942 writes:

if devs actually bothered to use instances for the randomly generated content stuff i would be happy.  however i highly doubt that will happen in the near future.

on the flip side i love to see a big open world were the mobs actually move around a live a life (eat, sleep, drink, hunt) and dont stand in one spot for the players to easily find and kill.  give me a living breathing world (a bit more than Oblivion, as some of those monsters were a tad too static) and i will be happy.


instances dont bother me.  i do however enjoy them when they are put to good use (usually in Sci-fi games as it is justifiable).  in a fantasy setting there has to be a good reason (magical portals are ok but not the stupid crap blizz and Lotro put at the start of their dungeons)

Sun Aug 10 2008 5:21PM Report
Evasia writes:

PhantasyStar online did this you had space station meet many players there formed groups or just chat around, and you could choose a world and go there from main hub.It was fun for a while but for me it was not realy a big immersive mmo.And i dont like instance also portals for me dont do it.Walking through world is no timesink  for me, it give me feeling playing in a big open non instance world where you can explore and have fun finding your way:)Darkfall will have a big open world with no instance i love the idea how they gonne do it.

Sun Aug 10 2008 6:19PM Report
Bustion writes:

Personally I'd rather not see instaning.  Like most players would say, it just kills the feeling of having a "whole" world.  It makes me feel like there  is something i'm missing out on because it creates gaps in the world.   I'm  not completly against instancing however.  It's been said over and over again, its all about implementation.  You cant point at a game like AoC and say "hey,  instancing in that game sucks, so i hat instancing."  You can only say that AoC's implementation of instancing sucks.  I'm sure there are plenty of ways to disguise instancing to make use of this nifty little tool.  You can place them in the right areas; in doorways maybe.  I dont really know, im not a game dev and not to creative lol;  but i would be open minded to a more practical use of the instance.

Sun Aug 10 2008 7:14PM Report
Reianor writes:

I don't get it... how can u both "spend a lot of time hanging out in forums" and "work almost to death"... don't throw words around lightly plz...

About that Village - do u understand that while some people were burning it down in one instance, others got badly beaten in the other one, or even succeded in protecting it from other players. So based on what outcome are u planing to update the village?

Just seeing previousely killed boss respawn spoils immersion for some... and what would they feel if the village they protected/burned down ends up burned down/untouched?

If u want a changing world - changes must be made based on the actions of ALL players who participated, and instances make that impossible.

So u'll have to wait for more "processing power" or find another way around...

Now about random instances - building something "you have never encountered before" means either building something using a human mind, or building something like "huh? this tree was next to that one last time i've seen it, Oh! i forgot, that's a new area... but anyway, what's that quest npc is doing in the middle of a pack of those agro lions and white bears". To avoid that u'll need to randomly generate EVERY object in every new area, and algorithm for that creation should make that process logical. Placement of those objects also must be logical, and not just for maintaining common sense but also for playability reasons. If your program can handle THAT much logic, u may aswell try coding an actual AI. So far there's been no games with succesfull random content generator. (for all those HMM RMG fans - have u ever seen a 2-3 days of road (dugeon walls on both sides) leading to a dead end with no stuff (not even hostile creatures), or a landscape elements placement forcing u to fight a pack of monsters u'd normaly take on on week 3-4, before u can actualy interact with anything but your town? I've seen both, thanks to generator.) And before one appears both programming and "processing power" need to take a huge leap (in case of 1st) and step(in case of 2nd).

Well if u're aiming for something like "Dreamworlds online" (sory if there's a game with this name already), u can take logic out of generating process, but u'll still need that to have playable placement.

And about immersion - its not a fundament of gamecraft, but nothing is. Every gamer cares more or less about sertain game aspects, be it immersion, graphics, gameplay, replayability (or how long it "hooks" in case of an mmo), interface, and whatever else I forgot to mention. And sometimes u have to sacrifice one for another. What i'm geting to, is that Instaces main gain is privacy - u get to storm a dungeon with just your party and no disturbance (if that's a private instance), cause many players like that. They also take some preashure off machine, and are a good crowdness control, but from my exp. that's not what attracts players. And about their disadvantages u'd better ask some instance haters. Well, u probably already had, hence the entry...

And about "what the audience / customerbase is actually looking for" - by the time those random instances can be coded on proper level, that stuff in the last quotemarks will change. Take a look at how games "progressed" - they were mostly about gameplay and were mostly hardcore, now they're about graphics and are to damn casual to boot. Also multiplayer priority moved from lan (or even from 1pc if u look way back at bomberman an co) to online/mmo.

So if u're trying to make a game in near future, check for demand but weight your options carefully, if u want to work out something THAT tech-innovative, that's not gonna be fast, so:

a) people's opinion on instances will likely change

b) "processing power" will increase, and thus u probably wount have to resort to instace system anymore.

Imho gamecraft innovations are more about concept than tech, so look for something that can be implemented with what's currently avaliable. Most revolutionary games earned their place under sun with gameplay ideas, not with game physics and uber graphics. The only worthy innovation provided by tech advancement, that comes to mind was introduction of mmo genre.(Oops, obviously forgot previouse stages - servers and IP/lan gaming)

Sun Aug 10 2008 8:48PM Report
nextroke writes:

Instances do one thing in my opinion for the avg player and that is seperate a unique encounter for everyone. 

There are many good opinions but I remember having to camp a specific mob in EQ for 48 hours for parts of those class epic quests back in the day.  I still have a few friends who are called at 3am to come kill a rare spawn in FFX.  Whatever devs do in the future I hope we don't move back to placing the majority of bosses in the normal world environment since it cuts out alot of people from getting to experience those encounters.  Nothing like fighting for world spawns with the server's top guilds.  Throw in pvp and other elements which must be balanced and instancing sure starts to be a great method to seperate different content audiences. 

My opinion on instancing is keep them but try to remember that it is a balancing act.  Some of the previous posters have pointed this out.  I applaud your research Dreamstrider.  Just please make sure you don't make a game where I have to camp a specific area for over 40 hours for a rare spawn for a specific item.  Those days should be long gone.

Sun Aug 10 2008 10:17PM Report
Reianor writes:

FFX? I guess that was a typo... Funny, but 2 nights ago at around 3 am i was actaly playing FFX...

btw, one of my friend's clan's been totaly dominating pit bosses in RFO on one of russian servers, there was a huge word war over that, but all they needed to achive that - good organisation, good online and efford put into the game (oh, and a few tricks here and there, wich noone else bothered to do).

Can't say i totaly aprove that, but imho boss competition makes sence. It's just that important quest bosses should be always avaliable. (I can still remember man-eating spider from domo...)

Btw, wasn't the very idea behind mmos to have lots of players playing in one huge world and have'em interact with eachother? When i think about instances like that they realy don't look like a good idea to me...

Sun Aug 10 2008 11:40PM Report
craynlon writes:

i think what devs need to realise is that instancing is not a yes or no question as the loudmouth mmo veterans picture it (same as ffa pvp, looting and tons of other stuff)

first you have to ask yourselfe what form of enterntainment your mmo should be. i usually difference between two forms story telling mmo (i.e. age of conan, ddo) and competitive mmo (lineage 2, war)

my basic rule is if you go for storytelling you need to allow the player/ group to enjoy the story without interuption from others > you instance, if you build a competitive mmo you want the player to find competition as often as possible > dont instance.

as i said this is only a very basic guidline. the next generation of  storytelling mmos maybe find stories that can include 100th of players in the storyline. the next gen competitive mmo may build instances to ensure fair matches between similar leveled opponents. or they make a sandbox open world mmo where instancing somehow happens invisible to the player.

about storytelling:

when indina jones enters a temple to find some artifact it doesnt make sense that there are 200 other archeologists in the same temple tripping over traps and fighting undead.

when the fellowship searches for the ring they meet other people on their way of course, there are huge battles but imagine them entering the mines of morea to find another 40 adventures fighting in there.

some content is ment to be shared like city life, trade, huge battles, some content is ment to be expirienced undisturbed or in a controlled environment.

back to your idea:
a big city, a space station (or a few of them) is a good setup if you pack it with content where players can interact. yet it should be more interesting then just a big chat platform.

to the critics:
id like to see some examples where open, non instance worlds resulted inn great storytelling games with rich content. im sorry to say that the sandbox worlds i visited were more or less grinding games.

Mon Aug 11 2008 3:19AM Report
Dreamstrider writes:

Thank you everyone for your comments! It is clear that different people have different opinions on how a game should be, which makes sense of course. I would just like to point out, that instancing does not have to be about six players in a dungeon. It could be a few hundred players on a newly generated battlefield!

Also I agree with the people who say that there is something special about walking around in a world with no boundries except those set by the enviroment (mountains to steep to climb, endless oceans and so on) And I think there has been too little focus on making these worlds more of an experience in itself, instead of just the quest npcs that are sitting in it.

Mon Aug 11 2008 5:14AM Report writes:
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