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All Things MMO

A look at some of the things I've learned from playing MMO's and my thoughts on where they're headed.

Author: Zarcob

Instancing For the Future

Posted by Zarcob Thursday June 24 2010 at 5:23PM
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You know that little mechanic?  Some hate it, some like it, but most just tolerate it.
I've seen instancing used in so many different ways over the years that it confuses me when people use blanket statements rejecting instancing altogether.  If I probe their mind (gently, no mechanical devices inserted of any type), eventually I come to realize they usually mean a specific type of instancing that they hate, not every incarnation of it.  I thought just for the sake of clarity I'd go over some of the definitions of instancing and the ways I've seen it used through the many years, and why I think it's not necessarily a good idea to cry foul at the mere mention of the word.
Definition:  The definition of an instance is an area in space that is replicated as a copy of itself for different reasons.  Most often these reasons have to do with logistical problems, like maintaining minimum frame rates or reducing server load, but it can be for gameplay reasons that I'll get to in a minute as well.
I've also seen it misconstrued a few times as a zone.  While it's true that moving into a instance is almost always going to include a loading screen, not every loading screen is an instance and not every zone is an instance.  EQ (both 1 and 2) utilize zones which were not instanced copies of one another.  These zones still required the tedious loading screens before entering a region but each was unique.  Because these zones aren't copies of one another they don't function as instances as much as separate pockets of the world.
If that's not your cup of tea - well, that's entirely up to you.  Although I honestly think it's being a bit picky.  Zones serve a variety of important functions.  They ensure the server load is rarely exceeded because highly populated zones can utilize separate hardware.  They also allow designers to use more memory on your video card because certain textures and models can be restricted to certain zones based on environment.  Even though this can be accomplished by swapping memory on the fly, it causes large video degradation on older machines, especially for graphic-hungry titles that use real lightning or cutting-edge effects like tessellation.  Current technical limitations often require a world to either suffer the demons of lag and framerate drag on older machines, or utilize some form of zones to segment the world.  Either or.
It's ugly, I know.  I'd certainly rather have a full seamless game that included the best of both worlds but we probably won't see that in our lifetime.  If you prefer the lag and have the money for a big machine, I can understand the opinion in favor of no-zones.  But it's a bit naive to insist on realistic graphics, lag-less worlds, diverse environments and no-zones with current hardware technology.
It just can't happen.  Yet.
But let's get back to instances.  Instances come in a few different forms, some of which we're all familiar with, some of which are quite new, and some of which will probably surprise you.  Let's start with a form of instancing that virtually every game uses but nobody really notices.
Servers - Most MMO's today operate with a number of different servers to help divide up the population.  We've come to accept this as a standard element of most MMO titles, but we don't usually notice servers are actually instance so large they encompass the entirety of the game.  Each server is usually an exact copy of the next, excluding whatever player-made changes can surface between them.  For the most part we don't even notice the existence of these instances because a game will forbid players from jumping servers, let alone even talking with players on different servers, so we tend to forget they're even there.
Zones - Wait a minute!  You thought I just said zones weren't instances!  Now here they are on the list!  LIAR!
That's partially true.  I included the example of EQ1 and 2 which had zones that were not instanced, but that doesn't mean that they can't be instanced.  CoH and AoC have zones which are instances.  These zones replicate themselves when they became too crowded.  If you wanted to go to Perez Park, you'd have a choice between instance 1, 2, 3, etc., that usually pops up in the form of an obnoxious drop-down menu.
I see a lot of hate for these types of instances and honestly I have to agree.  I don't see a need to include these if a server is correctly attuned for its population load.  If the zones are so small the server can only hold 500 people, then it seems like a better idea to have a new server than spawn a new instance of a zone on the old one.  But blaming the loading screen on the instance shows a lack of understanding of the game's mechanics.  It's actually the zone that creates the segmented loading screens between the areas of the world and the instance that simply replicates the zone and adds the tacky menu.
There are some advantages to this type of instance, of course, such as when a game first comes out or after it's been out for several years; in either case the population tends to bunch up at either the low or high levels, making a server population limit misleading and causing congestion.  It's also much easier to swap players between instanced zones than servers, creating the possibility of having servers with much higher population caps.  Although I'm not so sure this is such a big advantage.  If the extra people existing on a server thanks to the addition of zone instances can't even interact because Zone A has spawned 50 copies, the functionality may as well not be there.
Dungeons & Encounters - I've lumped these two together because they operate virtually the same, but for some people there can be a world of difference.  When a dungeon is instanced it means each group (or individual) that enters gets their own separate copy.  Sometimes the dungeons themselves are not instanced, but an encounter at the end of the dungeon may be, usually the boss.  Both types have popped up in a variety of games, but they serve a very important function - the same function virtually all instancing solves - preventing the possibility of over-crowding.
Whereas Zones and Servers are mass instances that utilize large groups of players, Dungeon and Encounter instances are private instances that spawn only for a single player, or players mutually cooperating.  This type of instancing offers a great deal of power for creating narrative and encounter design, because it is only here that a designer can be sure that one player won't interfere with another in the middle of a scripted, and possibly unique, event.  These are the best places to make a person feel like a "hero" because in these small instances they can actually be a unique character.
Older players might try to convince you that dungeon over-crowding was not a big deal.  They dealt with over-crowding in UO and EQ, right?  Players just need to learn to share!
But I can tell you that opinion is a lot of bunk.  UO and EQ were roughly as populated as today's failed games, and they still had massive crowding issues.  In my opinion, a dungeon should always be a scary, lonely and forbidding place.  If you manage to traverse to the bottom and face a formidable foe, you shouldn't find three groups of players all sitting around waiting for the same foe to magically reappear.  This problem is way more jarring to a sense of realism than the loading screen for the dungeon could be.
However, this may be an area where technology has finally advanced to the point where we can kiss the loading screen goodbye.  How?  By using the next type of instancing that's just appeared in the last year.
Phasing - A few players aren't yet familiar with this so I'll give a quick explanation.  Phasing is essentially an instance, it can be of a zone or dungeon type instance, or even an instance that only includes a certain square-foot radius around an open-world location.  This instance has no loading necessary in most cases because the area is loaded in the background while out of view.
How is that possible?  Think of it this way: When your character is out in the world the server doesn't load objects you can't see.  To your computer, the top of that distant mountain doesn't exist.  You may be able to see some of the landscape, or it may be obscured by some kind of fog, but you can rarely make out individual objects like trees or enemies because none of it has been loaded.  What you can see is what your computer is simply "assuming" should be there.
As you get closer to the mountain the game is told to start loading the objects.  This is where phasing comes into play.  If you're visiting the mountain top of the first time, then the game loads Mountain_Version_A.  In this phase you find the mountain and a small mining village like you might any standard MMO.  Let's say there are a few other players there hanging around and the lot of you decide to descend into the nearby mine in search of adventure.  When you reach the bottom, perhaps you're presented with a choice that ultimately results in freeing some ancient evil.  You and your new friends barely manage to escape with your lives.
When you get back to the surface, the game loads Mountain_Version_Evil_Escaped, instead of the Version_A you saw before.  The landscape might be the same but all of the trees may be scorched black and the villagers dead.  Since all your friends were together, they all see the same version loaded as well.  In this version of the mountain the small mining village has been viciously destroyed by the evil you so ignominiously released from its prison.
Phasing technology has just been used to some success by WoW with their latest expansion.
Oh GODS what?!  WoW did something I should be interested in?  I know right.  Turns out there actually are some advantages to being the biggest company on the block.
I only got a chance to play around with it briefly but I was incredibly surprised at the power behind it.  It could possibly present solutions to issues that old instances previously solved but without any of the drawbacks.  Phasing could potentially maintain the illusion of a seamless and open world and solve every problem with over-crowding.
Of course, phasing isn't perfect.  There are still a myriad of questions to answer in regards to its function and development: Does it have limitations?  How do players interact if they have different phases loaded without an annoying drop-down menu?  How widespread can it be?
Time will tell how well phasing is used in the future but it's an excellent example of how the industry stuck with a basic idea and kept improving upon it.  It represents a bright spot on some of the stagnant archaic devices still lurking around most MMOs and why it might not be as good an idea to toss out the old devices when we should try to reinvent them.