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Is Instancing Bad for MMOs?

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns Player Versus Player 0

Welcome back to another edition of Player Versus Player, the bi-weekly debate column that pits two MMO writers in a battle over the issues you care about. Like you, we at the MMORPG offices have been paying a lot of attention to Skyforge lately. Even though there is an awful lot players are excited about, the amount of instancing has players divided. One look at our forums is enough to show that this isn’t a new issue. Today we make it official: Is Instancing Bad for MMOs?

Our combatants:

Chris “It’s Not All Bad” Coke: Chris loves the LIVING WORLD concept and isn’t ready to leave it behind. But he wonders, is instancing one step toward a better world for all?

Ryan “Size Matters” Getchell: Ryan strongly thinks size matters, it plays a massive role in the feel of the game.

Chris: Let me get this out of the way first: if instancing means the destruction of the living worlds in MMOs, I’m not for it. So far, the way the MMOs have used it has really been mixed. Some games, like Guild Wars 2, use it seamlessly. Others, like Neverwinter, create lobby cities and don’t feel much like MMORPGs at all. That said, you know what I hate? How limited MMORPG design is. Seamless worlds limit the scope of what developers can pull off on anything short of supercomputers. Instancing can be done behind the scenes without making the world feel small while still opening up better doors to storytelling and presentation. It’s time for MMOs to take the next step. Maybe instancing is what will get us to that next-gen experience we all crave.

Ryan: Seamless worlds do not limit anything in terms of what developers can do, I refuse to believe that. Technology and phasing can easily be utilized to allow borderless worlds. When I say phasing I do not mean instanced phasing, I mean that when you’re in a specific area, you’re not witnessing stuff outside that area thus allowing for a seamless world. You can traverse the world without hitting a zone wall since your phase area would move with you. As you can tell, I’m completely against instancing, it makes your world seem smaller and less epic. Guild Wars 2 is a fantastic example, the gameplay is awesome, but when every zone is a specific level you’re isolated and never have to worry about stepping across a threshold into an area that will roflstomp you.

Chris: I totally agree with the seamless world piece. Anything less puts the whole world in the box. But, in my mind, I think phasing -- the “you see your world” type -- has finally allowed these games to be pushed. I was so disappointed when I first realized that MMO NPCs were puppets. No lip syncing, no advanced movements, just puppetry. Phasing zones allows developers to lock down your space and push processing power toward areas like animation that can really push them to the next level. I think they can do it gracefully now, making zones feel populated by aligning multiple instances of the same region, doing away with server boundaries, and still letting you go to zones without hitting loading screens. They don’t all do that, to their own peril, but it can be done. Would you rather have server lists?

Ryan: I think The Elder Scrolls Online revolutionized the “Server list” issue. Remove the “which server are all my friends on” allow players to just play, no need to lock down people with restrictions. So to answer your question, no I would not rather server lists. I think the megaserver technology while it still has a few flaws (which new technology doesn’t) is the way\ of the future for online gaming. Couple this with phasing, worlds can be as huge and endless as developers want them to be. I remember games like Dark Age of Camelot, where you could ride from one end of your territory to the other. It would take an hour to do so, but it felt real. You didn’t have zone walls making you feel segregated from the rest of the population, you felt as if the world was real, like you were traveling from Toronto to Montreal.

Chris: Well, tomato tomahto there, Ryan. Isn’t megaserver technology really just a whole lot of behind the scenes instancing by any other name? The might have another name for it, but it’s really no different than Cryptic’s zone instances; Zenimax just isn’t as upfront about showing you just how their tech works. I may be totally off base because “megaserver” is as buzzword as they come, but that’s certainly how it feels.

But let’s use Elder Scrolls as an example of why instancing needs to be in place. If everyone played on the same shard and instance, all of those fancy dialogue interactions wouldn’t be possible. The story would be that much more of a failure and the entire game would be kneecapped because so much more processing power would go into rendering the world. If we want story to move forward in MMOs, we need clever uses of instancing, like ESO, to make that possible.  Heck, I would even take loading screens between zones if it meant these games could power better AI.

Ryan: ESO uses the Megaserver and in a vague sense of the word it is instanced. However it’s more of an organized instanced, by that I mean it filters the people you see to people who would be of interest to you. For example, no matter where I go, I don’t see people Role Playing, however I know it’s happening a lot but I never see it. Now, ESO also has zone walls and isolated zones, which I loathe. Technology is here that should allow players to experience a fully open game world with no zone walls or isolations (unless it’s filtered/organized). Think of every player having an invisible bubble around them, only things within their bubble would be rendered, processed and displayed. When bubbles meet you are intertwined with the other players, making the experience seamless and immersive. Of course there would be certain areas that would have a open bubble so there wouldn’t be any merging, for example, major cities and specific zones like Cyrodiil in ESO. I don’t agree that games need to utilize isolated zones and segregation in order to achieve full processing power, not anymore.

Chris: I think what we’re coming to is that instancing is not in itself bad, it’s how it’s used that can be bad. As we’ve seen in Guild Wars 2 and ESO, clever use of instancing can actually elevate an experience. That said, I think the ideal would be for none of that to be necessary. I like large, open, Vanguard-like worlds far more than instanced zones. To me, that gets at the heart of what MMOs should be. But right now, we’re stuck with instancing if we want these games to feel up with the times and not throw barriers between friends our way. It’s not an ideal solution but it seems to be one players can live with.

That’s all from us, now we turn it to you: is instancing bad for MMOs?


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight