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For Instance

Editorials By Nathan Knaack on April 10, 2006

For Instance
Instancing tops Nathan's agenda this week

A recent topic of heated debate all over the MMORPG community is the technological advance (or philosophical leap backwards, to some people) of “instancing.” For anyone not yet acquainted with the concept, instancing is the practice of allocating a piece of the game world that generates a copy of itself for each individual or group that enters. The best examples are in games like Guild Wars or World of Warcraft, where everyone exists in a shared environment until they pass through a designated gate (as in WoW), after which they are transferred to a carbon copy of a specific dungeon that they are free to explore and conquer without any interference or interruption. Regardless of how long they spend in the dungeon, anyone else that enters that same gate is sent off to a different, private copy of the same area.

Though there are several pros and cons, it’s quite obvious that instancing was developed with both mechanical and community demands in mind. On the game design and hardware side, managing 1,000 players split up into 10 instance copies is much easier than managing 500 players all in the same zone. Likewise, some players greatly enjoy knowing that they’re impervious to any meddling by other players as they pursue the goals of the instance, which is usually centered around battling through a unique dungeon in search of some specific treasure. As with most design features, instancing is one of those instant gratification fixes that looks and sounds good as a short-term solution, but has far-reaching long-term effects that most games are only beginning to realize. Let’s go over some of the pros and cons of instancing.

Although it would seem like the antithesis of the MMORPG (remember what the M and M stand for), there is a sizeable portion of the online community that prefers, and in some cases demands, solo content. These people will often wait in line for hours to log into the most populated server available, then completely ignore any human interaction as they go about grinding through monsters and quests alone. It might have something to do with the social awkwardness of the average gamer, but it also has to do with the image that fantasy and science fiction has drilled into their audience for years, that teams are for touchy-feely wimps and the real bad-asses are the guys who go in alone. Everyone wants to be the cop that doesn’t need a partner, the rebel gunfighter that’s too cold to get close to, or the wandering swordsman who can take out a whole army single-handedly. Everyone wants to be the lone warrior of the apocalypse. Think about the best example you know of involving a daring, dangerous, gun-slinging scoundrel who goes where he wants in his custom spaceship and plays by his own rules; the guy’s name is even Han “Solo”. Who is the coolest character in the Justice League, the super-powered guy in a red cape, the psychic green alien, or the legendary warrior woman? No, it’s the guy in black with the raspy whisper who insists on working alone. (Two Batman references in my last two articles? I hope this doesn’t turn into a Seinfeld/Superman thing…) As much as developers would like to encourage teamwork, there will always be a portion of the community that clamors for individualized activities, and that’s something instances provide nicely.

Instances also provide activities for small, organized groups that would prefer not to have to wade through campers to get to their favorite encounters, or wait in lines to get quest items or powerful monster drops. Something they might not realize is that instances also allow developers to achieve unique effects because the entire area is pinched off from the rest of the world. Timelines can unfold at any pace, regardless of what might actually be happening. Day and night can cycle several times without having to accelerate or decelerate the outside world, while catastrophic events like avalanches or electrical storms don’t need to be visually represented to anyone but those in the instance, either. All-in-all, instances are a great solution to many of the problems solo gamers have as well as some of the technological issues developers have run into regarding server sizes and zone population caps.

The biggest concern that has been voiced regarding instancing is the lack of a worldwide, coherent community, simply because it’s difficult to build and maintain a society when everyone is off in their own, personal pocket dimension instead of interacting and forming the relationships necessary to do so. How do you reinforce a player-driven economy when the best goods come from repeated raids through instances instead of from player craftspeople? How do you get leaders to wage epic wars over contested territory if they’re too busy getting the best advancement (experience points, etc) from the high-end monsters in instances? How do you influence people to play their characters, or role-play, when they’re each in a secluded, walled-off section of the world instead of interacting with each other? It’s like the difference between watching a soccer game at home or at the stadium. Either way, there are thousands of people watching the same thing, but where do you feel more connected to society, at the live event or sitting on your couch?

Although the next problem relates specifically to the reliability of finding certain items in certain places, instancing magnifies the problem of economic inflation in MMORPGs. Knowing that a particular instance yields a desirable item, players will flock to the area in order to get it. Regardless of how rare the item is or how dangerous it was supposed to be to get, pretty soon you’ll start seeing the item on every character with the ability to use it. Half the reason every character looks the same in most MMORPGs is because of a linear item progression, but the other half of the reason is that those items are widely known to be available in specific, reliable places that can be visited over and over again.

Something the solo gameplay advocates have been complaining about for years now is the industry’s growing trend to make the most lucrative instances really only available to large and diverse groups. People who would like to experience as much as possible during solo gameplay have often lamented being excluded from these areas simply because they’re statistically impossible to complete without 5-40 people. Part of this reason stems from the fact that most instances are linear (Actually, it seems that “linear” design turns out to be half, or more, of most MMORPG problems. Maybe we’ve spent too long addressing the symptom instead of the disease…), being that there is only one way to complete the zone. If more instances had optional means of conquering them (maybe even optional results), they would be more accommodating to solo players. For example, a typical dungeon raid might be optimized for 10 players to hack and slash their way through and kill a dragon for its treasure, but if it was designed with multiple gameplay options in mind, the same instance could provide a lot of fun for a solo sneaky-type character who could try to stealth/ambush their way through to obtain a smaller portion of that treasure. Likewise, a solo social (charisma-based) character could spend a while establishing the proper connections outside of the instance to be able to make their way through it unharmed and then try to negotiate or trick the dragon out of some of its treasure. These aren’t revisions to existing games that would require years of extra programming or artwork, either; they’re simple alterations to AI scripting and quest parameters that would allow instances to be available to solo players as well as larger groups.

This brings me to the point of this article, that there are better ways to make games that include, but do not rely upon instancing. Furthermore, there are several ways to use instances that don’t favor groups over solo players (outlined above), don’t hyper-inflate the economy, and don’t setup strange inconsistencies between time and space for events that happen in and outside of instances. For instance (pun intended), it would be much more feasible to the storyline and community of an MMORPG if instances were moved from dungeons and other physically illogical areas and put into places where they make sense. Imagine a powerful spell that takes targets from the real world and hurls them off into pocket dimension traps, tiny areas they are imprisoned in for short periods of time, but that allow for early escape if they complete some set task. A great example of this is the spell called “Maze” from the pencil and paper version of Dungeons and Dragons. A target is sent into an extra-dimensional labyrinth where they’re stuck until they find their way out (a feat of intelligence), whereupon they appear back in the real world.

But the great examples of realistic instances don’t end there. Drawing upon Native American folklore, what if players could voluntarily submit to an induced coma to enter a vision quest. Physically, their avatar is stuck in one place in the real world, but another copy of their avatar appears in an instanced dream world, where they interact with (talking, fighting, etc) entities that only exist inside the instance. They might go on a vision quest to gain experience, like a great hunting trip that’s all in their mind, or to glean some relevant information they’re looking for from a spirit guide. In a previous article, I spoke of my disappointment with WoW because they had gone to all of the trouble to make a great-looking spirit world players go to when they die, but had then done absolutely nothing with it in terms of gameplay activities. This spirit realm could easily be swapped out for individualized heaven/hell instances for each player that dies, where they have to stand in judgment, perform a duty, and/or serve a sentence before returning to the land of the living. A great side-effect feature of both the vision quest and the spirit world instance ideas is that they’re in the unique position of being a reliable instance that doesn’t contribute to economic inflation, because characters would obviously not be able to bring items out of either area. They might remain on your avatar, but only in the instance, for you to use the next time you show up there, or they might just be single-use items that vanish as soon as you leave.

What if a wizard or psychic character became so powerful that they could create a pocket universe for themselves? In much the same way player housing offers a great connection to the game world, players might ironically become more connected to the world by manifesting a customizable shard of reality they could occupy alone or invite people to visit. Maybe the more powerful the creator, the larger the pocket becomes, including their choice of terrain, buildings, and/or NPC inhabitants. As long as these fragment dimensions exist, why not give other characters the ability to locate and perhaps even “break in” to them?

Not every “logical” instance needs to be some supernatural alternate plane of existence, either. Ships far out at sea (or in interstellar space) could conjure up instances for single encounters, too. If you’re sailing between continents through thousands (trillions) of miles of open sea (or space), an instance is perfectly acceptable for your encounter with pirates (or… uhm… space pirates). It might even be a fun situation if the game engine takes into account how many players are traveling between each destination, then randomly spits two or more of them out into a shared instance if their paths come close to crossing at about the same time. You could end up with two ships traveling between two ports in opposite directions both arrive in a small instance occupied by a hungry sea monster (or… space monster?).

As with most MMORPG issues, the community is basically split into the pro and con instance sides, but just like with all of those other issues, there is a way to make both sides happy. Put instances where they belong, implement them in such a way as to be entertaining and rewarding to both groups and individuals, and adapt the storyline situations so that they’re not always the best place to get the most powerful items on a reliable basis. Then you’ll end up in a world where instancing grants all of the mechanical and community demanded benefits, but minimizes or completely circumvents the potential drawbacks.

You can comment on Nathan's article here.