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Instancing in MMORPGs

Neil Thompson Posted:
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Ultima Online

City of Heroes

City of Heroes

Guild Wars

Guild Wars

Editorial by Neil Thompson

After recently spending a fair amount of time playing both City of Heroes and Guild Wars I got to thinking about what it was that appealed to me so much about online games. The answer was simple, the people. The communities in these games are fantastic with other players always ready with some helpful advice (sometimes whether you want it or not) and usually willing to lend a hand if things are getting a little tough for you. I then started thinking back to when I first begun playing online games with Ultima Online starting my addiction almost ten years ago.

Now, these are three very different games in many ways as those of you who have played them will be able to testify but what I want to concentrate on is player interactivity, specifically with regards to instancing. Instancing for those of you who don’t know is where a mission area is open only to you and whoever you decide to take along with you, usually with a set group size.

Ultima Online did not use instancing. Anyone could go pretty much anywhere with very few restrictions. This allowed for huge guild expeditions into the harder dungeons (lag permitting) with anyone able to join in. Of course you could make parties but you couldn’t guarantee that you would be the only people there. This led to one of the best online communities I have been a part of. The downside to this system was ‘camping’. People would eventually learn where special items or monsters spawned and ‘camp’ that spot with players who owned faster machines and better internet connections usually getting the claim. Griefers were also a problem here with some players pulling harder mobs towards weaker players and many other childish tricks.

If Ultima Online were at one end of the spectrum then Guild Wars would be at the other. The majority of the gameplay in Guild Wars is instanced. The only time you mix with other people is when you visit specific areas to trade and find groups. Whenever you go on a mission there is only you and the people you have invited, if you have not invited anyone then you are alone in what is at times a large area. Ok, so there’s no camping, and the lag is pretty much non-existent but there are no people. I know the idea is to find a group to adventure with but how do you do this, the game doesn’t promote any prior interaction so the only option you have at first is to commit to doing missions with random strangers. In my experience finding a good team was really difficult, although when I do the game is fantastic.

In the middle we have City of Heroes. What in my opinion is the best team based game I have played to date. This takes aspects from both Ultima Online and Guild Wars with players having to do both instanced missions (usually indoors and imaginatively called ‘door’ missions) and outside open missions. The beauty here is that you can do more than just talk to people before teaming with them as there is plenty of non-instanced content to experience. This allows you to find regular team mates in a non-pressured environment, I’ve lost count of the amount of groups I’ve found myself joining due to the fact that myself and others were fighting in the same area and just happened across each other.

The point I am trying to make here is that unless handled in a thoughtful manner instancing can seriously affect the community of a game. If Guild Wars required a subscription fee I’m not sure I’d play as it sometimes takes almost as long to find a good group as it does to do a mission. Also, I find my friends list rather empty of quality players, and before you shout that it’s probably my personality in Ultima Online and City of Heroes I found my ICQ and friends lists full of people I regularly met and adventured with in-game, I am a very social player, but in Guild Wars I find it difficult to find new people to team with.

Now, please don’t take this as a criticism of Guild Wars, I do like the game and still play regularly. What I’m saying is that when I join a group in this game in many cases they turn out to be that everyone is for themselves with no thought of team play. I put this down to the total instancing of the game as you don’t know who you are teaming with.

In City of Heroes you meet people during general gameplay. You could be fighting a mob when another hero turns up and starts healing you, or debuffing the mobs. Either way you get some idea of how that person plays the game, there are still plenty of people I wouldn’t team with but at least I can find something out about these people before I decide to team with them, or not. If City of Heroes didn’t give players this opportunity to meet others due to total instancing then I have no doubt it would lack the community it now has.

I hope that instancing isn’t being seen as the way forward for MMOG, or not total instancing in the style of Guild Wars anyhow. If handled correctly I do think it can add to a game (anyone who has played Ultima Online will appreciate the joys that instanced housing would bring) otherwise is it not the same as sitting around a console with four controllers plugged into it playing a linear game with 4 friends? Part of the appeal of online gaming is surely the unpredictability that only human interaction can bring.

Also, the term Massive Multiplayer Online Game, doesn’t this conjure up images of thousands of players all playing at the same time? We must ask ourselves, is this really the case? I for one don’t think it is, at times we are playing alone and in some cases we are playing with only a handful of people at any one time. I know that this can be said of most games, even games that don’t use instancing, we all have our own circle of adventuring buddies but at least the opportunity is there to make new friends. Isn’t that the essence of what brought us to MMOG’s in the first place?

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Neil Thompson