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Moments in an Instance

Editorials By Danielle Vanderlip on April 10, 2006

Moments in an Instance

City of Villains
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Editorial: Instancing and MMORPGs

Danielle "Sachant" Vanderlip looks at the trend of private experiences in public games


    n 1: a state of extreme confusion and disorder [syn: pandemonium, bedlam, topsy-turvydom, topsy-turvyness] 2: the formless and disordered state of matter before the creation of the cosmos 3: (Greek mythology) the most ancient of gods; the personification of the infinity of space preceding creation of the universe [syn: Chaos] 4: (physics) a dynamical system that is extremely sensitive to its initial conditions

Into all things in life there is a sense of chaos that permeates the edges of all that we do. Most sane human beings strive to create order from chaos. It is our natural state to make sense of things, to organize, to catalogue and to set things right. This sense of putting things in order has manifested itself in the form of “Instancing” when we discuss MMOs. Where once we were at risk of an individual or even a group of individuals mucking up a perfectly good dragon pull, we now have the safety net that the only screw-ups bound to happen will come from one of our own. Rejoice all ye who once lamented the lag and chaos that used to make your heart race and your blood pressure skyrocket!

From the Official WoW Strategy Guide by Brady Games we get the following definition of an Instance:

    Instance AKA Instance Dungeon. A dungeon in which only your party interacts with the mobs and objects within. Each group or party enters their own Instance separate from other players.
Sweet, sweet Order. No more do players suffer the interaction of others! Down with community!

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration to the effect that instancing has created within the game worlds we like to call home. There is the good that goes with the bad like in all things and while it’s not a perfect solution it has its’ value.

Join me if you will and let’s take a look at what good instancing can do for gaming.

  1. Reduction in lag

    Theoretically, the idea of creating instances is to help lighten the load on a main server. A smart technical team takes advantage of the need to ‘zone’ (load an area of the game) by utilizing server space set up specifically JUST to handle the instances portion of the game. In this way only those players that are in an instance are using the servers’ power and thus it reduces the lag for both the players in the instance and those in the ‘normal’ areas. Lag is the beast to which all developers strive to slay but I won’t go too far into detail in that regard.

  2. Reduction in Interference from other players/fair play

    It doesn’t take a PvP server (Player versus Player) to find griefers. Griefers can live even in the relatively safe confines of a PvE (Player versus Environment) world and if they can disrupt someone else from achieving game related goals, they will. Where once players risked interference from others when orchestrating a major feat of heroism, they now can sit back in relative safety. The only danger that may be lurking is an inattentive guildmate or (heaven forbid) participating in a pick-up group where anything can happen. In this it gives players that are able to enter the instances an equal chance of defeating the obstacles within as any other group of players. It also enables them a fair chance of reaping the same rewards as others that conquer the instance. This brings a couple of lines from a Monty Python movie to mind (The Life of Brian).

    Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!
    The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!
    Brian: You're all different!
    The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

    While different equipment has a chance of dropping for each instance raid group, the general loot tables are the same and in the end everyone has the same chance of getting the items within.

  3. Richer more aggressive Content

    Developers are able to do things in instances that they normally can’t in regular areas. They can do level checks to make sure people have the right level to enter or the right item. They guarantee that the right people are getting the benefit of the area. They are also able to set within those bounds rules that may not be available in other areas such as goals to meet and timers to return. They can also flag whether or not a person is able to repeat something at all ala City of Heroes or City of Villains. Once an area is complete a character cannot return to that area. They must progress. They can even add group bonuses and more. You could call it a more organized way to level and reward players while allowing further innovations.

To all good things a little rain must fall. While instancing has helped to alleviate some technical issues and some griefing issues, it has also brought about some argument as to whether it is really worth it when it comes to a sense of community. Many of the things that can be done in an instance can be done in regular areas if done with care: flags at borders, data attached to individual characters etc. What cost is there to community however when a good portion of the community is sequestered in an area of the game that only a select few can enter? What affect does it have on guilds and individual more casual players? For many people it is creating a rift versus creating a community.

A new problem faces developers with the advent of instancing. They must find ways of creating hubs of community. In many games this comes in the form of centers for commerce. It is a sort of superficial and forced convenience that communities now embrace where once they would voluntarily create such hubs and gathering spots. While this may have some slight effect however, it isn’t the entire solution. Players generally turn off their general chat. They interact quietly with a banker or vendor/auctioneer or a mailbox and are off to their next big run. In many cases the only true community comes at the lower levels when there are no big instances to run. Many people find themselves with the ‘alone in a crowd’ syndrome. This is particularly hard on the casual player or on the small guilds.

Casual players rarely get to see upper end content of games. It is argued that if they don’t have the time to put in they won’t miss the upper content. In many cases, this may be true. In many others it isn’t. Some games are created to allow for casual gamers to at least work as a crafter or be quickly piggybacked onto a higher player’s experience runs and level right along with them. In these games the pinch of upper end content isn’t as painful. For those that take part in games that are not only unfriendly to solo players but offer little to nothing for the solo player at the upper end, the last level they can achieve is the end of the road. At best what they have to look forward to is creating another character.

While it’s painful for an individual, it can be traumatic for guilds. Rifts are created between the casual and ‘hardcore’ players. The upper end players don’t want to repeat content they have found boring or have repeated countless times for others and so those that are more casual are left behind. Guild leaders must decide what is best for the guild. Go forward? Or wait? Neither is an easy choice and inevitably if a game is not flexible enough to allow for a compromise, guilds will and do fracture or even collapse completely under the strain. Even worse is when a small guild is unable to accomplish tasks alone. They either must give up on the idea of upper end content or they must join with another guild to cooperate. Given the nature of MMOs and the communities in them this can either be a way of bonding and creating a larger guild than originally intended or it can lead to drama with a capital ‘D’.

It is a two-headed beast that is not easily overcome. New players who once gained the help and tutelage of more experienced players can no longer find them among them save for when they are passing through to buy new things. If they want that sort of help, they MUST join a guild and not any guild but one that is larger than any guilds have been traditionally in the past. They must compromise their quality of play if they are a casual gamer. They must learn to expect less from their time and give more time to achieve the same goals as anyone else. We call this ‘the grind’. It hurts. No one likes it, and it is the brass ring that developers struggle to grasp.

Are instances a bad thing? No. I don’t believe they are completely. They have their bad to go with the good. They have compartmentalized our playtime into sound bites. They have shut us off from the ‘riff raff’ and created order out of chaos. I am probably one of the few that misses a bit of chaos. I fully believe that developers are just people searching for that one perfect answer. They are not gods and goddesses and until someone finds the Holy Grail of game design, I am sure we will continue to live our moments in instances.

Editor's Note: Danielle "Sachant" Vanderlip serves as the assistant community manager of Wolfpack's Shadowbane until May 15th, 2006.

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