The Daily Grind: Is instancing in MMORPGs our real enemy?

The first MMORPGs I ever played hadn’t come up with instancing yet. They had perceptible server lines and time-sucking zone walls, but everyone was in the same world, fighting over the same everything, often waiting in lines for spawns or flat-out cutting in those lines with no recourse left to the players but to chuck their own manners or lose out.

It took time, but eventually the purveyors of online worlds figured out how to instance off content. Some instanced dungeons so we wouldn’t have to camp-check again. Some just instanced housing. Some instanced whole zones to keep the lag down, and some even instanced the overland world or storytelling areas, leading us to the point that some players argue that all types of instancing are bad, that it destroys worlds and breaks up communities and leads to tiny, unambitious lobby-based games.

I’ve never been convinced that instancing ruined the genre; some of the biggest “feeling” MMOs I’ve played were layered with instances to keep everyone together, whereas a truly open-world game can feel tiny if it’s so big you never meet another soul. To me, it’s not the structure of the gameworld but what players are encouraged and enabled to do within it that makes or breaks the feel of an MMO and its community. Instanced housing, for example, is better than no housing at all!

What say you? Is instancing in MMORPGs — the very thing intended to help us all fit into these worlds together without trampling each other — our real enemy?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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174 Comments on "The Daily Grind: Is instancing in MMORPGs our real enemy?"

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mysecretid
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mysecretid

PizzaDoh 
“at that point, you’ve joined a chat room, not a dungeon”‘
An excellent way of putting it. One of my least-fun gaming experiences involved waiting in a long line in early World Of WarCraft to kill a quest-target monster. It genuinely felt like waiting in line to buy movie tickets, or to make a deposit at the bank,
So much for feeling like an epic fantasy hero! :-)

Skyewauker
Guest
Skyewauker

schmidtcapela Caec You do have a lobby though.  Thats the thing.  In WoW your lobby now is your garrison.  In The Division its whatever safehouse you logged out in.  In TOR, its the fleets.  MMOs have literally turned into what you say you dont have to bother with lol.

Skyewauker
Guest
Skyewauker

disUserNameTake Skyewauker Everyone below pretty much answered it for me.  The day WoW and many others became an Instance Simulator is the day it started to go down hill.  This happened late in WotLK.  There is a reason that most people think that Wrath was the best expac.  They think of it because once LFD was introduced the game was set down a path that made the subsequent expansions shit.  Community went away.  Knowing people on your server went away.  The LFD tool coupled with cross realm has ruined MMOs forever and its something we cannot come back from.  

Millennials and there “veruka” ways have pretty much ruined gaming as we know it.

crackfox
Guest
crackfox

mysecretid crackfox That was exactly my experience in SWG. Funny that you mention Berlin – iirc, the first player city on my server was called New Berlin. But at launch, before the sprawl of player cities, Tatooine really was Tatooine and I loved every barren inch of it.

PizzaDoh
Guest
PizzaDoh

Instanced dungeons I think are okay – it allows the game to feel like you’re traveling to a dangerous area to kill some evil monster thing.

When you don’t have instanced dungeons, you walk into a sea of people sitting around waiting for a giant monster to spawn. It’s really not epic at all – at that point you’ve joined a chat room, not a dungeon.

Instancing is okay in quests when it’s brief and isn’t consistently putting you in further along instances keeping you from playing with friends if you quest too far.

tobascodagama
Guest
tobascodagama

ManastuUtakata crackfox Nordavind

Oh, I’m using the capital-C just to emphasise the words that are programmer terminology. No special meaning there.

As for why… It’s just a peculiar usage of the dictionary definition: “A set, collection, group, or configuration containing members regarded as having certain attributes or traits incommon; a kind or category.”

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

schmidtcapela ManastuUtakata crackfox Nordavind tobascodagama 
Now that makes much more sense. Once I separated game classes from “Class”, I am starting to see components of an MMO containing their own variables. From environmental details to player characters to entire zones to instance dungeons. It’s like looking at a game as Lego blocks, as opposed to one big program. Or the universe as loop quantum gravity, as opposed sting theory which I am sure some astrophysicist came up on a DMT trip. But I digress…
…thanks for explaining all of that. My understanding of why instance are called instances is less rudimentary for it. <3

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

Caec 
Personally, I don’t play MMOs to have a “functioning online society/community.” Not interested in the least. I play MMOs because they are a kind of game where I can meet other players and join them on a whim, without having to bother with lobbies, out of game server lists, or any such kludges.

(Well, among other things, but as far the social reasons I play MMOs instead of single-player games or more conventional multiplayer games, that is it.)

Though I do agree that there is a long list of MMOs that might have had better success as single-player games with co-op capabilities. Heck, from time to time I say that I don’t care enough about TOR to even play it for free, but I would have pre-ordered and paid full price for a single-player KotOR3 with the exact same content.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

Rheem Octuris 
And that is why I never bothered with old Everquest. Despite enjoying company, in a game I refuse to depend on others. Ruins my fun.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

Estranged SC_Deadline Samizdat 
Not everyone is like you. I find asking others for a place in a group stressful enough that in WoW I played less than a dozen instances in the years from launch until LFD was added; contrasting that, in just the first day after I discovered LFD I played more instances than in the years before.

I don’t have anything against socializing per see. But I will never, EVER, ask another player for help in a game. Not even for a spot in a group, or to ask someone to join my group. Too frustrating and stressful, every time I attempted to do that I would instead log out in frustration, so I don’t even try anymore.

In other words: you want to get someone like me to socialize, you need to find a way that absolutely does not involve asking for help.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

Vexia camelotcrusade 
Not quite. Single-player games allow players more freedom in saving and loading (including duplicating saves, loading an earlier save to undo a mistake or try another approach, and so on), cheating (many games even include official cheat codes), modding, pausing, and a large number of other improvements that MMOs aren’t able to provide.

Caec
Guest
Caec

It depends. If you really want to make an MMO, then yes…instancing went entirely too far. It’s tough work trying to make a functioning online society, so I understand the easy path of turning them into instanced game lobbies, but if you don’t want the challenge of a functioning online society/community, then why even bother making an MMO? The list of MMOs released in the past decade that probably would have been far larger successes if they’d simply embraced being a single player RPG with multiplayer/coop capabilities is…very, very long, as opposed to the very long of dismal failures that suffered from this identity crisis of trying to be something by being something else. 

As for saying that instancing was originally a good intentioned attempt at controlling player population…I’m not sure I actually agree with that. We could argue over who introduced instancing, but to me-in the west-I look at Anarchy Online. AO brought us an alternative to open world mob grinds with a party of players, doing the traditional pull mobs from a pack to everyone else to grind down, by providing “missions” which were procedurally generated instanced content in which you basically just grinded down mobs as you ran through a cave, building, etc, with a mini boss at the end. In a lot of ways, a precursor to instanced 5-man dungeons of the modern era. That’s it, though. The rest of the world and game was non-instanced. I’m pretty sure the only reason those missions were instanced had nothing to do with controlling population, and everything to do with being able to pretend to provide variety without having to create even more open world content by hand. Procedurally generated content is essentially going to be instanced by its very nature. 

That said, it’s all a bit moot. We have what we have today. What ifs or they shouldas isn’t going to change that. And, while I largely think the old dream of massive virtual worlds of adventure filled with other people are a dream that’s never really going to be realized anytime soon, and that despite all the advances in technology, its glory days are actually well behind us, I do hold out some small hope that someone(s) will decide to go the non-profit route and recapture the ingenuity, sense of adventure, and creativity that fueled all those MUDs and started the entire dream of MMOs in the first place, prior to it all becoming a commercial venture more focused on profit margins than virtual worlds and adventure.

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

ManastuUtakata crackfox Nordavind tobascodagama 
That would be like Object Oriented Programming 101 :p

Class is because it’s a class of objects. Making a real world analogy, we could think of bicycles as a class, as every bicycle shares common traits, but each is an individual object (AKA an instance of the class).
It also fits the dictionary definition of “class” (a set or category of things having some property or attribute in common and differentiated from others by kind, type, or quality) ;)

(And, as a very simplified explanation, object oriented programming is when the program is created as a bunch of somewhat independent objects that interact. Think, for example, of a car, where the various parts make the whole and you have multiple “instances” of the same “class”, like the four tires. Dividing the program into independent objects is usually easier than the alternatives for big programs, such as games and game servers, just like making big machines out of standardized components tends to be easier than creating everything from scratch.)

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

SC_Deadline Estranged 
The way I play nowadays, if I have to get in line in a game, I will log off and uninstall. I don’t play games whose developers have no respect for the player’s gaming time, not anymore, specially because my gaming time is mostly restricted to 30-minutes chunks.

Michael18
Guest
Michael18

Instancing is a tool to keep the chaotic, unpredictable dynamic of an MMO in check and make the player experience more consistent and predictable. But at the same time it can kill some of the magic. Designers of more recent MMOs seem almost scared of this dynamic. I can’t blame them, when a huge budget and your children’s dinner depends on the success and longevity of the game. But in the long run this sucks the lifeblood from MMOs.

So, as many others have said, instancing has its uses but should be employed sparingly and with great caution.

mysecretid
Guest
mysecretid

crackfox 
I’ve never seen it work as intended either, fox.
I still remember the “urban sprawl” on my old Star Wars Galaxies server — every inch of ground between Mos Eisley and  Anchorhead filled in by elaborate swathes of built-up player housing …

… so much for a frontier desert planet, specifically referenced in the original films as an empty backwater most galactic citizens had never even heard of … “The planet farthest from …”

… and here it was, built up like modern Berlin.

I suppose open-world housing could theoretically work, but I suspect it would require anticipating the housing patterns and behaviors of large groups of players ahead of time, and I don’t know that any MMORPGs would want to spend the time hammering out all the necessary details.

Like you, I prefer instanced housing now, and I tend to avoid any game which advertises “open-world housing”, because, odds are, it will end up being an ugly, intrusive mess.

Cheers,

ManastuUtakata
Guest
ManastuUtakata

crackfox ManastuUtakata Nordavind tobascodagama 
My pigtails are starting to ache a little over this…but thanks for that clarification.
One more question that might hit it home for me: Why is it called “Class”? And does it begin with the capital “C”?
“That’s two questions, Uta.”
Yeah…but each of my pigtails are asking one question each. :(

schmidtcapela
Guest
schmidtcapela

breetoplay Ket_Viliano crackfox 
It can be done, yep. As soon as someone figures out how to implement something where you are simulating the scarcity inherent in real world land ownership without any of its disadvantages. good luck with that.

Me, I don’t think it will ever work well. And I also don’t care for the potential positives; I don’t care about showing off my house to others, or about seeing other player’s houses (heck, if it adds anything to my average travel time, then I absolutely don’t want to see other player’s houses).
So, I basically see non-instanced housing as an unqualified negative in a game.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

SC_Deadline Samizdat  Mobs should not be found in spawns. They should have their own goals, motivations, and methods of achieving them. AI in video games is greatly neglected.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

Ket_Viliano Estranged Personally?  I base my budget on the job, not the job on my budget.  Reduces stress greatly.  :-)

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

breetoplay Ket_Viliano crackfox  It takes work, and thought, and maybe even some timely changes to the plan. Most games are just a mess, sadly.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

plynky12 Right.  Reminds me that I am playing a game.

mysecretid
Guest
mysecretid

Techbot Alpha 
I agree completely, on every point. Thank you for this post!
It
occurs to me — you know what else made teaming in City of Heroes
painless? If you had a hero, you were almost always viable for a team
run.
None of this, “oh, you should only really play these
types, and you’ve got to have this specific build, with these specific
powers, and mods, or no serious group will touch you” bullshit.
If
you were a regular player (i.e someone familiar with how the game and
your powers worked), who tried to to keep your gear more or less
at-level, and you were willing to pay attention during the mission run,
you were good to group.
Jump in. Have fun. Jump out. Fun accomplished.
I
can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed on grouping in more recent
games because some social maladjust using a third-party parser program
decided that my damage-per-second on our run wasn’t up to Reddit’s
optimal target number consensus for that week — and he felt it was his
job to bitch at me about it.

We won. We got the loot.
No one died. It took 34.6 seconds longer than Reddit said,, because I
missed your arbitrary standard Shut the f#ck up, you pathetic pedant.

Sorry
for being grouchy — it’s not directed at you — but your mention of
City Of Heroes made me remember how teaming was almost always just
teaming fun back there — it was just fun — I guess I miss the distinct
lack of idiotic melodrama these days. 
Sometimes, t feels like getting a team together is like planning a corporate merger. Urgh.:-)

Cheers,

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

disUserNameTake Skyewauker Some of us enjoyed forming groups.  I do LFG, but still form most of the group beforehand.  People I trust, especially a healer/tank is nice.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

SC_Deadline disUserNameTake Skyewauker I miss my transportation services.  Can make them lore based and would only take a few more seconds to travel.  Let a mage transport a person anywhere inside the world as well as to the world.

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

Ket_Viliano crackfox All that, and there needs to be enough land to go around, and caps on how much of it any one player or group can control, and limits to how long people can control it once they wander away from the game.
It can be done. I understand why people think it can’t; they’ve seldom seen it done perfectly. But it can be.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

SC_Deadline Ket_Viliano Vhalen  Blame them as well for open plan offices where the workers feel compelled to wear earphones. They want to watch the slaves work, rather than leave us to our cloistered monasteries, scribing our words of mystic power. The bastards!

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

Rheem Octuris Random conversation with people in a game or real life?  In a game?  It happened more frequently in the past.  

In real life?  I prefer strangers versus family.  LOL

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

SC_Deadline mattaui Yeah, I think it comes down to the type of game.  A sandbox needs to have risk and be wide open.  The only exception to me is an overflow situation.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

Estranged Ket_Viliano  That, of course, would be the problem. But then, I am stubborn, and want to do things my way, rather than take the easy way out. More fool I, but then I do insist on it.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

A Dad Supreme Oh, that is brilliant.  Thank you!   It is an interesting rush seeing hundreds of people during a content launch, but then the load issues and waiting to play brings one back to reality.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

Vhalen  Narrative gameplay is suited to a “tunnel through the mountain” program design style, MMO social interaction wants for a “toolbox” UNIX style of program design. I find it funny that program types from the 60’s and 70’s still dominate our actual implementations in modern video games.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

SC_Deadline Samizdat Hmmmm.  I do dislike LFG for instance, was more fun chatting and meeting folks while forming groups.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

Ket_Viliano Estranged Well, if you do what you love, it is no big deal… as long as you can pay the bills.  :)

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

SC_Deadline Estranged I understand.  Actually, your idea of balance works for me.  Just don’t want to have to coordinate a guild waiting 24/7/365 on such an item.  That actually scared me away for a while.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

BryanCo camelotcrusade  My dog believes that people ruin everything as well.  Other than me, he thinks everyone else can go to hell.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

Estranged  Thanks for reminding me that I should have got a job watching other people fill pot holes.
Instead I chose game design :(

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

Jack Kerras MdoubleP There are games for hardcore types.  Hardcore types often want everything hardcore.  LOL

But yeah, paying the bills is sorta important.

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

spider3  More servers is a cop-out. The technology exists, and has for a long time, to have everyone in one world. Might be hard to do well if you expect an FPS type game, but it has been done ( Planetside, Darkfall ) and is much easier if you use tab target RTS style gameplay ( EVE ), ganking not required.

Vhalen
Guest
Vhalen

Having worked on MMORPG’s that utilized instancing to
deliver personal narratives and ease overcrowding within zones, I would have to
say instancing is a good thing if used sparingly. When I started my career as a
game designer on one of the earliest MMO’s I always wanted to deliver narrative
beats within a more controlled and regulated environment. I went on to
experiment with narrative instances in later projects. In the end, I felt it
was a “budget sink” that wasted time and assets that could have been used on
features that promoted more social interactions. I also found that instancing
became overused in other MMO’s. We were slowly removing the “massively
multiplayer.” Some games delivered great content in instanced zones as well as
added relief to overcrowding. Instancing (phasing as well) has its uses. For
me, I would not want to instance any more dungeons. I’d rather see large
sprawling public dungeons that have the option of either delivering public boss
fights or instanced group boss fights. I want to bring players together. There
is nothing like exploring a dungeon and encountering other players. Sure, the
camping for content such as rare encounter that drop desired loot could be
extremely frustrating, but I believe designers in said situations should hope
to relieve the camping in other ways that do not remove players from a public
world. For me, I would use it sparingly for variations of “epic boss fights’ and
public housing. Instances are not our enemy when used wisely.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

SC_Deadline Estranged Well, I was more thinking of waiting in line for a mission item spawn. This is especially ridiculous during an expansion launch. Perhaps waiting in line for an escort mission.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

mourasaint This is why I like individual story instances, so the world isn’t chopped up like in WoW Cata.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

spider3 Ah yes, so they can charge you $30 to transfer.  No thanks.  

TSW has a good thing going, everyone can pick their home server/shard, but can travel between them all at will and “meet up” on a friend.

Estranged
Guest
Estranged

Techbot Alpha Yes, that is truly epic.  LOL

Ket_Viliano
Guest
Ket_Viliano

crackfox  Open world housing can be done well, it just needs a few basic rules, the same kind we have IRL. You can’t build just anywhere, only in the correct zone, and on your plot, not in the middle of a street. Oh, there need to be streets. ArcheAge was just housing done wrong. Same for SOTA, housing should not be for sale. ARK servers get full of junk huts, it needs to be wisely controlled, not a free for all building spree, or you will get a hut on every mountain top and all the best spots polluted by players that never seem to log on.

Techbot Alpha
Guest
Techbot Alpha

I think lack of instances needs to bugger right off. My first MMO was City of Heroes, which was incredibly instance heavy. And, in my opinion, didn’t suffer from it at all. 
It still felt like a living world. You still met players a LOT during mission-to-mission travel. You still PLAYED with players a lot, because teaming in that game was so damn easy to facilitate, EVERYTHING was group content, and playing in a group was the best way to get better rewards. None of this solo/group divide like pretty much every other game out there has. Even TOR, which is my poison of choice these days, is a sod for this.
Also, as others have said, you know what breaks the hell out of my immersion? Having to wait for the ‘boss’ to respawn because some other sod got their first, and all I’m left with is a looted corpse. Yeah. Because THAT makes me feel super, right?

crackfox
Guest
crackfox

ManastuUtakata Nordavind tobascodagama If you think of a ‘Massively Commenter’ as a Class i.e a template that can be used to create (instantiate) multiple occurrences of itself, then ‘ManastuUtakata’ is an instance of the Massively Commenter class.

yukonsam01
Guest
yukonsam01

disUserNameTake yukonsam01 Not a trivial development task by any means, but far from irresolvable. Without getting too far into the weeds, storing overlay data efficiently is a task like stuffing the genie back in the bottle — it takes some brute force math, but it can be done.

Nordavind
Guest
Nordavind

ManastuUtakata Nordavind tobascodagama If you understand that Class is a piece of code, not a Paladin or a Wizard :)
The class can be seen a blueprint of a building (that’s not quite right either, but…). You can then build that building many times (instances), it will be the exact same one, but you can have different people in each one.

FacelessSavior
Guest
FacelessSavior

Amen

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