In Defense of Instancing

I have read and heard a bit over the last couple of months about instancing and how it is not the way things should be.  And there are some legitimate complaints about instancing. The primary one I have seen runs along the lines of, “You’re not part of the world experience if you can have your own private instance of something like a dungeon.”  Richard Bartle, in his 2004 article “Why Virtual Worlds are Designed By Newbies – No, Really!” goes further and makes the specific assertion that instancing leads to “boredom and disenchantment.”

I represent a fairly casual player demographic these days.  The seemingly endless hours of youth are now just a memory.  From this point of view, instancing is actually saving me from boredom and disenchantment in addition to enhancing the immersive nature of the game. 

On the boredom and disenchantment side of things I could go on for a while.  There is nothing more boring or disenchanting than having some free time on a Saturday night to get together with some friends in-game and finding a dozen or more other people working the same quests as you, or having a party of higher level players step right over you and blow away every mob you were working your way towards, or finally getting through a dungeon only to find that there are three groups waiting for the mob you want.  That leads to a lot more boredom and disenchantment on my part. 

And all of that is immersion breaking as well.  In fact, the breaking of the immersive nature of MMOs seems to me to be a bigger issue.  Having that immersive dungeon crawl experience is next to impossible without instancing.  I do not want something like Deadmines in WoW to be a competition between my group of friends with appropriate level characters trying to have a real dungeon experience and a seemingly endless train of level 60’s rushing their low level friends through to VanCleef so they can get some spiffy piece of rare equipment which they probably will barely use in their headlong rush to level 60. 

A traffic jam in a dungeon is not immersive. 

In fact, if you think back to the pen and paper days, adventurers were a rare breed, an exception to the general populace.  Long lines of groups seeking an armed audience with the man-hydra VanCleef and his ever regrowing head are totally out of character with the adventurer spirit.  That spirit should be more Lewis & Clark and less Disneyland’s Jungle Safari ride.

The lonely dungeon crawl with just you and your friends represents how things ought to be, to me at least, rather than the crowd scenes I recall at popular dungeons in EverQuest and EverQuest II.

Of course, I do miss the random, positive social interaction in such places:  The person who drops an un-asked-for buff on you just to be nice,  the other group you join forces with to accomplish a great deed, the poor guy all by himself on whom you have pity and let join your group and who ends up in your guild and becomes a good friend.  I experienced all of those situations and more in EverQuest and EverQuest II.  But are they worth the price of giving up instancing?  I do not think so.  There is time and opportunity for that in the rest of the predominately un-instance world, which is where I spend most of my time anyway. 

A natural rebuttal to my thoughts is, “Go play NeverWinter Nights” or some similar game.  That would certainly give the immersive experience and would be cheaper to boot!

The problem is, I sold my copy of NeverWinter Nights (with all of the expansions) to a kid up the street at our last garage sale for the grand sum of $5.  Why? Because being in a world that is live, vibrant, and full of people who are kind, annoying, helpful, obnoxious, dull, wise, clueless, witty, and every combination in between is the real addictive part of MMOs.  It is why people live in cities.  We want to be around people, even if we might not want to interact with them at any given moment. 

So let there be instancing in the proper measure!

Of course, this might brand me as a noob… but I never claimed to anything else!

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Instancing

  1. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I wish I could say yes, but I was just suddenly passionate on the subject this morning after reading one story that lead me to the Richard Bartle item. So that, some half remembered quotes from Brad McQuaid on Vanguard’s anti-instance stance, your own story from a past podcast about a lucky meeting in EQ that turned a bad situation into a win, and my own recent instance adventures in WoW (which I am really enjoying) are about all that was swirling in my head when I wrote.

    Thanks for the link, I will go read them. But knowing me, if i had read them before I had written, I would have ended up writing nothing at all, feeling, possibly, that the subject had been exhausted.

    [Oops, only saw the second comment after I wrote this.  Too bad so much of that content is gone.]

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  2. Jeff

    mm most of your complaints against the anti-instance argument stem from not wanting higher lvls powerleveling their friends throug “your” mobs. also you dont want to get to the end of a dungeon na dhave some higher lvl steam roll through.

    so how about “zones” where higher levels just cant enter, but lower levels can so its a large “dungeon” for low levels only, interacting in the way Richard Bartle wants, but not interefering with your experience the way you fear?

    Just an idea of a system that works for both people and would be fun (I’d think it would be too).

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  3. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    The MUD I used to play has had some success with level restricted zones, but it is an artificial construct that is a bit immersion breaking itself. (I once had to petition my way out of such a zone when I levelled beyond the cap and found that the level filtering gate worked both going in as well as going out!)

    My primary concern is that a high fantasy MMO should include a decent dungeon crawl experience and I feel that instancing is really the only way to do it. Even without the high levels powering through you, having a revolving door dungeon with groups waiting for their turn (or bickering over who is next ala the terrorist groups under Pilate’s palace in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”) to kill a given boss kills the who feel.

    I fall back on the adventurer’s defense. They should be rare in the world. In an MMO, adventurers will be common of course, and I can deal with 90% of the world being overrun with people, but the dungeon crawl experience really should be just you and your party. That in some corner of the world your social interaction is limited to a small group for a couple of hours isn’t going to wreck the social fabric of the game and lead to “boredom and disenchantment” Richard Bartle states.

    Of course, you can take this too far. I have no desire to go play Dungeons and Dragons Online currently because all of the content is instanced and the main town is just this bus station where you wait for your group to assemble before you head off. (VirginWorlds podcast #22 covers this well.) At that point the social fabric doesn’t get destroyed, it simply fails to be woven in the first place.

    So, my real point, which is around here somewhere, is that instancing, done right, to create a specific experience, is a good thing. WoW has done it right. EverQuest went from not enough to what was probably too much with LDoN and is headed back to not enough. (Or what would be “not enough” if they had WoW-like population pressure.) DDO went way too far.

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  4. Deniticus

    Balance is key and I think WoW has done the best job so far as to balance. I enjoy the fact that the player population contributes to the experience (good and bad)– whether its simply for the in-game economy or randomly happening across someone or a group in some hinterzone working on a quest or other activity. At the very worst, you feel like you are in a thriving dynamic world.

    On the otherhand, its not very fun to live solely in a world consisting of superheroes where, like the children in Lake Woebegon, everyone is above average.

    To imagine what the WoW experience would be like without instancing, you only need to attempt to complete any of the key quests which ultimately lead to an instance reward (such as The Defias Brotherhood or the Sharpbeak line of quests) to see the immersion breaking effect of competing against other groups to kill the Defias Messenger or queuing up for a run to retrieve the Ancient Egg, etc. Its about as immersive as looking for a parking spot at the mall.

    Grouping for an instance however, removes the noise and allows one to focus on and return to what is I feel is the core of the MMO experience– small group interaction and interdependence to achieve a goal. Not through competition with another group, but by teamwork and coordination. Limited instancing allows a space for that to thrive without removing all of human element as in a completely instanced world.

    DDO sounds like a sterile nightmare as much as EQ was Lord of the Flies.

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