Thursday, September 21, 2006


Since the issue relates to my last blog, I figured I'd accompany that one with these excerpts from a Vanguard forum thread in which I responded to Brad McQuaid's agreement with a comment by Raph Koster on instancing. Their thoughts may be found in this thread: For the sake of brevity, I'm going to copy only my own remarks from that thread, but the full thread's definitely worth checking out.

The most interesting aspect of instancing is how closely it fits into the original RPG experience of most MMORPG gamers around my age or older: Dungeons & Dragons.

I never played a MUD, but I think D&D started them off, and is still the point to which most fantasy MMOs are referenced. In D&D, the game revolves around a small group of players taking on a realistically large and dynamic world. Therefore, instancing that focuses on creating content for small groups of players is the most similar to that original experience after which most early generation MMORPGs were designed.

It's important to recognize that a person can enjoy an MMORPG like no other type of game without having to directly interact with a single other player. The other players create a dynamic world in a way single-player games have yet to do. The gameworld is also larger than that of any single player game to date. If each player in an MMORPG played the game like a single-player game and never interacted with other players, the game experience would still be greatly different than single-player games.

In fact, I have grouped and soloed, each for significant lengths of time, in every MMO I've played, and I usually prefer soloing (I even soloed mostly in the original EQ). How many gamers may approach these games in a similar way, I have no way of knowing; but it is a viable avenue of intended gameplay for potential MMOs.

I agree with Brad that such a game would be a different kind of game than EQ. The MMOG genre is splitting into sub-genres. A heavily instanced game and a game that uses no instancing are both MMOGs, but they are different kinds, and will eventually be given different titles.

But the point is the basic genre of MMOs is not inherently focused on encouraging interaction between players. If you want to coin the new term for MMOs that do encourage such interaction, feel free.

Does instancing always conflict with player interaction? No. Koster and McQuaid made reasonable cases against pocket zones and exclusive instancing, but not against all instancing.

The problem here is in the definition. Sigil once described instancing as "private virtual spaces", but that's what I would call pocket zones. If pocket zones have been the only use of instancing in MMORPGs to date, that doesn't prevent us from recognizing them as a subset of a broader phenomenon. Instancing has, afterall, been used in other ways in other genres.

I define instancing as an event in which the activation of a trigger causes the game to create temporary content.

Now let's divide that into subsets.

Environmental instances are instances that players cannot directly interact with.
Examples: When you reach the entrance to a general's tent, the guards on either side pull back the tent flaps to let you in (your presence triggered them to do so). Or while a group moves slowly down a dark, silent dungeon corridor, a raven bursts out of the darkness, cawing loudly, and rushes quickly over the heads of the adventurers (it does not attack them and cannot be attacked; it was triggered by their presence and acts as a tension-builder). Or a crystal ball begins to glow whenever a player approaches it. This form of instancing certainly does not discourage interaction between players.

Instanced encounters are instances that encourage players to interact directly with them.
The examples in my "Fear and Wonder" blog do not remove the players from the gameworld which they share with other players. A water elemental which lets players [x] and [y] walk by its pool before jumping out to attack player [z] is not removed from the common gameworld. Players [x] and [y] can turn around in surprise and aid player [z]. In the statue encounter scenario suggested in that blog, there is nothing preventing one group from helping another, and there is nothing necessarily limiting group size, player levels or anything else.

Pocket enounters are the subset of instanced encounters which everyone seems to believe is the very definition of instancing. Pocket encounters are when a player/group is removed, in part or in entirety, from the gameworld of other players/groups.
Examples: A player is warped to another plane of existence. Or one group can watch another's combat, but cannot enter into the fight.

Instancing can be implemented to many degrees in a variety of ways, not all of which are exclusive. Brad's initial reaction to this post was to call such methods "micro-instancing". I think that's a fair label, but it benefits MMO designers in general to develop a more thorough and precise nomenclature (for reasons like those offered in my "Quest Design" blog series).


  1. That's a much broader view of instancing than I'm used to seeing. For some interesting thoughts on cool instancing tricks, you might check out

    - Brian

  2. Interesting, thanks.

    The perception by mental state was done in Eternal Darkness, which could have been a great game but was too cinematic (the player wasn't in control so much). I haven't seen a game that used alternative vision types and such well, though many have thrown it in as a gimmick. Knowledge is largely shied away from in MMOs, which is why we get such thorough "/con" systems...and spoiler sites are a problem (you don't have to frequent them to hear their spoilers).

    One thing I forgot to mention in the blog is how often separating players is perfectly natural and unproblematic. People do get separated and blocked from each other in real life. Sometimes, that's not only acceptable, but a primary attraction for players toward that specific adventure. Rejecting instancing (the old/usual definition) for absolutely all scenarios seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. To take an even broader view, everything is instanced in games, its just a question of what sort of metaphor the design operates under. In the D&D metaphor you're abstracting time and space to encapsulate missions, in other situations the metaphor is more contiguous.

    In the future, perhaps not even the distant future, procedural content will bring the notion of instancing to such a fine grain of the experience that you can almost believe the whole thing is a single organic "instance", as such.


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