Instancing is one of the major tools in a designer’s hands to alter the dynamics of an MMO’s world. Guild Wars embraces instancing, while EverQuest 2 eschews it. There are those who passionately flame away about the inferiority of either approach. And then there’s this:
This is really just a snippet, but looking at some of the responses, I found something interesting. One poster, “tanek”, asserts that an instanced world is a more dynamic one. Not even two hours later, “Everrest” states that a non-instanced world is more dynamic. …in the inimitable words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Or, perhaps, both posters are correct, but are using different definitions of the word “dynamic”. English certainly is malleable enough to serve two masters (or more), with single words having several meanings (some diametrically opposed), and some meanings having several words. So what of this “dynamic” MMO world?
Tanek seems to think that instancing provides for more dynamic content. I fall into this camp of the “dynamic” definition. An instanced game can give players power to alter the game world, since their actions don’t affect other players. (Or at least, no players outside of the instance.) Used cleverly, players can play instanced content, and when they exit the instance, the world at large will reflect the events they witnessed in the instance, giving a greater sense that the players matter to the game world. I hear that Lord of the Rings Online does this. Used poorly, instances can just seem like pocket universes, completely isolated from the rest of the game (and other players), which breaks immersion. It’s a careful balance.
This flavor of “dynamic” content is what I think of as a “dynamic world” system. On the flipside, we have Everrest’s “dynamic” content, which I’m thinking of as a “dynamic community” system.
Everrest is right that an “always on, always populated” world feels more alive. There are people everywhere. This is great for the sense of a living, dynamic world. The trouble comes with the world itself in this case. Since there are so many players seeing the same world, it really can’t change all that much. It’s very much like a stage where the actors keep shuffling around and telling interesting stories, but the stage itself, and even the scenery, stays absolutely static. The dynamic content in that world is entirely the responsibility of the players, and the tools for storytelling are severely limited.
Ultimately, I think both are right, to some degree. Perhaps the ideal is a virtual world where there is no instancing, but players have the power to alter the game world in fundamental ways, like burning down an enemy camp, salting the fields of a neighbor at war, or assassinating key NPCs who then stay dead. Going down that path might capture the best of both flavors of “dynamic” content.
Such a world would also have much greater potential for griefing and other abuse. Giving players power is dangerous (but oh, so tempting) when it comes to an MMO, where the best thing about the game is the other players, and the worst thing is the other players. Strict laws (and a heavily wielded banhammer) are at best reactionary, and hobbling actions with the potential for griefing in an attempt to be proactive may take us back to overlimited play. Perhaps the best thing is to have a strictly defined set of “Rules of Conduct” with real consequences for scofflaws. In the anonymous world of the internet, there’s only so far one can go as a GM, but a zero tolerance policy with clear rules would go a long ways to keeping things clean. Even rugby has rules.
On the other hand, complete anarchy is an option. It’s not one that I would support as a player, use as a designer, or advise in our litiginous society… but perhaps if it was clear up front that the world had no rules, and that there would be no appeal to a higher power, it could at least avoid being bogged down in a morass of complaints. Any complaints would simply be ignored, and the world would be left to run. A wide power band, like that of WoW, would be ill-considered in this case, as there would need to be a way for gankees to be able to countergank (are those words? Ah, English…) anyone who bothered them. Death would have to be exceedingly trivial, with no penalties or very, very light ones. NPCs would have to breed like rabbits, mature like Jem’hadar, and build like barn raisers. The economy would probably be very rudimentary, as anything of value would be prey to theft and destruction. Offline characters might have to hire bodyguards to watch over their sleeping bodies, or live in safehouses or caves. (Always on, right? Logging off is no solution to your problems in a “real world” situation.) Such a world would be distasteful to me, but there would certainly be players who would love it. It would certainly prove ripe for new gameplay elements.
I’ve not even mentioned the tech constraints that make instancing wise in a game like Guild Wars. Their system of distributing people across various servers, rather than locking them in like WoW, makes for a queue-less game, and dramatically reduces the potential for crippling lag. It’s an important consideration, but not necessarily part of the “world construction” and “dynamic” differentiation.
In the end, neither the “all instance” nor “no instance” crowd is really going to be happy with the other. There may not really even be a happy middle ground. This is a bit depressing for someone who wants to build the One MMO to Rule Them All, but at the same time, it allows for more focused titles that take a core design and polish the tar out of it. It’s less LOTR, more Field of Dreams… “if you build it, they will come”. Also, a middle of the road approach might hit the mass market like WoW did, but the compromises necessary in design may make for a less appealing product. Sure, many people will pay for cheap Mac & Cheese, but there are markets for something a bit more tasty and focused. Of course, that might mean having a smarter (and smaller) dev budget… but perhaps that’s another discussion.