The dichotomies of instancing

The fun trio: Brad, Raph and Lum.

I read everything and commented on-the-fly with the result that now I have a bunch of confused notes and no clue about how to organize them in a somewhat, almost-readable form. I go from random comments, to general design theories and my practical ideas as result of those design theories. It’s a pity because that trio did a really good work to summarize the valid points and keep things gracefully ordered.

I guess I cannot escape myself. I’ll just try to follow the order and quote and comment those parts I found interesting. So it will be a recap plus some messy comments thrown in. Starting with Brad:

Then let me touch on a controversial topic that is definitely related: entitlement to content vs. opportunity to experience content. This is hotly debated, has been, and will be. Because, really, nobody is right except when speaking for only them. The reality is there are, in this case, two types of people: those who want to play a game where they are entitled to experience everything, obtain everything, etc. merely because they pay the fee and put some time in, though it had better be time in allotments and at a frequency that works with the rest of their lives. And then there are those who want more of a challenge and don’t mind indirect competition and finite resources and realize, that unless they really try hard, they’re not going to achieve everything, or see everything – but they also think that’s fine – in fact, arguably, it makes the world more real – you can’t see every square foot of the real world, after all – and you always need something to dream about, or another goal to head towards..

5. Stickiness. Retention. By eliminating or severely reducing competition, player advancement accelerates – access to items that help you advance your player are not limited by other players seeking them as well, either legitimately or by griefing. By making items easier to get, human nature dictates that at least a lot (most?) of people will find they value these items less, that their sense of accomplishment and attachment to a virtual character or item is diminished. People tend to value things they had to work for more than things they obtained more easily, or for no real effort.

A game that retains you with less focus on accomplishment and pride but more so, similar to single player games, on devouring the content – getting through all of the levels – seeing it all. In a sense, at least until the expansion comes out, the goal is to FINISH.

5. You may decide that your target audience is mostly younger, expecting a faster paced game, more immediate gratification, and a UI that is very polished (sorry about the stereotyping, but hey). I don’t say this is necessary linked, but they certainly can go hand in hand. This should influence the style and type of content you create, regardless of theme (fantasy, science fiction, etc.). Know your audience. Stay focused on his group, his type. Branch out if you can, but never sacrificing what makes your core audience attracted to your game. (And actually, the last 3 or 4 sentences are applicable, IMHO, to any MMOG – and also forgotten too often as of late – VISION!).

(Brad here leaves out the low hardware requirements that are also part of the “target audience” and another element that is always overlooked in the success of the game. This is also about the accessibility.)

4. You preferably want different race/class combos that truly offer a different play experience in order to promote replayability. Again, you might not plan on having the player around 3 or 4 years from now, but you also would like him to not leave after he’s maxed his first character in mere months. He needs to be enticed to play at least a couple more times. This too means more content, and varied content too, lest the second experience seem too similar to the first.

(What if the player sees ‘past the curtain’ and doesn’t accept to consider recycled and slightly differentiated content as a new, satisfying experience but just more of the same? The whole “been there, done that”, you know.)

7. Instancing is great. Since the goal is rapid content consumption, you don’t want too many other people in the way of others. What should be the precise mixture between Instanced and Non-Instanced? We probably don’t know yet, but it’s a significant amount – certainly not an afterthought. Players need to get those items, to run through those dungeons, to solve those quests. And you want them doing so in a group, for community reasons and the shared experience. So put that group in an Instance. The only negative here, and it’s an emotional response, is that this can lead to people rushing through beautifully crafted areas only once, never truly learning them, and definitely never truly appreciating all that went into them. I hate to see all of that work get zipped through, but what can I say.

(Agreed – the mudflation is not convenient. But I mean this in a wider sense. All the overlapping content tends to get mudflated and out of relevance after a while. So a waste of work. It’s the model to be stale and inappropriate here.)

10. Important: Contrary to what some asserted earlier in the MMOG timeline, years back, it’s pretty much been proven that PvP does NOT equal true and lasting player generated content. Yes, some will entertain themselves by feasting on each other, and fewer for a longer period of time. Feasting on the unwilling is always bad, but also a different topic. But regardless it’s not truly lasting because there is no gain, and there is no loss – or the gain and the loss are trivialized. And it will eventually come down to, like in a traditional twitch game, who is the best player in real life. If PvP is to be truly realized in an MMOG one day, an elegant melding of character development and real life twitch must be accomplished and both remain important. But that could and should also be the topic of another paper, and again I’d probably not write it, assuming I’ve figured out how to achieve this Holy Grail. *grin* Sekrets!

What a surprise. Because “kill ten rats” equals to “true and lasting content”? Come on. To get some decent appeal there has been the need for a whole lot of development. Substance added.

In the *exact* same way you FUCKING CANNOT just switch on the PvP flag and pretend that it is enough for the players to entertain themselves for the eternity. PvP IS NOT a cheap and short route to fix the lack of content in your game. PvP is not something that magically exonerates the developers from doing the work and just getting paid to do nothing because they finally found the “philosopher stone” that turns everything into gold (Holy Grail my ass!). PvP, to be done right and have wider appeal, must receive AS MUCH work and dedication AS that was put in PvE along these years. Then, maybe, we can discuss about its weight and value. But not till the PvP keeps being ghettoized ALREADY during development.

The fact that PvP is not as strong and popular as PvE isn’t some sort of absolute law we have to cope with. It’s just the direct consequence of a single-minded type of development that was completely unbalanced toward the PvE from the start. Because it was the easiest transition from single-player games. With these premises PvE has been inflated beyond belief and PvP has always remained as a smaller niche that seems to exist just as a lesser feature to add to the list.

Without giving both the same legitimacy, the two cannot be compared. This is all.

(The strength of PvP is not about it requiring less work. The strength lies in its “systemic”, and not linear, nature. Which means that all the work you put into it isn’t mudflated out of relevance two days later. So the game gains depth without wasting that work.)

6. Or are you going for longer term retention and stickiness, with an emphasis on character development in any of its forms (skills, levels, item acquisition, etc.). If you do this, and your world is instanced, how do you plan on maintaining rarity, slowing MUDflation, and protecting a healthy supply and demand?

Slowing mudflation? Haha. Brad, along with many other players, has a really funny idea of mudflation. For him it’s all about the gap between a catass achiever and the smaller guy. The e-peen bragging.

Now, what would I know about the “mudflation”? It’s simple, I own the world. If you type it on google this is the site you’ll see at the top (lol!). But then you can even search the word in the Wikipedia and this is the result:

Mudflation occurs when a newer aquired item makes a lesser item lose significant value.

But the most important part is the one that follows:

This is most common when a game relases a new expansion, as expansions tend to have better items.

That’s the point. What Brad writes makes me chuckle because the developers have NEVER fought the mudflation. They have created it. The mudflation isn’t a side-effect of some sort. It is instead a *deliberate* development strategy largely used to artificially excuse new content (in fact the content must “overlap” for the mudflation to trigger).

There is nothing to pretect and defend if not the whole bragging of catassery at the expense of all those players who crash against the accessibility barriers and for the good laugh of who’s on top of the hill. This is really catassery 101. Inner competition through PvE to mimic the social treadmill and give the geeks their own chance to be proud of something. That gap between “have” and “not have” that Brad believes to be essential to nourish his own feeling of achievement. Being part of the community or finishing refused by it. Included or excluded.

So be open and honest about it. The mudflation is (for Brad) not something to fight, but something to *preserve*. That’s the very ESSENCE of his Vision.

3. Ah, the one I personally like, which may surprise some people. A world designed as a conventional MMOG at its core but also with specific types of Instancing planned from the beginning as well. It is key that these systems are worked in with the greater economy, balance, character advancement, etc. Hard, yes, but if you do it up front, MUCH more safe and possible. And then what I personally think is paramount, even though it would be described as Role Playing and doesn’t directly link to game mechanics or design: explain why small subsets of your universe are Instanced as part of the core story and setting. Make it make sense. Don’t rip me out of one reality into another – make it flow, make it expected. An example? The Star Trek Holodeck or the X-Men’s Danger Room. These are environments that are supposed to have pocket universes in them, and they need to fit the world, but not need to fit the chronology or absolute setting.

And this is something I share and that my “dream mmorpg” has. The whole concept of the multiverse and the access to the different planes and worlds.

The same for his other points:

1. What, especially long term, is the true affect of adding instancing? And by affect, I mean on the whole game, including character advancement, the player driven economy (assuming you have one), etc. How do you control access to these instanced areas? Are they on timers? Are they accessible by demand? What are the drop rates in these areas and how does that mesh with the drop rates of items in the rest of your non-instanced world? Making a partially non-Instanced and partially Instanced economy work is challenging but likely surmountable. Tack it on as an after though or rush your experiment, though, at your own risk. I wouldn’t advise it.

My dream mmorpg has instancing planned as a basic concept and following solid (I believe) theories to justify it. The impact on the character advancement is already defined (developing magic affinities and weaknesses based on the permanence on a specific plane), the player driven economy is (and is completely not instanced as it should be), the access to the instances is. The “drops rates” are also defined for the role of artifacts and their “rarity”.

And there’s a lot, a lot more behind those ideas and the reasons why I give them a precise shape. But then I know that it’s not possible to discuss a project that is defined only in my own mind and that noone is willingly to follow in its entirety. So, while it’s always more useful to put things in a context, I’ll have to put my own ideas aside and comment just the points brought up by others who have more “charisma” and visibility than me.

To conclude the first part about Brad (but I’ll return on this point) I’ll add that he seems to be completely achiever-driven. In the bartle test he could score 90% achiever 5% explorer 3% socializer and 2% killer. Which explains why that gap between “have” and “not have” must remain in the game as the very first fundamental principle or the resulting fun would be not as strong (see the first quote here above).

My opinion is again that I don’t believe he is chasing a virtual world. In fact I believe, like I believed back then, that games completely focused on endless progress and constant mudflation to create new gaps pretty much NEGATE the possibility of a true virtual world. They go in two, diametrically opposite directions. They reduce the depth to an artificial trick to rinse and repeat the same arid mechancis and hide the fact that they don’t have much to offer (we used to consider this as “grind”).

Moving to Raph.

The “worldy” games are just ones with a lot of embedded boxes in them.

I strongly agree with this. The difference is that a “worldy” game is a systemic one. Systemic means that there are different parts or “boxes” as Raph calls them and that these parts must be in a relation, forming a complex system:
1- There must be links
2- These links must be meaningful (need to make sense and have a functional purpose)

But then I don’t agree on the rather weak reasons why in the future we should see more “worldy” games than rollcoasters:

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the day of the “worldy” games is over. The above is why I think it isn’t. The trend over time is still, even with World of Warcraft out there, to have more and more embedded boxes in our virtual worlds. We may see that the quality level of each box keeps rising, but I have little doubt that over time, users will demand more “rides” in their “theme parks,” and not just more rollercoasters but more sorts of rides. The rollercoaster-only theme park fails if it doesn’t have at least a few food stands, and while the rollercoaster may always be the main attraction, the whole package includes everything from parades on Main Street to shops to concerts to convention hotels to go-karts.

By that light, calling the “gamey” games “theme parks” points towards the way they will ultimately evolve: towards worldy games.

“Theme parks” are not or, at least, could not be “worldy” games because the links between the boxes would be weak or not existent and because these links would probably make little sense and have a minimal functional purpose. This is for example why WoW’s PvP sucks greatly and is criticized: There are essentially two games going on, one that takes you out into the world, and one that takes you out of the world completely.

(The SOE All Access account that makes you play the two EverQuest, Planetside, SWG etc… is basically a theme park with different attractions. But this doesn’t make it a “worldy” game since these “boxes” aren’t really linked and the links wouldn’t make sense if they existed)

The second point where I do not agree is that games tend to specialize more than ‘reach’:

What I’m noticing is that the trend is to specialize. Instead of building games that try to reach a wide public and create a virtual world that appeals to different player “types” (we had this discussion long ago), we have games that specialize more and more in just one precise direction.

There’s a natural and even obligatory drift to focus more and more. On the thread of Grimwell Brad wrote that he thinks it’s possible to arrive to a virtual world starting from a Diku and by adding progressively more “world-y” parts and move closer to the ideal. But instead what I see is that both the games, devs and players focus progressively and erode the game to the essential. In DAoC the players focus on PvP and the PvE is more and more left out, despite a decent amount of resources have been spent on it with the time.

What I’m saying is that these games seem to become progressively “poorer”, eroded to the minimum common denominator. Specialized and focused as much as possible. I don’t think is exclusivelly a matter of the continue optimization done by the players.

The general impression is that a game offers progressively *less* as the time passes. Maybe the focus helps to rise the quality of that specific part but there doesn’t seem to exist a possibility to move in the other direction and enrich the game instead of draining/exhausting it.

I’m not sure how to wrap all this up, this is just what I observe. Then I blame the mudflation as always.

Ubiq wrote about this in January but I think there’s more than just marketing observations…

And finally Lum. I think I agree with most of what he wrote. In particular:

Unlike Brad, I don’t really believe that people derive much benefit from hearing about the exploits of Uberguild Alpha by proxy.

Which is also what I hinted comparing Brad’s comments to the one from Eve-Online and that would deserve a long discussion on its own. And:

Instancing is an excuse for not having enough content.
I’m not really sure where he’s going here. Players know when they’re going through the same instance for a thousandth time, so I’m not really aware of any game that can claim this as a wedge against the Content Demon.

Here I believe that Brad screwed the concept because I believe that what he is trying to say is exactly the opposite. Instancing forces you have tons of content. In fact it’s exactly what he says when he describes these types of games:

They have some very serious design hurdles to overcome in order to create the amount of varied and interesting and preferably not-repeatable content I think they’re looking for.

Here I think he considers the use of instances like “content of demand”. So you press the button and the content is served. Pretty much what Lum describes as “cheese delivery systems”.

The use of the instances removes the accessibility barriers and the competition. And here I totally agree with Lum because I’m not sure where Brad is going with that. It seems that his whole rant against instancing is because it trivializes the achievement of the players. This happens because there’s basically no competition over the goods and everything can be basically cloned in a series and brought back to the persistent world (these are the problems he hints about the economy in a game that mixes instanced and not-instanced spaces). So the whole logical sense is that instancing *aggravates* the problem of not having enough content. A game that makes a strong use of instancing is a game that would need a fuckload of (as Brad says: preferably not-repetable) content so that the players, free from any accessibility barrier that keeps them back, still have something to do on the longer term.

Now another important point that was *completely overlooked* is that a game that “finishes” (as Raph effectively summarized, copying Darniaq) and a game that keeps going by adding constantly gaps and then mudflating (exactly what WoW is doing) are essentially the exact same thing. They have BOTH a linear progression with a beginning and an end. With the difference that the seconds is stretched indefinitely to exploit its mechanics as much as possible (I define this bait).

But the point is that both of these are DEAD VIRTUAL WORLDS. They are dead already at the start and have nothing to offer beside the drug-gameplay. Again, the bait. The artificial pretence to keep squeezing money out of you.

Which brings to the reason why there are many players that are bored by WoW. “Have you really done every quest in the game?” Fuck no! But after a while you start to see past the curtain and you can anticipate what WoW is going to offer you. Kill ten this, kill ten that. Okay, after a while you know where it’s going. It could have five hundreds instances (495 of which mudflated out of relevance) but I’m not sure if this would make it a better game.

No, really. MMORPG = infinite progression. Are these games JUST that? Well, I may be an unique exception (the unique snowflake) but that’s the very last reason why I have an interest for this genre and I’m quite sure that there are more like me out there that are dead bored about these games just offering a pretty version of ProgressQuest. That’s not fun for me, nor interesting or stimulating. It’s just predictable, repetitive, dull. It’s that treadmill that I’d like to forget instead of being made stronger and more central. It’s a way to drain these game of any decent value. Make them so arid and unimaginative.

The Vision is blurred.

Instead, to go back at the quotes, I think Brad (or Lum’s summarization) is confusing the use of instancing with the drop rates. Absurdly low drop rates are the artificial trick that was added in WoW to force the players to rinse and repeat those instances. So this function (drop rates) is uncoupled with the instanced technology. In fact instancing removes the barriers and offers content on demand. So the accessibility is *higher* as a direct consequence and the demand for new content rises as well (since the players eat content at a faster speed). How to contrast this increased demand when producing more decent content is the very first problem for the developers? By adding insane drop rates that force the players to re-run and reuse the content over and over and over.

Which is truly retarded since the very first purpose of instancing was about increasing a supply that now has to be severely reduced through low drop rates.

Then tell me if I’m not right when I say that this industry is filled by fools. It just makes no sense at all. And it doesn’t even end here:

– What’s the very first problem of these similar games (WoW included)?

That the devs cannot keep up with the production of new content.

– What’s the mudflation?

Well, first you realize that the mudflation is an artificial excuse to replace content. Then you realize that the mudflation is an EROSION of content.

It’s just the logic saying that this model isn’t so appropriate for the current needs. Blizzard just mastered the pattern that was already available. But this doesn’t mean that there cannot be better ones.

In particular, this pattern will be a suicide for ANY new game that doesn’t have the sheer power of Blizzard. So the discussion is rather important outside this game.

I link what I say here with a comment from Brad:

So who makes these current games and why do they include instancing? I think its two groups who often end up working together because they’re compatible: developers who need or want to pitch a less expensive game and also take advantage of Instancing’s advantages, to varying degrees, coupled with publishers and other entities that are willing to fund MMOGs, but not $30M-$75M ones.

And it is correct. With the difference that it is that the whole ProgressQuest model to not be anymore viable without having a fuckload of founding. You just cannot compete against WoW on its own field and the whole model of mudflation and endless character progression is already boring as hell for many players that believe this genre can offer something more than that.

Maybe the mudflation and continuous “level up” mechanics are NOT so appropriate for an online world?

It’s the model to be limiting and not appropriate, not the implementation.

Really. Are we at the point where we just cannot imagine a game that isn’t completely and totally focused on a overstretched character progression? This game industry has killed the expectations till this point?

Moving on the next part:

Instancing harms player retention by making the game too easy.
“I finished the game, I’m done, I can cancel my account now.” If your MMO is designed in such a matter that you can say “I’m done” at some point, then yes, that is a concern. And I tend to agree with those designers who believe that you DO need to have an end. At some point you want to bring closure to your players. If they continue on for the community that forms within your game, that’s great – but is an embittered player who’s sick of your game after 3 or 4 years worth the customer service cost they’ll start to inflict on you out of sheer boredom? But more to the point, trying to drive player retention by making the game painful is a bad plan. Players that hate you tend not to give you as much money. And if the game is shallow enough that you can race through it in the space of a few weeks, making people wait in line to finish isn’t going to help matters that much.

This is *extremely* important and probably outside the scope that Lum intended.

Beside the impassable barriers between each server and that prohibit the players to meet and play together (“Hey! I play WoW too.” “Great! Maybe we can meet and play together!” “That would be really cool. On which server are you?” “I have characters in Silvermoon, Azgalor and Elune.” “I’m on Cenarius and Arthas..” “Oh well, nevermind..”) there’s also the gaps created by the levels which basically make IMPOSSIBLE to play together with someone if you don’t build specific characters and organize so you play exclusively together.

This is why some games have “platforms”, like at the endgame, so that you can finally gather with friends and achieve/play something together and without the game mechanics *getting in the way* of the fun. I’d like these gaps to go altogether, myself. But this bad habit is one of the most enrooted and I don’t see the situation changing in the near future. Getting worse, maybe. My dream mmorpg is focused to have all players playing together and at all times. Reducing these artificial barriers as much as possible. But then my dream mmorpg will also never exist.

Instancing harms the formation of community by segmenting players into virtual cocoons.
This is the usual argument of those who champion true virtual worlds – if there aren’t enough shared spaces in the world, players won’t come together to form the communities around which virtual worlds grow.

This might be a valid argument if everything in a game was instanced. But I’ve seen very few games structured this way. Some games, such as City of Heroes/Villains, Guild Wars and Everquest 2, do instance large swatches of the world. But they still encourage shared spaces. They’re not shared amongst the entire community, yes. But past a certain point, this isn’t something you want to encourage. There’s no attraction to a huge area where thousands of people gather, because you physically cannot talk to thousands of people.

And this is finally the reason why instancing must exist in a form or another to keep the communities manageable. But this isn’t anymore about the developers and the need to preserve content or the technical needs. This becomes just a need for the players.

What is truly indispensable, and that is the core point of the whole discussion, is that these types of instanced fragmentation to help to maintain the community (and, yes, also the lag) on a manageable level must remain permeable. So that the players can still move, meet together and organize without, again, the mechanics getting in the way. This is why in Guild Wars you are secluded into different districts, but you can still access the menu and move wherever you want to meet with the other players you already know. And this is also why in my dream mmorpg I discarded the impassable barriers to transform them into useful mechanics:
From a side the artificial walls and boundaries are removed, from the other they are progressively rebuilt in order to recreate and respect the natural (complex) behaviour of a “world”.

This is a fundamental basic structure that I still have to see recognized as important and worth the planning-ahead needed to realize it technically.

And finally I quote something old that Raph wrote and that I think could somewhat fit with the discussion:

Legend has MANY quests of similar magnitude and comparable storytelling. It’s worth pointing out some things here: quests that change the balance of entire areas. Quests that naturally reset in bite-sized pieces so that many people can be at different stages at the same time. Quests where the characters can be killed, rather than artificially invulnerable for fear of mucking up the story. The use of puzzles. Quests which do more than just link kill and delivery. The use of special items for quest completion. The ability to opt-out. The increased use of interdependence with other characters. Am emphasis on cinematic moments (FFXI does this well). Constant use of badges and other profile elements, so that others can see what great deeds you have accomplished.

I am pretty sure that a sandbox game can contain quests like the Beowulf one.

I am also pretty sure that a game built around quests cannot contain a sandbox.

One fits inside the other; you can have a section of a sandbox that is theme park rides. But you can’t have a world jammed inside a theme park.

To really conclude I’ll repeat my point of view without going with pages and pages of explanations:

The dichotomies of instancing

“Instancing” is a tool (and I’d say more symbolic than technical, contrarily to how Lum defined it) and should be used when this use is appropriate so that we maximize the advantages. It is already used in every game in the most inappropriate way: the fragmentation in shards (yeah, even Vanguard). So it’s rather silly to nitpick every detail when already the basic implementation is done wrong. Again I believe that a lot could be done by “repositioning” the parts of a game where they belong.

PvP – Not instanced: persistent, dynamic, emergent, contingent, systemic, player-centered, toys, unbalanced, competitive, killer/socializer, player economy, sandbox.

PvE – instanced: static, identity, myths, stories, authorship, control, linear, handcrafted, world centered, balanced, cooperative, achiever/explorer, definite with a start and a conclusion.

(some other recent references, mostly for myself: on Q23, and on Nerfbat, here, here and here)

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