For Instance: How Developers Cope with Massive Populations
Like a kindergarten teacher suddenly breaking your epic fellowship into small groups for play-time, instances are hardly an ideal situation when it comes to massively multiplayer games. Forced to cooperate with, in some cases, dozens of players, these areas can either be a fun diversion from the daily grind, or a frustrating, hair-tearing nightmare. And does a group of 5-40 adventurers really qualify as a "massive" experience?
Last week while dredging the latest Shacknews chat thread, I came across a lively discussion on the issue of instanced zones. Many were in favor of the practice--some only to a point. Others hated the entire concept. But what do the people involved in the games think? Is it a necessary evil, or a crutch for lazy design?
"While instancing can be very beneficial to a game if done the right way, overall it still takes away from what makes a game a MMO," said EA Mythic community manager Richard Duffek to WarCry recently. "The first word there is massive... There really isn't anything all that massive about being in an instanced zone with five other people and some mobs"
On the other hand, there may be more instances in EA Mythic's Warhammer Online than you might think. Of the game's highly anticipated player vs. player combat components, much of the experience will be instanced, in what the developer refers to as "scenario PVP." City sieges and other encounters will be relegated to team vs. team play, in order to guarantee that one side of the eternal war doesn't continually dominate. Unrestricted PVP will still be a large part of the game--it just won't earn you as many points.
Despite their limited scope, instances can spawn some of the best times you'll have in an MMO--provided they are designed well. Ultima Online designer Richard Garriott has been touting the story-driven instances in his upcoming MMO Tabula Rasa as one example of how to do them right.
"Other MMOs have instances, but they're just used to give you a private space to go and beat up the high-level monsters and [get] the high-level drops and not have to fight over who gets the big dragon," said Garriott to the Guardian. "That's radically underusing instancing.
"What I mean by that is that when you play a single-player game, that's basically one, giant instanced space. You can save the world and it doesn't matter if your neighbor's doing the same thing, because it's not in your face. We want to create instances where you feel individually rewarded, and get to engage in interesting story spaces."
While Tabula Rasa's instanced areas stand out as the most entertaining aspect of the game, instancing becomes particularly annoying outside of the dungeons. There's nothing that rips you out of the fantasy faster than seeing your character enter "Generic Highlands 3" as you pass through an invisible border.
The alternative is a single, contained world, with minimal instancing. EVE Online attempts to provide this, and in some ways, it succeeds. Instances are used sparingly, and the universe supports 35,000+ users at any given time, all free to interact and congregate wherever they please.
As any EVE player will tell you, however, the downfall of this open-ended system becomes apparent when any large fleet clashes with another.
"It's not a hidden secret," said EVE Online community manager Mike Read in a recent Shacknews interview. "We know that when you get this many people in a system, that there's going to be lag issues and things that crop up.
"Do we lock down the systems? What happens when one side has more than the other and then the system locks down? It's not the funnest solution, that's what some have said about capping systems... What the solution is, they're looking into the overall [situation], but as for right now, in terms of support, I honestly don't know what we can do to support the scenario. We know it's an issue."
As much of a headache as lag-ridden, server-crashing fleet battles are, capping or instancing EVE Online zones would fundamentally change the essence of the game. This inherent dilemma is unlikely to fade from the MMO realm anytime soon.
What do you think about instancing? Annoying necessity, or delightful vacation from the hustle and bustle? Which game do you think provides the most elegant solution to population control?
Wide World of Warcraft
- The World of Warcraft South Park episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft" won the award for "Outstanding Animated Program" at the 2007 Emmy awards on Saturday.
- In other good fortunes for Blizzard, publisher Vivendi has announced a 91% revenue increase due to the Burning Crusade expansion pack.
- Rest4Life takes a look at a claimed imbalance between Horde and Alliance in the battlegrounds.
- Blizzard has posted a set of official guidelines for WoW machinimators.
- Community manager Drysc says that the acelleration of level 1-60 progression will not be coming in the 2.2 patch. Blizzard officials have claimed the change will be implemented before the release of the upcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
- Chinese publisher The9 has announced the official launch of the Burning Crusade expansion pack in China. The company aded six servers to their growing sim farms, bringing the total up to 297 Chinese worlds.
Massively Minor Minutiae
- NCSoft's sci-fi shoot-em-up MMO Tabula Rasa has been dated. The slowly-developed brainchild of Richard Garriott will hit stores on October 19. Those who pre-order the game can start playing three days ahead of time.
- EVE TV captured the recent 4th Alliance PVP tournament, and you can watch the matches for free, with live commentary. Tune in and listen to the commentators attempt to say "ATTC" three times fast as colored squares circle eachother.
- The first EVE dev blog by economist Eyjo Gudmundsson is up, detailing mineral market trends over the game's lifespan. Unsurprisingly, minerals have fallen in price as the population has increased, and trade is at all time highs. Nothing revelatory yet, but as the blog focuses on more in-depth topics (next month's will take a look at ships and tech II modules), it should make for an interesting read.
- Over 6500 Final Fantasy XI users were banned by PlayOnline for engaging in the exchange of real money for in-game goods, in addition to the standard cheat-bans.
- Acclaim is offering $1 million plus royalties for the winning team of their MMO design project.