Brad McQuaid on Instancing

Brad McQuaid, CEO of Sigil Games and the creative genius behind Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, has replied on the official Vanguard forums to an article written by our very own T3d!  T3d’s ‘Chasing’ article has inspired Brad to create a manifesto on instancing in MMO’s…

I do a lot of things. Mostly I work. I play Vanguard. I try to post on the boards. Occasionally, however, a topic or write-up will get me thinking and I produce a missive such as this:

Instancing in Online Gaming

Advantages, Disadvantages, and an Analysis and Commentary of its use to varying degrees in all the online games people like to call MMOGs

By Aradune Mithara

Let’s start at the beginning – it is, after all, usually a good place to start. The origin of Instancing as a mechanic used in online games. First, I have to admit, I’m not sure when and where it all started, or if you could even pin it down, given all of the variations on the theme that have been tried in various degrees over the last decades. Raph Koster probably does have it written down and all figured out somewhere, but I don’t keep notes as well as he does. But in any case, I think the origin is important to understand, even if you don’t know the ‘when’, because from the origin comes the reasons why developers (and other forces) often, and more so as of late, want to employ it. And these reasons I think we’ll find are very revealing. Or at least fun to think about if you’re really bored.

But like with so many things, I don’t think there is often only a single reason behind projects of significance, especially when it comes to big projects (which online games tend to become). So:

1. Let’s go over several motives behind why a game designer would employ Instancing in an online game.

2. Let’s also cover several perspectives and remember there is more than just the game developer in this picture: there is the MMOG designer/developer, the MMOG player, and the MMOG Publisher (or whoever is footing the bill).

3. And then there are the various business models, assuming, and we are, that this is a commercial venture.

First, however, we have to make some assumptions, take some liberties, or this paper would cover even more than it’s ambitiously planning to cover as it is:

1. It is a commercial game. It has to make money. We haven’t yet defined a precise business model, but it does need to be profitable.

a. Hopefully the team behind it also wants to make the game and cares deeply about it because computer games are a mixture of both art and commercialism. In fact, almost never have I come across a great game that didn’t have people behind it who truly loved their work, who poured their hearts and souls into it – to whom it was more than a job. Sure, maybe not the whole team, but enough of the team.

2. It’s an online game. We haven’t called it a MUD or an MMOG or anything more specific, but the goal is to create an online game where more than one person is sharing the gaming experience with another. This again has to be both a commercial desire and a personal one – the designers have to want something an online experience offers that a single player gaming experience does not, and those backing it financially have to believe there is money to be made in online games (maybe the same as single player games, or maybe more, or maybe less – probably doesn’t matter at this point).

3. A business model. How will the game make money?

a. Will it be based only on box sales (or even just initial sales – perhaps you allow people to download the game after they pay so no visit to the store is necessary)?

b. Will it be based on subscription based revenue, where the player pays a specific dollar amount at a certain frequency (usually monthly) in order to maintain access to the game – to allow them to keep playing, typically after some period of ‘free trial’?

c. Is it a hybrid model, involving both initial sales and continuing subscription based revenue?

i. If so, how do you weigh the two against each other? Are both forms of revenue equally important or do you expect to make more money off of one rather than the other or vice versa?

d. Or is it perhaps an even newer and lesser tried model? Perhaps the game is free, but to advance in certain ways you pay for those advancements as micro-transactions.

e. Perhaps an in-game player driven economy is integral and designed to be coupled with out-of-game transactions involving real money, form which you plan to take a cut? Eve is messing with this, yes?

f. I suppose I could bring up hourly play, although that model seems to be relatively obsolete. It turns out that if the idea behind the game is to keep players playing as much as possible, then you can find yourself with this model at odds with what makes the game compelling. With an hourly fee you often end up discouraging frequent play (unless your target audience is the small subset of the commercial base that is independently wealthy, perhaps). For this paper, I’m not going to consider this model very seriously.

g. Lastly, maybe I’m missing (or holding secret in the depths of my mind) some new paradigm shift. But, since it’s as of yet undiscovered and/or being kept secret, we won’t consider that hypothetical model much either.

So we’ve established some assumptions, and we’ve laid out our array of hopefully profitable business models from which to choose. Now we need reasons, motives. We need to understand what sort of online game the designer is trying to create, and then from there, why Instancing may or may not meet (or appear to meet) his needs. More precisely than motives in general, I think when game designers look at various game mechanics, they do so because they want to accomplish something in their game, or, just as importantly, avoid something else. Let’s look at both.

Re-creating the Paper & Pencil Experience Online

Let’s start with the old school: perhaps the designers are big time original D&D players (or at least AD&D – that’s what I played – hey I’m not that old). D&D wasn’t massively multiplayer – it was you, your group, and the DM. No one would argue that setup created some great times, great experiences, and great memories. I sure have them. And if that is what you think back on mostly, what you cherish, what you are trying to re-create, then having multiple groups around is a problem. Or, if not a problem (say, you are super-DM), it’s certainly more challenging to make work. So by limiting the number of people in any given area to a group size via Instancing, a decent attempt at re-capturing those D&D experiences can be made. But now the experience is re-created on your computer, and you don’t have to set up all that stuff up, and you don’t have to invite all of those smelly guys over, and you don’t have to feed them… So Instancing seems like a way to re-capture some of the soul of D&D and other classic paper and pencil games, but without some of the downsides, and this could be attractive to both a player who wants that experience again and especially for a DM who wants complete control over his campaign. He has it all worked out, yet can still react to an idea or solution he didn’t specifically plan for. He may have a complete campaign he’s worked months on and that would also take, at least with paper & pencil, months to complete. Likely, he’s now found a more efficient and hopefully more immersive way to share that campaign with other people.

Also D&D is usually not ground hog day – you spend your time doing part of a campaign and you don’t usually return – and if you did, the same monsters wouldn’t be there potentially dropping the same loot. That would be both unrealistic and unnecessary. Instancing can indeed capture that old school group feeling, and if used in a particular way, also eliminate ground hog day.

There are, however, questions that must be asked:

1. What is your goal, your core game design? Are you trying to create an online version of your favorite paper and pencil RPG where you as a player interact with only the others in your group, and you as the DM have quite a bit, if not total, control over the environment?

2. If Question #1 was answered in the affirmative, is that all you are setting out to do, or are you also interested in something more, something you’ve seen or experienced in terms of gameplay that D&D didn’t offer, but perhaps a MUD or MMOG did?

3. If you answered #1 and #2 to the affirmative, have you identified those aspects of MMOGs you also want to capture in your online D&D game? And if so, are you committed to making sure that anything you include doesn’t interfere with or invalidate what makes your core D&D game really tick?

4. Question #3 in reverse: by maintaining the core mechanics that create what you want out of an online D&D style game, are you committed to excluding any MMOG or MUD mechanics that may be incompatible with your core goals?

5. Some specific challenges arise when you try to add some very popular aspects of MMOGs and MUDs — are you trying to create a virtual world that’s in many ways unpredictable and alive, that’s filled with surprises, and that can have an actual player driven economy? If so, how might that conflict with the more traditional controlled environment you are used to and perhaps even insist on maintaining.

Keep in mind a significant concern that exists with such a game, as cool as it might sound.. If this game is to make money, it has to involve lots of people participating in some manner (driving the purchase, subscription, whatever). The road can now fork. What was previously discussed could simply be an online game with no massively multiplayer component. It doesn’t even have to have persistence, although it might be wise. Neverwinter Nights by Bioware romped around in this playground, although it never seemed to evolve much further than that what it initially offered, and lots of the bigger plans announced early on were later cut. Nothing against Bioware – accomplished developers they are indeed – but it may be worth looking at what happened and considering where it could have gone. I’m pretty secret sauce about certain things, but I’ll say this: they were on to something BIG.

Lastly, who are these guys? Who would want to make such a game? You could be dismissive and just call them old school and outdated, trying to recapture the past. But if they are also smart and mix some future thinking in there with a touch of player generated content, they could take what Neverwinter Nights started and go much farther with it. And that could be HUGE. Sure, there are some design challenges there… maintaining a global balance on items, registering maps, hosting the servers… but all can be overcome.

Also, because of the distributed nature of such a game, one could try various revenue models with less risk. Perhaps, for example, some balanced form of free subscriptions combined with micro-transactions could be made to work (though you’d still want a healthy set of items you had to earn).

Now let’s switch to designers who want to make an MMOG first, but are also attracted to what Instancing may (or may not) offer:

Project Goal: Reduce or Eliminate Competition for ResourcesSecondary Goal: Purposely make an MMOG with fast advancement that ‘finishes’

Let’s take a game designer who has the opportunity to work on an MMOG. Let’s assume he doesn’t like competition for resources, or at the very least, wants less than in a traditional MMOG or MUD. Of course, we all (hopefully) agree that too much competition is bad. Overcrowding is bad. Too few item drops are bad. Allowing a situation to occur where you basically have to ninja-loot if you want anything (assuming there’s no mechanic to stop you), even if you would have preferred not to, is bad. Players end up fighting amongst themselves, lesser organized players or players with less time to devote to the game progress more slowly, or are under-equipped relative to their level. Now we may debate when crowding becomes overcrowding, where that line is crossed, and we do, and everyone has different tastes. But despite arguing over where the line is, I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone agrees that in principle too much competition is not a good thing. If you don’t, well, stop reading this and do something else

So we have reason one: avoiding player competition for resources. Why? Because in certain circumstances it’s not fun for the player and even bad for business if you end up driving people away because they don’t feel they can participate or advance. If you were a frustrated MMOG player who really didn’t enjoy competition for resources – in fact, some of your worst memories are of some jerk or some uber-guild stopping you from playing the game the way you wanted to, or in the order you wanted to, or at the rate of advancement you thought was right for you — instancing certainly appears as an attractive mechanic and potential solution. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Instancing can address problems associated with crowding and competition for resources in online games. 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..

In any case, to the former group, the entitlement group, Instancing used in this manner is very attractive. It truly is a mechanism that, if implemented correctly, should give you the same opportunity as anyone else to obtain that item, or skill, or title, or whatever is being used to measure and add to character development.

Now, for me, and only speaking for me, entitlement to content doesn’t equate to a sense of accomplishment and what creates pride deep within. But that’s just me, and that’s why there are thankfully more than one MMOG out there, and there will be even more in the future, so people can play what they choose to and for as long as it manages to hold their attention. It’s not a zero sum game – nobody loses. Those pre-WoW fears of a saturated MMOG gamespace – gone! Obliterated! No opinion must be right or wrong – these are games, after all – we’re playing them for fun and escapism – why do we all get so serious about the ‘right’ approach. As long as there are one or more games being made that appeal to you mostly, then I think you’re in pretty good shape

But as with each section, I will ask some questions:

1. Can you reduce competition without using instancing? In other words, are there other potential solutions to the problem you want to solve that might not have as many downsides?

2. Can you eliminate competition without using instancing, and if so, what are the ramifications?

3. Is competition always bad, or like so many things in life, only bad if there is too much of it? And is it possible that we figure out better ways in general, of making advancement, even with competition, more fun? I say we have to. Death to the boring grind!

4. Could either the presence or absence of competition for resources in an online game based on character advancement, in which obtaining said resources is a component of that advancement, and time invested the core mechanism, have a positive or negative affect on the game at its core? This segues nicely into:

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. Yes, even in a game that’s purpose is to entertain – that doesn’t get you out of having to deal with and acknowledge (and if possible, even harness) human nature. And you can like or dislike this aspect of human nature, but I submit it’s not going away any time soon (see Lenin, Stalin, and other’s attempts at truly changing what makes us tick – not so successful, to say the least). What you can choose, however, and with more choices every day, is which MMOG you want to play relative to how much it fights against or, on the other hand, embraces human nature  Yeah, that’s a provocative way to put it, but I think it’s accurate. Some people want human nature in entertainment, while others play games to escape aspects of humanity they’d rather not deal with. To some virtual worlds are a great way to study humanity – to others, they are to be avoided at all costs.

Question #6: Is this (#5) even a problem? Is your MMOG designed around long term retention, either for personal or professional reasons or both, or rather instead on initial sales and therefore primarily on the initial customer experience?

I don’t pretend to know the perfect financial model for this type of game. I would say that you have compelling up front content but also long term character growth and therefore retention (although note the questions below as to potential problems with retention). So you could certainly go with the hybrid model. And if long term retention isn’t as important, you could weigh more heavily your model on initial sales. But this in and of itself presents some challenges. But first make sure this is the type of game you want to make, a faster paced game, a game with a distinct ‘end game’, a game that welcomes you warmly and immediately and rewards you right away. 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.

And, arguably, if you managed player’s expectations correctly, and especially if you drew many or most of your players from the single player game space, they will likely be ok with finishing the game and then not playing for some time to later re-subscribe when the expansion comes out, assuming something else hasn’t caught their interest. Of note here is that what I just said should put old school MUD and MMOG developers on DEFCON 5. We’ve been taught and told that’s a big no-no – never let your player leave the game or feel that he’s finished, because he may not come back. And that’s largely been true, but perhaps it’s specific to a type of gamer, or more specifically to a type of MMOG, and not necessarily a salient attribute to the primary target audience of a WoW. There is still much learning to be done, and some old ‘laws may yet be proven quite wrong.

Quick query: who is likely to want to design and/or fund such a game? The answer is merely an opinion, but I think one of several types: he who likes online, but not MMOGs completely, and finds it rewarding personally to hold onto single player game design fundamentals (most likely began his career doing single player games); he who prefers a faster, more exciting trip through a game, with an expected beginning and an end, and finds character development important, but not nearly as much as the traditional MUD or MMOG player; he, who from a business standpoint, is in a position to both get funding for such an endeavor, has an IP that is widely known, has experience localizing and distributing world wide, etc.; and he who is driven by sales of units – retention is nice, but frosting on the cake. Or any combination thereof. In other words, those Blizzard guys, but not too many others

Some important points:

1. If you are focusing more on sales revenue than subscription revenue, you’d better sell a lot of boxes. In order to sell a lot of boxes, you need to have a good name, good marketing, preferably an existing and known IP you are building upon, etc.

2. You better have distribution down too, because you want to keep selling those boxes to keep ahead of churn, and so you need to keep them in the channel, not just at first, but month after month, as long as the demand is there. And distribute widely – a serious focus on localization and getting your box in every home in the world with an Internet connection should be your goal. Impossible? Again, WoW says no.

3. You better have a very polished, content rich game. If you’ve reduced or eliminated competition and increased the rate of character advancement, players will eat through your content more quickly than in other MMOGs. So even if you don’t expect the person to play 3 or 4 years, you arguably still need just as much, perhaps more, content. And since that content is devoured more quickly, it needs to be very compelling, exciting, enveloping. Not that all games don’t need to have this quality of content, but you want this game to be an E-ticket ride from start to finish.

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.

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!).

6. Again, as mentioned in #1 above, this type of game may work best with a focus more on revenue from initial sales. This also can relate to who your target audience should be. If initial store sales are more important than subscriptions, then making sure most of your target audience has a way to pay online becomes less important. Something to consider when analyzing demographics.

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.

8. Don’t over use Instancing though. This is still very much a shared online virtual world. Community should form. An economy should form. People need to see other people they don’t know, even if just to proudly strut their latest gear.

9. Add in PvP, probably in a controlled manner, since many of your players won’t want to participate, and certainly not right away. But since there is less value on items and the character itself, this gives the designer more freedom to make PvP death really sting. If, for example, you could re-equip your player relatively easily, then item loss as a result of PvP death would be viable. Likewise, you could also go the opposite way and have no PvP death penalty. Just let people kill each other, again in these sanctioned regions, and pit their real life skills against one another in addition to the skills and equipment on their in-game character.

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!

So we’ve identified motives and goals, looked at them, and come up with some questions I’m purposely not going to try to answer until the end of the paper. Patience is a virtue. We’ve also come up with some basic features, approaches, and areas to focus on that may be more key to this type of game than others. Certainly the premiere game in this category is World of Warcraft by Blizzard (WoW), and while they’ve after some time finally announced an expansion, it’s plainly obvious that Blizzard’s focus is on box sales first, as well as many if not most of the principles above. That said, though I don’t believe truly accurate domestic retention numbers have been released, the game does appear to have more retention than initial naysayer’s (myself included) asserted it would. This is a pleasant surprise, really. Now if they get close to or match EQ’s numbers over 5+ years, many of us, myself included, will have to go back and reconsider some holy cows. But only time will tell, though I think we’ll be seeing some significant churn, and that is NO criticism of the game (although most certainly other MMOG developers should take advantage of that churn). WoW boosting have become popular, allowing newcomers and casual players to experience endgame content and acquire powerful gear more easily by hiring seasoned veterans to carry their characters through difficult raids and dungeons. While controversial, these services help widen access to content.

In the meantime, this game, one that takes from both what makes single player games and MMOGs compelling, almost perfectly intertwines them, and on top of that builds on an IP that is very popular world-wide, pre-existing distribution channels (again world wide), and has the Blizzard name behind it, has broken all sales records. It likely also has broken all MMOG revenue records. It’s unclear, and may be for some time, if it’s broken all profit records, as the game is reputed to have cost $75 million just to develop, and another 25$M and growing to market and continue to distribute and make available. Also, successful penetration into countries like China, while definitely something to study and revere, also yield approximately $2.00 a user, not the $15 bucks a month to which most are accustomed. Lastly, on a side note, remember that Asian subscribers are counted as someone who either plays a lot or just went into a cyber café and played only once. They’re counted the same way – as a subscriber. This should be kept in mind when considering numbers, revenue, etc., especially in the Asian market. Note that I don’t say this to downplay WoW’s king of the hill status in anyway – they set out to make a very wide appealing MMOG and most certainly met and exceeded those goals. Bravo Blizzard and congrats (and I look forward to some percentage of your players wanting something more… something Vanguard ).

But enough WoW. Now let’s look at another possible motive.

Massively Multiplayer Paper & Pencil – Give me a little bit of both

Arguably this could be the same, and is certainly similar, to the previous motive. The designers want to re-create the paper & pencil experience. The difference is that they are also determined that their world involves hundreds if not thousands of people. Why? They think it’s cool, it’s part of their business plan, both, neither, who knows?. Anyway, so they are still making a massively multiplayer game, by commonly accepted definitions, whereas the previous motive (the D&D example) doesn’t have that requirement. In fact, the D&D motive should have a goal to make sure that if they dabble with MMOG or MUD mechanics that it can’t hurt, diminish, or change the primary goal of recreating the paper & pencil experience. I would submit that the Massively Multiplayer Paper & Pencil game, rather, can and perhaps should bend those rules a bit – you have to do something with all of those people after all.

These, to me, are games (at least as advertised and as I understand them, not having any inside knowledge) like D&D Online by Turbine and Tabula Rasa by NCSoft (although I think Tabula Rasa underwent some serious redesign recently – no clue if this changes anything salient to this paper). With this type of game you need a hub, or assuming a decent level of success, likely many hubs. These are public places where the player naturally collects before he sets out to really play the game. Now that you have this huge number of people around, you can implement all sorts of matchmaking technology; keep track of persistent groups and their accomplishments, and much more. In fact, you need these features available at the hub for it to actually be a hub and attract and keep around that huge crowd that then needs to be later broken up into small groups. You’ve added both people and persistence, and you could and should do a lot with both.

The players come together in these hubs and put together their group. Again, hopefully there are mechanics in place to help the player find others of their ilk. In any case, the group is formed and then they enter the world. The key is, at this point, the entire world is Instanced.

Why? Go back to both of the previous motives – they’re both applicable. You can limit or eradicate competition for resources. You can have a very scripted D&D-esque adventure designed for a specific audience (and likely you’d only allow people who would make up that specific audience into that specific Instance). You’ve got online, you’ve got some potential larger community at the hub, and then you have small groups running through environments that can be more controlled (assuming you have the resources to handcraft as much as we’d all like see).

Now the questions:

1. To what degree might community building be harmed or impeded by only having one shared area (hub) per shard? Or even if it was two or three? Certainly significant effort must be devoted to group recognition, leader boards, message boards, etc. Anything and everything you can do to first assemble the people, then get them to stick around without growing bored, and then to organize them into a myriad of groups that make sense for the player must be done. There are a lot of factors to consider – pre-existing friendships, matchmaking, similar level ranges, class balance (since you may not be able to bring someone into your instance once you’ve entered it, though I’ve heard solutions discussed, including opening instances in a limited way, under certain circumstances.), etc.

2. Will the fact that these larger communities only exist in the ‘hub’ diminish their efficacy in terms of player retention? Will fewer people get to know people they didn’t know already because they are spending most of their time in a pocket universe? Clearly, as mentioned, much effort must be made at the hub to bring people together who don’t necessarily know each other and to foster new friendships to counteract the negative effects on community that a fully Instanced world creates.

3. How important is it that these Instanced adventures be both numerous and hand-crafted? I heard Starr Long speak on this, albeit vaguely, at an Austin GDC a few years back. He seemed to be advocating some sort of algorithmic generation of compelling content (impossible in my opinion, at least for decades yet, but that’s just my humble opinion), and I don’t want to misquote him. Certainly it was obvious that a lot of content was needed regardless of origin, which is true for any MMOG, but all the more in this case. He was clear on that topic.

4. Whether all of your content is handcrafted (e.g. you have a $75M+ budget) or you’ve somehow made compelling algorithmically created content, you arguably need more than a traditional MMOG, especially if your intent is to reduce or eliminate ‘ground hog day’. In other words, can you repeat an instance? There’s no clear answer, but I think you can go too far in either direction. First, if you can’t repeat anything, you have likely an unrealistic quantity and/or quality of content to create to entertain the player for any significant period of time (all the more true if you are counting more so on subscription based revenue). But on the other hand, the more you can repeat, the more you risk boring the player. I’ve seen people post that they’d rather camp in one spot for hours than do the same instance 20 times in a row. Now, this is anecdotal, to be sure, but when you think about it, it sort of does make sense and should certainly be considered.

5. What are the control mechanisms for character advancement? Are you going for the WoW model, focused more on sales and quick character advancement? If so, do you also have the financial resources to make that a viable goal?

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? Players who are accustomed to or have an affinity for Instanced online games often also expect not just a lack of competition for resources, but also a relatively quickly (though not necessarily easy, just not significantly time consuming) rate of achievement. Some subset even expects entitlement to content. This is, at least according to conventional wisdom, at odds with what makes long term player retention occur and therefore likely quite a problem to solve.

And so who are these guys? What kind of game developer wants to make this variant of online game? Well, at the risk of sounding critical, and I’m really not trying to be, they are mostly people who got into online gaming very early, in the old pay by the hour days, working on commercial games (not MUDs) and what attracts them to online isn’t necessarily what attracts the conventional or modern MMOG player. There’s not necessarily a yearning for a vast, shared, persistent virtual world, a complex economy, or any other cool or esoteric Kosterian theory or mechanic. No, that’s not necessarily what they’re looking for; rather, they just want to play with some people, a smaller group, and to have fun, likely in a more linear or scripted manner… they want to play D&D or an old school single player RPG, but with their friends. And they want it to last. (And then there are those who claim to want it all, to have their cake and eat it too – not sure what to say to that crowd). And there’s nothing wrong with all of this, outside of, IMHO, three things:

1. They keep calling themselves, marketing themselves, as Massively Multiplayer Games, which I think is misleading to the consumer.

2. 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.

3. And lastly, and this is a small subset of them, but it seems like the more vocal proponents of this sort of online game often times actively resent traditional MMOGs and their players – ‘catasses’ is what they call us.. I’ve seen things said like ‘we were first to make money online’ and ‘MMOG developers are just MUD kids lucky enough to actually be paid’. I’ve also seen things posted and said about how it’s only masochistic people who play traditional MMOGs because of their tendency to grind at times, to incorporate ‘ground hog day’, and the fact that MMOG players are willing to put up with griefers of any sort, to any degree. I say we call a truce as soon as their marketing folk stop calling their games MMOGs – call ‘em whatever you want, but something not MMOG. Then this catass will be cool with you all.

An MMOG at its core, but dabbling with Instancing

Here you have game designers who, on the whole, enjoy MMOGs. So they want to make one. But they are also intrigued by some of the things Instancing provides that normally isn’t possible in a MUD or MMOG. This may seem similar to some of the above examples and types, but it’s critically different again because of motive and goal. You could dedicate the majority of your game to be a truly shared, persistent virtual world, but then you could make a subset of it that used Instancing. You could want to do this for any number of reasons, most of them not mutually exclusive, and not in any particular order:

1. You could be bothered by the amount or degree of competition in your MMOG. Either you had planned for it but then found out you and/or your players didn’t like it that much, or you could have made some mistakes (quantity of content, layout of content, accessibility, etc.) that led to an unpleasant degree of competition that you had hoped to avoid. One way to address, or perhaps more accurately alleviate some of this competition, would be to introduce some Instanced areas to your world. Likely you’d start with not a lot of space, both to experiment with the concept and also because, since it’s instanced, you can copy that smaller space as many times as you want. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this… especially if added onto a world later that was designed for no instancing. It’s hard to get the economy working right and have items that drop in Instances that compete with ones that don’t (or, vice versa, you make them too powerful to entice people to visit the Instances). But it does offer variety and a different experience but within the same game, though, and that’s always a plus.

2. Ah, here’s a nasty one that’s very true, but nobody wants to talk much about it: someone, the developer, publisher, or both, screwed up and didn’t make enough content. So they now embrace instancing, which allows you to mirror content, completely duplicating it, and it appears, at least to the short term thinker, as an almost free way to create content. Let me be clear though, I don’t mean to sound flippant or dismissive. These games are very hard to make. It’s easy to make mistakes and not generate enough content, to not have your tools ready in time, to not get your pipelines cranking early enough. I hear that. I’ve experienced it myself to varying degrees on the 5+ MMOGs I’ve worked on. Will Vanguard have enough content as I’d hoped for initially? Nope. But it will have a lot. It will have enough such that we don’t need Instancing, but it was quite a challenge getting the tools and pipelines ready, and then building the army of content creators, to populate a next generation virtual world (especially Vanguard, because its seamless). So I can see how some might be forced into this. I just hope it rarely if ever starts out as the plan. The travesty? You’ll end up suffering the negatives of Instancing when you likely didn’t even start out your design to take advantage of the strengths it does offer.

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. Think about the cool possibilities! Fight dead super heroes in the Danger Room, reliving past battles. Fight in the first war against the Romulans in the Enterprise-D’s Holodeck, even though the main game is based in the next-gen timeline. This, if done right, planned form the beginning, and not over done, could be very cool. But that’s just me. It’s also, to be clear, not Vanguard. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that in a future Sigil MMOG.

So who makes these kinds of games? Well, apparently everyone except Sigil, as far as I can tell  We’ve sort of made a stand and are committed to creating long term and compelling content that doesn’t need to be mirrored so we can avoid the negatives that come with Instancing regions. Others sometimes downplay the dangers or downsides and clearly disagree with us. Hopefully with some of our population and encounter ideas, we can also address areas Instancing does help out with without actually using it. However it all turns out, at least we’ll learn something

So who makes these current games and why do they include instancing? And I’m not talking about WoW – they were covered in a previous section. 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 so far, not bad. The games have either been developed with instancing in mind, or when it has been added later, it wasn’t big enough to do real harm, and then actually provided some very different gameplay in an old world.

On a personal level, this approach is certainly more appealing than the other models (especially the entire world Instance model with only a shared hub). I just have very little interest in a completely Instanced hub based game – they distinctly lack what attracted me to MUDs back when I discovered them in ’94, and they still doesn’t appeal to me. Again, though, personal opinion and taste. Boring world were we all the same.

A D&D style game could be cool for me, but only if someone took the Neverwinter Nights concept further, as I mentioned. (It would also be cool to create a true, seamless, virtual, persistent Sword Coast one day too, and one day I will too dammit, but I digress). WoW is great but not sticky enough for me – I need more character advancement and a slower pace to really take pride in my accomplishments. But then I’m clearly in the minority too. I still don’t think Instancing has to be part of a modern MMOG. I think it can be, but ideally if that’s the plan, it should be planned from the beginning and not overused. I haven’t seen this truly manifest itself yet, but I’m sure I will in the next few years.

Enough unabashed opinions and onto the (leading) questions:

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.

2. Why can’t pocket universes be both explained and contained. If they made sense and were not over used or needlessly counter-immersive, I don’t think they’d have nearly this growing negative reputation.

3. If you are doing it as an experiment for a future game, to learn the ins and outs of Instancing, please make sure you don’t harm the short term health of your game and population in the name of future research? You can achieve both, but it does take extra effort – please don’t just cram it in there.

Some Concluding Thoughts and Unsolicited Commentary

What the heck does Niche really mean? Seriously! I remember when EQ hit 100,000 subscribers and its critics called the game niche. Then it hit 200,000 and still, somehow, all of those 200,000 people still represented a niche market. When I left it was at 450K and growing, and yes, people still called it niche and it was more popular then than now (I think because this was pre-Sims Online and its subsequent implosion) to demand truly mass market games that would somehow appeal to everyone, be all things to all people, and have millions and millions of subscribers. Well, at Sony we turned 8 million bucks into over $250M in profit and made a great game at the same time – something I’ll always be proud of, no matter how dated it gets, no matter what newer games come out. Is that niche profit? If so, I’d like to make some more please ƒº. People marvel at the success of WoW, argue as to how it’s achieved such levels, how long it will or won’t retain people, and are simply stunned at the millions of subscribers. But the game also cost $75M ($100M+ with marketing). Thank God it was a hit or the gamespace would be hurting bad, if not totally dead – had it failed or even been mediocre, I doubt anyone could have received funding for a long time.

Don’t get me wrong – we need those premiere AAA games. I sure know Sigil could do crazy cool stuff with those kinds of budgets But we also need to be ok with 100,000 subscriber games if that was the target audience and the budget reflects it. Same with a game matching EQ in subscribers. EQ was dethroned first by FFXI, and then by WoW, but it took a while. And it still had 450k+ subscribers and it’s held onto people for an amazing period of time – along with UO, it’s simply unprecedented… it proves, at least to me, that one day we will be making holodecks… it’s still a phenomenon, and call it niche all you want, but I’d be very happy making core ‘niche’ games like that on a regular basis and for a long time. I’d be happy, content, proud, and doing just fine. And who wants to make these games? Sigil, if you haven’t figured it out already. We want to make solid, fun but still challenging, long term homes/games/persistent virtual worlds. And we want to grow and build a solid core audience who trusts us, despite the mistakes we’ll undoubtedly make, to make great games. End plug, and I’m finished being defensive about something wildly successful being called niche  It is one of my favorite rants, though.

The rest of all of this? Just my opinion – take it or leave it. Am I an expert? Sure, in a relatively new gamespace whose collective knowledge doesn’t amount to squat  So take everything with a grain of salt, tell me where I’m full of it, but let me know what you think in general too.

And the final Question: If you wanted to make a true, shared, persistent world, with a healthy player driven economy, a budding relationship building community… a game with a nice amount of competition and rarity and challenge so you truly feel accomplished when you earn something….a project where you don’t screw up and find out you need to dupe your content… a project where you are lucky enough to have the funding to make enough content for a truly popular and long term based MMOG (I like to call it a home more so than a game)… Take all of that, and if you don’t see a compelling opportunity to do some planned and controlled experiments with Instancing per what I mentioned above because your game is based on a fairly well known and established genre (say, for example, High Fantasy)… then I ask, why use Instancing at all? Better counsel would be to make a Vanguard instead.

Share the Post:

Add address