Packed like lemmings into instanced little boxes

Apologies to Sting (who should actually be apologizing to us for the majority of post-Police pop crap foisted upon the world) and the Police, but when I look at MMO’s these days, I’m seeing compartments of gameplay, and I’m not liking it. I want a virtual world, not a holodeck. I want a place to live in, a place that changes because I’ve been there.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide an MMO timeline into “Star Wars:Galaxies and earlier” versus “World of Warcraft and later”. There were gameplay issues in Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot and SW:G that World of Warcraft addressed in a way that has changed or limited the way virtual worlds are being created since WoW.

First, the EQ problems. Static spawns, camp checks, kill-stealing, non-instanced dungeons. WoW addressed a lot of this with instances. It definitely eliminated some of those issues, but not without consequences. On a recent episode of The Online Gamer’s Anthology, Jonathan talked to an ex-DAoC player named Sean about life before instanced dungeons. Sean commented that life before instances did have some drawbacks, but that players did develop relationships as they formed groups and waited for spots to open within the dungeon. That was definitely true in the PvE dungeons, but it was crucially true in Darkness Falls, the shared PvP dungeon that was accessible to the realm that held the most frontier RvR keeps. When Darkness Falls access changed hands, and you knew a horde of enemy players was about the flood their entrance area, everyone got friendly real quick!

I don’t miss camp checks in Lower Guk, but I do miss the social aspects of open dungeons. I don’t miss trains out of Crushbone Castle, or the basement of Unrest, or Mistmoore (god, I could go on and on about EQ trains), but I do miss that sense of shared adventure when pulls went Really Frickin’ Bad. You definitely got to know your neighbors when you forgot to snare a runner in Sol A and wiped out everyone in the place. What you did in those dungeons mattered.

Let’s look at what might be considered a DAoC problem that Blizzard addressed through instancing. When you entered the RvR frontier areas in DAoC, you were never guaranteed a fair fight. In fact, you weren’t guaranteed a fight at all. There were a lot of nights where I’d go out solo, and I’d only find groups of enemy players, or  vice versa.  While I enjoyed the unpredictability of the frontier, and found that my fights were often more memorable for their lack of organization, I know that some players were frustrated with the process. I passed the time looking for fights, or waiting for fights, by getting to know my realm mates who were also on the frontier around me. Those friendships increased my enjoyment of the game quite a bit, much more than Blizzard BG’s increase my enjoyment of WoW.

It’s clear that Blizzard devs played DAoC, and they “solved” that lack of an instant-on fair fight with Battlegrounds. Like instanced dungeons, however, that solution had consequences.

First, you never get a sense of rivalry like DAoC had. Despite the fact I couldn’t talk to my opponents in DAoC, I still felt like I knew them after fighting them night after night. I knew the guild names, the players to be feared, and the buff botters (hated you! 🙂 ). There was talking back and forth on the forums, and an in-game respect grew from those out-of-game conversations. Your reputation mattered, not only to your realm mates, but to your enemies as well.

Second, there’s never any unpredictability in a Battleground. Blizzard has definitely made it possible to instantly find a fair fight, but that feels stale, sanitized, and impersonal to me. What you do in a WoW BG has no affect on the world around you (other than personal gain), and I’ve never enjoyed that. It doesn’t build a sense of community, banding together to protect realm property, or working together to get your realm access to dungeons, or experience/ability/loot drop bonuses.

Star Wars:Galaxies doesn’t have a clear-cut gameplay issue that Blizzard attempted to solve through instancing. However, Blizzard definitely decided to limit what world elements would be included in WoW, and they stripped out a lot of SW:G elements that created a vibrant world, a thriving community. I don’t think I’ve ever played an MMO that had the sense of player-created space that SW:G had. From player cities, to owning your own house, a fine crafting system, and method of marketing your goods, there was an interdependency that I sorely miss in most MMO’s since. Eve’s a bit of an exception, as I really enjoy their “players make everything” economy.

WoW has no housing, little complexity in their tradeskills (OK, no complexity), and an alt-itis “I can make that with my other character” situation. While I occassionally chafed at the one character per server restriction in SW:G, it did make the tradeskills much more vibrant and social.

I don’t want to make this sound like I’m saying Blizzard was wrong in their design decisions. They’ve made a brilliant game. It just doesn’t draw me into a community the way EQ, DAoC, and SW:G did. It doesn’t feel as worldly. Blizzard’s one saving grace for me was the excellent NPC world that surrounds you in WoW. While I never felt compelled to interact with other players like I did in the earlier games, I did enjoy experiencing the static world of Azeroth.

Looking forward to Age of Conan and WAR, I’m wondering how much influence Blizzard’s instanced design will affect those games, and how much Funcom and Mythic might try to incorporate gameplay elements that Blizzard took a pass on.

Tobold has already commented that Hyboria lacks that worldly feeling. I sensed the same thing during my open beta experience. Dividing the PvE areas into instances, instead of an interconnected world, isn’t a direction I wanted to see Funcom take. I do think that Funcom is cognizant of WoW’s stale BG problem, and they want to make PvP more meaningful. I don’t know how truly open-world the PvP will be. I’ll have to look more closely at the process for attacking guild cities, but I hope it’s a more open than closed model. There are choices that every MMO developer has to make about what features to include, and at what depth. Time will tell if Funcom tilted too far toward the WoW model for my tastes, or if they tilted even further in some areas, like instanced zones and teleport travel between them.

I’ve been playing the WAR beta (was in for quite a few hours last night), but I can’t talk too much about their direction. First, I’m under the NDA. Second, since they chop their testing up into fairly small parts, I don’t yet have a sense of the overall world. I’m not grouping with people who will fight alongside me at release. So, even if I wasn’t under NDA, I couldn’t talk about answers to some of my questions.

It seems like the smart path for both Funcom and Mythic is to provide both instant-on balanced gameplay for players who like Battleground-style combat, but also create a DAoC-style open world combat system for players who prefer a more dynamic and unpredictable PvP experience. Easy to say, damn tough to accomplish. It remains to be seen if a balance can be struck between instances and open-world interaction. Neither game seems to be taking up the SW:G housing/player city/crafting/economy complexity benchmark, and that’s a shame. Marry a good PvE and PvP game to the social and economic aspects of SW:G, and you’ve got a heavyweight MMO. I don’t think either Mythic or Funcom are reaching that far this generation.

I just hope that, in the future, good MMO design doesn’t slant too severely toward instances. I certainly understand the value of an arena, but those become just games to me, not virtual worlds. It’s like logging in to a Battlefield server, or going to play Counterstrike. I know as soon as the round is over, nothing has changed. There’s no player-created narrative, no effect on the world around you, no virtual home. I want more world in my MMO, not more mini-games.

I wonder if I hope for too much. When games take years to develop, and modern MMO’s have only existed for 9 years (using fully 3D EQ as that benchmark), it’s easy to sit here and wish for features and some sort of convergence. It has to be a truly daunting task to design a WoW Pve +DAoC/Eve PvP + SW:G crafting/economy game. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I can keep hoping 🙂


4 Responses

  1. LoTRO has an open area for their PvP, as well as a shared PvP dungeon ala Darkness Falls (it plays a lot like “RvR light”). AoC has something similar with guild battles if I’m not mistaken. EVE seems to be doing pretty well under that model. Even WoW is adding a RvRish zone to WotLK. So I don’t think that WoW really killed off that style of PvP off at all.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree with you that “instanced/ battle ground” style PvP is far less dynamic and entertaining than open PvP. I hated the PvP in WoW, personally. If I want that style of PvP, I’ll play a FPS.

  2. I didn’t get far enough in LoTRO to experience Monster play, or their shared PvP dungeon. To Turbine’s credit, I have heard good things about Monster play, and they do have a decent crafting/market system. If WAR doesn’t pan out for me, I could see myself making another run in Middle Earth.

    You’re right that Eve does a great job at open world PvP, but I tend not to directly compare them to the fantasy mmo’s. It’s a different world and pace in space. If I was comparing Eve, though, I’d put them in the pre-WoW category with EQ, SW:G and DAoC.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m mad at Blizzard for their decisions. I do think they were trying to solve certain problems with EQ and DAoC. I just want to see the pendulum swing back the other way a bit. Both Mythic and Funcom are attempting to find that balance. Time will tell how successful they are.

  3. I REALLY enjoyed this post. It’s so true what you say about DaoC having strong social elements due to the non-instanced nature.
    I hope that Mythic brings some of that feeling back in Warhammer.

    I mainly wanted to stay keep up the posting, I really enjoy reading them 🙂

  4. Thanks Robert! I spent a lot of time in the WAR beta last night, and I’m feeling pretty good about what they’re building. It clicks for me in a way that Age of Conan didn’t.

    I think it’s possible that we’ll have 4 really solid non-WoW MMO choices by the end of this year. Eve and LoTRO seem healthy, Conan definitely has good potential, and WAR is doing a lot of things right in beta.

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