One of the charges leveled at Age of Conan (AOC), is that it’s too heavily instanced. Be these instances public zones or private group dungeons, the world is restrictive and lacks the ability to roam and explore. There is no counter argument to those sentiments because that is the nature of how Funcom decided to design its Hyboria. I hazard a guess that players who are dissatisfied with that design feel that it violates one of the core tenants of a Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), much like players dislike people who want to solo in an MMO. However, if we take the term MMORPG on face value, there is nothing about massive that means seamless, and nothing inherent in the word multi-player that means grouped. Yet many players do expect a pretty seamless world where the content is meant to be experienced in a group format.
If we look at the notable MMO titles of today, we see that these two elements – seamless and “group required” content are handled on a wide spectrum. In terms of group content, I think AOC handles itself much like the other popular massive titles. There is a lot of content that you can do solo. It appears thus far that you can reach the maximum level solo. However, if you do so, you will miss the group designed content and rewards. They’ve also implemented explicitly solo content, called Destiny Quest. This is a private instance that is very large – from levels 1 to 20 it is a duplicate of the starter city, Tortage. If the Destiny Quests were the only or at least the majority of the instanced content, some of AOC’s detractors would probably be happier. But it’s only the first of many such zones.
AOC has instanced and zoned content everywhere – the cities areas within the cities, areas surrounding the cities. The cities combine to create nations which are zoned – you can’t ride or walk from one to the other, you must be zoned in by an NPC. At times Hyboria feels more like a cluster of instanced zones grouped together into a nation and then those nations grouped together to form its world. For some players, this isn’t their idea of an MMO's virtual world, even though there are other games on the market that have employed this design.
GuildWars (GW), a successful title, operates in a similar fashion. The only shared world, where players can randomly meet other players, is in the cities which act as hubs. I disliked GW for this reason - every single piece of content was instanced. AOC didn't take it to that extreme. However, Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) did although I think they are adding non-instanced content now. Newly released Pirates of the Burning Sea (POTBS) utilizes a heavily zoned/instanced design – all quests and even PVP combat, is instanced.
I can’t say that I’m a fan of heavily instanced games. Hell, I don’t even like zoning in games, one of my pet peeves with EQ2. LOTRO annoyed the crap out of me with zoning me into builds. However, we do have games that are fairly new (DDO & POTBS) that have used this mechanic. Clearly, Funcom didn’t just hatch the idea and foist it on the public as an abomination of an MMO. GW has always been that way and people have questioned whether or not “it’s really an MMO”? DDO decided to go the same route and POTBS followed suit with a variation that fit their seafaring game. I think we can now rule out that what Funcom has done was some crazy idea best left unhatched.
Why is this bothering so many people? It was a topic of conversation on “Shut Up. We’re Talking.”. Ryan from MOG Army went on a rant about it. And it’s been discussed on numerous blogs. I think it has less to do with making an MMO that utilizes that mechanic, as much as it has to do with what people expected. All I know of Conan is from the movies. I’ve never read the books. I had no expectations for the game. However, just from the movies, I got the impression of huge expanses of land, large desserts, sweeping vistas and long travel. If I had bothered to envision how Hyboria might look or what it might feel like when released as a game, I would have expected something more along the lines of Vanguard – one of the few seamless virtual worlds. If not seamless, something along the lines of AC2 where portals moved you across zones but there were large amounts of seamless space and you had to travel to the portals. If I had been interested enough in the game to form an expectation, it wouldn’t have been POTBS on land, where the world feels a bit smaller, much of the content is instanced and you use NPCs as portals.
Again, I’m not a fan of heavily instanced worlds but I’m continuing to play Conan just the same because there are other things that I do enjoy. Their design is certainly not unheard of in an MMO. I think the people that really dislike it might have had some strong ideas about what Hyboria would “feel” like as a virtual world and what Funcom designed didn’t fit their vision. Game developers don’t talk about how their content is connected when they are marketing the game unless it’s a unique element. What about DDO’s marketing would have told you that it was an instanced/group world outside of the city? What in POTBS’s pre-game information would have alerted you to completely instanced quests and PVP? Until you bought GW or read about it after its release, would you have known that everything outside the city is private instances? I know that didn’t until I bought it and played it. My point is that some players sound like they feel ripped off by this design, when I’m not sure they can point to anything that said it would be a seamless world, completely instanced or something in between. Their feelings are based on what they “thought” or assumed it would be like and are disappointed that it's not what they assumed, when we all know what they say about assuming.