Friday, June 18, 2021

Layers And Players

's talking point for the day asks "Is ‘layering’ tech actually MMO community poison?" A little over-dramatic, maybe, but it's a worthwhile topic for discussion. Predictably, perhaps, much of the commentary revolves around "making friends" and whether instancing and layering makes that less likely to happen.

I have to wonder if focusing on whether or not people “make friends” with each other isn't kind of missing the point of what a community is. A community doesn’t rely on friendships, it relies on acquaintances. 

Think of your local community, whatever that happens to be. A school, a college, a workplace, a neighborhood. Anywhere people find themselves gathered together out of circumstance. In just about every scenario you can call to mind there's an expectation that some kind of community will result. Communities aren't an aberration, they're a norm.

Welcome them or shun them, communities are what we all know, and in any of those communities "friends" will make up, at most, just a small fraction of the whole. It's entirely possible to feel part of a community - and be accepted by others as part of it - without having any friends there at all.

Sam Kash, in the in-house intro that frames the MOP thread, offers an excellent example of how community is founded on experiences other than friendship. He talks about his time in Final Fantasy XI, when there was "the character who remained in the kneeling position by the shops... He wore a pumpkin head and was always there, like a fixture of the landscape". Sam goes on to describe the day that "fixture" got up off his knees and ran to the trading post: "It was like the whole map was involved, like a celebrity was moving amongst us".

It's exactly why layering and instancing works counter to the spirit and intent of any virtual world. For community to form there doesn't need to be friendship but there does have to be familiarity. You have to be able to recognize the same individuals over time.

In a real-life community or neighborhood there will be any number of them, people you recognize only by sight, about whom you know only a very little. Their presence seperates the place where you live from the places where you don’t. It's the difference between feeling like a stranger and feeling like a local. At its best it brings a sense of belonging but at the very least you know where you are.

You don’t need to talk to these people, although it might be nice if you did. You certainly don't need to befriend them. All you have to be able to do is retain a vague sense of familiarity. You have to know them but you don't have to know them.

When the mmorpg genre was young, no-one had to engineer any of this. The technology to sift players into discrete copies of the same zones didn't exist. Would-be virtual worlds cleaved much more closely to the conventions of the physical. Zones had maximum capacities in just the same way sports stadia or cinemas do.


Back then, if too many people wanted to be in the same place at the same time there would be overcrowding. If things got really bad some players - paying customers - might have to wait outside until others left. Unsurprisingly, that wasn't popular with either the players or the companies and since the companies were the ones paying people to manage the situation and deal with the complaints they were more than happy to employ technological solutions to prevent it happening.

By the time those solutions became available the direction of travel for the genre had already begun to drift. The whole concept of "virtual worlds" was going out of fashion. Mmorpgs, having begun as something new and strange, were being re-integrated into the mainstream as just another type of video game. 

The advantages were clear but for a few, at least, so were the disadvantages. Not every company was thinking about the effect the new technology might have on community but some were aware of the risks they were taking with the glue that held their games together.


When Guild Wars 2 implemented their megaserver architecture they used some fairly sophisticated parsing to try to make sure people got sorted into new maps alongside roughly the same subset of other people every time. As you can see from the conversation (okay, monologue) I recorded in screenshots when the change came it wasn't an immediate success but ANet iterated on it for a while and in the end it worked out okay.

These days I never think about it but by and large I do tend see the same names pretty regularly even when there might be several instances of the same map. Long after the megaserver took effect I would run into the people I'd added in my test, particularly on the World Boss train, something that regularly kicks off secondary maps. I still see a few of them even now, on occasion. It's not as obvious as the glory days of Lion's Arch, when I'd both see and hear the same people chatting in the same place day after day but it's something, at least.

In GW2’s World vs World, however, where the old single server architecture still applies and there’s no instancing at all, I see the same people all the time. (Until the bi-monthly relink resets the whole thing but that’s a different issue altogether…). I’m still playing alongside some of the same people who were in the Mists with me six, seven, eight years ago. I don’t chat with them, or not often, but I “know” them, right down to how reliable their call-outs are likely to be, whether I can expect any back-up if I call for help and what I can expect to hear in chat when one of the team's "characters" logs in.


Phasing, instancing and layering all work very efficiently. If all you want from your mmorpg experience is a single-player or co-op game that's always available and which gets a steady stream of new content, it's a done deal. And that's exactly what many, quite possibly most, modern mmorpg players do want.

If you still yearn for that sense of stepping out into a living, breathing, persistent virtual world, though, finding yourself being sliced and sorted and separated in ways you can't control can be disorienting, disheartening and destructive. It risks turning the entire experience into a succession of unrelated episodes instead of the long-running soap opera it ought to be.

That's the problem right there. It's nothing to do with making friends. Layers don't stop you talking to anyone you meet and adding the ones you like to your friends list. Instancing doesn't prevent you sending people whispers. Nothing about the siloing of content mitigates against discussing strategy in guild chat let alone meeting up with online friends at conventions, assuming such things ever come back.

Layering doesn't even remove all possibility of chance encounters. You still see other people all around you. You might even see some of them more than once. 

What layering does strip away is context. You don't arrive at a world boss knowing the show-off who always does a count-down in /say will be there. You don't log in after an update expecting to recognize the names of half the people logging in alongside you. These things might happen but they probably won't. Everything feels much more random than it was. And the human mind does not enjoy randomness half so much as it enjoys patterns.

Layering doesn't harm the gameplay, though, far from it. The opposite in fact. The reason the technology was implemented in the first place was to make playing the game easier for everyone. If all you want is to get to the designated fighting area as quickly and efficiently as possible, kill your requisite number of rats and get out, then layering and instancing were made specifically with you in mind. 


If you want to feel part of something that feels a little more, somehow, than just a video game, then the picture's a lot less clear. You haven't lost everything, not even nearly, but you've lost a little. And when it comes to community, every little counts. 

I'll go back to that soap opera analogy. Soap operas last for years, decades even. Episodic dramas come and then they go. Mmorpgs need to emulate soaps if they want to survive because the alternative is simply too hard. No-one has the resources to provide a never-ending stream of content at the pace players eat it up but communities create content, continually, for free.

Just think of your school, your office, your neighborhood. Most of the people there aren't your friends but they are what you and your friends talk about. Other people are content but you have to be interested in what they do to care to consume it. You aren't going to hold that interest for long if you only ever see someone once and never again. 

None of which is to say there should be no technological solutions to the problems of lack of access and overcrowding. There should. Those are real problems. They deserve sensitive, well-designed solutions not quick fixes.


  1. I was reminded of the posts of another blogger who claimed there was no community because they didn't like some of the people in said community. As they say on reality TV, "I didn't come here to make friends." Friends are a nice side benefit, but do not define a community.

    I found the whole "layering is community poison" to be a bit like complaining that the rat poison in your birthday cake tastes a bit too much of cinnamon. Given all of the other things that keep you from seeing other regulars in your time slot, layering would be way down the list of things I would bring up.

    1. It would hardly be anywhere near the top of my list either but that was what MOP went with...

      I don't really care how walled-off everyone is in the mmorpgs I play for no more than a few sessions out of curiosity but if I'm going to be spending weeks and months, let alone years, there I definitely want to see some other people around and it's a lot more engaging still if some of them are at least vaguely familiar.

  2. Instancing, used sparingly, can be a very good thing and mitigate some of the baser instincts of players interacting in a world without consequences. WoW dungeons I think are a good example of solving that competition problem.

    Phasing, while extremely useful for creating a single player narrative experience, by definition separates players often in the most maddening way. When WoW added phasing to the later aspects of Wrath of the Lich King, you could literally find yourself walled off from friends/group/guildmates who were literally in the same physical place in the game world but not in the same phase with no way to migrate between the two.

    To my taste, that kind of phasing shifts the balance too far toward a single player experience to the point of losing the feeling that you are part of a community in a common space.

    One of my takeaways from the original Guild Wars was the seeming lifelessness once you left the common places to go adventuring. I may spend a good amount of time soloing through a zone, but observing others doing their own thing certainly feels very different (and more enjoyable to me at least) than playing in my own version of a world.

    Minecraft and Valheim really clicked with me only because of the shared group worlds we created. Whenever I've tried them completely solo, I inevitably lose interest fairly quickly. As you said, players create content, even if that content is just that guy wearing the pumpkin head.

    1. Dungeons are an interesting case. It's been so long since I did any genuine dungeoneering with a group (as opposed to dungeons that scale to single-player level, as they do in EQII) that my viewpoint doesn't really have much weight, but back when I did do a lot of dungeons I much preferred the ones that were open to all. Meeting other groups as you worked through a dungeon was always a highlight. Sometimes it meant competition and sometimes co-operation but it always enhanced the idea that you were in an actual (if virtual) place.

      Instanced dungeons, on the other hand, always felt a little artificial by comparison. It's a fact that for many years after the majority of the dungeons in the game became instances, EQII expansions still featured one or two very large open dungeons and the reason for that was player demand.

      There was a lot of opposition to the eventual end of that practice, which was probably made for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. I'm guessing it's a lot easier for a small team to make smaller, self-contained instances than sprawling open-world dungeons.

  3. I have to agree. I always liked what layering offers. For me, a game's community was part who you bumped into often, but also in large part the people in global chat, the guilds you join and become familiar with, names on forums and social media. And what layering offers is the opportunity to play the game with much less grief during the busy times. If the game isn't so busy, then people end up on the same layers anyway. Yes there've been the occasional headache with grouping but over time most games have ironed these issues out.

  4. I think you've hit the nail square on the head.

    It was strangely comforting to know back in the day that whenever I made my way back to East Freeport after a day of adventuring that huge troll wearing his shining white plate armor would be there, showing off as usual.
    Didn't know the guy (or gal) and didn't care to, but that character being there added a lot to the 'feeling at home', just like you described.


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