If you read back into the dim prehistory of this blog, I talked a lot about open worlds, and made no small amount of hay about those open worlds which lack (or mostly lack) load screens. This is still relatively rare among MMORPGs, as we’ll see. But while a lack of load screens removed barriers to immersion, it’s probably a peripheral point. Seems to me that the more important consideration for MMORPGs is actual people out in the world doing stuff.
Hilariously, this has always been the nominal objection from Blizzard and its apologists when the subject of player housing comes up. It is undesirable, so it is claimed, to have people out of the world and doing stuff in a private instance. Which, okay, I agree with that. But then why does literally every other design decision that WoW has made in the last decade or so do this exact thing?
Modern WoW is essentially a lobby game. After you finish the comparatively quick leveling process, you sit in a hub waiting for the instance finder to pop. All meaningful play occurs in private instances; open-world content exists but is unrewarding drudgery, by and large. Hands have been waved at open-world play, but then when it develops issues Blizzard traditionally just abandons it rather than trying to address its issues. Instancing, as used by WoW and its imitators, keeps people out of the world (which is a shame, because WoW’s open world is really very nice.)
It would be quick to say “the enemy is instancing” or some other such neatly reductive thing. But as usual, there is a balance to be struck and the answers are complicated. There were extant problems in MMORPGs that instancing was developed to solve. Those problems do not go away if you remove instancing. So the bigger issue is not instancing as such, but how instancing has been deployed in for example World of Warcraft, where it overwhelms other play modes. Used to be, before the modern instance finders, that it took some doing to get an instance run going. You had to put the group together (not necessarily a trivial thing) and then you had to actually go there. And at some point, you’d have to return to town to restock supplies or dump loot. Now you can stand next to that same vendor and just let the dungeon finder port you in and out, never having seen the open world.
New World, to name the obvious New Big Thing, not only has mostly no load screens, but while it has instanced content, those are by no means a primary avenue of play, nor are players massively incentivized to run them. You can get nice gear out of them, but you can get equally nice or better gear by crafting or from your faction, both of which require you to be out in the world doing stuff. And there’s an additional gate in front of the instances in the form of keys.
Now, contrast this with The Elder Scrolls Online, which in a lot of ways occupies a middle ground between these two examples. ESO has plenty of instanced content in the form of raids, dungeons and battlegrounds, and there are instance finders for the latter two. The rewards for these, though, include things like titles and achievements and cosmetic doodads that accrue to them. There’s gear, but this gear is not automatically better than anything that you might find out in the world or can make via crafting. And just as much desirable loot is in zone gear sets that you get out in the world or in public delves or dungeons.
ESO’s Dungeon Finder works basically the same way as WoW’s; you queue up for either a random or specific dungeon, with randoms incentivized (once a day) to help queues pop faster. Same deal with the Battleground Finder. You can sit in town and just run these over and over if you want. But ESO has alternatives that do not remove you from the world. ESO’s “Delves” are instances meant for single players but which are nevertheless public. And there are “Public Dungeons” which are tuned to groups (but can be soloed if you have decent gear and Champion Point loadout). In almost every zone, even during suboptimal hours, you find people in those, or out in the zone itself, because there are strong incentives to do those things. Not just gear, but finding crafting materials and grabbing Skyshards and doing the zone questlines for the skill points.
So even though ESO has a ton of load screens (and any zone-to-zone load screen takes a good long time) the world is populated and feels alive. I am not the most social of MMORPG players, but I also like having other players around. WoW is dead outside of the instances and a small number of hubs. That lovingly-detailed world is just wasted. Even though ESO is “open world” only in a limited way, its at least Open in the sense of having players actually in it.