Why player housing should be mandatory, not optional, for MMORPGs

housing

Yesterday we got a huge amount of insight into Elder Scrolls Online’s upcoming 2017 player housing system — homesteads — and I have to say that this news definitely tips me over the edge into wanting to play the game. It looks kind of terrific, with multiple house styles (and yards), freeform placement, and interactive stations. In my eyes, it was the final big piece that the game needed to be fully fleshed-out… maybe not done, but an MMO proper.

Housing isn’t a fancy extra that some of the more extravagant MMOs can afford; it should be absolutely mandatory to any serious online game that wants to maintain and grow a community. Over the years I’ve migrated from the position of “oh housing is nice if it’s there” to “why is it NOT in this game? That’s a travesty!” I’m genuinely nonplussed that popular games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 (not to mention more niche titles like The Secret World) lack true personal housing system. Each of those three have tried some weird offshoot of housing but have yet to offer true player housing as we see in RIFT, WildStar, and EverQuest 2.

Why do I feel so strongly about housing? It it just my fanboy preferences reaching hyperbolic limits or is there some objective reasons behind my demand for its inclusion everywhere? I won’t deny my emotions, but I have to say that feelings aside, there’s a world of difference between an MMO that contains housing and one without.

An MMO with housing tells you, the player, that you have a place here. That you are welcome, that this game is “your house” in which to make yourself comfortable. It gives players ownership and agency, a place to express personal creativity and to mold the game around them instead of only vice-versa. An MMO with housing encourages more socialization and roleplaying, activities all outside of the constant murder-spree that we seem to otherwise engage in. Housing transforms our characters from nomads without strong roots into citizens with a home base.

For a studio, housing is free publicity for the game. Players LOVE to show off their houses — on forums, on YouTube, in blogs — and each mention of that is an invitation to come play your game. It’s player-created content in your game that can, with some thought, be promoted and utilized to expose your whole community to a changing and diverse world.

Housing is a bridge between players and developers, both of whom become co-creators and teammates. Players aren’t just consuming what developers make, but creating something to share back in return. It fosters goodwill and excitement between the sides and makes communication something other than players complaining about the most recent patch.

It it hard to add such systems? I have no doubt. I also would fully believe that there’s a chunk of the playerbase of any game that wouldn’t care about housing at all — but that’s true of most systems.  But it is worth it. So, so worth it. In a time when hundreds and hundreds of MMORPGs are running, when players have the financial freedom to play any they like, a game with a housing system has a great long-term advantage over one that doesn’t. It’s an investment in your community, in your future, and it elevates an MMO from being merely a game to virtual world status.

Developers of MMOs without housing, stop dismissing and downranking such projects. Make it mandatory. Make it happen. Players of MMOs without housing, keep up the pressure and demand for such systems. Make it hard for studios to ignore you by telling you what you “really want” is something completely different.

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10 thoughts on “Why player housing should be mandatory, not optional, for MMORPGs

  1. Wilhelm Arcturus December 7, 2016 / 9:42 am

    The problem here is that this is simply “Syp sez” with nothing to back it up. You’ll get some support on this, but I could come up with a half a dozen other features that I could get equal or more support for as mandatory, starting with PvP.

    If you had some statistics from a game that showed what percentage players actually engaged regularly with housing and whether or not they actually stayed subscribed longer, you might have an argument. But this is just you projecting what you like. We all do that, but you should be at least somewhat aware that you are doing it.

    I love player housing when it is done well. EQ2 is my favorite and does just about everything I could want. But I also rue the time spent on it in games like LOTRO where it is pretty but useless and the development time could have been much better spent elsewhere. Even Rift’s housing, which is so flexible, lacks any decent integration back into the game. It is just a mini-game for people who like to build things. If that is all you want, there are better options.

    If somebody has a good vision for housing that integrates with their game, I’m for it. But the idea that it ought to be a mandatory feature is just silly, and players demanding it where the devs aren’t invested in the idea are, at best, going to get unsatisfying, tacked on efforts.

  2. Aywren Sojourner December 7, 2016 / 10:12 am

    I’m a huge housing fan, so I tend to jump in there and say “Yes! Yes! YES!” to all of this. When I have a home in a MMO, I feel much more connected to it. Even to games I rarely play anymore, like EQ2. When I do log back in, I always check on my houses first.

    But I also get where Wihelm is coming from. Housing is only as good as its implementation. Poorly thought out housing can actually be a detractor from a MMO.

    For example, Dragon’s Prophet (which so few people played), boasted housing islands where you were supposed to be able to freely set a home and decorate it. What we got was a mess of super expensive lots that no one could ever hope to afford, and PvP tacked on to it (yes, the islands became PvP areas… I guess the idea was to have people gank for land?). Or ArcheAge… which has wonderful use for farms and housing, but how the heck are you ever going to find open land to actually put a house on? It was awful!

    Then you have games that are sincerely trying, but missing the mark. Like FFXIV. As much as I champion it, they screwed up on housing big time in the beginning. It’s still way too expensive and still too limited, but they’re making strides on finding ways to make it more accessible. That being said, I wouldn’t give up my house there for anything.

    The other issue is what happens when a game demolishes your house? For example, I came and went from LOTRO for several years, stopping in mostly to pay my upkeep in advanced. The inevitable happened and I forgot… my house was suddenly gone.

    I’ve not logged in to play since, other than to do some server merges and log in to keep hold on my character names. Yeah, it’s my fault, but when my house was taken, that really cut the last tie I had to that game. Not that it was ever super-useful, I guess. But that’s another story.

  3. romeomoon December 7, 2016 / 11:26 am

    I definitely agree that player housing should be in every MMORPG, at least in some capacity. I especially like the housing system in EQ2 with the ability to place small objects within holding objects. For example, I was thrilled to see that I could actually take a readable book out of my inventory and stack it however I wished on a nearby bookshelf.

    EQ2’s system was carried over into Rift (a game I’ve heard a lot of people compare to EQ2) with the Dimension system and the amazing things you can build there. Seriously, you can make everything from houses built from scratch (with a little help from Add-Ons like Dimension Toolbox to guide placement) to small villages. Objects can be rotated in all directions so that every items like candle sticks can be grouped, flipped, and embedded into other things. Place them upside down and you have rockets! It’s a great way to feed people’s imagination.

  4. Tyler F.M. Edwards December 7, 2016 / 11:49 am

    My opinion of player housing has improved a fair bit in recent time, but I’d still be hard-pressed to agree that it should be a mandatory feature in MMOs. Especially given how hard it seems to be for developers to get it right. If your housing system is so divorced from the rest of the game you never have a reason to visit your home other than to gawk at the pretty sights, I’d call it a failure. If all it does is create an exclusionary land-race, I’d call it a failure. And most housing systems still seem to fall into at least one of those categories.

    In other words, basically what Wilhelm said.

  5. bhagpuss December 7, 2016 / 1:40 pm

    I absolutely love MMO housing but even I don’t think it should be mandatory! I do think, though, that certain games, which already have incredibly rich art assets and, no doubt, developer tools in place for the creation of their NPC housing are shooting themselves in the foot by not capitalizing on those assets.

    GW2, for example, actually gave all players a “home instance” right from launch but then did nothing at all with it for years, before eventually beginning to dither around with functional elements like harvesting nodes. Now you can add pets. It’s just a very weird approach compare to, y’know, actual housing.

    The EQ2 housing offer is by now just so very superior to all others, though, that I fear I’d be disappointed by anything less, which is unfair because it took more than a decade of continuous and energetic development to get to where EQ2 is now.

  6. Telwyn December 7, 2016 / 7:23 pm

    I basically agree with several comments already made. I think any MMO that isn’t super established (e.g. WoW) should be seriously considering housing just to keep more people engaged for longer. The games that flirt with it, like WoW and GW2, without giving it a proper try make me eyeroll so hard now.

    I just recently got back into BDO, only because the housing is very well integrated with other systems. Also EQ2 does this so well as there aren’t penalties for coming back after a long absence (LOTRO) or a rediculous high barrier to entry (FFXIV)…

  7. Sylow December 8, 2016 / 9:03 am

    The whole “needs housing” definitely is a matter of personal taste. During many years of MMO experience (and out of curiosity i just counted the MMOs i played, i remember 18 of them and might have forgotten some) i only played one MMO where housing was really good: SWG.

    In almost any other MMO i played, it either didn’t have housing and i did not miss it, or it had housing and i disregarded it as it was neither fun nor useful. Now first note the positive aspects of housing in SWG:

    1. Houses were persistent, they actually existed in the landscape and were visible to everybody.
    2. Houses were freely customizeable no “hook one item here and one there”, everthing could be placed freely. That allowed a lot of creativity.
    3. It was possible to make houses accessible to the public, and people did enter houses just to admire the creative designs.
    4. There was no “auction house”, but people were able to set up vendors in their houses, where they sold things. You were able to give the vendor a tag which was visible on the map, so people stopped by and checked what you had for sale.
    5. Housing was the actual storage system. The bank was very small, but containers in houses could hold a lot of items.
    6. Houses and havesters used the same allocation system, so houses and ressource gathering for crafting was connected.

    The whole system was great at the right time. My GF of that time went for tailoring and had two houses (on different planets) set up as shops. Either of them also contained a tailoring station and had a second small house behind it, which was set up as material storage. Houses on my account were our “place to live” as well was a bit more storage, a factory and a number material harvesters, which i moved around every other week to keep up with how ressources shifted. Together we were able have fun and make good money.

    Next to that, it also was a good lesson about different groups of people in the game. The more RP-ish and social people did not buy from the vending machine, but rather enjoyed meeting the tailor herself, get advice on outfits and combinations, etc. They usually left with much more than they wanted, and tipped several times more money than we would’ve charged them for.

    The other part of the playerbase bought from the vendor, even if people were present at the shop. They only bought clothes with upgrade slots (to put small combat boni in there) and liked any color, as long as it was black or white. 😀 [The very same item with the same number of slots sold many times in black and white, while the colored counterparts stayed in the shop for months. ]

    So all in all, this system was great and i miss it. But at the very same time, i also know why developers don’t want to do it again, simply due to this list of disadvantages:

    1. It required a lot of space. Every player house was present in the game world. Every bigger starport had a circle of houses, mostly shops, around it. Player cities were placed all over all planets and some of the originally more beautiful planets after a while looked like a cheap holliday resort, where the scenery would be nice if you could just still see it.
    2. While the game still had a big playerbase, people often were unable to find good spots for houses any more. (And people looking for ressources often found houses just there were they’d want to place harvesters… )
    3. When the playerbase shrunk, whole planets basically turned into ghost cities.
    4. It really requires a lot of space. Which means it requires a lot of landscape to be created for housing any nothing else.

    I guess it can already be seen that I think the biggest drawback of it all was the requirement of space. For a game with procedurally created terrain it’s still manageable, but if you want the much higher quality of hand-crafted terrain, space for housing would eat up insane ammounts of development time, just to later be covered up by player houses. And thanks to shifts in the playerbase, no matter what you do, you’ll bounce between the limits of “not enough space for everybody” and “the world is big and empty and thus seems to lack content”.

    Neither option is desireable for a developer. The very only other housing system which i found to be somewhat enjoyable was in the oddball game Neocron 2. (The game itself had a number of interesting and new features for its time, but was not easily accessible and suffered from a number of technical problems, as the developers obviously aimed high and many times ran into technical limitations. ) But when thinking it over, a lot of aspects of their housing can also be found in present day MMOs. I mean, i still think most present day MMOs would not allow you to set up your house as a biker bar or strip club, along with topless dancers, etc. But many other things players had there, e.g. a normal bar or a lawyers office (Yes! I played the real evil there, a lawyer!) would basically be possible in several other housing systems i saw. The difference i see there is not so much in code but in community: you can’t run a pub in a MMO when it’s instanced, nobody knows about it and nobody comes there. Only if your community is connected and agrees on it being a meeting place, it can serve as what it is designed to do.

    Which kind of closes the circle for me to TSW, where my girl hosts a radio show (webradio plus in-game event). We don’t have housing and while we very much enjoy the options of the Albion Theatre many other DJs use public locations in game and it works perfectly fine. So as people seem not to be limited by the absence of a housing system, what would it actually add to the game without also having functionality? Perhaps it’s just me, but i have been in many MMOs where housing was all for itself, players were able to spend a lot of time and effort to create beautiful houses, which then nobody else but themselves will ever see. Not surprising for me, most players decided to skip this, which also results in a lot of developer time being wasted.

    So based on how much it is being used, there are very few features in present day MMOs which could have lower priority than housing. If you think differently, please explain what functionality it could have, so it would see broad acceptance by the players and get enough use to justify the development costs.

    That all being said, i also see something similar, which according to my experience sees a lot more use in many MMOs: guild housing. Several MMOs i played (or in one case still play) have guild housing and a number of functions connected to it. As a result, it gets seen by people regularily, which gives incentive to the owners to decorate it and try to make it look well. (Not everything i saw could even remotely be considered a success, but you can tell that they tried… 😀 )

    So at least according to my perception, guild housing is vastly better, both for the player and the developer, than personal housing.

  8. mmobro December 9, 2016 / 3:36 pm

    Housing is pretty low on my list of features. In fact, I’d say it could even hurt an MMO. Instead of getting out there and doing dungeons or PvP or something interactive, the player is sitting in their house decorating. Sure, you can invite your friends in to see your house. And there’s going to be people who get a lot of value out of that. That’s a good thing, but it’s still just one piece of the entertainment puzzle. I’m glad ESO is adding but I’m more excited about other data mined things like a new class, arena PvP, new zones, etc.

    I agree with Sylow…guild houses are much more beneficial to the general community. It’s something that affects everyone. You can have limited space but not screw over casual players. It gives a community of people something to work towards. Finally, guild houses can get pretty massive and actually have function in addition to form.

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