MMO open world housing is a failed experiment

This past week, Final Fantasy XIV pushed out its Patch 4.1 and with it, a highly anticipated new housing neighborhood. The ensuing housing rush — which lasted mere minutes — quickly sealed up all available lots and shut out the rest of the playerbase from buying one of these homes. It’s a problem that the game’s been struggling with ever since it launched its open world housing system, but now it sounds like things have come to a head and the dev team might actually do something about it.

Reading the news on this, I once again wonder why open world housing is this holy grail that some players and developers seem hellbent on chasing. It’s an ideal, a beautiful mirage couched in the notion of players inhabiting the very world they play, allowing them to stroll through neighborhoods of fellow adventurer’s homes and basking in the connectivity of it all.

Yet it’s a failed experiment, one that is proven time and again to have far more drawbacks than benefits.

There are so many issues with open world housing that I’m frankly astonished that such systems haven’t gone extinct by now. Allow anyone to place a house anywhere, and the world is quickly going to be cluttered and uglified by sprawling housing tracts that aren’t managed by any urban planner. Limit open world housing to certain areas, and there is the very real danger of having too high a demand for too few spots. Ghost towns can ensue either way, the real gaming content for adventurers is sandwiched among structures that aren’t meant for most players, and the casual player (the one on the lower spectrum of time and money) is shut out from participating in this side of the game.

Then there is the cautionary tale of games like ArcheAge, which has to deal with open world housing and server merges regularly. Instead of being able to preserve players’ homes during a merge, the “solution” is to evict everyone and trigger a new land rush in the interest of fairness. This actually hurts the game’s reputation and can turn even more players away, especially loyal and faithful customers who are the MMO’s bread and butter.

I worry about upcoming sandbox MMOs that are throwing in their lot with open world housing, such as Chronicles of Elyria, Shroud of the Avatar, or Ashes of Creation. Without a way to adjust to the demand for housing, there is a danger of both cluttering and shortages, creating a long-term headache for developers looking for solutions that won’t involve making 3/4ths of the game world into suburbia.

A while back, when I was trying out Shroud of the Avatar, I became confused when I was trying to explore a town only to eventually realize that I had transitioned from the “real” town to a neighboring cluster of houses that offered no content or benefit for me. It was a mess, and this was just the starting village. I didn’t hold high hopes that the game got better from there.

Housing is, obviously, very important to me. It’s one of the few systems in MMOs that regularly allows players to express their own creativity and style the game world to suit their personalities. Even more important, it helps establish roots in a game and reinforce the notion that this is a virtual “home” of sorts. So this is why I get rankled when players are kept out of housing due to high cost, low supply, and other stiff barriers to entry.

MMORPG design and tech has already come up with great alternatives to open world housing thanks to instancing and phasing. There’s no reason why you can’t be strolling through a small housing neighborhood in a city and have the game phase to show you your own abode and lawn right there in front of you. Going all the way back to 2001’s Anarchy Online, players have been able to own their own instanced apartment without any worry about not being able to grab one.

We simply don’t need fixed open world housing, even in sandboxes. If there’s a desire to be able to stroll through neighborhoods, enter others’ houses, and maybe even engage in some activities in those houses (such as purchasing from a vendor), then more elegant solutions can and should be crafted.

I’m open to hearing arguments about the importance of open world housing and why all of these drawbacks are worth the numerous problems that they create. I’m even more open to hearing solutions to creating better and more flexible open world housing that satisfies the desires of players and developers without making an unmanageable mess of things. So far, I’m unconvinced.

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10 thoughts on “MMO open world housing is a failed experiment

  1. Athie October 17, 2017 / 9:35 am

    FFXIV’s housing design is even more unbelievable, because it isn’t even open world housing. The game has purely instanced housing neighborhoods — just there are few of them relative to the number of players on a server. Why????

  2. Rowan October 17, 2017 / 9:41 am

    You touched on my problem with open world housing, that supply can never equal demand, especially at the casual level. Few people fantasize about living in a housing tract. We want to be in a mansion on a hill, or a bungalow on a beach. But no open virtual world has enough beaches or hills for every player that wants one. Just like every player gets to be the hero that slayed the boss in the dungeon—no matter how many times the boss has to respawn—every player should be able to get the house on the hill if that’s what they want. Game developers are selling a fantasy, not real estate.

  3. Pallais October 17, 2017 / 9:44 am

    Give the mess open-world player housing made of the landscape of Ultima Online (suburbia effectively everywhere) you would hope succeeding devs would avoid the problem. It feels like each dev thinks that that this time that square peg will fit into a round hole. :/

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus October 17, 2017 / 10:47 am

    I know members of the cult of SWG who think that their Tatooine trailer parks pack with row upon row of indistinguishable housing units were the best thing ever, but I found them to be a blight on the game, an immersion breaking eye sore that made life harder for people.

    Introducing real world real estate issues to a game… location is everything, supply and space are limited… seems like an obvious way to make a good portion of your player base unhappy and resentful, but somebody always seems game to give it a try. I guess if you want to make a sandbox game, then housing PvP seems reasonable.

    I remain enamored of the housing in EQ2, which does everything I want out of housing without forcing me to commute to town because the only land available was far from the auction house.

  5. WoolyDub October 17, 2017 / 11:28 am

    LOTRO could have pulled off open world housing. Hobbit holes don’t clutter up the game world and elven architecture blends in with its surroundings if the assets are done right. Dwarves can live underground so you don’t even see it. Heck, all the starting areas could have been the housing.

    Open world housing is one of the best things that differentiates server from server and makes the game world feel real.

    Walking from my house to my friend’s house and then the shuttle port of our guild’s player town and flying to Coronet City on Corellia was awesome. Our characters lived on the planet that Han Solo was from?! That’s a tangible, lived in feel that you just can’t do with a lot of other things; namely instanced housing.

    I think the thing that fixes the issue of abandoned houses and decay is housing templates. Forget to pay rent: POOF! Your house disappears but you keep the template so if you come back to the game you can erect it in the same spot or elsewhere easily.

    I think today’s tech allows for housing to be integrated without being an eyesore.

  6. bhagpuss October 17, 2017 / 11:36 am

    Vanguard had the best open world housing I’ve seen. It was on housing plots but there were many of them, some the size of small towns, with full facilities, others just two or three plots in a cove or valley. There were even single plots on tiny, isolated islands.

    When demand outstripped supply (and yes, contrary to what you may think, Vanguard was successful enough for that to happen) new housing islands were added around the extensive coastline. It was an elegant and successful integration of player housing into the open world that just worked.

    Of course, even then there were issues over people not being able to get a plot in the “best” area. And server merges brought the inevitable land rush…

    Still, it remains the high-water mark for the concept.

  7. Asmiroth October 17, 2017 / 12:02 pm

    I think it can work, but only in the context of directed open world housing. Where UO failed in the large mass of “houses everywhere” it also succeeded in the small village approach. It’s been 20 years so I can’t recall the name of the town, but it had an entire library of runes that regular folks could use, a set of awesome vendors, and a whole slew of crafters to make what you needed. It was a drop in the bucket of all the houses, but it was super busy and fun.

    Instanced personal housing, but communal spaces that fit into blocks can work. Have a town that’s run by an elected guild. Set plots where the community can work together to get the materials to improve/maintain the services. The houses may be the same size, but the art on those houses could be different. Decorations around as well. It’s possible, just hyper complex to build the underlying systems.

  8. pkudude99 October 17, 2017 / 2:10 pm

    I thought EQ2’s method of having an open-world door into as many instanced houses that players could afford to buy was pretty decent. The houses were still “in a neighborhood” but there was not limit to the supply, afaik.

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