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.