Massively Overthinking: Is open-world housing really a ‘failed’ MMORPG experiment?


Massively OP’s Justin Olivetti has a provocative article on his personal gaming blog, Bio Break, this week on MMORPG housing.

“I once again wonder why open world housing is this holy grail that some players and developers seem hellbent on chasing,” he writes. “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.” After listing off his complaints with the mechanic, he ultimately concludes that “we simply don’t need fixed open world housing, even in sandboxes.”

But being Justin, he also asked for feedback on why the joys are worth the drawbacks – and how to fix the system so it works instead of running off the rails. That’s just what we’ll do in this week’s Overthinking. Is he right about not needing this type of housing? And if not, how would you fix open world housing?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is another of those love/hate situations I have. Instanced housing is good for individual players, it gives everyone a chance to be a homeowner, and it can be done really well in terms of world integration (see Elder Scrolls Online).

However, having housing out in the open makes MMOs less of a game and more of a world. Persistent housing makes each server feel more unique. For example, in Horizons/Istaria, the original intent was that mobs would take over towns, and in some simple ways, they would. They’d maybe move towards a town and sit there. As there was basically one NPC town per biome (think jungles, forests, mountains, etc), players built up towns for their follow player to use. Star Wars Galaxies was similar in my experience post NGE, though Horizons also had community projects where building in the game world could unlock, say, new player races. I had a lot more server pride in those games than, say, World of Warcraft, despite playing the latter for several expansions.

Persistent housing also allows for players to literally make the world their own. In PvP games, the limited number of plots/guild housing drives not only strife, but the need for a community that will help you protect what’s yours. It can be stressful being a homeowner, and the game’s limited customization (and basically none for guild housing) made it kind of bland in retrospec, but at the time, whole empires were basically built around housing. I thought survival games would be the same way, but sadly, they feel too impermanent not only in terms of housing, but the communities as well.

We do need a compromise. That’s what I liked about housing in Asheron’s Call. The game lacked instancing, so in addition to houses being available on the game’s landscape, it also had apartment “dungeons” for the masses. It’s one thing that attracted me to WildStar’s warplots and Otherland’s clan lands before that, in that housing was designed for PvP.

However, let’s rework things a bit. Non-instanced housing is there for PvP, right? But some people just want a nice space to build their own place, or make a trading town. Borrowing from RIFT and WildStar, we’ll do the instanced housing thing but with the idea that these are other dimensions or something. If your guild has taken non-instanced housing on the surface world, the guild leader can set who has a house during peace time and who has one during war time. That way, players could make their cool/fun/community oriented houses, maybe even with dungeons. At the center would be a nice portal for anyone to enter their personal housing unity. However, at certain intervals, the town goes into a war mode, where the PvP oriented players can coordinate building ideas on the fly just for battle. If you lose your persistent housing, you still have the instanced version of it, just not out in the gameworld. It’ll never be taken from you. It’s a prestige thing, and can still help shape the persistent game world physically and socially.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I wouldn’t call open-world housing a failed experiment. A null result is still a result, after all. Every game that tries it (and breaks it) is contributing to an extremely successful and ongoing experiment in what works and what doesn’t. If he had said no one’s ever pulled it off perfectly, I’d agree. No one’s ever pulled off the perfect anything in an MMORPG. There’s always room for improvement, particularly on this.

So what’s so great about open-world housing in the first place? Why even bother? I look at it this way: Renting an apartment is very different from owning a house IRL, and even more different from planning and building a building from the ground up on a plot of land that is yours and only yours. A similar feeling exists inside of MMOs; open-world housing creates a sense of real ownership in the game, that you own that plot of land, that everyone can see it and yet it’s private unto you, that you and only you can control what happens in that space. You don’t direct people to “a” location; you send them to “the” location. Instant immersion. An instanced house or door into a clone of a building you share with thousands of other people doesn’t have quite the same feel to it. I will still accept instanced housing over no housing at all, always, but having seen for two decades how properly built open-world housing transforms a game into a world where instanced housing struggles, it’s clear to me which type of housing is the premium in the genre. It is the holy grail.

Now, I said “properly built,” and that’s where Justin’s complaints about open-world housing’s fail points are absolutely valid. Properly built open-world housing needs to be:

1) Affordable by everyone. It should not be an endgame treat (or worse, a donor privilege), else it loses most of its stickiness value for the average player (whose stickiness is what you’re chasing, as you’ll always have the stickiness of donors and elites). Final Fantasy XIV is a particularly egregious example of housing that is designed for status, while games like EverQuest II and Anarchy Online give basic homes to newbies gratis. Charging donors thousands of dollars for the best land before a game launch is pretty gross, too, crowdfunded MMOs.

2) Absurdly abundant. There needs to be enough land — an excessive amount — so that there’s enough room for every single person in the game to erect a home. Star Wars Galaxies had far more land than could ever be used by players, and player accounts were limited in how many structures they could place. That part, at least, worked beautifully.

3) Free from server merges. Studios need a plan for this before they launch because merging and causing some or all of your players to lose their homes is one of the dumbest calls I’ve ever seen an MMO studio make. If that means everyone’s on one server, so be it. ArcheAge, for shame.

4) Free from land rushes. None of these arbitrary server-up land rushes that privilege people who got past the login queue first, scripters, and people whose preorders showed up early (come on, ArcheAge). Ultima Online, once famous for its unfair land rushes, now uses an auction/lottery system for distributing new plots of land. Open-world housing does not need to be synonymous with land rushes.

5) Impermanent. You cannot allow people to keep their houses and the land those structures sit on if they are not actively participating in the game, something traditionally monitored with subs and/or in-game maintenance. If you stop paying your sub for 90 days, your house in Ultima Online collapses and the rubble can (and will) be looted by passers-by. SWG, on the other hand, made grave mistakes by keeping lapsed subber homes in the game taking up physical space for years, draining mere pennies from their characters’ banks while paying customers fumed over ghost towns. Ideally, items from vacated homes should enter escrow, as in LOTRO, so that you lose only your land, not your stuff, when you return.

6) Purposeful. Housing needs to be about more than stashing your stuff. Players need to have a reason to go not just to their homes but to other people’s homes. They need to be able to personalize housing to excess, access buffs, host events, and above all else, create public spaces and social incentives (shops, taverns, and so on). Ideally, that purpose should extend to large player-run cities and their ilk and potentially PvP, but that’s for another post for another day. It doesn’t need to be just vendors, by the way. Remember Glitch? It incentivized (with experience) home owners to erect resource nodes in their yards and attract visitors, creating whole travel-rings for itinerant miners and fruit-pickers.

7) Not a gorram eyesore. This is often the first complaint I see about open-world housing: People don’t want to see penis palaces in their game, and worse, they don’t want to see urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is also not a necessary side-effect of open-world housing. For example, Ultima Online’s Stygian Abyss expansion stuck to spaced-out housing bubbles, so there’s no wall-to-wall housing at all and your nearest neighbor is a friendly tree.

There is no MMO that has pulled off every single point. Not one. But some of them have a lot; Ultima Online in particular has repaired many of its worst housing mistakes over the last 20 years. And taken together, they’ve shown exactly what a studio needs to do to make open-world housing work successfully and effectively, insofar as any sandbox MMORPG can be successful and effective in 2017 ABR (the year of our battle royale). Now someone just needs to actually put it all together.

But as we pointed out on the podcast, studios have been and are currently incentivized to break some of the “rules” for proper construction — for example, selling choice plots for real money or making maintenance too low — which makes success more a matter of willpower and less of functional possibility. Studios could design functional FFA PvP with proper incentives, too, but they won’t.

Homeward bound.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): He’s right. Can I go now? No, probably not, that’s not fair, I usually write more.

The stumbling block a lot of people are going to have with the thesis statement is probably “failed experiment,” because there’s a knee-jerk reaction that if you can point to one case in which it worked, it wasn’t really a failed experiment. But that’s not really how it works. The question isn’t if it has ever worked; the question is whether or not it has worked in the majority of situations where it’s been tried. I am sure you can point to one or two purely open-world systems that are less bad or (debatably) good, but those are the exceptions rather than the norm.

More to the point, open-world’s housing few virtues are entirely debatable. Almost everything that you can do in an open-world system can also be done in an instanced system, and WildStar has put the lie to the idea that you can’t have a community lot with an instanced system. (Hell, WildStar’s housing should be held up as a shining example for every game to emulate; it’s not perfect, but the system as a whole did so much so well that it’s mostly a shame it was tied to this particular game.)

Ironically, the real obvious extension of the idea was seen in World of Warcraft in a system so badly bungled that it feels almost anathema to say anything nice about it. The idea of Garrisons was a really good one, having a phased spot where you walk in and there’s your space. That sort of system could be brilliantly executed to get the feel of an open-world system without the problems; there are still various spots throughout the world where you can have a house, but they can’t run out.

WildStar’s communities are also a good idea, and I think it’d be great to have instanced housing divided into “districts” based on your focus. You might not have the immediate neighborhood of an open-world system, no, but you could know that the South Side district is the roleplaying district, or the Red Crown district has all of the crafters selling wares. I’ve also heard good things about how Black Desert handles its homes, although I have to admit that the approach seems to preclude exterior decoration (not a dealbreaker, but a bit of a letdown).

The reality is, though, that limited housing is just not a good system. Open-world housing requires limits to access. Sure, you can expand to have more space, but you’re forever either adding more space to keep up with demand (leading to frustration) or creating so much space that a lot of it is empty and pointless (not good either). And for every momentary story I’ve heard about good feelings from open housing, I’ve heard a half dozen about how bad things were, often concerning the exact same games.

So, yes. This is a failed experiment. Much like instanced dungeons, instanced housing is a reasonable response to an actual problem where it’s the most reasonable solution, and it’s time to recognize that this just plain isn’t working. But then, the first land rush should have made that clear.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): It didn’t fail. It didn’t fail in SWG. And man, how I wish we still had that.

Done right, open-world housing will always be the holy grail of my gaming. Or I should say, my virtual worlding. I went from The Sims Online (hey, I am a building fanatic!) to Star Wars Galaxies and I will never be able to adequately express the thrill of wandering around the open world, discovering player cities and remote outposts — all inhabited by players! — nor of ultimately planning and building a city and a major housing compound. Each city was unique in inhabitants as well as building placement. A true virtual world needs people living all over in it so you can bump into them randomly, and I am not talking about spawn camping for goals. I mean for life stuff. I don’t care for the snap-snap, be quick style of gaming when it comes to wanting to inhabit a world (it’s great for certain types of games sure, just not this), and when I want to feel immersed in a world I want it to be living. Part of that is feeling like you live in the world itself, not just some personal instance. I want to travel to places in the world to shop and for entertainment. I want places for events and activities that people can randomly wader in on and be customized for said events. I want communities to be able to form, and that can’t happen when everyone is off in their own little worlds. I don’t want to go to a single door and choose from 150 different inhabitants. Sequestering folks away in private instances is the opposite of community.

But, and here’s the but, it has to be done right. I haven’t seen it done right since SWG, and I have doubts it can be replicated. That specific aligning of the planets may never happen again. You need plenty of open world to let people place stuff. SWG had multiple worlds! You don’t need artificial restrictions when you have enough space for everyone. And it needs to be a core feature that is built into the framework of the game and has continual attention, not just a tacked on afterthought. Also, for me, how much your real life wallet hold should not determine housing’s accessibility. There are other considerations, but no one can build big enough worlds anymore without the instancing (except for Dual Universe, which I am watching!), and without the space nothing else matters.

So I disagree with Justin that we don’t need it. We just need it done right. And if you can’t do it right, then don’t torture everyone and just do an instanced version, be it in cities like EverQuest II or neighborhoods like LOTRO. That’s far better than nothing! Just have some good, decoratable housing.

Your turn!

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