Massively Overthinking: The minimum requirements for MMO player housing

    
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We’ve got housing on the brain lately, thanks to Ship of Heroes’ housing beta, Final Fantasy XIV’s botched housing lottos, Warframe’s new housing, and World of Warcraft doing… whatever the heck it’s doing. And every time we talk about housing in MMOs, the discussion gets bogged down in the same few quibbles every time – and they all trace back to how we define housing in the first place.

For example, if you say you wish Guild Wars 2 or World of Warcraft had housing, someone will inevitably claim that home instances and garrisons should count. But that’s not what people who remember housing in games like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, RIFT, or Elder Scrolls Online mean. But what’s the difference? Where do we draw the line?

Let’s Overthink it. Does our genre have a working definition of housing that a majority of players would agree with? What constitutes housing in an MMO? Do systems in games like City of Heroes, WoW, and Guild Wars 1 count? Does instancing help or hurt? Does it need a purpose? Does it even have to have a literal house? What must housing have to be housing – what are the minimum requirements for an MMO housing system that qualifies as, well, a housing system?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Oh man, player housing as a definition always seemed obvious to me, but if I had to vocalize a definition, I would say it’s a personal virtual space for the player to customize with at least some of their earned equipment. I say that because, in my mind, especially as MMOs are virtual worlds, the basic idea is you come home from a hard day of grinding with your axe of awesomeness and you need someplace safe to put it down. Again, it doesn’t need to be a house, just a spot for that player to work on where their stuff is safe (or, in PvP games, mostly safe). Star Wars The Old Republic’s ships at launch felt close to housing, though the lack of customization was glaring. A few hooks to display old trophies would have gone a long way.

That being said, instancing hurts the MMO housing atmosphere, period. You can’t have your home alone in the world, there’s other games and genres for that. You need a neighborhood. Yes, there is some really cool instanced housing, but compared to, say, Star Wars Galaxies or ArcheAge, where you have a collection of player structures, single instanced housing looks like a demo feature. Like, “Oh, nice! When is this being applied to the real game?” RIFT’s housing was flexible, and I liked how it could be shared, and yes, lore wise, it made sense, but not MMO sense. If the houses at least came in neighborhoods, it would feel more MMO-y. Yes, it may be cool to have a house on a deserted island, but unless players actually have to sail/swim out there to find it, what would be the point?

As for purpose, at the least, it should be a kind of personal storage/display hybrid. You don’t quite get that with a banking system. I do like when there can be other features, though, like a practice PvP area, interactable items with unique affects (like fun morphs or buffs), personalized vendors, etc. I know MMOs have largely been driving developer-driven content, but player-made towns always are more memorable to me than any dev-made ones.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think for me the difference between genuine player housing and something like garrisons boils down to the level of control the player has and the purpose of the system. Garrisons were not designed for personalization; they were designed as a grinding minigame with an achievement track that was discarded after two years, and there’s almost nothing custom or creative about them. The space itself is actually not that important; the majority of the system could’ve been done in a UI panel and it would serve the same function.

A more interesting edge-case in my opinion is Villagers & Heroes, which has houses and villages and farming plots, but the houses aren’t enterable (unless the patch opening them up finally went live and I missed it!). I’d consider this more like housing than garrisons, but it still needs more creativity to really get all the way there.

I don’t think a system needs a literal house; City of Heroes’ original supergroup bases count, though that system was (originally) deeply flawed since it was per-guild and not per-character. It was housing, but it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been (or as good as it is on the rogue servers now). I also don’t think instancing is a problem – oh, I prefer non-instanced, but instancing alone isn’t a mark against being housing. I won’t even say permanence is required, as Trove’s housing plots demonstrate effectively (though personally I think its club worlds are far better and fit the housing role more closely).

Generally, a housing system that’s going to clear all the hurdles has significant customization and room for player expression, and it can’t just exist as a minigame or a visual achievement panel where you stash your trophies. That’s fine too, but it’s not really MMO housing.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Ideally, housing toes the line between functional and fashionable, but at the same time I would argue that function should be a distant second place in terms of priority. In my opinion, the “purpose” of housing is to form attachment to both a character and a game world – to carve out a niche within the game and provide a sense of belonging and ownership, which can make a game even more sticky than any sort of regular content updates can.

I feel like this point of view is shared by most MMO players who care about housing simply because the housing systems that lean heavily towards mechanical benefit (Lost Ark’s strongholds, WoW’s garrisons, etc.) are phenomenally boring, doing nothing more than adding to a honey-do list that doesn’t really engage. I mean, sure, having a garden is nice, but it’s not the biggest point of having a plot of in-game land, and those who could care less about housing but engage in these kinds of treadmills end up just hating the idea of housing even more, despite those carrots-on-sticks being the furthest thing from a “true” housing system.

To my argument of housing feeding that sense of belonging and creating the glue that keeps a player invested, instancing is absolutely the answer. I can count on one finger the number of roleplay events that focused on a housing district’s neighborhood in favor of an individual house’s interior, while the interiors of houses transformed into entertainment venues, nightlife spots, or backdrops for character stories is far more numerous. In a world where currency can just appear out of thin air, there’s no excuse for scarcity in housing unless you’re working with a server infrastructure that’s being powered by the fattest, laziest of hamsters.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): My basic definition for player housing is threefold:

  • Ownership: Am I (the account or the character) the sole operator of this virtual property and make all the decisions for it?
  • Customization: Does this feature allow me to customize it according to my design, personality, and whims?
  • Functionality: Aside from cosmetics, does this property offer useful functions in the game, including rested XP, extra storage, crafting stations, gardening, etc.?

I suppose you can get away with just the first two, but I really expect all three before I call it a proper housing system.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I expect housing to be a personal space that I can decorate at the absolute minimum. Storage and a place to set up functional items like workbenches are common features that should probably be included if you were going to design a housing system. If it has vendors and some kind of teleportation hub, that’s even better, but those are luxury items. I don’t care for “housing” systems that don’t really let you have a structure you can go inside and change around; a personal instance does not a housing system make.

I have mixed feelings on instancing. I think it is neat to see different houses in the world, but there will always be some people who will end up excluded because all the building plots are taken or are insanely expensive. If you let people place houses on any remotely buildable terrain, you may end up with sprawl. Players may band together and build themselves nice little towns, but they are just as likely to cram their homes as close together as possible, like a suburban subdivision in Hell. Instancing fixes all of that, at the expense of player creativity and a sense of the housing being an organic part of the player experience.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think housing is any instanced or non-instanced space that players have control over decorating by personally moving items/stuff around. There are various levels of quality associated with that. Some games force you into snapping to specific spots and others freely let you move things around and even change the shape and size of the items.

By this definition, examples like Guild Wars 2 home instance would fail, but perhaps the guild halls would pass. I usually don’t spend time or effort on housing, though, so I’m far from an authority on the matter. The most housing I’ve ever attempted was building a unicorn head on top of a rainbow in Trove. That was by request from a very enthusiastic little one. I am not talented in these ways but it turned out okay and I was a king for a moment.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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