Vague Patch Notes: Housing is really back in MMORPGs


I haven’t really had anything to say about Guild Wars 2’s upcoming Janthir Wilds expansion thus far because… well, I’m not our GW2 columnist, it’s not one of my main games (I have three, there’s not much space left), and thus my opinion is almost entirely of someone looking in from the outside. Just liking the game does not mean that I necessarily have useful input about the game based on a lack of understanding. But I will say that the expansion features housing, which does matter to me a lot, and that officially gets the thumbs-up from me. GW2 stays winning.

This is pretty significant because it marks what seems like an important dividing line to me. When I was writing about MMOs a decade ago, not only did we not have the Big Five or Big Four or however we’re going to crystallize it in a couple of years (give us some time, we’ll probably figure it out soon enough), but we were firmly in an era when housing appeared to be in the rear view. Nerds would cry for housing, and we were ignored. But now? There is exactly one big MMORPG out there without it, and it consistently looks like it’s been dropping the ball by not including it.

I’ve talked before about how default MMO features change over time, and housing is definitely a big one. In the early years of the genre, a lot of MMOs had housing, with the most glaring exception being EverQuest, but that changed in no small part when the MMOs releasing near to World of Warcraft decided to opt out of housing just as it would. Housing takes time and slows you down; we don’t have time for that nonsense in City of Heroes! There are Skuls you need to go hunt and kill! (Of course it goes almost without saying that not only did the game eventually add housing – in issue 6, in fact – but it’s pretty great. Bree even wrote articles about cool bases. You should check them out.)

The real holdout was – and remains – WoW itself, which has consistently treated housing as just being too dang hard for the uwu smol bean Blizzard. And when everyone was chasing that dragon, well, it was easy to emulate that desire. We don’t need housing; we’ll beat Blizzard through some other means. Indeed, a lot of games that were trying but failing to eat Blizzard’s lunch later added housing over time, often really good housing systems.

Yay, I'm an alpaca again!

But the year is no longer 2005, or even 2015. Housing is basically everywhere. Games that launched without it have gotten it. Games that had it in more-or-less at launch still have it. GW2 was one of the last big holdouts. Heck, New World – a game that screws up so consistently that it tried to rebrand itself to get away from all the self-owns and managed to screw that up – has housing, which is actually pretty good!

Do all of the big games have housing systems without issues? Heck no. Final Fantasy XIV’s housing availability is an ongoing issue. The Elder Scrolls Online has issues with utility and cash shop interactions. GW2 won’t let you own a house until the expansion launches. Star Wars: The Old Republic housing requires you to play SWTOR… all right, I’ll stop the jokes now. The point is that none of these systems is perfect. Each of them has flaws.

But there was a point when it felt like housing had basically been excised from MMORPG feature lists, and that was unpleasant. The sense of a space to slow down, a chance to stop playing and just decorate, all of the crafting and social systems that are baked into it… these things are important when it comes to making MMORPGs feel sticky. You are playing not just for a momentary rush but to make a space of your own.

Even as we see some people push back on the idea that MMORPGs are slower than high-octane action games, and we watch certain titles try to brand themselves as anything other than the MMORPGs they very clearly are (but I repeat myself), the fact remains that this is one of the things the genre does best. Its strongest features are not action combat or constant slaughtering of enemies but the integration of combat content with a larger world you get to occupy.

Which also means that the games big and small that don’t feature housing of some kind are going to feel the pressure of why they don’t have these features. There’s no rule that every game must feature everything, but it is generally expected that the more MMORPGs have something, the more are expected to feature some equivalent. When none of your competitors have a tenth of your market share and they don’t have housing, it’s easier to justify not including it. When several of your competitors are either encroaching or surpassing your share and they let you buy a house… y’know, different story.

So what does this mean for the future of the genre? It’s hard to say. I am well aware that most of the biggest titles out right now are pushing a decade of existence, and while age does not mean a game is bad (Fortnite is seven years old and it seems to be doing fine for itself), it’s hard to see a game creeping up on the fringes that’s going to be a major player in the MMORPG-specific market any time soon.

Strictly speaking, those are houses.

This is compounded by the fact that a lot of big games are either completely MIA at this point or largely MIA and taking a drubbing in their country of origin. This doesn’t make me think the future is doomed or anything like that, just that this is not the year to really light up with speculation about what is coming next. And housing does take more development time; adding it into the pile of things games are just expected to have does not make it easier to kick off a new MMORPG project, which is something to think about.

But we’re increasingly looking at a reality where this is expected, and I think that’s important. MMORPGs are not going to be battle royale games, or MOBAs, or the like. They are not as good at being any of that compared to games trying only to be those things. Housing is not necessarily for everyone, but it is a staple part of this genre from the earliest days, and it’s coming back into style once again.

Letting MMORPGs be big and sprawling again is a good thing, and that includes letting them not necessarily be as streamlined as they can be without “extraneous” features such as housing. Housing allows for additional reward vectors (which is a column I really need to write one of these days) and a different sort of social space. It’s a feature that requires a fair bit of investment but also has a lot of knock-on effects for the game, and most of those are good things.

So here’s to you, GW2. Sure, it’s weird that it’s not tied to the personal instance, but if you do a good job, I think we can all agree to let that slide. Now let’s see if there’s anyone else who needs to catch up to you, hmm?

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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