Thursday, Feb 10, 2011

Title: 2622

February 2011


Title: 2622

February 10, 2011
12:01 AM

Note: The following was written over a number of days, and is a rather long and in-depth discussion about player housing in Massively Multiplayer Online Games. If you don’t know what those are, or don’t care, I figured I’d save you the time of reading it. Also note going in that this comes from a place of love – I’m a big giant fan of MMO games, and have been since 1997. I want to see the genre grow, and I want to see more innovation in the field, and this is merely intended to provoke some thought and discussion on the topic. Okay, now that that’s out of the way…

Developers of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games: I am officially putting you on notice. You’ve had over 15 years as an official genre to develop and move forward, to hone your craft and deliver a fully immersive experience. And I am here to tell you, right here and now, that on one key point, you have failed. Miserably.

It’s not combat – MMO combat has evolved to the point where players can quickly change battle strategies and turn the tide of a fight in their favor with judicious use of special abilities. It’s not the grind – most studios have managed to make character progression robust yet simple, and skill trees are as common as levels, thankfully. And it’s certainly not graphics – for all its flaws, Final Fantasy XIV is a stunning visual experience.


Now, I excuse games where housing is either not included or not feasable. As much as housing would be nifty for World of Warcraft, for instance, WoW is not a game focused on ROLEPLAYING. It’s a combat game in a fantasy setting. And furthermore, WoW never mentioned having player housing in the first place, so that kind of game is off the hook.

When I mention housing, I’m referring to the games that do choose to offer it as a selling point of the game, or, to some degree, to games where it SHOULD be offered, but is instead ignored. It seems very much as though game developers don’t fully comprehend what “housing” means, so I’ve decided to take some time and detail, point by point, what it means to offer player housing.

1. A house must not be instanced.
It’s funny that this point should even need to be pointed out, but one thing nobody in the MMO community seems to understand is that in order to be even remotely useful, a house must occupy real estate somewhere in the game world. It seems as though the easy band-aid applied to most MMO games is the instanced “apartment” model, where you go to a centralized “housing” district and wind up in your own private space located somewhere in never-never land. Where is that apartment located? How would I get to it other than being magically teleported there or selecting it from a list? How would others find it? This is a pocket in nether-space. It’s not a house.
An example of this model is Final Fantasy XI. To get to your “Mog House”, you needed to run to the zone border where the housing district is located, and after a few seconds – pop. You’re in your mog house, wherever that may be. And it’s increasingly vague as to its location, since you can access the SAME mog house from any of the four cities in the game. You can decorate it to some degree, but there wasn’t much point, since nobody can visit you there. You couldn’t use it as a shop, obviously, since nobody could ever visit it anyway. It was a pointless little dwelling, if you could call it that. Other games in the past have used this same model – Anarchy Online, Phantasy Star Online, and lord knows how many others. Even Uru, as much as I love the game, took instancing to the Nth degree, since you have to find a neighborhood from a list to visit it, despite the fact that they’re all identical and ostensibly share the same physcial space. Come on – the game is about a giant underground city – you’re telling me you couldn’t find the space for a few thousand players?
Now, too often I have brought up this point only to be shouted down by younger, less experienced MMO players – “You can’t put houses on the world map! The server wouldn’t be able to handle it, and it’d be total chaos! That’s why nobody’s ever done it!” Well now, this won’t be the last time I use it as a reference, but Ultima Online, released in NINETEEN NINETY-SEVEN, has had this form of housing included since day one. Its implementation may have been far from perfect, but players were able to take a house deed out, claim a piece of land, and build their dwelling there. Other players could see that house, and if it was public, they could even enter and visit. If you had wares to sell, you could place your NPC vendor on the porch, and open up shop. Because of this, player-run cities could sprout up somewhere in the forest, or at the very least, suburbs to the main cities in the game were commonplace.
2. A house must be customizable.
I don’t necessarily mean that you need to be able to change EVERY ASPECT of your dwelling space as in the Age of Shadows expansion to Ultima Online, but players should have some choices when it comes to their house. Whether this comes in the form of being able to modify an existing structure, or simply offering different choices as to which house model you buy/build, not all houses should be identical. That’s not how cities work. Even in tract home developments in the real world, houses have some degree of variety to them. To feel like a home, it needs to be YOURS. If everyone has the same room or square building, there’s nothing special about your house. In Final Fantasy XI, for example, every Mog House was the same square windowless room. This is supposed to be Vana’diel, not communist russia.
3. A house must be a privelege.
I realize there are many that will cry elitism on me for this point, but hear me out here. A major flaw in the standard cookie-cutter instanced house model is that housing is something that is granted to every player, regardless of whether they want it, or whether they would be willing to work to support it. It’s a “given”, and I honestly think that’s a bad thing. Because housing is ubiquitous, it becomes mundane. Why would any other player WANT to visit your house, when they have one themselves just like it? (This becomes especially true in games where interaction with objects such as chairs, benches, and beds is not allowed – but that’s a whole other rant)
Houses should be earned. I’m not suggesting they be a massive goldsink, costing millions of gold, only available to the most elite player, but there should be a cost of ownership. UO hit this on the head – there was a cost to place the house (which was really fairly reasonable, assuming you found an open plot of land) and there was the requirement that you had to log in every X days in order to keep it from falling down. Players who didn’t maintain their house would lose it, opening the land up to other players. The house becomes a cherished possession that you have an attachment to, and you become more likely to play the game to keep it from falling into someone else’s hands.
But more than anything, this gives younger players something to aspire to. It shows them that if they work hard enough, they too could own their own house, or tower, or keep. Think of houses as alternatives to endgame raid content. People will claim their plot of land in your world, and that ownership of virtual real estate gives them a reason to log on and play. I can say from personal experience that when I played UO, I spent a good portion of time sitting on the patio of my house, which sat along the road north of Vesper. I had a table and chairs there, with a chess set ready to go. I would occasionally chat with passers-by, who would sit down to a game of chess, or talk about the adventures of the day. (remember, UO was much more roleplaying centric at one point than it is now) I was perfectly content to play a virtual homebody instead of going out and slaying dragons or orcs. This is another way of saying something I’ve been saying for many, many years about MMO development: Give the players something to do when they’re not playing the game.

With all three of these points, realize that I’m not saying every MMO needs to follow these rules or anything. I’m not saying every MMO needs to include housing. What I’m saying, in a nutshell, is that if you give your players personal apartments without any connection to the real world, where nobody can just pop in and say hi, then You’re NOT offering housing. Call it whatever you want, it’s not player housing.

Now, don’t think I don’t understand technical limitations inherent in non-instanced in-world housing. I get it – depending on the implementation, it could cause some server strain, and if improperly handled, it could also cause ridiculous overcrowding… not to mention the chaos that ensues when houses are randomly placed willy-nilly across the countryside. I’m not simply standing here on my soapbox shouting about injustices without ideas to back them up, so just to prove that a LITTLE bit of thought can solve some of these issues, let me address a few points below.

Point 1: Housing placed in the game world will put undue stress on the server.

Sure – if you had EVERYTHING load for every house in a given vicinity whenever the player was nearby, that would be nuts. Perhaps not as much nowadays as internet connection speeds have increased, and the graphic elements would have to be held in memory to begin with… but there are many, many ways around this. Just off the top of my head, you could go the UO route, and opt not to load in-house items and decoration until the player stepped onto the doorstep of the house. You could adapt this for 3D games to decrease lag time in items loading by expanding it to a wider radius around the house, but still – we’re not talking about loading EVERYTHING for EVERY player. Again, this has become SLIGHTLY less of an issue than it used to be, but the point is, there are solutions.

Point 2: Random house placement would create utter chaos.

This is true, to a point. UO players will recall wandering through the forest only to come across the sea of random houses, sometimes blocking your path and forcing you to make a severe detour. This is remarkably simple to deal with, however. For starters, designate certain areas as “housing areas”, and only allow houses to be placed there. In this way, you prevent random housing from interfering with the average player in the game, and you still allow people the freedom to place houses wherever they want.

There is an even SIMPLER solution, however – don’t allow random housing. Set up pre-defined “neighborhoods” in your cities where housing is already built and ready for move-in. This allows for two things – one, it allows you to control the visual look and feel of the world and prevent it from going crazy with housing where it doesn’t belong, and two, it allows you to make the houses a static part of the game world, preventing excessive load times of custom structures. Neighborhoods could contain all sorts of different houses, or perhaps even structures set up to be shops or other types of services, and this could even be taken further by allowing players who meet certain criteria (or can afford it) to live in apartments or buildings IN-town, lending a certain prestige to them. Lord knows MMO players love their prestige. And be creative! Offer special houses on coastlines, or small fishing villages for players to take up residence in! This is a chance for developers to REALLY build the world their players live in beyond the empty facades of buildings in most towns. Imagine if Stormwind City (I know I gave WoW a pass on this, I’m just using it as an example) had people living in the spaces above shops, or in some of the unused buildings around town.

A system like this would certainly have to be scaled to meet demand, based on average server populations and the like, but the benefit is that if more housing is needed, the developer can simply “knock a few trees down” and expand the residential area as needed. Cities grow – that’s part of what makes for a thriving economy. Which brings me to my third point, however…

Point 3: New houses would never open up, because players would buy a house and hold on to it.

Sure, in the days of Ultima Online, this is certainly what happened. Buying a house in UO generally meant finding one on Ebay, or paying someone a TON of in-game gold to buy their plot. Housing was pretty scarce, and part of the reason for it, as I see it, is that houses didn’t really require too much upkeep – you logged in once every few days and that was that. Here’s a novel idea, and I didn’t even have to make this up… I just stole it from the real world: Taxes.

Think of it this way – you buy your house for whatever the going rate is. Ideally, this should be automatically controlled by the system to be in line with current supply and demand – if a ton of houses are sitting empty, it’d make sense that you’d be able to buy one for a song. If, on the other hand, a house is a hot commodity, the cost is going to go up pretty substantially. But there’s more to owning a house than simply paying for it… you’ve gotta pay your taxes. This would be a cost, either fixed or on a sliding scale, that would be deducted from a player’s stash of gold every fixed time period. If a player wanted to keep their house, they’d have to make sure to earn enough money to pay this tax, or they get the boot.

This ensures that house owners actively play the game, preventing a community of ghost houses from popping up, and it ensures that new houses will come on the market from time to time as players give up the house or are unable to pay for it. As I said earlier – housing should be a privilege, not a right. I’m not suggesting these fees be outrageous or unreasonable, requiring players to goldfarm for hours a day to pay for it… but there needs to be some kind of upkeep involved that requires the players to PLAY in order to sustain it. Really, it’s just good business – you want players to play your game, and if they’re dedicated to having a house in-game, they’re going to be more likely to log in and spend some time playing.

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. This has been a veritable novel, but the reason I took so much time to write this (I’ve been poking at it off and on for a few days) is because I want to make one thing clear to any MMO developer who happens to read it: Housing IS important. If you sell your game as including player housing, it’s going to excite me, and for a decade now, I’ve been extremely disappointed in the implementation of “housing” that has come on the market. I don’t tend to stick with MMOs these days because I’m not really offered an incentive to do so. Once I hit max level, what’s left for me to do? How can I become a part of the world you’re offering me if all I can do is run around and kill things? I realize not every MMO player out there cares about housing… MMO games these days have spanned to non-roleplayers, and that’s fine. But there is a large percentage of your audience that, like me, plays these games with more in mind than just getting the best loot or the highest level. We’re still here, and we’d still like to be a part of your game. Spend a little extra time and give us a housing system that will make the difference between a player and a lifelong fan.

Feel free to send this around as you like, but remember one thing – I’m not saying any of this like some kind of know-it-all saying it’s my way or the highway. The point of this is to prompt some discussion on the topic, and make people think seriously about it before dismissing it out of hand. If you disagree with me, hey – I get it. We can still be friends, I promise. :)

I’ve decided to add an addendum to this post, because a number of people are telling me to consider various different games as examples of good housing, and I felt it should be fair to recognize the ones that do it right, note the ones who come close, and point out the ones who don’t even try to get it right. I’ll update this as more games are brought to my attention. As a sidenote – telling me to consider games like Asheron’s Call (released 1999) really only serves to point out how long it’s been since decent implementation was introduced. :)

Housing Done Right (Matches the three points outlined above):

  • Ultima Online (Released 1997)
  • Asheron’s Call (Released 1999)
  • Star Wars Galaxies (Released 2003)
  • Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted (Released 2003)
  • Darkfall (Released 2009)
  • Mortal Online (Released 2010)

Close, But No Cigar (Misses on one point, but otherwise good):

  • Asheron’s Call (Released 1999) – Yes, it’s listed twice. Houses, Villas and Mansions were located in the main world, however there was semi-instanced apartment housing that I don’t count. All in all though, it’s a win.
  • Dark Age of Camelot (Released 2001 – Housing added in 2003 expansion) – Instanced neighborhoods, but otherwise very close to the three points.
  • Everquest II (Released 2004) – Instanced neighborhoods, but otherwise very close to the three points.
  • Lord of the Rings Online (Released 2007) – Instanced neighborhoods, but otherwise very close to the three points.

Were You Even Trying? (Prime examples of how housing shouldn’t be handled):

  • Phantasy Star Online (Released 2000) – Instanced apartments, with no real use.
  • Anarchy Online (Released 2001) – Instanced apartments that needed a key to join.
  • Final Fantasy XI (Released 2002) – Mog houses. ‘Nuff said.
  • Uru Live (Released 2007) – Instanced neighborhoods, no individual apartments, despite the fact that D’ni is a huge, empty city.