A Future of better player housing – from LOTRO to Wildstar

It’s probably a fair claim that player housing is one of the most wanted features in MMOs and yet also one of the trickiest to design and often misshapen ones. While the potential of letting users create and shape their own virtual space inside a game is endless, promising not just for more social interaction but longterm player attachment, developers of past titles have often missed to include that one imperative ingredient to all housing: significance. (Interchangeable with meaning, relevance or impact.)

housing

While it’s all good fun and giggles to decorate one’s own space and collect shinies, the attraction of housing is short-lived for the average player. Instanced housing is especially bad for this but even if an MMO offers outdoor housing or neighbourhoods such as LOTRO, there are only so many times one will invite friends over to marvel at interior design or enjoy tea at the expensive, golden party table. To make player housing an effective part of the game and community, there need to be more mechanics in place to create meaning and significance. There need to be reasons enough why people would want to spend time in/around their own house, why they would want to invite each other or explore homes. You want me to care about housing longterm? Tell me why!

Different ways to create meaningful player housing in MMOs

As romantic as the idea of an ingame “home” is, my guess is most MMO players aren’t looking to simply simulate a homebase. For one thing, we already have a home (duh). Secondly, players are already likely to pick individual homes for themselves – as in their favorite city or spot on the world map. One can build attachment to any place in an MMO. What really draws us in though are those places where we meet up, interact and do business. Places that have specific social functions, which is why cities have always been the heartbeat in games. They’re where stuff happens and where we want to hang out. I do not want to go sit quietly and alone at my instanced home’s doorstep in an MMO, even if it took me five days and as many corpseruns to get that doormat.

Ever since Turbine announced their player housing revamp for this year, I’ve been pondering on all the ways to bestow more meaning on LOTRO’s current housing model and better player housing in general. LOTRO is an interesting hybrid in the sense that while the system is instanced, neighbourhoods still hold a ton of social potential. It’s quite awesome how every single home has its own unique address which you can look up at the homestead gate. Alas, Turbine too failed at digging deeper with their housing system. For what its worth, here’s my round-up of suggestions on how to spice things up in the future and make player housing a more lively and exciting part of the game:

1) Cosmetics & Personalization:
Indoor and outdoor (yard) design should be a given. Design slots should be completely flexible within a building grid, similar to Minecraft. Do not force players to only put up “one painting per wall” or having to plant “small items in small slots, big items in big slots”. It’s limiting and makes decor feel generic.

Rather than offering x types of homes, let players build individual homes based on resources and property boundaries. Introduce painting, weaving, carpentering and farming professions. Make room and level expansions possible.

Feature nifty items such as a personal mailbox, message board, personal indoor tune, bookshelves (Skyrim), complete collectible themes/styles, quest/raid/guild trophies, pet barns and stables. LOTRO features an amazing score of collectible mounts, yet players cannot have any of them on display?

2) Social tools & opportunities
Instanced or not, every player home should have its unique address that can be looked up by others in a public “address book”. As an ever-curious and nosy explorer, I do not only enjoy traveling into the blue but looking up destinations an seeking out specific places. How about some yellow pages where home owners can add notes on what services or special features they offer?

Making a personal mailbox a requisite in order to receive any ingame mail comes to mind as a next step. Similarly extreme would be the measure of removing the auction house and instead letting players set up shops and vendor NPCs on their property, as was done in UO (and long is the list of players who worship it). Player shops create traffic and interaction, greatly increase the significance of professions and generate income for the owner. While we’re at it – remove banks too and make player houses the only place for safe storage!

Homes should be hubs for trade, gathering and crafting in general. Spending time on building and tending to the environment could each go with specific rewards and buffs. There are some great new ideas in Wildstar’s recent housing dev talk. Furthermore, player houses in the same area should be able to form mini-towns and unlock more features such as townhalls with special quests, market places with unique wares and the option to build custom event stages. Mini-towns could set up donation boxes in order to receive public funding for bigger buildings. Pecuniary administration is of course handled by the town-members elected major.

…Naturally, not all of these ideas are novel and some are obviously already live in LOTRO; however imagining all of them come together and taking it further, one can only muse how deep the rabbit hole of player housing may reach. There’s an untapped goldmine there if a developer is willing to take some bold steps and abandon a  few popular and convenient features that MMO players take for granted nowadays – being able to do and access anything from anywhere among them. It is impossible to restore meaning without limiting certain services in the game in favor of players frequenting their own and each others homes. Too long have city-dwelling NPCs taken over our virtual interactions. Just imagine: riding down your home street in LOTRO to do business at the market square, passing smoking chimneys (representing occupation) and busy neighbours laboring in their front yard. A micro-cosmos of its own. Where do I sign up?

A word on scale

While the recently published Wildstar update is very exciting, there is one thing that irritated me in the video documentary. What I’m talking about is scale which sadly seems to be off in Wildstar’s housing structures and related items, just the way scale is completely off in Guild Wars 2 – something I have lamented since day one. As great as monumental gates and streets made for giants seem at first, and Divinity’s Reach certainly is impressive, an off-balance environment scale in MMOs creates detachment. It feels unnatural and unauthentic in greater quantity. I do not want to sit in chairs that are three times too big for me or open doors that dwarf elephants. It’s hard to immerse myself while going through a Goldilocks experience. It’s not what I personally associate with a cosy home and it doesn’t create the atmosphere I feel when entering my small hut in LOTRO which is exactly the size it should be in relation to who’s supposed to inhabit it. Therefore, dear devs please take note: bigger isn’t always better!

hlp

That aside, I look forward to see Wildstar’s flying islands go live. They’ve yet to prove that having homes up in the sky is a good idea, but Carbine are making the biggest buzz about their housing right now and it’s nice to see developers taking this aspect so seriously. I am also super antsy for LOTRO’s update and hope to see a great many changes! To my fellow Middle-Earth travelers: what housing improvements would you like to see most? And what are people’s top must-haves for future player housing? May Wildstar herald much more goodness yet to come!

14 comments

  1. Rakuno

    Hm. This is unusual but I will have to disagree with you.

    About non-instanced housing as much as I would love it as much as you the problem for me has always been the question of space. There is only so much space, even in a virtual game, where to have player houses after all. Then there would be issues of “what if you want to have a house near your friends/guildmates but there isn’t any available housing nearby?”, “What if there aren’t any empty places where I can buy a house anymore because I just got in the game, years after its release?” or “What if I have to leave the game for an extended period do I lose all the work I put in my house?”. The second question is that scares me the most as I put a lot of work into my creations and I’d had to lose that. Granted, they could give us something like in EQ2 where you can save a house layout that will save the position of every object in your house that you can load back later for any reason. With a system like that I wouldn’t be too worried about it. As for the space issues… Wildstar seems to have found a clever solution towards it but there is too much about the game that doesn’t interest me so I honestly haven’t been paying attention to it enough so I can make any real comment about it.

    About the social part and tools I can see where you are coming from. But honestly for me decorating a house for the sake of decoration has always been enough. Yes, I know I am in the minority but I think I would be closer to the target audience of a housing system than the usual, current, MMO player. My disagreement about this is for two reasons:

    1) I always believed that convenience should come first in the place of immersiveness. I don’t think my group would be too happy if I forgot to get something from the bank and had to go all the way back to my house to retrieve it. If there is a bank nearby at least it is a more forgivable sin.

    2) Assuming that people don’t bark at the loss of in the world banks and auction houses as something of a step back most people would just use their houses to just plop the vendor and storage box and call it a day. Every time I saw an empty house with nothing but sales crate in EQ2 I got a little sad with the wasted potential.

    EQ2 in fact is a good example of a middle term between what you are proposing and convenience. In Everquest 2, if you buy stuff off from the broker (their name for auction house) then you have to pay a tax over the price set by the vendor. If the vendor however setup a sales crate in their house, the house address will appear in the broker window and you can choose to go all the way to the vendor’s house and buy the item there, without paying any taxes. In fact it is pretty common for people to do that for more expensive items. Cheaper items people usually just buy off the broker since it is not worth the effort to go all the way to the seller’s house to buy it.

    About the scale, I completely agree with you. In fact that would be something in my wish-list. Not only them getting the scale right for cities and houses but also allow us to resize and rotate stuff in our lots. For instance, before EQ2 had furniture resize we had to come up with a lot of creative ways to explain why a shorter race was using, say, a human-sized stove. I mean, there was no reason why a shorter race couldn’t produce stoves for their own even if it is imitating the style of the human ones.

    Another thing I would like would be empty lots to allow us to build the house from scratch. Then after the house was built we could have blueprints of it that we could trade with other players.

    If we could have settings for background music, place certain sounds, change the lighting in the place or even the night/cycle would be nice too but I can live without those as well.

    I am not sure how easy these are to implement but they are pretty much the dreams of every decorator I’ve met so far.

    By the way, I know it is kinda late but love the new blog. :)

    • Syl

      Thanks very much! :)
      Personally I think the (virtual) ‘space’ issue is overrated and I wager future MMOs will prove it. looking at LOTRO’s world map, it is absolutely huge. even now, you could easily accommodate several thousand player homes across ME without issue. and lets not forget the game is old! future MMOs should be much much bigger by all means – give me huge worlds already! ;) and then there’s server population; who is to say that it cannot be smaller? or what about player-hosted servers? space is just no argument to me anymore, it feels like an excuse.
      as for your other points in the first paragraph, am not quite sure I follow. most of these issues can apply to any type of housing, instanced or not? I was unable to purchase a house near my guild’s in LOTRO, for example. an instanced housing is a complete solo venture in many MMOs right now.

      I love your blueprint idea, that would be awesome. considering some players don’t like to play architect and others do, that sounds like a wonderful solution.
      I never got into EQ deep enough to appreciate housing, it feels like I missed out. I used to love decorating too and still do, but today I want more out of the whole venture. it can’t be that buying and furnishing your house is all there is to the whole thing – seems like wasted design resources to me. I suspect this is also why Blizzard never even bothered to introduce housing in WoW. they do nothing without longterm payoff.

      As for convenience – surprisingly, people get over it faster than one might think. you just need to do it and give them no choice. ;)

      • Rakuno

        Alright. I will concede that I am probably overthinking and worrying too much (as always) about space issues. And now I am remembering Star Wars Galaxies which did the stuff you are proposing if I recall correctly. I never played it myself but I still wonder how the system worked.

        I guess the reason for confusion is because we have different things in mind for instancing. If you thinking instancing in the model of LotRO where it is a whole neighborhood instanced then yes, there is no difference. I was thinking in the model of EQ2 though which is the one where I have some actual experience with.

        In EQ2 the instances are for individual house addresses and guild halls. So for example there is a door in the world that you use for your guild hall. Then for your house it is another door out in the world. If I had a house, say, in Gorowyn and a guild hall there, I could easily get a house that is 5 steps away from the guild hall. And for extra convenience I could buy a door to guild hall to place in my house in case I live in the other side of the world or part of the opposite faction.

        Well, I do recommend you give EQ2′s decoration a try if you have the time and inclination for it. It makes LotRO’s system pales in comparison as it gives you, far, far more flexibility even if you don’t know the advanced tricks. In fact, you replied to another comment that if that was all to it then you would just go play the Sims or Minecraft since they give you better tools for it. Well, I don’t know about Minecraft but at least in the Sims 3 there are somethings that frustrate me and I wouldn’t be nearly as frustrated in EQ2. For instance, in EQ2 I can easily scale items up and down or place them anywhere I like. In the Sims 3 I can’t scale items if I feel something would look better for what I am working on and the placement of items is limited to a grid unless I use cheats. In the Sims 3 if I don’t have an item that look like something I would like for that kind of work then my choices are either figuring something else or try modeling it from scratch. In EQ2 we can’t model our own items but we can try faking something from cobbling together other items to look like what we wanted in the first place. In fact, that is pretty much part of the fun with decoration in EQ2: trying to figure out how you can pick up different items and make it look like a different, unique, item. Figuring out how others did build something is also part of the fun.

        You are probably right about Blizzard. But I also think it was short-sighted to do so. Again, I will just point to EQ2′s decoration and its community. The people there create stuff that impresses even the developers and surprises them on the cleverness on how some of the items were used. They are also very passionate about that part of the game to the point that they will refuse to move to another other game unless it is offer a much better experience. Lastly, if the company is going to do RMT, it is much easier to sell house items to them as well as a lot less controversial.

        Well, if you are going to force people to deal with the loss of something they are already used to and expect to be part of the basics then you need to give something far more better in other areas. That was how Guild Wars 2 took me away from EQ2 for good. No housing but far, far more entertaining in everything else. And yes, good housing for me is a must for any game now. :p

  2. Telwyn

    Like Rakuno above I set all MMO housing comparisons against EQ2 as my preferred model. LOTRO’s housing & escrow system is too ‘real world simulation’ for my liking. Players’ often take a break from their game, they shouldn’t come back to find they’ve been evicted by the mortgage holder. I also have reservations about Rift’s dimensions as it’s too minecraft-esque for me. I’m no wannabe architect, I want an empty but fully formed house-shell to dump furniture in.

    As I’ll be posting tomorrow I’d also be very concerned, regarding LOTRO specifically that some of your suggestions about community might drag some of the wonderful RP and community activities, like the player markets or concerts, into instanced neighbourhood spaces. That would reduce the immersive nature of at least some of LOTROs servers I fear.

    • Syl

      Yeah, I’ve paid my rent many months in advance in LOTRO (I have the small house, it’s so cosy), just to be safe! :) I don’t necessarily like the escrow system either, especially for guild houses.

      The RP worry is probably reasonable in LOTRO’s case; however, if we assume outdoor housing, then this wouldn’t be an issue. in fact player created towns would be awesome for roleplay communities.

  3. bhagpuss

    Have to throw in with both Rakuno and Telwyn above. I’ve always found that decorating an imaginary house is an end in and of itself. Functionality is welcome but it certainly isn’t necessary. EQ2, the queen of all MMO housing games, has a large and highly active community that really does little else than design and decorate houses which they all then go and visit. When the rating system was added to gamify this longstanding practice that community, by and large, found it alienating and oppressive. Imaginary homemaking really is something fully worth doing just for the pure fun of it.

    As for removing banks – Noooooooo! That brings up all the same issues we’ve had in real life in the UK over the last decade or so, with the widespread closure of rural post offices and village pubs. Communities need open, visible, communal gathering-places in order to be communities and in MMOs it’s pretty much only banks that fit that bill. To remove that and put it into a myriad of individual homes, whether instanced or not, would tear the heart right out of most MMOs.

    That said, far more can be done with personal space within MMOs and I hope WildStar does some of it. The things they’ve suggested so far, though, which seem largely to be based around more ways to kill things, aren’t making me hugely optimistic. Still, it’s a lot better than GW2′s pathetic personal instances.

    • Syl

      I agree it’s a lot of fun, but it feels limited to me nowadays if that’s all there is. especially in LOTRO’s case, decorating is incredibly limited – if that’s really all I wanted, I’d be much better served to go play the sims or minecraft. It just feels like, hmm….so much wasted potential in a social game. but of course I prefer this type of housing to none at all, just to be clear.

      And I agree on the communal places; but my point is, letting players create those hubs themselves and have them grow naturally (as they have in the real world, too), would be so much more fun than pre-made cities. we don’t need pre-made towns; give people clay and space and they will get right to it. it’s in our nature wanting to gather up. so, am for outdoor housing, neighbourhoods, player shops etc. all the way! :)

  4. RimeCat

    I’m not fanatical about housing but it does add something if done properly. One of the areas I though SW:ToR failed was in not permitting players to personalize their ships. You have hit the player-built town and I think it would be an interesting side-game for guilds.

    As a generally solo player I would like to be able to buy a flat in one of the scenery buildings that litter every city. Distribute the markets and crafting stations and you start creating small communities within the city structure that may map to historical patterns.

    If you eliminate interconnected markets and auction houses you also create opportunities for players to engage in arbitrage. This is not the most popular thing with some people and should be considered carefully before implementation. I think it adds to the atmosphere, even though I’d never engage in it myself, but it will stir some strong feelings.

    • Syl

      I agree it requires careful consideration. if you really want to play the social game in an MMO though, you have to allow all it’s consequences. the very good usually go with the very bad. it’s a question of how far a developer wants to go.

      Personalization is huge. and yeah, all the empty city homes bug me in GW2 too. it’s weird, even if let’s say you choose against outdoor housing because of space reasons in an MMO city, you could still at least have instanced homes inside with house doors being physical representations of player and guild houses?

  5. John

    @bhagpuss

    We don’t need banks and cities to feel like we are in an MMO. If all that left to MMOs are the convenience and the huge hubs for auction houses and crafting and banks then they are not MMOs but lobby games. Like in vindictus that I see people only in the towns. The only MMOs that should afraid instanced housing or housing that matters are the single player MMOs where you can do anything in the game just alone and then you go to a town to see some people..

    communities need games that their main activities need grouping and trading. No solo progression..even the level up should be focus on grouping. By just force people into a central city for various activities does not make a game a “social MMO”

    I am all for housing that matters. I don’t mind if it is instanced or not, but I want to matter a lot. I want to go there to get my mails and I want all my stuff to be there. I wanna craft next to my house where I can put an anvil. I much prefer it like lotro instanced neighborhoods but of course with things that really matter.

    • Syl

      I agree that cities often become the detriment of the rest of the world map in MMOs. that’s why I would advocate outdoor housing and player created towns instead; these would grow naturally and depending on other factors (such as how rare are some services, hard to level professions etc.) they would be spread much more across different maps, wherever people chose to set up shop. maybe one really highlvl smith with rare recipes chooses to be a hermit up some mountain pass, while other players form small towns. you could have all sorts of scenarios.

  6. Pingback: Syl on MMO housing | GamingSF
  7. Mhorgrim

    Interesting topic. I remember when NWN first came out with player created servers. Some of the greatest housing schemes came out of that system even if the graphics were dated. It was dependent upon the Server’s GM but still, the opportunity was incredible. Want to own a mansion? Done. Simple Wood Cabin? Done. My favorite was owning a tavern within a city where other players could drop by. Th other favorite was an in in a dark forest region where wandering wolves patrolled about. I agree about the idea that you should be able to access your cache (read bank), craft etc all from your home. A simple forge would draw attention for world economy etc. While the housing was limited in scope in SWG, some really awesome towns rose and became better hubs than the game world cities.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if factions COULD create a city in size and scope of capitols? I know for progression minded folks this wouldn’t be of much value, but for immersion players and/or RP folks it would be a huge draw. PvPers to control land areas for resources and building rights, the possibilities do go on. The down side….no one will invest in the time or infrastructure to make it feasible. It’s a dream, maybe one day dev’s in general will listen…but I doubt it at this time.

  8. DustinBajaSS

    I think theplayer created towns would be great. There was alot of complaining abou the hearthfire dlc for skyrim, i loved it. Building my house and decorating the interior with weapon and armour racks and stuffed monsters, bookcases etc. Sure there where only so many diff choices but it was cool. And as for player created towns that would be excellent. Keep the cities, having the giant central hubs but then having the towns out where ever the players choose to build them. Building a guild house that you can expand as your guild gains players.

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