Let’s face it – from the games that feature housing, the proportion of games where the feature is widely regarded as a great success is quite small. Of course whether this or that game’s housing suits an individual or not is down to personal opinion, but from the point of view of game design, I think we are able to quite easily tell when the feature has been a success and when it hasn’t.
There are two schools of thought in MMORPG housing – one centered around open world and one around instanced housing. Its probably best to state this right off the bat: both have their place, and whether or not they suit a particular game is down to the game’s general direction.
That being said, in most games that feature it, instanced housing tends to be rather meaningless – a so-called fluff feature if you will. Which isn’t to say housing would by default be much better in games where it is implemented in it’s non-instanced form. It could well be that simply because the instanced approach is more common (because it is easier to implement), it also falls short more often.
What is difficult to argue against though is that even if open world housing systems aren’t necessarily better in the sense of what players will find fun gameplay, they almost certainly are more meaningful compared to instanced housing systems. This is due to the simple fact that even if its just predefined house models spread around a neighbourhood, open world housing affects a larger amount of players than instanced housing ever will – non-house owners at the very least get to see other players’ houses.
Being able to see other players’ houses doesn’t get us a long way on the path of meaningfulness, though. So what will?
Hoarding treasure and thinking logistics
Here’s a question to ask: what do we use our houses for in real life? A simple question, yes, but I think it can bring us on the right path.
We use our houses for many things: shelter from cold or warm the wilds in general; for storing our goods; for resting when we are tired; for doing our daily routines such as washing up and eating. Some of us spend the majority of our lives inside our houses.
Some of those things don’t make much sense in a virtual game world. But some do: storage for example. Having extra bank space by owning a house chest could be a meaningful feature if bank space was limited. And having your house along with it’s chest located near a profitable grinding location could be quite useful as well, although being able to place your house near such areas tends to be difficult in games offering the instanced variety of the feature.
In games that feature localized banking (meaning items do not without actual transportation transfer from one bank to another on the other side of the world), the meaningfulness of house storage increases in an exponential fashion. Not only is your house a place to quickly bank stuff you farmed from resources nearby, but there’s also logistical thinking involved in how you are then going to transport those goods from your house onwards to a place where they can be sold. And that’s just one scenario.
An adventurer needs to rest from time to time
Some features may not make sense in a virtual setting at first glance, but could prove out to make for some meaningful gameplay. Resting is one thing we do in our homes, but the type of resting we do is difficult to implement as a gameplay feature to say the least.
There have been some attempts though. For one example, Star Wars Galaxies involved a fatigue system in which battling foes accumulated fatigue where as going to an inn relieved it. This system is what also fueled some player roles such as that of the dancers – watching a dancer at an inn would relieve the character’s stress. A fairly immersive system that would not suit just any game out there, but the general thought behind it isn’t bad at all.
A fatigue level that would accumulate over time as a character did things – any things, including non-combat activities – could well help in making housing more meaningful. Carefulness is of course required in implementing such features, for if fatigue for example accumulates too quickly, resting becomes a chore instead of a feature that adds to immersion. But if implemented correctly, it could contribute to gameplay in a meaningful way. For example, maybe once too tired the character could rest at either an inn or in their house. Say the player has found a rich metal vein and is mining it – they could build their house near the vein so that they were able to rest there every now and then to get rid of fatigue, instead of having to head back a much longer way to an inn in the nearest town. And maybe resting at an inn would cost you money where as resting over at one’s own house would not.
Housing needs a reason
All in all, housing could be made very meaningful and it has been done, but the majority of games that feature it don’t utilize it to the extent they could. Yes, maybe they don’t need to, but I think it’s fair to say that when all housing exists for is furnishing and maybe for awkward instant travel in a game that already features very fast travel speeds, it’s a waste of the potential of a very versatile feature. Not to say there’s anything wrong with using one’s virtual home as a dollhouse, but if decoration is as far as the feature goes, it almost feels as if it’s really just development time gone to waste.
On the positive side, some recent games have made housing a real core feature, most notably ArcheAge. Farming and animal growing are great examples of making housing matter. Here’s to hoping future developers take notes of that.