My Private Hole In The Ground – The stalled direction of MMO player-built housing and cities

Player housing and player-made cities in MMO games have been around for a long time, yet is an often ignored or secondary feature in many games. Some games give an illusion of player housing, but these end up falling far short due to inability to be customized and lack of functionality. (eg.: Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Trek Online currently suffer from this). From Ultima Online to Shadowbane to Star Wars Galaxies to Rift to the upcoming Wildstar, several MMOs and their players have enjoyed a place to put their feet up and show off trophies of their adventuring exploits. Yet despite many players wanting and using in-game housing, this feature has seen very little evolution through the years.

For anyone unfamiliar with player housing in MMO games, I’ll break it down for you. Housing in MMO games has taken essentially 2 primary forms:

  • rented or custom built private structures
  • rented guild halls or player-built cities.

Rented houses are just that – established static structures with doors that lead to private instances that players can customize with their own furniture items, and use of these private “house” instances have a regular upkeep cost(1). Like in real life, the rental units range in size, quality, and cost. Unfortunately, there is rarely much to do in your house; it’s purely decorative and not much more than a place for showing off trophies. Even socializing tends to be limited, as there’s little reason for other players to come to your house, especially if they have one of their own.

Player-built houses usually consist of renting a “plot” of land, then using an in-game editor-style interface to build a home layout out of predetermined pieces or tiles(2). Often, the pieces that are available are separated into sets, based on player level or some other factor(s). This kind of housing can be more time consuming to do, but can also be more satisfying as your home is far more personalized and unique. Unfortunately, aside from bragging rights, these tend to be of no more function than regular rental houses.

Some games use a similar rental system for guild halls as is often used for basic rented housing. These halls often include important guild and player services, such as guild bank access(3).  Player-built cities are a bit of a grander scale than a static guild hall and often require an entire guild or more to create, but essentially are just a customized guild hall(4). You usually don’t get the same level of customization on a personal level, though. These cities often play a role in a larger PvP system, but not always, and even then the customizations available are fairly limited.

Very few games allow for truly player-built homes or cities. The general consensus is that the now closed Star Wars Galaxies(5) had the best player-made housing and cities system to-date, and the long-dead Shadowbane(6) had a somewhat similarly detailed system for player cities. Both these games gave a sandbox system for player city development. Players were able to build private homes in their guild’s private cities, and those cities could become hubs of commerce and travel within the game, just like the developer-built main cities.

So if this level of customization was so popular, why don’t other MMO developers include it in their games? For sake of argument, set aside the amount of tech and coding work it is to develop these kinds of in-game systems, which I admit is a lot. What else is stopping developers from trying new ideas with regards to in-game housing gameplay mechanics? I’m sure there are tons of new styles and twists on classic systems that could be done, but I’ve not seen or heard of any developers even talking about it that much.

The whole concept of player housing and player cities, as well as things to do in them or reasons to have them, seems to be a secondary thought and avoided by a lot of developers. What can we do that would put a new twist on traditional models of player housing? I think player housing and player-built cities are sorely lacking in current MMOs, and I think it’s time we looked at why, as well as how to make them more interesting and desirable to more MMO players. The biggest question is what’s the point of having your own home or building a city with your guild? This is the question that I feel the whole growth of this type of feature in MMO games hinges on, and the one not enough developers are seeking new and creative answers to.

This whole field of MMO thinking is largely untapped and wide open, and I think has a chance to see some real growth in the coming years. With the advent of game “achievements” systems, players have become increasingly competitive in collecting these. Also, player customization and crafting has always been a key element in many MMOs. Perhaps there’s a way that Player Housing and Guild-built cities can be tied into one or both of these in ways not yet tried. We’re pretty much only limited by our imaginations these days, so really, what is it that’s stopping us from imagining?

Sources:

1)    Everquest 2 – Housing: http://eq2.wikia.com/wiki/Housing

2)    Ultima online – Player Houses: http://www.uoguide.com/Houses

3)    Lineage 2 – Clan Hall: http://www.lineage2.com/en/game/the-library/clans/clan-halls.php

4)    Age of Conan – Player Cities: http://aoc.wikia.com/wiki/Player_City

5)    Star Wars Galaxies – Player Cities: http://swg.wikia.com/wiki/Player_city

6)    Shadowbane – Player Cities: http://ca.ign.com/articles/2002/07/22/shadowbane-city-building-in-an-mmorpg

7)    Star Wars Galaxies – Player Housing: http://swg.wikia.com/wiki/Housing

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