Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Getting It

Tyler F.M. Edwards of Superior Realities has this to say about Elder Scrolls Online's new housing offer

"The real problem, in the end, is that after one day I’ve already run out of things to do with my home. There’s no gameplay associated with it, no reason to go there other than to see the sights, no practical benefit to it whatsoever...Times like this further my belief that I just don’t get player housing as a feature."

That's the housing dilemma for MMO developers in a nutshell. Do you make your housing offer so intricate and complex that a subset of your players vanish into their instanced homes never to be seen again? Or do you make it so functional and bland that no-one wants to spend a moment longer there than they have to?

The former is the road EQ2, Rift and Wildstar took. GW2 and The Secret World went the other way. In between lie a myriad of dead ends and blind turnings, from LotRO's infamously inflexible hooks (recently modified to allow a modicum of creativity) to FFXIV's restrictive pricing and rationing.

At the heart of the issue, though, is a gameplay decision: do you want your housing to affect gameplay or to be gameplay? Or do you want it to lie there, dead, doing neither, just so your game can add "Housing" as a bullet point on the FAQ?

On these warm, desert nights I often choose to sleep al fresco.

I'm not winding up to an answer to this question, which has presumably been hanging in the ether ever since Ultima Online opened its doors two decades ago. If I knew the answer to questions like that I'd be running a design consultancy not sitting in my dressing gown blogging about the imponderable ephemera of virtuality.

No, the point I'm slowly creeping up on is this: you either "get" MMO housing or you don't.

Developers can reel in players who don't get it by adding functionality - "practical benefit" as Tyler puts it. Depending on how it's done that can either be welcomed or resented. A home that allows players quick and easy access to services like crafting or banking that they'd need to travel to cities or NPCs to use anyway is generally popular. One that requires you to visit it just to acquire specific buffs you can't get anywhere else risks being seen as an annoying but unavoidable chore.

There's also the "aspirational" aspect. By making Housing a restricted, even a prestige offer, it's possible to lure achievement-oriented players to jump through all kinds of hoops to acquire a home, even though they may never visit it again.

Books do furnish a room.

Crafters are a natural fit for housing, of course, and a very welcome one in terms of efficiency for game designers, I'm sure. There are few, if any, balance implications inherent in adding a new recipe for tableware or soft furnishings. Allowing for the widest possible range of object placement and manipulation can effectively add a whole building offer to the game, something that appeals not only to crafters but also to a related but significantly different subset of players - decorators.

Even the most recalcitrant adventurers can be coaxed into a grudging acceptance that there's something in it for them by the addition of desirable housing "drops", always provided there are enough non-adventurers waiting safe at home to pay through the nose for them at the Auction House.

All this and much, much more can add up to a rich, complex seam of content that runs through an MMO from top to bottom. Players of every stripe and preference can come to find something of value in a well-designed and integrated MMO housing system.

And yet it still doesn't mean all of them "get" MMO housing.

As a plant I don't mind the rain but I have to think of my armor...

In order to truly "get it" you need to be one of those players who thinks, every single time, when they reach the end of a session and the moment comes to log off and close the game, "Where is my character going to sleep tonight?"

Are they safe? Are they comfortable? Are they going to be warm enough? What if it rains? All these and more are thoughts that flit through my mind, not just every time I log out for the night but even when I swap from one character to another.

Many years ago, when I first began playing EverQuest, an MMO that had no player housing nor ever seemed likely to (which turned out not to be the case), I developed what has become a lifelong habit. If I had time I would gate or port or run my character to a safe city - Freeport or Qeynos or Thurgadin for example - where I would find an Inn or a bar or a pleasant public space.

There I would settle the character down at a table or by the bar or in an upstairs bedroom. I could then leave him or her for the night or the week or the year, safe in the knowledge that however long it might take me to return my character would be secure and content.

Another night on the tiles.
EverQuest being the way it was, there were times when returning to a city simply wasn't practical. Even today it can easily take fifteen or twenty minutes to travel across Norrath from, to pick a common starting point, The Plane of Knowledge, to the place you want to begin adventuring. In the Good Old Days that fifteen minutes could be an hour or more, assuming you could even get back to where you had been the day before without a group to help you or a druid or wizard to port you.

My characters back in the day needed to be ready to rough it, to set up camp in the wilderness or find a safe spot in a dungeon, whatever it took to be ready for the next time. Still, I had to be responsible for their well-being. I would take them to a guard tower or a farmhouse so they'd have a roof over their head at least. Almost twenty years on I can still remember the individual places I most often chose - the bridge-house over the river between North and South Karana, for example, or inside one of the windmills in Steamfont.

Not much has changed. In GW2, every day, several times most days, I make sure my characters are going to be comfortable where I leave them. In snowy areas I always make sure they are next to a heat source, usually an open fire, not so near they might scorch their armor yet near enough to feel the warmth. I make sure they aren't left standing in full sunlight, lest they sunburn. Dappled shadow is my preference.

The cat sat on the mat.
In the jungles I camp them in Lionguard towers, under tents or awnings, or in the tribal huts of the Itzel. I take my characters race into consideration too. A hardy Norn or a fur-covered Charr can stand a little snow on their shoulders. A sylvari welcomes the rain. An Asura, though, needs a real roof over her head whenever possible.

This is in an MMO that does have housing but GW2's Home Instances seem to me to be just about the worst of compromises. They feel nothing like a home. They have a clinical functionality that appeals to min-maxers and is most likely ignored by everyone else. There are signs, faltering and faint, that something more inclusive may be on the way but as yet that's mostly wishful thinking.

For the time being I consider Krennak's Lodge in Wayfarer Foothills more my home than any Instance. All of my characters have slept there on the rug next to the fire many, many times. It's safe and warm and welcoming, just like a real home should be.

That's really all I want from MMO housing. A safe, cosy, welcoming place, where I can come back at the end of a long day's adventuring to sleep in a comfortable bed, surrounded by my books and trophies and my many, many pets. Everything else is just sugar on the top.

When developers get that then they really do "get it". And so do we.

2 comments:

  1. Ah, the bridge in North Karana, how many hours did I spend idling there?

    WoW garrisons were probably the best of example of adding practicality that caused resentment. You could avoid them, but not if you wanted to do much of the post level cap content in the expansion.

    Meanwhile there is some pretty bad housing in other MMOs that you'll try for a bit then ignore. LOTRO was horrible, and making the hooks more flexible won't do much to help out. There was no real reason to be in your home ever.

    As I have oft stated, EQII housing is just about the right mix for me, and I do not think that is by accident. The fact that they designed in a very flexible system that was there at launch, supported by a crafting profession and drops in the world... trophies... that you could display in your house made a huge difference. Yes, I know some people don't like the instanced nature of it, but that is a compromise need to keep housing accessible rather than ending up looking like a horrible trailer park like in SWG.

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    1. I've tried a lot of different housing offers in a lot of MMOs and I have yet to see anything that comes close to EQ2's. It pretty much does everything you could want in housing, especially if you "break out" and get yourself a huge outdoor area. My Maj'Dul house includes half of Maj'Dul!

      I'd really like to see an MMO that was built primarily around housing. Not a building game like Landmark or Second Life but a much more user-friendly, sandpark style game with all the MMO trappings, only with the main purpose being to decorate and "live" in houses of various sorts. Seems like an underexplored and underexploited aspect of the genre even now to me.

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