Wednesday 10 November 2010

Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

Wolfshead’s post on personal spaces in games draws inspiration from Frontierville, but while cross-pollination of ideas between genres often has interesting and productive results, implementation of housing in existing MMOGs is perhaps slightly more directly relevant, and certainly warrants more than a single line of consideration.

The granddaddy of MMOG housing is surely Ultima Online, and though I don’t have first-hand experience the summary in Wikipedia sounds like a series of salutary lessons of the possibilities and dangers of player housing. Where there is ownership, so there are land-grabs, theft, exploits, the expansion of cities into surrounding green-belt areas… and in the game, ah!

Moving down the MMO timeline for a few years, housing isn’t an integral element of many, if any, of the major launches. EverQuest is the stand-out title, synonymous with the genre for a while, and its more rigid class and level system and lack of player-owned spaces in contrast with Ultima Online caused some of the earlier instances of the ever-popular “game vs world” or “theme park vs sandbox” debates. Expansions added housing to games like Asheron’s Call and Dark Age of Camelot after launch, even EverQuest itself got player housing in its most recent expansion (after a mere 11 years!), though again I’ve got no first-hand experience of any of those implementations. I can’t recall any blog posts or articles particularly celebrating or criticising them, if they had (or have) any noteworthy features I’d be interested in any follow-up comments or posts.

After several years without much in the way of player-owned spaces within games, 2003 brought many developments. There were Second Life and A Tale In The Desert, both strong examples of crafting and user generated content, the latter also having interesting community and political aspects, the former notable for real monetary transactions for virtual property. And flying penises. Project Entropia (now Entropia Universe) also launched, another game notable for headline-hitting real money transactions, but hearing that sweat gathering is a primary source of income for new players never really sold it for me. EVE Online doesn’t exactly have houses as such, but Player Owned Stations (POSs) are an important element. Horizons (now Istaria) sounded like an ambitious but ultimately flawed attempt at a dynamic world, I recall some WoW guildmates reminiscing fondly about guild building projects there, but it’s not something I ever tried.

The second key game for MMOG housing, though, must surely be Star Wars Galaxies. SWG, before the much-lamented Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements, was very much in the mould of Ultima Online, at the “world” end of the “world <-> game” spectrum, very player-centric. Due to the difficulties in having player built/owned structures within the “main” world, not least the amount of space required, many games after UO took an instanced approach, having some sort of portal or gateway taking players to regions dedicated to player or guild housing. With entire planets to roam SWG never really had space issues, players really could carve out their own homesteads, and groups of players could co-operate on shared buildings like cantinas. There are many options for building and decoration, and not long after launch the player city system became more formalised, with mayors and elections.

I’ve only played SWG for a few weeks of trials, years after its peak of popularity, and visiting a few player cities (mostly for shopping) was a lonely experience; I don’t think I ever saw another character in any of them. Some of the houses were excellent, packed with interesting curios, but the cities never felt like a vibrant, living part of the game, more like the opening scenes of 28 Days Later, or a caravan park in a coastal resort in mid-winter, outdated slot machines blinking forlornly through drizzle… Technically, though, the implementation is impressive.

Moving on again, City of Heroes was notable for its unprecedented array of options when designing your character’s appearance, another important aspect of personalisation and a sense of ownership, and with the release of the City of Villains expansion the designers put a great deal of effort into supergroup bases, shared spaces for the CoH equivalent of a guild to build and decorate. They turned out to be “the most underused facet of the game”; I wrote about them a while back, they’re quite fun to play with, but in terms of return of investment for the developers they didn’t seem to come out too well.

Then there was the big showdown: EverQuest II and World of Warcraft. I understand EQ2’s housing system is pretty extensive and well received, with a Carpenter crafting profession whose principal output is furniture; WoW has no housing, and Blizzard don’t seem to be in a hurry to implement it. If anything gives lie to the triumph of personal virtual space, it’s surely the success of the house-less EverQuest and then World of Warcraft; player owned spaces can certainly be an asset to a game, quite literally in the case of something like Entropia Universe, but for the majority of players a lack of housing clearly isn’t a deal breaker.

Zapping forward through the timeline again, Guild Wars offers Guild Halls for guilds to hang around, chat, swap recipes and engage in vicious fights to the death; Dungeons and Dragons Online recently introduced guild housing in the form of airships, though our little Friday night group drifted apart before earning enough points to qualify for one; Vanguard has housing, though I don’t know anyone who plays it, and I’m hoping to see more of the Lord of the Rings Online system now it’s gone free-to-play in Europe.

Age of Conan is probably worth a mention for its ambitious plans for player cities that would be attacked by NPCs; I was in a guild around launch, and we ground out substantial quantities of resources and had a couple of guild expeditions to start building a keep; I don’t seem to have written anything about it, which is most remiss of me, I must have a dig around to find the screenshot folder of us all cheering as the gates went up. I drifted away from the game before anything particularly exciting happened there, though, so I’m not sure if NPC attacks were ever implemented.

There’s far too much war in Warhammer Online to be able to take time off to go house hunting with an estate agent; guilds can claim in-game keeps after they’re captured, but with the speed of the battlefront such claims tend to be pretty transient. I gather Darkfall deliberately restricts available land for building to make it a desirable resource and the focus for major battles. Lego Universe isn’t quite so focused on life-or-death PvP struggle, and would seem to be a natural fit for building, but with a quiet launch I haven’t seen what sort of options you actually have.

So there are MMOGs with houses for individuals, shared buildings for guilds, entire player-built cities; in some the houses are purely decorative, others offer storage, trading services and other benefits; the houses may be in peaceful villages or instances, or key defensive structures in ongoing wars. I’m sure I missed plenty in that whistle-stop tour as well. Has any game really nailed housing yet, or is there still something lacking? Is it something you really value, useful only for the benefits it might give, or of no great concern?

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