Housing, while a great concept housing was never, even in SWG, implemented flawlessly.
Let's take SWG and LotRo systems as a base of comparison as they cover mostly every other concepts that have been implemented so far.
In all the housing discussions I've been following, MMO wide, people keep saying how SWG system was good. Well it was indeed an interesting take but as a former SWG: house decorator, city planner and finally mayor I can tell you it had major flaws too.
First setting up a city was a mess as we had no in game tool to really plan cities layout. Also we weren't able to level the ground, stones here and there, hills and so made it a pain to end with something looking good. Then we lacked what would have transformed the wilderness looking villages in cities: road or street floor textures, city walls. Cities never ever ended looking like cities.
Then there was the issue that too many ended in ghost towns hit by a guild disbanding or players leaving the game and locking their houses. Another not much thought about problem was they removed the players from the main social hubs. Would there have been few players cities it would not have been a problem but it dispersed the players in more social hubs, not less.
Finally allowing players to set houses where ever they want to was immersion breaking and made the planets look messy. It was especially the case as the players were allowed to set their home name with stupid entries things like "In your face $OE"
We'll discuss about the good point of SWG system later on.
Now if we look at LotRo's take on housing, setting them in separated and instanced neighborhoods made them look great but they ended as ghost towns too. Also it wasn't that easy for guilds to reserve spots and stick together. The other issue was they weren't that close enough to the main hubs too. Finally housing in LotRo is mostly used as more room for storage.
=> So what's to do with housing then?
One core rule should be housing should not remove players from the main social hubs at all. Creating others hubs is nice, but then you would need to remove as many hubs as you created new ones. Do not split the player's population with housing more.
Then do not allow player to build anything anywhere they want. The developers need to stay in control of how the game's world look like. For the best of everyone players need to sacrifice a bit of their freeness.
Would you allow players to build cities, first the possible locations have to be very restricted and non instanced. Either they are part of the world or don't waste your time creating them. Then do not allow players to actually build messy cities. Either run an online contest with submitted plans or design a pool of dev cities layouts and have players choose one among them. Then you need to connect these cities to others major hubs with transportation system: taxi, portals and so.
With a city growing in size it would unlock special features like bank, auction house, and transportation connections. Also the bigger the city the bigger would be the fees (money sink) collected by the city to maintain itself. This money would simply disappear from the game, not go into any player's pocket.
At this point you can implement a voting system to elect a Mayor for let's say a two/three weeks period. This person could take some decisions like spending the taxes in increasing the local police force, or adding elements like a garden in a specific neighborhood, or building city walls to protect form NPCs and player’s (PvP) attacks.
Still before even implementing player cities, let's have a look at player's housing in NPC cities. Setting a
player city will always be kind of tricky and can seriously unbalance the player's population dispersion in the world. Also it would mostly make NPC cities a waste of development's time and a waste of $$$.
The idea with using NPC cities is you're bringing life to all the closed doors in NPC cities. Also whatever the server's population there will always be NPC wandering around in the cities, making the world feel more alive. There might not be enough houses for every player so you might want to go with instanced interiors too. It's a deal breaker for some but either you add around 5000 houses in players cities, and imagine the size of the cities or you have to instance them.
What you can do with implementing player's housing in NPC cities too is to make player's "only" neighborhoods. All the houses and apartments would be owned by players and a local mayor can be elected too. This mayor could even, through a vote and $$$ funding, have the look of the neighborhood changed: upgraded raising the taxes or downgraded lowering them... for example a lower setting would allow to have "illicit" gambling houses and least regarding city patrols when you are wandering around with weapons out or fighting in the streets.
About housing decoration: LotRo hook system is interesting for changing the house interior look for walls, floor, ceiling and so. Still for really furnishing a house SWG free for all system placement does the trick.
The best addition to SWG system was to be able to roll left/right an item. it really topped the move left/right/up/down & rotate left/right commands. Still there was 2 things missing:
- The first one is being able to put as much part of an item in a wall/floor/ceiling as you want to let players only display the part you'd like.
- The second one being having a one button all in one housing inventory button, displaying everything that's been put in the house. It allowed players to recover items conveniently.
Want to go even further? Here's some tricks:
- Lighting management: Make the house interiors dark, totally dark during the night, and during the day let the light come "through" the windows. Then have players drop down lighting the way they want it, either hooked to the ceiling, on the walls or standing lamps. Have each light have its on/off toggle.
- Open the windows to the exterior: obviously you can't let players from outside see inside the houses, both because there might be multiple instances of a house at the same spot and because you don't want the server to send all the data regarding the item seen in the surrounding houses to all the players passing around. However what you can do is let players inside the houses see outside of them.
- Exterior furnishing/decoration: that's the most tricky one. It can really give players a feeling of ownership but how do you do when there are more than one person using the same house exterior as entry to his/her instanced house/apartment? We already know, by experience, that lotRo's way of instancing the whole neighborhoods doesn't do the trick. We can discuss quite lengthily here but let's say the main idea is you can do minimal changes to the exterior of your building, like choosing the walls painting among a preset palette or maybe even choosing an ensign or a trophy display. So how about a token/veteran system? If here's a tie between players then one of them will be chosen by the system randomly as the main owner of the house for the next period of time, period being around 2/3weeks.
- Instanced players housing in (mostly any) NPC houses: this is the trick. Even with player cities some players either don't like to be obliged to live nearby others players or some simply drool at NPC houses set in remote locations. Then why not allowing players to use these houses as their home base? But don’t allow them to tweak the exterior at all.
- Storage with access lists: it's a pain for the database administrators but it's a must to have for players. Even better it would be great to have access lists to locked doors inside the houses.
- Rate the houses: allow players to rate other's houses with let's say a 1 to 5 system after visiting them. And then let players see the ratings. It would help directing players to the best decorated houses and also promote the housing system.
- Pack up your house: when players wants to move from one spot to another you want to allow them to do so easily, provided they use the same new house layout at their destination.
- Interior housing revamp: welcome to the sims online! It's the dream for any house decorator. Just give them an empty shell, with unmovable windows as the exterior has to be set, and let them play. No MMO so far allowed players to move/add/remove walls/ceilings/floors/stairs/ladders. However this is kind of tricky as not only the devs needs to publish a simple tool for the players but it would really be a pain for the database too.
Let's finish on the housing money sink. Having a house being locked/packed up due to the lack of maintenance is more hurting the casual gamers than else. Paying for a house should be a one time money sink only as not to make it a hassle to own a house. However the house interior would only be accessible as long as the subscription linked to the tied account is paid.
In the he end one thing to remember is, whatever the way housing is implemented in a MMO, there will be trade-offs.