Excitement, achievement, ownership, and belonging, these are a few feelings that I get when I think of player housing in MMORPGs. For me player housing has always been an important factor in whether or not I commit to an MMORPG long term. In many instances player housing is an important factor for many other players beyond myself. So why is it so important to us, why do people cling to virtual homes that have little meaning to the overall game?
The first thing that comes to mind with player housing is ownership. When games allow players to own a piece of the game world it makes us connect in a way that we never did before. In Everquest 2 when you buy an apartment in Northern Freeport you can say to anyone "I'm a citizen of Freeport, that’s my city," and the truth is it is your city. It’s the same thing that happens in the real world. When you buy or rent an apartment in the real world your home city instantly becomes the one you're living in. I recently moved from my home town of over sixteen years and within six months my new home had begun to feel familiar and my old home had become less familiar.
The truth is player housing gives players the ability to feel like the own part of the world, in some cases like Ultima Online players would log back on even if they were burnt out of the game just to check in on their house. Back in 1999-2000 I remember waiting outside of a "decaying" house (the player had neglected to pay their rent on the house and it was pending deletion) desperate to build my own house for at the time Ultima Online had limited space for housing. It was such a big deal in UO that websites and third party companies built on land in the hopes of selling it for real money. Back in those days if you wanted a castle (the largest house type) you often had to buy up more than one "plots" of land next to each other so that you could build such a large building. At the time castle plots were so rare that the average cost was around $500!
Player housing gives players the feel that their characters are "real" in that world and not just random avatars that pop in/out of the world. These characters have homes in the world which often inspires non-rpers to RP in some small way. The truth is I've always found the strongest RPing communities to be found in games with player owned housing.
On another note for purpose it can be said that loyalty can be created. In Star Wars Galaxies (which had a housing system similar to UO) many players opened shops in their stores. Often I found myself going back to the same players over and over again to buy the things I needed. No longer were sales "random" auction bids but true transactions. Often players would spend hours just going from player shop to player shop looking for the best prices on an object. Which then created a whole new time-sink in those MMOs, and the truth was it was fun. I always felt overjoyed when I found a good deal and then I would advertise to all my friends that "Wookiee-Nook's House of Bargains" was the best place for composite armor.
Aside from the obvious bonuses to players, player housing influences the longevity of games. Most of the games I've seen get shut down in the recent past lacked housing of any kind. Tobula Rasa, Earth and Beyond, APB, and many others lacked any true mechanic to draw players back into their worlds other than raw gameplay. Obviously raw gameplay isn't enough to keep games running (unless you're Blizzard). Ultima Online, Everquest 2, Ashron's Call, and even the infamous Star Wars Galaxies are all still alive while some of the above games that lacked true player housing died out. The fact that SWG is still alive even after 95+% of MMOers have hate for that game is amazing. I'm not saying that housing is keeping SWG alive but it’s fair to assume it could be a factor.
An interesting example of housing having some sort of influence is the Ashron's Call story. Ashron's Call 1 added housing to their game. Ashron's Call 2 was launched and died within one or two years of launch. It’s sad to say it but AC1 was one of those rare instances where its "child" game died before it did, AC1 is still alive even though it looks like it’s from the gaming stone age. Now as mentioned above player housing can't be attributed to have saved AC1 but the truth is it really could be a factor.
The Bottom Line
Player housing is obviously good for both players but developers as well. So why is it that more modern MMOs are keeping this feature out of the game even though technology has obviously progressed? If you lay out the lists of dead games and living games you'll find the vast majority of dead games are non-housing games. Overall the ability to "own" a bit of the gaming world seems to be an important factor to MMOers, even if we don't consciously consider it.