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Justin Webb: Gimme Shelter

Column By Justin Webb on February 23, 2010

Player housing always comes up on the list of things that players want to see in their games, and rightfully so. The concept of owning a chunk of real estate in the world you love is extremely compelling. At face value, player housing looks like it should be a slam-dunk win for every game that implements it. However, expectations are unrealistically high for this system. Player housing comes with a host of problems, many of which are developmental and/or production based.

Player housing as a global feasible game feature is an artifact left over from the days of MUDs, where the game world was created out of text and imagination. I had my own house in the MUD I played (Terris), that other players could enter and look around. It had things to interact with, and a couple of secrets. I really liked my house, but it wasn’t unique -- flavorful player-owned houses were fairly common.

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In a text MUD, player housing is easy. “Rooms” can be added as required, as distances in MUDs are somewhat arbitrary: going “east” once can “move” the player six feet … or a hundred miles. So, adding a new house on Main Street just requires creating an extra “room” on the street, and a little bit of plumbing to ensure that all the exits match up correctly. The required assets are just a few chunks of text and the goodwill of the guy running the game. Easy. The coolness of the house is a function of how cool the text is. MUD domiciles could be added extensively without mucking up the game world.

So, the combination of being simple/cheap to make and being easy to insert into the game world made player housing in MUDs a realistic expectation. As MUDs progressed and eventually evolved into the 3D MMORPGs we know and love today, the players’ housing expectations remained, but the factors that made implementing housing easy evaporated. To make it worse, the switch from text to a fully realized three-dimensional play-space added many additional significant developmental challenges for studios wanting to add player housing in their games.

However, while MMOs have advanced in complexity over time, the primary motivation for player housing has remained the same: Players just want a place that they can use for showing off.

If you are going to use your house to show off, it then follows that other players should be able to see it and visit it too, which begs the question: Where should the houses “be”? And this is where the problems start.

Creating a common (non-instanced) space in the game world (a house with an interior and an exterior, say) and then giving an individual player (the owner) the ability to modify the appearance of that space (decorate it and/or move things about in it) is technically quite difficult. Not impossible, but definitely fiddly, and not a system that can just be dropped easily into a game post-launch. A system that allows this has to be intrinsically developed as part of the world architecture.

Let’s say you are developing a game and your engineers are geniuses (they have already figured out how to do massive PvP battles without the server crashing), and can do it (essentially, build an MMO on top of the Second Life engine). Where do the houses go?

Well, for maximum showing-off potential, houses need to first go in the major population hubs. Remember though, each town/city only has a finite amount of “space” and that some of the buildings are being used for other things (banks, inns, auction houses, vendors, trainers, etc.). Also, the content department has spent a lot of time designing the towns, crafting run times and adding quests/content that funnel players between different points of interest, so we’ll have to use existing buildings (making new ones is too expensive) – we can’t plonk down any new structures. Because there aren’t that many structures in the world, this means that there can only be a (smallish) set amount of player houses.

This means you either give the houses away in a lottery; make them first-come first-served; or have them be extremely expensive. Regardless of which option you choose, you have made a niche housing system that only a handful of players can use, and which is unfriendly to new players. This might be perfectly OK in some games, but if housing is not a core feature (i.e. used by everyone/anyone), it is a prime candidate to be scope cut. Trust me, your producer will cut a housing system like this one at the first sign of trouble.

Note that this is the system that everyone thinks they want when they say they want player housing.

Alternatively, we can create dedicated housing areas somewhere. Content will have a problem with this for a bunch of reasons, especially if your game world has a finite size. First, it’s really hard to create an immersive world if there are swathes of low-cost housing projects clogging up your landscape. Second, they are probably really busy building regular content for the game. For a new MMO, having sufficient content at launch is crucial. Third, making zones and filling them with interesting looking houses is very expensive on the art budget. Also, buildings are really complicated assets -- they take ages to make. And having lots of different ones close together requires lots of draw calls, which butchers performance. (Ever notice the massive amount of reuse of the buildings in WoW? There are reasons for that.) Your producer will probably question whether it is better to have a housing estate for players, or to use those content man hours to make a new zone full of content. Also, how cool is it to own a house in the suburbs? Not very. It’s really hard to show off your house if they all look the same.

The next avenue of investigation usually involves some form of instancing. At face value, instanced housing seems like a good idea. You can put houses slap bang in the middle of town (location, location, location) – all of them behind the same front door – and, because they’re in a controlled instanced environment, you can probably engineer some cool systems that allow the players to customize their houses with snazzy furniture and pictures and stuff. Everyone wins, right?

Only if you are fine with no-one ever seeing your house.

Now, some people are fine with this. “Nesters” are perfectly happy perpetually decorating an instanced space inside another instanced space with furniture and trophies, and OK with the fact that no-one will ever see it. But the players that want to show off are out of luck. Again, we have a system that only appeals to a small amount of people, making it vulnerable to being cut.

So, system-wise, it’s a tossup between a house you will never be able to afford and a house that no-one will ever visit. Neither of which is very sexy.

By virtue of how big an MMO is, the majority of players will never get the housing experience that they want, so the smart money is to just make more content. Modern restrictions have made the MUD-era expectation that everyone can have a cool house a thing of the past. Nowadays, developers are unlikely to dump resources into developing a system that only some of their player base will enjoy. And even more unlikely to spend time working on a vanity feature that doesn’t let players show off. Creating more content will always be the safer bet.

At this point in the article, I’d love to be able to tell you how to please ALL of the people ALL of the time, to give you the solution in a big reveal. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. I have been in a situation where I had to come up with a solution, and mine was “don’t bother (… do guild housing instead)”. There are solid conspicuous reasons why many of the industry heavyweights don’t have player housing – I’ve alluded to some of those reasons above -- and I am personally sympathetic to the concept. However, there’s no simple current housing solution that will allow everyone to be able to show off, and, as such, until some mad geniuses “solve” it, player housing will always be an under-developed pipe dream.

Houses were much easier when they were made out of words.

Now, guild housing … that’s another story.

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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