The first time I encountered housing in an MMO, last millennium (no, really), it was in Ultima Online, which I played all too briefly – but one look was all I needed: I was hooked. Despite the funky graphics and the constant threat of death to my puny person from, well, just about anything passing by, the sight of actual houses in an actual game that people actually owned – current legal discussions on in-game property aside – was something of a revelation.
In truth my love of housing started long before that, in my tabletop games. Through college and beyond I played with a group of now-lifelong friends, and in AD&D we would cheerfully pillage and plunder anything that took our interest in order to furnish our commonly-owned tower of uncertain shape and malleable dimensions. That held true for other games we played too: where our characters lived was not only important, it was often symbolic of the character. As I recall, one of my friends' chars in Vampire lived in his old VW bus, filled to the brim with, um, whatever he kept in there; we never really dared ask.
Anyway, you get the picture: I like housing. I had no idea it even existed in computer games, and when Asheron's Call implemented it a couple of years after launch, you'd better believe I was there on day one, farming the crap out of the mobs that dropped the various items required to obtain a house. I spent my other waking hours visiting all the housing enclaves to find just the right one, not too far from my usual stomping grounds and with the kinds of views I wanted.
I still don't understand why some games *cough* WoW *cough* still haven't and probably never will implement housing. Looking back on the games I've played, almost all the ones that kept me interested for any length of time offered that feature – and while housing isn't my major reason for playing a game, it is nonetheless a feature whose lack can eventually become an irritant.
But not all housing is equal; some games implement it rather better than others. The two best examples out of the games I've played are SWG and EQ2. In SWG, housing isn't instanced – quite the contrary in fact, since people can get together and build entire cities. Some of those cities are weird and haphazard, others are control-freak dreams of grids and straight lines, but one fact is constant: how many games let you actually create your own living communities?
Meta-housing aside, both SWG and EQ2 now give players more freedom when it comes to placing home decorations than any other game I've seen (not counting Second Life, which is arguably more of a sim than an MMO): in SWG you can drop just about anything on the ground inside your house, as opposed to just certain “house-deco” designated items, and you can then move/rotate them on all 3 axes; and EQ2 is almost as flexible. As a result, some of the more talented decorators out there – of which I am sadly not one – have created some truly amazing interiors, and I'm not just talking about the ever-popular aquarium. I've seen giant chessboards, billiard-tables, and bowling alleys, none of which are structures or items that are actually available as such in the game. I've seen sultry boudoirs and lofty throne-rooms, back-alley dives and aircraft hangars – in fact, I've actually spent time just touring some of the more spectacular houses in both games, and it was time well-spent.
Not everyone agrees, of course. According to some, housing is a shameful waste of development time and resources that should be better spent on the really good stuff like yet another item or yet another raid instance. From what I've seen, however, almost everyone likes housing; some players don't care about it one way or another; and a rather small (if vocal) group likes to pretend that they are the majority and that players who enjoy something other than killing stuff are an aberration.
Here's a tip: we aren't the minority. We may love housing passionately or we may simply like to have somewhere to put the stuff we can't bear to get rid of, but either way it's nice to have somewhere to hang your hat after a hard day's slayage. And we are legion.
And developers know it. MMOs are no longer the sole province of one specific demographic, and it's become evident over the years that even the most bloodthirsty, driven achiever type is capable of enjoying the benefits of housing. Housing alone won't ensure retention, but it does add to the overall grab-factor of a game. For the sizeable proportion of players who like to feel that they're in an actual world, however imaginary, housing is an important part of the overall immersion.
There are downsides to housing, of course. In SWG, deserted ghost-towns stand silently on the plains of every inhabited planet, often sad and sometimes downright creepy; and the sheer mass of plopped-down houses around the major starting cities is something of an eyesore. In EQ2, all housing – including guild housing – is instanced, which has led to the increasing desertification of cities and a mistaken impression that there's actually nobody around. They're around – they're just all in their instanced guild halls.
Of the two implementation options for housing – instanced or in the world – I now prefer the latter. The haphazard dropping of houses that later get abandoned and don't decay can lead to some cluttered visuals, but at least you get the feeling people live there, or have lived there at some point. Even if a place is abandoned, I know other players have been there, and that's part of the point of an MMO. It's also fun to just come across a dwelling or a whole city in the middle of nowhere and play tourist for a while, assuming you have permission to get in.
I watch the increasing marketed socialization of games with a leery eye, I'll admit – no Farmville in my MMO, thank you! – but MMOs are and should be social by a definition that's broader than simply grouping with other people to kill stuff. When it's properly done, housing is one of those elements that encourages social interaction and that encourages experiencing a game as more than just an SRPG that other people also happen to be connected to.
So yes, give me housing, preferably not instanced and preferably with a gazillion ways for letting players make their private and/or public space unique. I was overjoyed to hear that The Secret World plans to at least have guild housing, though I hope it ends up being more than just a potential PvP arena, fun though that can be. Give us a place where we can get together and just hang out, a place where we can sell stuff (a feature I really, really miss from SWG), and a place where we can have raucous parties and food-fights.
Give us a place to call home – even if we have to defend it from tentacled monsters or other players now and then; actually, especially if we have to do that. A place never feels more personal and owned than if you have to defend it. Just do it in a way that doesn't empty out the natural social gathering areas in the rest of the game. Tall order? Certainly. But not an impossible one.