All good heroes' journeys begin with a young man or woman settling down and living happily ever after. No wait—that's not how it goes. Generally speaking, few things are as unattractive to brave, danger-seeking types as domestic life, and that's why heroic stories start with the protagonist not going toward home, but away from it. With that in mind, and since most of us play MMOs in order to feel heroic, why is it important to us to own an online home?
Having a home runs counter to being a hero. You can't picture Hercules or Superman cleaning or spending their weekends rearranging the furniture, can you? (Imagine dusting all the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude. Ugh.) Still, many of us clamor for MMO developers to give us our own little corner of online heaven.
I'm dating myself a bit here, but I still have fond memories of how cool it was to have my own house in Star Wars Galaxies. Misanthrope that I am, I purposely built it in the middle of nowhere, in an area of Tattooine crawling with Swoop Gangs. (I figured at the very least, they'd annoy people into staying away.) My simple place clearly showed my lack of interior design skills—consisting mostly of storage crates and random quest rewards tossed hither and yon—but it was mine. Though SWG's housing system wasn't perfect, some truly ingenious players used it to create some of the most incredible homes (and cities) I've ever seen in an MMO.
With SWG long gone, I've missed my dusty little hovel so this week, Star Wars: The Old Republic's “Welcome Home” video teasing player housing made my heart beat a little bit faster. Unfortunately, the announcement was just that: a tease. There's nothing in the way of detail about the system at this point, but the news made me reflect on how important is it to me in an MMO, to feel I own a small corner of it. That was clearly evident during the Wildstar Beta when I was tickled pink to be able to set up my own place. I spent far too long arranging and rearranging things in it. I suppose housing appeals to me for the same reasons customizing characters does; there's an opportunity not only to feel ownership over something, but to share my creativity with other people.
Wildstar is another game that's doing housing really interestingly, albeit quite differently from SWG. It unapologetically caters to our goofiest impulses and is less like creating a home and more like creating a fun house or Disneyland ride. That and the activities you can place outside your house for other players to interact with make it overall a much more social system. Carbine's also gone out of their way to make sure item placement is easy, and that within your own area, you can do more or less anything you want. The whole setup encourages you to waste valuable adventuring time giving in to your nesting instinct.
Then again, no matter how well it's done, for many players housing is just a pointless add-on that merely obligates you to remember to do tedious, banal activities. For instance, In SWG you could get locked out of your house if you didn't remember to pay maintenance fees. In addition to this, housing sucks up a good amount of your hard-earned money. Finally, if you only have a couple of hours a week to game, spending it hanging drapes and laying down rugs is hard for some players to fathom. Honestly, it is somewhat incongruous seeing a super-heroic warrior, rogue or wizard stop in the middle of an epic quest to go home and plant flowers. Still, if an MMO is going to include housing, it should make sure it adds to players' immersion, rather than diminish it.
One MMO that doesn't do so well with housing is Lord of the Rings Online. I admit to having spent all of my childhood (and a good part of my adulthood) wishing I was a hobbit, so I was excited when LOTRO promised me the chance to create my very own comfy little hobbit hole. I pictured myself sitting down to second breakfast in front of the fireplace, my feet up on a cushioned footstool...but no. Clunky manipulation tools and predetermined placement areas shattered those hobbity dreams. And though I liked the idea of living in a Shire-like neighborhood full of friendly, like-minded players, I found I never really went to my house; I never really connected with it. Worse, I never really connected with the game. I'm still not sure whether that was due to the game's mechanics, or because the housing system kept me from feeling a lack of ownership. In any case, LOTRO basically failed to recognize that for some players, housing isn't just an add-on, it's essential to their enjoyment.
Lately, it's surprising me how much housing means to me within the MMO context. I find it particularly odd, because in the past I've had a great time with MMOs (World of Warcraft anyone?) that didn't allow me to put down roots. Maybe it's because I'm getting older? I'm reminded of my favorite scene from the movie Fight Club—the satirical IKEA catalog scene which accurately represents my simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the idea of domesticity. Half of me says, “What kind of hero spends hours puttering around the house?” while the other can't resist the urge to change wall coverings every single day. Ah well. Try as I might, the wild side of me is losing the battle and moving slowly but surely from hero to homeowner. Fortunately for me, many MMOs seem to be willing to accommodate me. Now, if only I can figure a way to get Guild Wars 2 to let me buy a condo in Rata Sum...