Housebuilding in MMO’s has been a well-loved feature for many players since the start of online gaming. Ultima Online was one of the first to create this feature, and that was when i first got into the business of designing your own houses. In latter years, very few online games offered this feature, going more for the primarily action-based game design, and leaving the house-building off the agenda. However in recent times the concept of housebuilding, and indeed world building has come once again to the forefront of game design with games such as Rift that offered not only the ability to make your own houses, but build whole villages, and next year the creators of Everquest are releasing Everquest Next Landmark, a whole game built around building.
Needless to say, I was, and am a massive fan of self-building in the game world. I have been heavily invested in the Rift Dimensions, spending many, many hours making small worlds for players to investigate, explore and enjoy. But how practical are build games to a game? Are they value-for-money to the games company, and more importantly are they something that the general gamer wants to engage with?
I think in some way, the answer to that is heavily dependant on just how well executed the building is to the game. Gamers, even ones that adore building, are likely to lose interest in a game if it the game executes it badly.
So let us look at the games I know enough about to offer an opinion.
Ultima Online – MMO
This was one of the first MMOs out there, and one that offered not only questing, general fighting, dungeons but also housing. Released in September 1997 it was an open sandbox roleplay type game that founded the basis for most of the following MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft. Its success still shows, as it is till being subscribed to and played today despite its somewhat retro 2D graphics.
Ultima Online was, I think, experimenting with what was going to appeal to different types of players, by offering up as much of everything as it could. There were quests, dungeons, gathering and crafting, pvp, and of course house building. There were very few online games to really compare it to, or learn from, so in many ways UO was breaking new ground and as a result had a harsh learning curve. Things we take for granted in mmos today generally had some grounding in the lessons that UO learned.
The housebuilding that was an intrinsic part of the game was well thought-out and worked well in the economy of the game. You bought a ‘foundation’ of a certain size, and then could design how your building looked with the tools that were available. You could put walls wherever in the foundation you wanted, and add floors, rooms, roofs etc of varying styles. The more you added to the foundation, the more the house cost to finalize and become reality. You could save your design plan until you had enough money. Once your house was built, you could then add furniture, useable crates and boxes, beds and other details as you made or bought them. Any items you had, you could place in your house, either in boxes, or just laying around. You could also set how secure your house was, from letting it be entirely public, or letting friends come in, to being private with or without exceptions.
Some of the good things about this type of housing was both the flexibility of the housing itself, as well as its usefulness. The bad points were just how crowded the landscape within the game became with houses of all different styles and just how much clutter was being shown. Many players would enjoy showing off their trophies, such as rare weapons on their houses, different rare clothing items and suchlike. If you were unlucky enough to have a neighbour, (and you would) that had this tendency, there was little you could do about it. The game ended up looking extremely messy because of the housing and it actually somewhat detracted from the immersion of the game. It also became extremely difficult to find land available if you wanted to build a larger house, as all the spots that could be built on, -were-.
Overall though, I found housing in Ultima Online to be excellent from a personal point of view. I loved designing, and then redesigning my houses. I would rip them down each month and build something completely different. As a hoarder, I also found the storage capacity in the houses to hold all my junk, just great.
World of Warcraft – MMO
‘Wait’, I hear you say, ‘WoW doesn’t have housing, why are you even mentioning it?!’
I mention it because in many ways World of Warcraft was the spawn of Ultima Online. It took all that Ultima Online had done, and learned from it. World of Warcraft was a three dimensional game that offered most of what Ultima Online had, but crucially no housing. It seems that those in charge didn’t think that housing was useful enough or time-to-cost efficient enough to put into the game. Considering the success of WoW over the years, it seems that the game didn’t suffer for this lack. It is only in the last year or so that World of Warcraft offered anything like personal space for players in the Mists of Pandaria expansion, and that was only in a small farm you could grow things in,and eventually a house that you could make your hearthstone (but not personalize in any way).
I can only guess at the reason for introducing that. It could be that as their subscriptions dropped in the past years they were looking for something to lure back some new players, or old players. Perhaps it was a test-bed to see just how much players liked having their own little spot in the world.
Lord of the Rings Online – MMO
I didn’t play Lord of the Rings Online for very long, but I do remember a little bit about the player housing that the game had, so it deserves a mention.
Unlike Ultima Online, the housing of LOTRO is set in an instanced area, stopping the cluttering up of the active world. Each instanced area houses a small village with premade house exteriors and garden areas of varying sizes (and costs). You can purchase a House in a village, and customize the interior. The interior of each house is also instanced.
The good points of this player housing I remember, is that the village itself is generally pretty uniform with its separate areas for different house types, thereby cutting down on the garish nature that player housing had in Ultima Online. This is also a bad point, because you have no real say on how your house exterior, except for the garden, and I seem to recall it was a bit limited there to on what you could put out there. Another thing I found to be quite limiting was the fact that there was actually very little you could do with your house interior. There were only particular places you could have walls, and there were only limited things you could put in there, and where they could be put.
Overall the player housing in Lord of the Rings Online was just not for me. While the idea of the villages was a good one, the actual player housing was far too limiting for my tastes. I had come from UO, where you had vastly more say in, at the very least, the interior of your house and what you could put in it. Saying that, many people did, and do enjoy the housing in LOTRO.
Rift – MMO
Just as World of Warcraft spawned from Ultima Online, in 2011 so Rift was released and took what World of Warcraft had done, and learned from it. While World of Warcraft had simplified a lot of its combat and options to appeal to the younger market that its cartoony style suited, so Rift made an MMO that was more geared to the more adult player as up-to-date marketing data showed the average gamer was now aged around 30. The graphics were better, and the options were far more complex, and offered far more options and gameplay styles for those playing.
Initially Rift did not have any player housing, but with the release in May 2012 of their first major expansion “Storm Legion” they brought in ‘Dimensions’, which went beyond basic player housing to allowing players to make entire areas, should they so choose.
Dimensions in Rift are instanced areas that players purchase keys to, and can then build anything they want in it up to a certain item limit. The items for dimensions are not pre-given with the dimension, but are found as loot, purchased from in-game vendors or crafted by players.
While most players will create their own house, others took the opportunity to make villages , jumping puzzles or even massive fun slides for other players to explore. The sheer possibilities of these dimensions was so vast that it blew my mind. Here was a player housing experience that more than lived up to Ultima Online’s housing, both in form and application.
Still, I do have to point out that the Dimensions do have their downside. There is currently no actual function to the Dimensions. They don’t really have as an integrated a feel to them as I would like. You cannot, for example, have a crafting stand in your house, or actually store items in chests there. It hasn’t stopped me spending hour upon hour making interesting buildings there though. I think the main fault with Rift’s Dimensions is their integration. Players do not have any real reason to visit other players houses, other than for roleplay or a quick place to port to to get rested experience before logging out. With the deletion of the EU rp shards, even this reason has diminished. So Dimensions are a wonderfully executed tool to play with, but in terms of function and utility, it scores poorly.
Dragon Age 2 – Single Player
I only mention Dragon Age 2 as a sidenote, for it did have a player house in it, first in the shack that is owned by your uncle, and then your own place later in the game. There is nothing customizable about it, though you do pick up mail and quests from it, and there are some nice rp scenes depending on your choices in the games that take place there. The houses take the place of the camp in the first Dragon Age: Origins. Not exactly player housing though.
Skyrim Hearthfire DLC- Single Player
Skyrim has, from the outset had player housing. This was initially the ability to purchase a house in a town that you had a certain good reputation with. You could upgrade your houses, but the upgrades were pre-defined and there was little you could do to change it. You could store items in your house chests or craft things if you purchased upgrades available for that house though.
However Skyrim released a DLC called Hearthfire that offered you the ability to make your own house. As a Skyrim fan, I was overly excited about this dlc, but initial feedback from players was not promising.
The video makes it look good, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it is somewhat deceiving just what you can and cannot do with it. Each house plan has only a couple of interchangeable upgrade parts on it, and so if every player was able to put their ‘custom house’ side-by-side, they would be pretty much identical. It is likewise the same with the interior. Much as the upgrades you could get for the houses in towns, these upgrades are pretty much all the same.
To say that this DLC was disappointing to me was an understatement. Much like the housing in Lord of the Rings Online, the ability to customize was so limited as to be pointless. I had much better results by using player-made mods.
Everquest Next Landmark – MMO
Looking a bit to the future, I want to give a mention to Landmark, which is due out for Alpha testing sometime this or next month for those that purchase founders packs.
I am particularly interested in the fact that the entirety of this game is built around building, and I am intrigued to find out how that works out for them. Clearly the people in charge of the Everquest franchise believe it to be a solid game format they are going to make money out of, otherwise they would not have invested the money to create it. It seems to be somewhat like a shiny version of minecraft perhaps, though I know little about that game (I like shiny graphics too much).
What I am concerned about with Landmark is that although they have said there will eventually be monsters and such for players to go after, it really isn’t what they are focusing on. It is much more a building game, than a fighting one, and it worries me that perhaps there isn’t going to be enough there for players to do. Sure, I love building, and I can spend hours doing so, but I like doing other things to, and I like doing it in the same game, so the playstyles and what I am doing help each other.
Only time will tell what Landmark does with their platform. I am worried that they will not integrate enough variety of play types into the game. Building is all fine and good, but although I adore Rift’s dimensions, those alone would not make me want to play it. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.
Playstyles and playerbase
We see more and more people playing games these days, not only the spekky teens, but now housewives, businessmen, grandmothers, people from all walks of life. Gaming has become far more accessible to people, possibly due to the explosion of the facebook games, and the casual fun of the wii in homes and pubs. Games have started to come out of the shadows of private but slightly embarrassed enjoyment into something publicly acceptable, encouraged and cheered-on.
This of course means that games companies now have a far bigger potential market to appeal to, as well as a vastly different playstyle needs than they were generally thinking with. Games that sold in the past had become the tried-and-tested formula, but those games didn’t suit a lot of the new gamers out there.
And that brings me of course to the house building. It worked for Ultima Online in many ways back at the birth of MMOs and internet gaming, and I believe that companies are looking back now to that and at the pleading of gamers on forums to have more player housing and considering it a good market to tap into. There must be good evidence in the casual facebook games, as well as looking at the market data from Rift (if it is available.. I have no clue) that players want player housing, and they will spend time and money playing it.
But is it enough? Are they going about it the right way?
With Ultima Online, the housing was a well-thought-out and deeply integrated part of the game, but in later games the housing has seemed either like an afterthought or it was very poorly integrated into the game as to appear as a completely separate one. I worry that Landmark may be like that, for they are making Everquest Next as well as Everquest Next Landmark, two separate games. This rings alarm bells for me, for it is my opinion that the housing needs to be so deeply a part of the game as to run smoothly with it and each part adding to the other.
Will this new year be the triumph of player housing and creative player design? Or just another disappointment? Only time will tell.. and no doubt I will as well when I find out 😉