Housing in MMORPGs is starting to become less “the next best thing” and more “what we’ve come to expect”. With RIFT‘s successful dimension system, WildStar‘s housing buzz, FFXIV‘s recent launch of FC housing, the explosion of voxel games, and World of Warcraft‘s news regarding garrisons in the next expansion, custom houses, building blocks, and cute shrubbery seem to be trending. Let’s face it– character customization is important, but being able to customize a cool-looking home away from home in a game world that you can kinda call your own? That’s why we all play MMORPGs, after all, to escape the mundane. Being able to take the non-mundane and build a bright magenta house surrounded in blue picket fences and skull-covered windows is pretty cool. Well, okay. It’s creative at least.
When it comes down to it, MMORPGs have two types of content essentially– content that’s available to everyone at all level ranges, skill levels, playtime levels, and in-game cash levels, and content that’s gated in some way. Endgame raiding, of course, is generally gated to some degree at least. Often with multiple gates and difficulties.
This makes sense given the teamwork requirement (okay, except when it comes to LFR raiding in WoW) as well as the playtime requirement, level requirement, and gear requirement. That’s why games with raiding endgames have hit caps, item level systems, lengthy entrance quests, and gear tiers. All that streamlines players toward surmounting the raiding gates. Most games also have some sort of gated “fluffier” content such as hard-to-obtain achievements and ridiculously rare and/or expensive mounts in order to keep all types of players busy and happy.
On the other hand we have content like small group dungeons, group instanced PvP, collectible items such as pets and mounts, world/holiday events, achievements, wardrobe systems, solo/group quests, and the multitude of other nifty features games are coming out with that aren’t considered gated. You gain 10 levels, run a few quests, grab some new abilities, and bam– you’re generally good to hop in a dungeon. A player of any level or gear level can enjoy features like achievements, pet collecting, world events, and a wardrobe system. This type of content is designed for everyone to enjoy even if they can only pop on once a month. This type of content, interestingly enough, is also the content that tends to generate the most money in F2P MMORPGs. We all love fluff, it turns out.
So, back to those picket fences. Where’s housing fit in? Is it a gated feature or one that’s naturally available to everyone as long as they gain a few levels and maybe do some quests and hand over 100 coins? Most games with housing tend to go the fluffy route. RIFT‘s probably one of the best examples, as you can pick up a dimension in RIFT the moment you enter the main town and pick up a quest. You even get your first tiny dimension for free. Some RIFT players avoid the dimension system like the plague, but others play just for dimensions. It’s kind of an odd phenomenon. Add an extremely customizable housing system to a seemingly normal MMORPG and suddenly there’s a whole new stock of RIFT players these days– the ultra-creative dimensioneers.
It also helps that RIFT‘s housing system has a ton of freedom and creative possibilities. Folks can create whatever they can dream up, basically. Take a look at this Star Wars dimension, for example. Pretty cool, right? This is the same reason creative builders tend to flock towards Minecraft and the like. Housing is best when it encourages socialization, but also creativity. That’s part of the reason it works so well in MMORPGs.
WildStar is following in RIFT‘s footsteps here and allowing players to build their own house almost right away in the leveling process. Again, it makes sense. Not everyone’s going to enjoy housing, so it’s best to let players try it out early on and see what they think. They can approach it later on in the game, but for those wishing to purely test out the waters, they can do so without being stuck behind a looming gate that generally consists of in-game cash. For players who love and adore housing in WildStar, they can spend all kinds of money on it, and that’s perfectly cool. A housing system is what you make of it, after all.
Housing also works well as a method in which to bump up the level of a game’s immersion factor. In a game like WildStar, your housing plot not only serves as your home away from home, but also a place to store all the goofy-looking goodies you’ve collected on your adventures. A place to brag to your buddies and hang out when it’s late at night and there’s not much going on. For roleplayers, housing is the perfect location for a great deal of activities.
Part of the reason World of Warcraft is handling housing right, in my opinion, is because garrisons are going to be much more than a simple house. WoW players have been playing for years upon years, and it’s only natural that immersion-wise they’ve become popular enough to populate an entire instanced map with buildings, personal blacksmiths, etc., and amassed a following of NPCs that will eagerly run off and kill that old raid boss who will refuse to drop its mount yet again. Garrisons simply make sense in the game world.
While we don’t know how exactly Blizzard will handle the costs and restrictions of garrisons in Warlords of Draenor, it’s probably safe to say that they will work similar to the current farm feature in Mists of Pandaria. Players are able to grab a farm while leveling from 85-90 by doing simple quests. By working on the farm, raising reputation with the various Panda people, and by reaching level 90 in order to unlock dailies, players can quickly gain full access to all of the features of the farm. It’s not gated by anything more than quests and a few levels. This made perfect sense for a brand new feature Blizzard was testing out, and I would expect that garrisons will be handled in a similar manner.
New features shouldn’t be too gated. All that does is discourage the playerbase from taking part. New features need to be thoroughly tested and thoroughly tried in order for developers to really figure out if that feature was worth the time of the development team. When new features have wide access, this also allows the development team to figure out what next to do with that feature. New features all boil down to metrics. When World of Warcraft launched Pandaria with ten thousand daily quests, the steep decline of players taking part in said dailies told them enough information they needed– they’d taken things one step too far.
Now, in order to get that data and information, developers need to make new features accessible. In some cases, this means lowering the gating on new features and allowing new, low-level players to take part in order to really get a good sense of the big picture. This is partially why housing tends to be made available to players of all level ranges and in-game cash totals. The other reason, as mentioned, boils down to player choice. Not everyone enjoys housing, but for those that do, it tends to be a very social activity– one that needn’t revolve around endgame gating, cash gating, or any other type of gating.
There’s one more game to talk about, and that’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. I’ve been a pretty harsh judge about the game to be fair, but with the game’s recent release of 2.1 and the highly anticipated Free Company housing feature, there are a lot of dissatisfied players in the game currently. Scroll down the huge list of patch notes and take a look at the pricing for housing. The prices vary based on the overall population of your realm, but most prices start at anywhere from 4 million gil to over 40 million– and that’s for a small plot. A large plot on the more populated Legacy servers can cost more than 500 million gil. That’s a lot of gil for a new feature to be gated behind.
The reasoning behind these prices boils down to the fact that SE felt there was a surplus of gil on many servers and that players would be able to come up with that much money if they so chose. Essentially, Square Enix decided to gate FC housing. Now, given that this is guild housing and not personal housing, it’s expected that it be gated slightly due to the fact that guilds/FCs naturally have more players to help contribute, but personally, I feel this is too large of a gate for casual FCs to surmount– at least at this point and time in the game’s livelihood. Honestly, it would have been better for SE to release personal housing before FC housing in order to get a solid amount of feedback and metrics on costs, interest, and economical impact.
Housing was one of those features FFXIV players were looking forward to most, which makes sense given the large amount of immersion in the game, but gating it heavily right as it came out of the arena wasn’t the best of moves. Money isn’t extremely difficult to come by in the game, but unless a Free Company is fairly large and has the majority of its players at endgame and doing a large amount of dungeons/raids and/or crafting endgame items and selling them on the market board, most casual FCs simply don’t have that cash. It’s kind of a shame, really, especially considering housing is largely a social feature that casual players often are drawn to most.
Square Enix went in the opposite direction of RIFT here. Instead of encouraging players of all levels to poke around with housing and see what they enjoy, they’ve gated it. It’s completely possible that FFXIV‘s personal housing will be much more accessible, and I truly hope that’s the case, but for now there are some important lessons to be found here: There’s a time and place for gated features, but housing shouldn’t be one of them. Housing should focus on figuring out what players enjoy. Optional houses/furnishings that cost a lot more are perfectly fine, but the basic feature of housing should be enjoyable by anyone who wishes to take part– for both the game and its players.