Housing has been a part of MMOs since the beginning. And over the past twenty years we have seen how each developer has handled (or ignored!) this feature, that for the most part, is loved by a great many people.
Developers in the 90s and early 2000s leaned towards a world environment approach, creating the game world large enough to contain both content and housing for a near seamless experience. Games like Ultima Online were one of the earliest to sport this kind of environment. It was created with large plots of land open for player development right from the start, allowing players to purchase house deeds and place anywhere they could fit them. This injected a profound sense of life into the game world , an organic element to contrast the sprites and static towns that populated the map. Players created their own sprawling towns where they could set up shops and guild halls. Crafters would make furniture and deeds for crafting stations like forges and anvils. Houses required taxes, and if that wasn’t paid in a certain time frame your house would collapse, leaving all of the items you had placed in it on the ground for anyone to pick up. This system gave birth to different ways to play the game, treasure hunters, thieves and even housing realtors were a real gameplay option for people. With such finite land available, housing spots were valuable but not impossible to obtain, a fairly intuitive housing menu system eased this caveat significantly, allowing owners to assign friends to the house who could then use it as if it were their own, to drop off belongings and crafting materials and a safe haven from other players who would seek to kill them.
Enter the late and great Star Wars Galaxies of the early 2000s. This game took the housing system of Ultima Online and expanded it to a grand scale and spread it out through the various planets of the Star Wars franchise. Like Ultima Online, the worlds were huge and seamless, static npc towns would give way to huge player built metropolises that contained their own shuttle ports, mission consoles, crafting areas etc. The developers took the caveat of UO’s lack of space to heart when developing the game worlds, providing entire planets for colonization.
Housing interiors of these two games were infinitely customizable. Allowing you to create perfectly utilitarian abodes or theme them in accordance to your characters ethos. This spurned the economy of both games, supporting non-combat crafting characters and spawned a profession and gameplay style that had not been seen before (nor ever since) the home decorator. With player housing so accessible (or as accessible as you wanted) to the player community people wanted to have the cool looking house and show off their trophies as exploring players and prospective customers traveled around the game world.
As the years rolled on, developers began to shy from open world housing, preferring to create a separate zone for them, quarantined from the rest of the content. One of the early adopters of this method was Dark Age of Camelot. Here the developers created vast tracts of land in a separate zone for players to build their houses on. Players could build on specific hook points in what is best described as clusters that form a small town as players added their homes. Like it’s older cousins, Dark Age of Camelot offered crafting tables, chests to store loot, vendors and teleportation options for the house and a limited customizability of the interior and exterior. It was a great, personal space for yourself, your guild and your friends away from the hustle and bustle of the game world. And also opened the door for vendors which could be purchased and placed next to your property to sell items. The housing zones were huge but this was overcome by run speed buff npcs that were placed in every neighborhood. Housing in Daoc was not included with the release of the game, instead arriving a year or so after it’s release.
And thus the trend was set. Housing began to be instanced in separate zones, restricted in a cookie cutter sense, yet personal and more private. An afterthought for most games, coming months, sometimes years after release, if ever at all. Housing became the red headed step child of mmorpgs.
But why? Our technology has only improved since the late 90s, surely game worlds can be expanded dynamically to accept house placements at launch? Mmorpgs are monumentally more popular now than when they were first conceived and competition is much tougher as more are created. Are developers asked to rush content out and get the game finished for beta? Has the majority of the player base shifted to care more for combat and questing than for social and non combat professions and gameplay? Whatever the reasons, it is quite clear that housing is no longer a core element to mmorpgs.
Perhaps after we examine the scarcity of non combat gameplay and social climates we will better understand this trend. (Look for it in the next article!)
For now, those of us playing modern games must settle for the meager offerings that developers provide these days, not as a core mechanic or a social facet but as an afterthought, thrown in with some patch to appease the player base.