March 17, 2011

Virtual Real Estate

Online gaming has come a long way since its inception. Multiplayer gaming may have spawned from the highly-imaginative tabletop roleplaying games; all with just the use of a few pieces, dice, pen and paper. From there, it evolved with the demand to connect with more players located in other parts of the world. MUD games were invented, and LAN parties via a now-outdated telephony protocol became the buzz during the infantile years of the internet. As the years went on, we came to experience a broader sandbox experience from the likes of Ultima Online, Everquest and other early predecessors to MMO gaming. Since MMORPGs were meant to somehow replicate real-life adventures in a fantasy setting, virtual economies arose from intra-game and inter-game (within the game, and between different games respectively) currencies and trades. Real properties or solid assets/acquisitions in these worlds soon came into question, particularly the inclusion of an in-game housing system.


If anyone's familiar with the Sims franchise, players are given the initial prerequisite of owning a small house, with options designing, renovating and furnishing it within the given funds. Owning a larger property or renovating the house required more money from the hard-working Sim. I recall a time when I played through all the expansions of the Sims 2 game series. I spent most of my game time redecorating a house closely imagined to be my "dream home." An estimated 30% of the playthrough was spent fast-forwarding the Sims' activities and interacting with the other NPC Sims. Were it not for the ever-expanding furniture and appliance selection, I wouldn't have played the game for a long time.

The Sims franchise is one minor case in point. Try checking out the trends in some, if not most, Facebook games. Games such as Chocobo's Crystal Tower or Pet Society have included landscapes and virtual estates or homes for players to tinker with. These casual games have severely limited choices, but the idea of owning a virtual property for free, and optional access to premium items, is an opportunity worth checking (aside from the game's premise). Of course, the design factor involves shelling out some money, but the thought of having the next great piece of furniture to complement the house's design tend to subconsciously poke at the player's compulsions to "succeed." You see, gamers tend to be showy, almost always thinking of what and how to flaunt about the riches and achievements of their characters. Though players are satisfied in flaunting what they have on hand or in bank, the prospect of a real estate property is an added ego boost. The intricacies of the estate's interior (and possibly exterior) design, the effort in decorating, and the money spent all account for this boost in virtual self-esteem. Like in real life, players give their characters and properties its own unique sense of identity.

Shelters for the Masses

Housing in MMORPGs is no exception. We've had a fair share of online games providing temporary or permanent shelters for players; examples of which are Dragonica, Runes of Magic, the classics Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Identity and ownership aside, housing in large-scale games provide a safe haven for players and a venue for social interaction. The way I see it, current housing systems in our MMORPGs have yet to reach its fullest potential. It's only a matter of combining housing elements from different games to create a system that will suit the players' needs.

The most important aspect in a housing system is location and land use. Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies previously implemented appropriations for land use. Though somehow successful, it is to be expected that, like in real life, overcrowding will be a serious threat. Not only does it disrupt the local persistent environment, it also destroys the landscape that was originally built for the purpose of roaming and monster hunting. Other games instead have utilized an instanced access to the house via an access, such as an NPC or a certain door in town. This does give the server and the publishers a sense of control over the housing population. But on the downside, only the insides of the house is visible. Other players can gain access provided they know your name or house number. There's no sense of lot ownership in these instanced houses, and there's a feeling of claustrophobia when staying inside a house that has access to the outside world only via an NPC.

Though the solution is easier said than done, an instanced plot of land per server or channel can be arranged for housing structures. Each player can be granted a plot of land (either free or via a certain purchase) wherein house construction can take place. The interface for construction can probably be lifted off from the Sims franchise or something simpler, like Ultima Online's system. This way, each server can have residential districts unique with its own community and room for social or business potential. Houses can be fully customized to hold player items and achievements. Plus it can also be a venue for selling wares like garage sales, alongside the in-game auction house, to maximally utilize the game's business / profitable potential. Instanced "villages" also solves the problem of local land use.

Home Sweet Home

I have yet to see an optimized housing system in an MMORPG. Most of the games with housing systems are still only part and parcel of its ideal potential. It also escapes me as to why other games have not adopted a simple housing feature for the players, like World of Warcraft. Maybe Blizzard has yet to see the profitability of this feature, or perhaps they're just weirded out by the possibility of having monsters drop furniture as loot. I don't see anything wrong with the addition of a housing system, or if a game lacks it. I just wish that game developers would give more attention to detailing the feature and make it good enough for players to really spend time and effort in it. So far, all we have right now are just a few furniture styles and limited space. This is a challenge for all MMO developers out there: building the right housing system without sacrificing the MMORPG's gameplay. I'm sure this can be pulled off. I admit, it's no deal-breaker, but when a game comes with that right set of housing features, perhaps it's worth checking. Perhaps it's a sign that these developers have that keen eye for looking at even the needs of a niche idea waiting to open up.

Credits: Andaleon of MMOsite

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