PvE Sandbox MMO: Housing

If combat and the economy are the two most important areas for a sandbox MMO, player housing is the most neglected. It says a lot about the genre as a whole when the very first MMO, Ultima Online, had and possibly still has the best player housing around. That really is a crime, especially given how important a hook housing can be to players and guilds alike, and just how much content they can drive.

Housing, both individual homes and cities, have to be set in the actual world, not hidden behind some instanced curtain or in a housing-only zone. Secondly, while you don’t need to make every last square inch of the world open for placement, it has to be far more than a few pre-determined plots. The over-development issue that UO faced should be solved not by hard limits, but by soft caps; an area can only have so many houses before it becomes ‘full’, and the closer to full an area gets, the more attention those buildings draw from mobs. The longer the players hold out, the harder the mobs try to overrun the players, eventually resulting in someone moving out or being pushed out. The more popular the area, the higher the risk.

As the only ‘griefing’ that can really occur is from mobs, housing should be destructible; if you can’t protect it, you shouldn’t own it. This prevents the “I got it first, I own it forever” real-estate rush, and gives newer players a chance to eventual own prime locations. The major difference here is that setting when a house is vulnerable (say a 2-3 hour window per day, or a total of 10 hours per week, whatever) won’t upset the mobs trying to destroy it; they will happily show up whether you set your time for primetime or server up/down, while it does allow home owners to actually defend what they own rather then lose it when they are not online, as is all too common in PvP sandboxes.

Housing should be varied, from small and affordable tents and cabins to sprawling mansions and castles, with house size meaning more than just a bigger physical footprint. Larger houses should have the option to hire NPC guards for protection, or to allow for faster crafting production. As this is a PvE game, house storage should be 100% secure from other players, while still being vulnerable to raids from mobs.

Certain houses would also serve as shops, with wares being displayed on the walls or in the windows (again, it’s sad that you could do something like this in UO, and as far as I’m aware, in no other MMO). The level of customization would allow an owner enough freedom to make their shop stand out, and with crafted gear allowing for fluff customization, this would be very important. Shops would be operated by a vendor NPC, creating the illusion of a seller without the requirement of the actual player having to stand around and wait for shoppers. That said, if the shop was active the owner would often see his customers looking around, again leading to natural socialization, as shoppers could make requests or provide feedback on what items they would like to see for sale.

Player cities would be a formal collection of houses, with additional perks such as city walls, guard patrols, public crafting areas, local banking, and a town message board or newspaper (that could automatically generate basic information about recent mob movement, attacks, or possibly new areas of resource wealth). This would all come at a high cost, one that would be collected and paid by a guild or the locals, and the creation of a city would also dramatically increase mob aggression for that area. Cities could still operate within the vulnerability system, but the requirements would be much higher (5-6 hours daily, 30 hours per week, etc), as the expectation would be that all city residents accept defensive responsibility and actually protect their city. A ghost town of a city won’t hold up to mob raids for long, and will either be destroyed or the owners will adapt and actually populate the area regularly.

Cities could also expand or contract based on player interest, rather then being hard-locked into a few set sizes. If a guild discovers a rich resource area, they may build up a city to help aid in gathering, with other non-guilded players joining in as well. Once the resources are tapped, they might move on and leave behind only those who wish to stay and continue operating out of the now less-than-ideal location, reducing the footprint and the mob threat level. As the worlds resources and mobs dynamically shift around based on player activity, no single spot would remain as the ‘best’ location for long, although one would expect certain areas to always be somewhat popular (central locations, near caves/dungeons, etc), leading to some stability.

All players should have the goal of owning property, and smaller houses in more remote areas should be easily obtainable for all but the newest players. As a players personal wealth progresses, he can either afford larger single houses, or become part of a city. At no point is a city ‘too big’ in terms of total houses, although the larger the city, the harder it becomes to defend. Great cities will be popular destinations due to all the shops and utilities (bigger cities could, for instance, have better scouts and hence more informative/accurate local reports, making finding a hunting spot or resources easier), yet also somewhat dangerous with tougher and more numerous mobs roaming the area or making a direct attack.

World events could focus on bringing down cities that have been around for ‘too long’, and the world’s natural story arc could at times focus around heroic groups of players holding on to their property for extraordinary lengths of time (think of it like an endless mode in a tower defense game, but MMO style). As with items themselves, players would understand that houses are not permanent items, and hence their loss would not be game over situation. That said, destruction should not be too frequent, to both provide some stability and also increase player attachment to a location. The final defeat in a city that has stood for months would hurt, but it would also make for a grand event in the world’s history. This would also be the case, although on a much smaller scale, for individual houses, though if even somewhat remote, those houses could be held indefinitely by vigilant players.

The major goal however is to make housing the major driver of content in the world. House density influences mob activity, the acquisition and defense of a house is always a major player goal, and the natural shifting of player house locations creates a more dynamic world.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in crafting, Housing, MMO design, Random, Ultima Online. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to PvE Sandbox MMO: Housing

  1. Nils says:

    I am greatly enjoying this series of yours. Non-instanced housing is an example of difficult gameplay, but great simulation. The attraction of the latter is something some big companies don’t understand right now.

    One particular problem I see with this
    [..], players would understand that houses are not permanent items, and hence their loss would not be game over situation. That said, destruction should not be too frequent [..]

    How do you intent to make something that is destroyed rarely and expensive to build (I guess) not causing players rage-quit when they finally do lose it?

    • SynCaine says:

      Part of it would be that players would naturally be moving around, so when forced to move it would not be something totally new to them. Think of how WoW players view item loss vs how DF/EVE players view it. In the proper context, it’s not as devastating as it seems.

      The other part would be cost. Smaller remote houses would be affordable, and only lost when a player is not active. A city is something owned by a group, and group loss is easier to deal with. In the case of a mansion or castle being lost, well, that’s a high reward, high risk investment, and someone with such a structure likely has the wealth to easily build something just slightly smaller in case of a loss.

      End of the day though, even though this is a PvE game, that does not mean it’s a candyland where everything is safe and you can only go up. One big reason to go PvE is to avoid the griefing and competitive system abuse that comes with PvP, not necessarily the brutal world or the existence of high risk and loss.

  2. Tipa says:

    Star Wars Galaxies has all or most of these things, including NPC vendors, able to display goods, customizable homes and shops, in the real world etc. I don’t think mobs overrun them, though — they have a standard rent mechanic; if you don’t pay, it poofs back to a deed in your inventory.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if SWG — the spiritual successor to UO, after all — was close to your ideal sandbox MMO in many ways.

  3. John says:

    I have to say, this sounds pretty awesome. The only concern I’d have is when real life takes me out of the game for several weeks.

    I suppose, to answer my own question, that’s where the social part of the game might become critical. If I’ve played the game long enough to have property worth protecting, I’ve also played long enough to have a circle of friends that might be willing to protect my property for a week or two.

    Failing that, perhaps an option to hire NPCs to guard my house for a limited time if I know I’m not going to be able to provide my own defense.

    Anyway, just curious about your thoughts regarding longer real-life interruptions. I’d hate to play for 2 years, be out of town for one month, and return only to have to start completely over.

    • SynCaine says:

      Indeed, socialization is key. If you have a nice house and no friends, well, get more friends? That’s just a natural risk of being a lone wolf.

      Even missing a month should be ok. If you own a solo house and you don’t want to risk it, sell it or empty it out and abandon it. When you come back, you still have enough wealth to get back at it, and who knows what the world looks like a month later. Maybe your house location is a huge city, or maybe the whole area is totally abandoned. If you own a house in a city, even over a month it should be ok so long as your guild as a whole stays active.

      At some point, if you are too inactive, you should not be able to continue owning property and taking up space, but if it’s a one-time break, you should be ok. Plus like I said above, losing a house is not the end of the world, so even worse-case (your friends/guild fail to protect you and your house is gone when you come back), you can still get back on your feet with a little effort.

    • Gilded says:

      I think it would make sense if housing is a group effort, like a guild investing in property etc. This would help the vacancy issue as well as make over crowding less likely. If there is a hierarchy, like if the guild were associated with a city, then the house could be further protected under the funds of that city.

  4. Mallika says:

    I am really enjoying these articles, and as a housing lover, this one in particular.

    One mechanic I thought about, in terms of houses decaying and/or becoming destroyed over time by mobs and general wear and tear, perhaps this would require the homeowner to repair the house — you’d need to gather or purchase (hey economy!) the wood, stone, what-have-you first before repairs could be made. I’m not sure if the repairs would then be a ‘click and done’ affair or what, though it ought to take some time to do. Perhaps make it so that you either did it yourself over a certain amount of time if your house option was more basic (such as a tent or whatever), but you’d need to hire NPC builders — or maybe have a profession that deals with housing and decoration that allows PCs to repair — for the more elaborate housing.

    Also, some kind samaritan could come by to repair your house for you if he wanted (e.g., friends).

    With regards to housing being a group effort, I don’t think all of it should. Do you really need a group to set up a tent or a simple log cabin? People were doing it by themselves way back in the day. It would make sense for those huge structures, but I’d say to NOT make everything require a group. Perhaps if you’d like one of those fancy palaces or mansions that are clearly meant as a gathering spot for people, by all means have it require a guild/group effort. But not individual houses.

  5. Angry Gamer says:

    Player Housing and Content creation are the MOST difficult of all Software concepts I have come across in gaming. They also represent the most difficult of any game related mechanic to “scope” properly and get implementation nailed down. (when are you good enough to ship questions)

    The example of UO and SWG as paragons of housing etc remind me that other games like Wow have ignored this aspect and made a great deal of gold doing so.

    I really believe that a UO game could not exist today given the security threats we face in today’s networked systems. SWG not being brought to it’s knees is more a factor related to popularity. If SWG was popular it would probably be exposed to more hack threats.

    Housing could easily become 25% of your development budget since a token room for each player costing 5-10% dev budget would never do the trick.

    As a person asked to allocate development resources I would be hard pressed to keep a BIG CHUNK O’ SCOPE CREEP like player housing past an in house Alpha unless I could leverage another infrastructure like say Facebook. (gasp! yes I said it)

    But then your player housing would be subsidized by FB ads or some such. And I’m not sure gamers would like that at all.

    Just a few questions though for the group. Does not prior implementations of certain mechanics (raids, dungeons, classes etc) by other games in the MMO space yield a good basket of tried and true implementable features?

    And doesn’t the lack of player housing in existing offerings display a counterexample against them easily being realized?

    So, with these as a foundation… How does a developer effectively communicate to his future customers that a feature like player housing is too expensive vs. the price you would be willing to pay?

    And… How does a developer filter through the “if you don’t have player housing I won’t buy!” feedback you will get from your vocal minority betas?

    In da greater biz there appear to be 2 schools of thought on this.
    1) Microsoft/Apple – We know better and will tell ya so
    2) Google – We know better, will not tell you and bury the implementation details to hide the fact we know better

    • John says:

      To quote Family Guy: “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! ….. Whoa!”

      I thought we were discussing the ideal mmo here, not feasibility, economics, and security.


    • Gilded says:

      “And doesn’t the lack of player housing in existing offerings display a counterexample against them easily being realized?”

      Not really. Housing is a very non-themepark type of system. Blizzard certainly has the resources (and then some…) to force such a system in if it would work (or if it would really make a difference since people seem to be paying regardless), but the fact is that the market has shifted to producing themepark experiences that wouldn’t get much out of such a system. If a game were designed with a clear implementation for housing then I don’t see how it would be much of a problem. I don’t know how much UO cost to develop, but it had a lot more depth in its systems than the typical themepark game and housing was a major aspect (I’m guessing the real expense here has more to do with visual assets than it does with game mechanics).

      As for security I’m not really in a position to say how that would factor into development, but if the major changes are server-side, and if the team tests things well, then I figure where there’s a will there’s a way, right?

  6. Angry Gamer says:

    Out of the box concept here…

    What do you guys think of the concept of not player housing. But player carts or tents?

    Carts and Tents that are non-instanced and non-permanent features “could” be scoped and implemented with about 5% dev time/budget. (this would really be an extension of a player’s inventory and temporary drop item mechanics)

    This way you don’t have a NEW NEW mechanic. But you have an extension of an existing logic base. A feature set that is well established and would weather the inevitable exploit attempts better than new code.

    Just thinking…

    • SynCaine says:

      How does a temporary cart add anything close to a player-created and owned city? Just not seeing the connection here.

      Also, if a team the size of the original UO can create player housing, and a team the size of Aventurine can add villages, I don’t think adding housing is as huge a task as you seem to think it might be, especially given the high priority it SHOULD have in a sandbox.

      • Saucelah says:

        I’m no code monkey, but I’m not sure why housing would be a vulnerability. I played SWG through the height of its popularity and am not sure why player housing would be be any easier to hack than any other element of the game.

        Anyway, putting all the details aside, housing as the driving force behind mob behavior is a pretty excellent idea.

        Bringing the details back: my only concern is that this mechanic might tie players down, such that exploring and general wandering place the property at great risk every time. There’s some element of truth to the mechanic — even if your property isn’t overrun by goblins while you’re away, you might come home to find the Sackville-Bagginses auctioning your things — but I do think it should be possible for players to enjoy the game world without automatically losing their property.

        You could tweak vulnerability or add a return to home “spell” or otherwise tweak it in beta. ;)

        • SynCaine says:

          That is a good point about being tied up to your house, and would require some balance. Obviously you want to avoid the issue of your house getting raided every few minutes during vulnerability (less of an issue for cities or houses with NPC guards), while still having that happen sometimes.

          Door durability could be one solution; a small house getting attack won’t have it’s door busted after one attempt, and the player can pay to repair it. Always missing the attack and paying would get costly over time, so being around most of the time would be enough. If you miss a few raids and don’t repair, you run the risk of getting the house looted or totally destroyed.

          But yea, that’s a balance issue that I think could be figured out without majorly scrapping the system as a whole.

      • Angry Gamer says:

        Syn said: “Also, if a team the size of the original UO can create player housing, and a team the size of Aventurine can add villages, I don’t think adding housing is as huge a task as you seem to think it might be, especially given the high priority it SHOULD have in a sandbox.”

        Ok let’s go with that UO probably had local pc storage for it’s housing. Since if memory serves bandwidth was at a premium back then.

        These days you can’t have local storage. Objects need to be stored server side. Therefore any Player Created content like housing has to be “pick a part” because player upload is not an option. But players will not be satisfied in this area WITHOUT posting a picture of their kid or dog – abstract sculpture… etc

        As I said just because you have had a feature in the “old days” does not mean it’s possible to do it today. In our China connected networked world.

        You can’t test enough for all the exploits you can only design limited damage so they don’t crash the world. Player housing is the nuclear option in game design.

        You can’t design an interface to protect you from infinite variability. Tightly controlled interfaces with strong type safety is the ONLY way.

        You can’t Type Safe the infinite case.

        Therefore player gen content with it’s X factor is a no go… and only leads to non-deterministic system behavior (read as buggy crashy)

  7. bonedead says:

    The same thing I said yesterday.

  8. Crevex says:

    Im really enjoying this series. Love the housing ideas. It would be sweet if after a city or castle was finally overrun/abandoned, the ruins would remain in world for a limited amount of time. The mobs that destroyed your city would set up shop and occupy the ruins for awhile. Adventurous players could brave the dangerous areas in hope of recovering lost wealth and resources from the once glorious settlement.

  9. Gardavil says:

    I enjoyed this blog very much, it’s good to read that Player Housing in MMORPGs hasn’t fallen completely off the radar.

    @Angry Gamer: Thank you for sharing your point of view as a Dev. No for the tough part… I do understand your POV, and I think you understand mine as a Player… I do not subscribe to MMOs with poor or no Player Housing. That’s lost profits for those MMOs.

    I am fairly certain the Suits already have decided to abandon Player Housing as too expensive, and are prepared to loose customers like me and seek customers that love Facebook… that is exactly what seems to be happening as a whole in the MMO genre now.

    So thank you for a fantastic Blog and discussion, but i fear it is 5 years too late to effect change in MMO design.

Comments are closed.