I want to go home again, and I’m not alone.
When Ultima Online launched in 1997, its housing system was both wonderful and terrible, like much of the rest of the game. If your keys were stolen or lost, your house was compromised forever. Homes didn’t decay if abandoned, so they took up space and prevented others from placing, and each shard’s open land quickly filled up. You could place buildings on top of other buildings, inside NPC cities, and inside dungeons. The system was a trainwreck, and we loved it anyway because houses! But UO was way more popular than anyone expected it to be; the game was hammered and understaffed back then, so it took a long time for the team to address the issues of such a complicated housing system. Some of them have never been fixed, even at the 15-year mark for the game.
So it was no surprise that EverQuest skipped housing. And so did Asheron’s Call. Anarchy Online made a valiant effort to include apartments, but Camelot said no way. Star Wars Galaxies took up the torch and did so beautifully, but it stood alone until EverQuest II’s launch. And a month later, World of Warcraft made it all moot. It did for the second MMO generation what EverQuest had done for the first: It killed housing.
I love World of Warcraft. Yep, I said it. But it set MMOs back half a dozen years, at least as far as sandboxes and housing are concerned, and that is unforgivable.
I want to go home. I miss the way I felt in Ultima Online when I recalled to the keep I shared with my friends, and I know that wasn’t a “first MMO” reaction because I miss even more the way I felt in Star Wars Galaxies when I shuttled home to the city I shared with my friends, and six years and several other games separated those launches. Those two titles provoke such heart-wrenching nostalgia because they were places we lived, even when we didn’t play there all the time. The worlds were truly persistent and dynamic and they changed when we logged off; our houses were the center of our characters’ lives. They were the one thing in the game that didn’t change if we didn’t want it to. They were a slice of the world that belonged only to us, a place where we made the rules.
Two paths lie before the MMORPG genre. Down one path is something old-school and familiar and easy. It’s EverQuest and World of Warcraft and D&D. It’s combat simulation and dungeons and loot. Down the other is something creative and expensive and complicated. It’s RIFT and WildStar and Glitch. It’s a revival of roleplaying games as games in which you play a role of your choosing, not games where you just massacre successively more challenging monsters and parade around in the latest tier of e-peen armor.
This isn’t just the same old themepark vs. sandbox war; a themepark is just a sandbox with less stuff, after all, and great sandboxes are usually made up of a bunch of themeparks. Themeparks and sandboxes are things that games are trying to be. This about the things games let us do.
“Making player housing work the way fans expect is too hard to implement in a MMO,” Zenimax has infamously said in an attempt to justify the lack of housing in the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, and to that I say bullshit. Creaky old Ultima Online could do it, beleaguered Star Wars Galaxies could do it, even Lord of the Rings Online had a go at it. WildStar’s housing is its centerpiece, and RIFT’s dimension system looks to put even the exemplary EverQuest II housing to shame. Games like TESO are just being lazy and cheap, so quit insulting our intelligence. We were there. We know what’s possible, we know it’s not as hard as you say, and we’re willing to pay for excellence.
This is why it’s so maddening that a game like Guild Wars 2 — with its sexy crafting system and fluid pseudo-dynamic events and level scaling and open world — has no housing, not even the guild halls of its predecessor, just an HoM clone. It was so close to perfection. And here we sit on launch day, basking in a glorious near-sandpark whose glaring lack of things we can truly own pushes the genre down the path of least resistance and contradicts the freeform nature of the rest of the game. (I know that ANet promised post-launch housing and guildhalls a year ago, but a promise of nonspecific housing in some nebulous “someday” is not housing.)
Consider this the housing-fanatics’ manifesto. We want it. We’ll pay for it. Bring it back. Give us housing. You want to know why games keep blundering at launch, why games aren’t “sticky,” why retention is abysmal and you have to lay off half your employees after release? You forgot to give us a reason to stay! You gave us a reason to play your content, not to live in your world. In many cases, you didn’t even give us a world to live in at all. You make it far too easy to leave you.
We can go home again, but games have to make it happen. Until then, we’ll just be drifting on to the next soulless, siren-song themepark, vagabonds looking for a home.