Home Sweet Home

Since the IA blog space received its first major decorator overhaul recently it seems only appropriate to inaugurate the new look with a post on the role of player housing in MMORPGs.

I just bought my first house in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO).  Since I’m still playing with only a premium account (i.e. I haven’t paid for any additional inventory space yet) this was a pretty significant moment because it now gives me a space to offload some of my accumulated crap.  However, it started me thinking about how MMORPGs in general handle space.

A-Roving I Will Go
When we think about space in online worlds our first instinct is to think of it in geographical terms: how big is the terrain, what kind of terrain is it, how much freedom do I have to roam over the terrain, and do the restrictions on my mobility make sense?

This is one of the things I’m most enjoying about LOTRO, the freedom to roam and to discover.  It is also one of the things that bugs me the most about Pirates of the Burning Sea (POTBS): the sense that even though it takes place in this vast space of the Caribbean, it is a space that is already thoroughly known and mapped out.  The POTBS developers have done a good job recently with differentiating the towns from one another so that arriving in a new place does have overtones of discovery and exploration.  This, however, is very different from real exploration.  Because every town (except for each national capital) is so small you know that every single person visiting that town is going to have pretty much the same experience.  In most other MMORPGs, by contrast, while there are certain points on every map that a lot of people are going to visit, there are always going to be the paths less trodden, and smart development teams will build in little out-of-the-way oddities (a strange ruin, an odd land formation) to reward players who go out of their way.

The other element that is annoying in POTBS is the sense of restricted mobility that prevails when you are on land (at sea is a whole different experience).  The developers repeatedly commit one of the cardinal sins of environmental design in a game: the game builds up your character with an individualized story in which you are a plundering, pillaging thoroughly bas-ass sea dog. . .but the game won’t let you jump off a one foot high veranda.  Instead, you make your way dutifully, and law-abidingly, along the veranda and down the designated steps.

This failure to effectively integrate exploration is also what makes EVE a less than satisfying experience for your average player.  This might seem a bit of an odd statement.  After all, the game offers you almost total freedom; there are no restrictions on where you can go, and it seems like an explorer’s paradise.  The problem, however, is that the rewards for exploration are not really there, at least when you are starting out.  And by rewards I don’t mean loot.  Rather, you travel from system to system, and there is often little to differentiate one system from another.  The most satisfying moments for me in terms of exploration would be when I would come across the shattered remnants of some kind of facility or an odd asteroid formation.  Those moments, however, were few and far between in the early stages, some of them seem to take place in instances, and it was exceptionally difficult to find those places again.

Any software environment involves placing restrictions on the behavior of users.  What is true of effective software design is also true of effective game design: the goal is to camouflage the constraints while enhancing either the actuality (or, worst case scenario) the illusion of user/player freedom.  This is why the land-based element of POTBS can be problematic: it constantly reminds you of artificial and arbitrary restrictions that don’t fit with the fiction of the world.  Not being able to step off a low veranda, for example, is very different from not being able to walk your avatar up a hill that is obviously steep.

A Place to Call My Own
A major influence on players’ perception of an online game world is not simply the affordances that dictate where they can and can’t go, but the degree to which players are able to transform their environment.  In part this is the desire to leave your mark on the game world in some way.  There are many ways this can happen, of course, and many of them (those that involve interacting with other players, or your guild, for example) are not going to leave visible traces even if they are highly significant to the people involved.  The game itself may alter in relatively subtle ways; NPCs that react differently to you if you have gained a positive reputation with their faction, for example.  But one of the most striking things about our virtual worlds, even many years on from the first MMORPGs, is how resistant these worlds are to player transformation; for years the marketing pitch of all these games has, in essence, been “you make a difference.”  The reality is that you don’t.  That boss will re-spawn for the next player, that field littered with the corpses of 30 Savage Fluffy Froofroos will, in five minutes be teeming with life, that town will need to be defended all over again by the next raid.  It is almost as if MMORPG designers have set up a system that is carefully engineered to mock us at every opportunity with repeated reminders of our own impermanent, ghostly presence in the world and our lack of efficacy.

This is one of the major reasons why players are so drawn to housing.  Yes, the major reason is to use the house as closet space, overflow for when your vault, or chest, or bank is filled with all the useless quest-related merchandise you have accumulated and which has no practical value but which you can’t bear to throw out because it took you so long to get it.  But the other major reason is because a house is a mark on the world.  It says, “I exist(ed) in this space, I wuz here.”  There is a reason that players will spend hours decorating their houses, even if no one else will ever see the interiors and it is not simply because it reflects their personality in some vaguely defined way or because a larger house is a status symbol.  In many of the most popular MMORPGs, most players won’t see the outside of your house either.

A house is more than just your location, a piece of real (or virtual) estate.  It is also a way of reclaiming some of your lost labor.  Castronova and other economists have written comprehensively about the political and social implications of in-game economies and governance structures in MMORPGs.  For me the most striking thing about MMORPGs lies hidden in plain view: they are a perfect, almost self-parodically so, example of the fundamental mechanism of capitalism: alienated labor.  For Marx, human happiness is directly linked to our ability to enjoy the products of our own labor.  Capitalism, of course, relies on allowing someone else to appropriate our labor power and its products.  Then it sells us the surplus value we produced back to us in the form of products that we “need” (i.e. mostly useless shit that saps our soul).  This, of course, is exactly the structure of your average MMORPG.  Much of the richness of the world comes from the value added by the players, not just in the form of the social interactions and the combat but (in most games) a plethora of virtual merchandise.   Players then pay to buy back the virtual world that they have been instrumental in creating.  Just as in the real world, indulging in the full fantasy of home ownership (the decorating, the gardening, the buying stuff) is a way of (trying to, in a possibly delusional way) buy a bit of your life back, control it, and enjoy the fruits of your own labor.  Of course, in the real world as in its many virtual counterparts, someone else owns that world already.

Model Homes
There are, essentially, four models for MMORPG player housing that I have come across:

  • The EVE model: fictionally coherent homelessness.  You as a character do not, in a sense both metaphorical and actual, have a place in the world.  In EVE this makes sense given the governing fictional framework: a fractured humanity that has both devolved and evolved into high-tech internecine warfare, leaving most people rootless, stateless, with a primary allegiance to clans and corporations.  This also builds on the fact that the game doesn’t place a lot of stress on your own individuality.  The game repeatedly reminds you that you are one of a host of interchangeable and largely disposable “pod pilots” engaged in ceaseless warfare.  No “hero” quests here!  The game also lacks any kind of guild headquarters.  Yes, I’m aware there are space stations that can be built and controlled by individual corporations.  These spaces, however, are simply clusters of functionality; places where you craft, places where you reprocess minerals, etc., functions that are performed essentially via an interface against a background with which you don’t interact (because “you” are in effect the mineral and plastic heart of a spaceship).
  • The POTBS model: fictionally incoherent homelessness.  No home for you.  No guild/society space for you either.  In this case, this is actually radically inconsistent with the overarching fiction of the game.  The game tries to establish a bodily presence for you in the Caribbean, to place you in the world.  The core hero quest lines see you gradually building up relationships with a host of individuals and societies; often your reputation as a fearless problem-solver and general bad-ass has preceded you (as it typically does in the MMORPG world!).  One of the quest lines even tries aggressively to marry you off.  Yet you are not, apparently, worthy of any place to put your head at night.  You can’t even (in what would seem to be a blindingly obvious move) sleep on your ship.  Despite the fact that societies are supposedly ctively encouraged, the game likewise provides you with no society space in the game world (and precious little in the way of society resources such as shared warehouses, banks, etc.).
  • The LOTRO/Everquest model: the gated community.  In LOTRO there are only four places where you can own a home.  Each starter zone has its own architecturally appropriate (dwarf, elf, human, hobbit) housing zone associated with it.  A zone consists of multiple instances or neighbourhoods, each a carbon copy of the other, with a limited number of houses (basic and deluxe) and kinship halls.  You purchase a house when (and if) a vacancy becomes available.  You have no choice about the orientation or placement of your house on its lot.  You can customize your lot by adding trees, shrubs or other ornaments (flags, sundials, giant pumpkins, a piniata of Gandalf).  However, the housing system uses a mechanic of fixed “hooks” both inside and outside that is extremely limited.  Not only does a given hook dictate where something has to go, but also the size and nature of the object.  I can’t hang a large rug on the wall, for example, and moreover can’t hang a large wall object unless there is a large wall object hook on that wall.
  • The Star Wars: Galaxies model: anything, anytime, anywhere (mostly).  SWG has the most flexible, customizable, least limited player housing model I have ever seen.  There is a 1km (as I recall) no-build zone around major cities and settlements.  Beyond that, however, you can put a house pretty much anywhere (subject to minor terrain constraints) on all but the hardcore adventure planets (Lok, Dathomir, Kasshykk, etc).  Atop a mountain?  On the edge of a river?  No problem.  Three major styles of housing, three major sizes, plus a guild hall for each style.  The Trials of Obi-Wan expansion even introduced the capability to build an underground bunker.  Once you had built your house you could decorate it almost any way you wanted.  There was an overall limit on how many elements you could include in a house, but the limit for even the smallest house was generous compared with LOTRO.  More importantly, just about any object incorporated into the game could be used as a decorative item in the house and could be placed anywhere in your house.  Players used a system of spatial placement to move objects around in three dimensions; in comparison with the LOTRO “up against the wall” look, you could do things like have a complete suit of armor standing in the middle of your room.

There are some obvious reasons for the differences in these design approaches.  Despite the fact that homelessness is strikingly inconsistent with the fictive framework of POTBS, Flying Lab’s game is similar to EVE in that it exists primarily as a PvP environment with an attached economic simulation.  It seems that prevailing game design wisdom has decided that fostering both a sense of ownership and social engagement via a sense of place are out of place in such games.   Of course, for FLS the game’s lack of popularity is probably a major limiting factor; way back when FLS did announce plans for fully realized player communities where you could own your own tavern, etc., but that seems to have been dropped as taking too many resources away from the more important project of endlessly micromanaging ship damage resistances and turning speeds.

Each of these models contributes to a very different feel to their respective worlds.  Out of the four, the approach to player housing is most successful at helping to establish and support the game world in both EVE and SWG; by contrast, the housing models in POTBS and LOTRO both work against the kind of world that each game otherwise works so hard to establish.

Because EVE is all about the experience of rootlessness amidst the chaos of endless war the lack of any kind of personalized player space makes perfect sense, even if it helps to contribute to aspects of the game that would be problematic in a more “normal” MMORPG.  With its forbidding learning curve, harsh and immediate punishment for mistakes and errors in judgement, the game’s attitude toward new players continues to be a hearty and largely unsympathetic “QQ.”  In fact, the new player experience in EVE–despite recent attempts to improve it–is defined by one word: disorientation.  This covers everything from the combat mechanics (basic ship movement is simple, but learning to think, maneuver, and target in three full dimensions takes some getting used to), through navigation (as I noted above, every system tends to look the same, especially at the start, and the size of even your local sector is intimidatingly vast), to the social.

Ironically, it is the famously bad-ass EVE that most fully embodies the cliché that MMORPGs are simply vast chat rooms with more entertaining graphics.   It is virtually impossible to meaningfully individuate players within either your immediate visual field (one spaceship looks pretty much like another, and there is a limited range of types with modifications making a little visible difference) or in terms of their tiny pictorial avatars.  If you communicate with someone in another system, with very few exceptions it is impossible to form a picture of where they are (they are flying around in space, like that other guy, and that guy, and you yourself. . .).  And forming a picture of where someone else is located is instrumental to our conceptualization of who they are (just think of how many cellphone conversations incorporate the question: “Where are you?”).  One of my favorite pieces of music from the EVE soundtrack is called “Do you know where you are?” and the answer to that is, in any kind of useful sense, no I don’t.  It is not that there is no there there in EVE.  Rather it is all there (in several senses).  The problem for most new players is that there is no where there.

Most importantly, however, what would be a liability in other games–the fact that an individual cannot make their mark on this world (unless, tellingly, they are part of one of the large player corporations that can and do transform entire sectors of space through economic, military or political conquest and control)–makes perfect sense in a game that is, at its core, defined by its central shared space, which is the space of space itself: vast, soulless, uncaring.

In POTBS by contrast, the inability to own your own space contributes to a problematic sense in which the game seems to invite an exploration that it then prevents and solicits a social dimension that it then thwarts.

Urban Sprawl and the Silence of the Suburbs
The most interesting contrast in approaches to player housing in an MMORPG is embodied by the contrast between SWG and LOTRO.  In my last post I discussed some of the reasons why SWG collapsed in a messy heap and now lingers in that shadow realm of Sony MMORPGs that only exist because they are part of an all-access package deal.  The design philosophy behind the original pre-NGE SWG now looks even more innovative than it did at launch.  Few games, large or small, have attempted to replicate some of its core features.  Of those design features, one of the most influential in shaping the quality of the world, was the freedom granted to players in terms of where to place their houses and how to decorate them.  My impression is that most games treat housing as an issue of player resources.  But for SWG housing was a world resource.

The freedom in housing placement was instrumental in creating the feeling of a dynamic, living, breathing world.  SWG was initially dedicated to building an environment where people could live in a Star Wars universe.  The developers recognized that the powerful appeal of the original Star Wars was that it created a world that was exotic and strange but was still recognizably our world.  Moreover, it behaved according to the same laws: people bought and sold stuff and tried to scam one another, objects collected dust and became banged up in familiar ways, people left their crap lying around.  Perhaps most importantly, like all good sci-fi (written and cinematic) the film gestured at a larger, dynamic world out-of-frame.  When Luke can’t get enough money for his old landspeeder because a new model has come out, that tells us that there is a whole industry producing and marketing landspeeders in this universe.

What SWG‘s developers did, therefore, was to give players the ability to create and inhabit not just iconic Star Wars locations, but those out-of-frame locations and processes.  Housing was an instrumental part of this.  In the first place it created patterns of growth and settlement that were strikingly reminiscent of our real world.  As I mentioned above, there was a no-build zone around all the major population centers.  But because many of these cities offered the only means of getting on and off planet, they were desirable locations in a number of ways.  Building a house near one meant that you had a short trip to get to a starport.  Building a business near one meant that you could advertise at the starport and offer potential customers only a short walk to your establishment.  Consequently, all the major cities quickly developed suburbs.  Like many of our early suburbs their growth was chaotic and largely unregulated.  Moreover, other features of the game reinforced the realism.  Random creature spawns popping up in or near these new urban areas ensured that the suburbs were often filled with lots of people with guns running around shooting things.  The random and shifting resource locations ensured that houses and businesses were side by side with large fields of harvesters belching smoke.  The area south of Coronet the capital city of Corellia (on Starsider), casually referred to as the “slums of Corellia” by some players looked for all the world like an early twentieth-century industrial city.  Or like modern day New Jersey.

But the largely unrestricted player housing also enabled players to engage in plenty of other activities.  Suppose your guild wanted to form its own utopian commune somewhere out in the back of beyond.  You could do that.  Coretech, the guild of which I was a part during most of my time on SWG, founded its own small settlement on the edge of Mos Espa on Tatooine.  Larger guilds might form their own city (and the game included some nifty city management features including elections, taxation, designating city zones, and the like).  Some cities would get reputations as places you would go to shop for particular kinds of goods (there was a cluster of player businesses atop a mesa near Mos Entha that I treated the same way I treat my local mall).  Other cities might generate trade by being effective staging grounds for expeditions or being hospitable to entertainers.  Of, if other people weren’t your thing, you could simply build your own place out on your own somewhere.  I built a house high on a hilltop on Dantooine, overlooking Lake Wild; our guild had its headquarters in the nearby township but I was well outside the town limits, no one else was around, and there was a truly spectacular view (even when compared with the real world); sometimes I would simply go out on my balcony and watch the sun go down, exactly as I would if I had such a place in real life.

This was an environment where even the frustrations were recognizably realistic.  It would be hard to locate the business you wanted in a sea of buildings that all looked pretty much the same, for example.  However, not only does this pick up on the many similar spaces that are gestured at in the Star Wars universe (Coruscant?  Mos Eisley?) but it pretty much the same experience you’ll have driving through a lot of American cities.

Unfortunately, it turned out that a significant number of players didn’t want an out-of-frame game but instead an in-frame game.  They didn’t want a Star Wars world: they wanted a Star Wars movie.  In one sense, who can blame them.  As I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere, Lucas himself has aided and abetted this kind of narrowing of our intellectual horizons to a world delimited by a visually rich but intellectually empty screen frame.  Turns out that some people really didn’t want to participate in an imaginative gaming experience that involved world-building.  They wanted the same-old same-old experience of world-consuming.  In practical terms, that meant that they simply wanted to be a Jedi.  (Those of us who loved the pre-CU days of SWG grew to hate Jedi with a passion.  If The Old Republic ever sees the light of day I will play a small, sticky lump of swamp goo before I will play a Jedi).  So rather than telling said players to piss off and make their own MMO, the developers gave everyone the possibility of being a Jedi.

I keep talking about SWG in the past tense, I know.  It is still going.  It still has this same fabulous house and decorating model.  It is just that there is hardly anyone there to build anything any more.

The contrast between the design philosophy in SWG and the kind of world it produced with the world of LOTRO is quite striking.  Below is a recent snapshot I took of the neighbourhood in which my house is located:

Something is missing. Can't quite put my finger on it. . .

Beautiful, pastoral, peaceful.  No gunplay or belching smoke stacks here.

And no people.

On the several occasions I have visited my house to decorate, drop off material, buy stuff from the cut-price NPC vendors located there I have not seen a single other player.  The same was true when I was exploring the other homesteads to see which style of housing I liked best.  The houses advertise that they are owned by actual players, but there is no one around.  This is the logical result of the design decision to establish player housing as a domain completely cut-off from the main game world.  It is the archetypal gated community in that you can travel in and out but nothing of very much significance happens there.

I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I really like LOTRO overall; it is a well-designed, beautifully crafted game with surprisingly deep and engaging gameplay and an often stunning world.  The housing model, however, is problematic in a couple of ways.  In the first place, it offers one powerful draw of a real-world gated community: the illusion (and maybe the reality, depending on how many armed guards you have at your gates) of safety.  The likelihood that rapacious orcs hungry to eat my gonads are going to come rampaging through my neighbourhood is approximately nil.  Unfortunately that is strikingly at odds with the fictional framework of the rest of the world and of the Tolkein mythos itself.  The main quest lines in the game reinforce the narrative drive in the original Tolkein books: this is a world that is increasingly under threat.  Incursions by the forces of darkness are becoming more widespread and more serious.  No one is safe.  Even the Shire falls under the shadow.

Unless, of course, you live in one of the many homesteads.  Then you can kick up your little hobbit feet and sing folly-la-nah-nay to your heart’s content.

But the other major problem with the gated community model is that it is less accurate to say that players are housed than that they are warehoused.  More specifically, what is being warehoused is the creative, transformative potential of players.  Players are given pre-formatted decorating options in pre-formatted neighbourhoods that are completely isolated from the main game world.  You spend your day participating in exciting quests that tell you that you are making a difference, that you are distinctive, that you are developing a reputation as a transformative force in the great struggle between good and evil.

At the end of the day, however, you have nothing to show for it.

How fortunate that you looted that painting of an angry Warg that you can go home and place in your small wall-hanging slot.