Sylvari character in front of blue sky backdrop
Happy 2014, everybody! For the first time in a long while, Guild Wars 2 has gone without updates for a few weeks while the ArenaNet team took a well-deserved break. The next content release will drop on January 21st and will reportedly herald the beginning of the end of the Scarlet Briar story arc.

I've been spending my free time reading through the latest collaborative development initiative thread on the official forums. A few weeks ago I wrote about horizontal and vertical progression in GW2 and the CDI thread related to it; at this time the discussion on the forums has narrowed specifically to horizontal progression and what players would like to see from it. After posting our top three priorities for horizontal progression, we were asked to further narrow it down to one, in order to develop a proposal. Since it's been such a popular suggestion in the thread, I think it's a good time to talk about a subject near to my shriveled, cold Necromantic heart: player housing.

What's the big deal about player housing?

Housing is one of those features MMO players tend to have split opinions on. Some consider it absolutely necessary to find a game fun; others are distressed at the idea of valuable development resources being spent on picking out rugs. Then you've got your pro-housing players who think the whole thing is a waste of time if the content is instanced, and still others who think it's a waste of time if you can't do whatever you like with your patch of homespace. For something that's basically a game in itself, requiring a lot of art and polished implementation, it's not entirely surprising that housing fell off the MMO radar for a few years.

The trend has swung back toward building recently. RIFT added Dimensions to great acclaim. WildStar is launching with housing as one of its primary features. Much of the excitement surrounding EverQuest Next and its sister program Landmark comes down to the prospect of creating and building; voxel-based games are popping up like mushrooms. Even World of Warcraft is getting in on housing, which I find deeply interesting as someone who played WoW through the era in which Blizzard "streamlined" a bunch of RP features while doubling down on its raiding focus. It's deeply interesting not in a "Ha ha, I told you so" sense but in the sense that WoW is still in many ways a bellwether for the industry. It may not be the trendsetter it once was, but you can be pretty sure that if WoW is picking up a feature, it's probably a trend.

OK, so there might be a teensy bit of "I told you so" in my reaction, but I promise it's good natured. It's nice to see this stuff getting added.

What's the big deal about player housing in GW2, though?

A while back, I wrote an article about the lack of roleplaying tools in GW2 and how that affects attachment to the game world. I also briefly discussed the ways in which roleplaying tools can present a good investment for developers, since roleplayers require very little in the way of constant content additions to keep them happy and playing.

Further reflection leads me to believe that it goes beyond that, though. In talking about the addition of Dimensions, Trion noted that non-combat activities like weddings, fishing, and survival actually caused a spike in player retention. One line in the RIFT dev blog stuck with me: "It was clear that we'd provided a needed dose of RPG in our MMORPG."

When players recommend games to each other, the language is often specifically that of opportunities and freedom. This is especially apparent in MMO fandom, where advertising almost invariably paints a picture of customizing your personal journey through a vast world of endless possibilities (GW2 is no exception). On the surface, it may seem as though players are expecting something that can't be delivered; game balance and budget concerns make an MMORPG with near-total freedom unrealistic. But what I believe players really want is the opportunity to play.

This is where I think GW2 falls most short -- and consequently, where it needs to build in the coming year.

Player character surrounded by fluffy wolf pups. Awww.
Toli, you're going to discuss housing at some point, right?

Housing -- among other roleplaying features -- is frequently dismissed as fluff that is unnecessary to "real" gameplay. "Real" gameplay is most often defined in terms of whether or not combat is involved, and there appears to further be a Scale of Realness that sets non-combat decorative activities (such as dressing up your character) at the low end and fighting and killing other players at the high end. I have enough thoughts about that for a dissertation, but for the purposes of this article I'm just going to clarify that I think the "combat is more real" distinction is silly.

Combat is important, and it can be fun, especially as a group activity. However, a focus on combat activities has led many MMOs to neglect imaginative play, which has been theorized to be important and valuable for both children and adults. The sunsetting of several games that encouraged and catered to player creativity -- Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, and Glitch -- might seem to belie its importance in MMOs, but these were also games that appear to have kept the loyalty of their playerbases largely because of the amount of individual expression and freedom they allowed.

GW2 is a successful game with a fun combat system and a huge world to explore. ArenaNet has done many things right. But it could do more right, and diversifying not just the activities available in game but the types of play those activities represent would be a huge step forward for the community.

Norn woman walking through Divinity's Reach
Toli, I'm pretty sure this article was supposed to be about housing in GW2

I've spent so much time outlining the positive aspects of creative play because I think we'll definitely get housing (and guild halls) in GW2 at some point, and I'll be terribly disappointed if it manifests as a missed opportunity. The home instance is not quite intended as a replacement for player housing, but rather -- from what I understand -- as a Hall of Monuments-style trophy case. The message is muddled by the fact that it's frequently treated as your character's home base, and she is implied throughout the course of the personal story to live there. Until recent living world meta-achievements started rewarding useful doodads to stick in the instance, there was very little reason to visit unless it was required for a personal story step. Even now, it's easiest to just park an alt there to charge quartz crystals and mine nodes (the use of a sacrificial alt also reduces exposure to the Krait obelisk shard, which can't be healthy).

The fantastic thing about RIFT's Dimensions is how close they come to giving players their own little zone to customize to their hearts' content. The tools for Dimension customization are similar to the tools Trion itself uses, and players can -- and have -- gone wild in manipulating the objects given to them. It's easy for me to point at that form of player housing and yell, "Just do that!" excitedly, but doing that requires a strange sort of trust between the player and the developer: The developer has to trust the player to have fun on their own. It has to be a gift, in a sense, from devs to players in which they dump a bucket of their own magic on the ground and say, "Now it's your turn." It requires a mostly hands-off approach.

I've had fun with housing in games that don't go quite so far, whether for technical reasons or because the devs didn't want to really allow me to make a throne of skulls or whatever (sheesh). Plenty of games draw the line at interior design rather than allowing from-scratch structure building, and that can still be a blast given enough freedom to actually put lots of items where you want them. My hopes for GW2 housing lie somewhere around here, realistically.

Human character standing in front of paintings
It's also entirely possible to implement housing in such a way that it sucks a lot of the fun out of it. Upkeep fees and deterioration over time, while sometimes necessary in games with open-world housing, add an element of pressure and stress. High prices for land or items and emphasis on owning and decorating as a marker of prestige limits accessibility and takes the focus off of the value of creativity alone. Layouts in which customization options are limited and amount to arranging a few trophies or hanging a couple of paintings (as in Phantasy Star Universe's original housing) pretty much defeat the point entirely, in my opinion.

What I want from housing in GW2 is a place to play in and customize in ways I can't in the open world. In the CDI thread, Chris Whiteside chose "sociopolitical diversification" such as housing, guild halls, and faction alliances as his top priority as a player, and I agree that it's most likely to give the most benefit to the community. Housing can be a wonderful way to connect with other players, and I think that it ideally crosses over into what Whiteside calls "hero recognition": Just as my cosmetic choices reflect who my character is, so can the place where he lives. I'm all for other types of content crossing over with housing -- just as long as it doesn't require housing itself to be so structured that it takes away opportunities for freeform play and expression.

What are your thoughts on housing in GW2? Do you have a vision of its implementation? Are you glad I finally got to the point of this article? How was your holiday? What are you looking forward to most in 2014? Catch up in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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