Player housing is something that has been a lot on my mind for the past several years. I believe I first began to think about player housing back when I was playing Ultima Online. Back then the big problem with player housing was the sprawl that would cover the landscape and how to avoid it. Raising the price of houses is the quick answer to that, but as most MMO economies suffer from constant inflation you will still reach a point where everyone and their dog is going to be capable of buying a house (at least in most simple models).

Starwars Galaxies raised other interesting questions about housing.  The economy of SWG was largely in the hands of the players. Nearly all the items in game were created and sold by players, including houses. While it was possible to buy a deed for a house from an NPC merchant that was only a convenience placed in the game so that people would not have to spend hours on end standing around to sell things. The deed was still the creation of a player and the price for the deed was set by a player.  Of course the designers had at least some superficial control over the price of the houses as they set up the list of materials and tasks that had to be done to create one in the first place. By requiring more materials and more work on the part of players the costs of the houses would increase, and that worked, at least to a degree.

The problem was that there was a certain disconnect between the value of an item such as a house and the value of an item such as a gun. Often it would not be at all unusual for a weapon to cost more than one of the simpler dwellings. This was not the case simply of weapons that required rare and exotic materials to make costing more than a small yurt but rather a case of good serviceable weapons costing more than a (admittedly small) house. Guns and armor that needed rare and exotic materials would frequently be sold for ten or twenty times the cost of the most lavish building. While this might have been appropriate if the materials were so rare that there were only half a dozen of these weapons on a server when I refer to rare and exotic I am referring to there only being a few hundred per server as opposed to thousands.

Even more vexing for the architects was the fact that it took considerably more materials and effort to make a house. Seeing standard guns that sold for more than your buildings was painful enough but knowing that they only consumed about 1/3 of the resources and took perhaps half the steps to make made it even worse.

Of course it wasn’t as if the designers had simply said that this was the price of a gun and this was the price of a house. It simply worked out that way. The question was why?

I thought about the question for a while and the answer I came up with was this; the price a player will pay for an item is limited by the value of the item. Players really don’t care about whether an item is so common that you can’t help but trip over one as you walk out of town or if it took a six month quest to be obtained. If the value of an item is low then people simply won’t pay much for it.

Of course while that is true there is some wiggle room. For one thing the concept of value is a bit nebulous. An utterly useless item will still have a certain value if it takes a six month quest to obtain simply because of the prestige it gives to its owner. However, given that most players tend to be goal oriented that value will be relatively low.

A bigger factor is that the statement defines the maximum price a player will pay which is not necessarily the market price. If an item is too common than market pressures will keep the top selling price below that. Take cars as an example. Obviously people are willing to spend twenty thousand dollars for a new car. In fact some people will spend considerably more. However, if someone were able to make and market cars every bit as good for only a thousand dollars than the price of the twenty thousand dollar cars would drop. Their value would be unchanged but since people can get the exact same value for only a thousand dollars they would naturally chose that instead.

In the real world, of course, lots of other pressures come into play because the auto manufacturers can only make a finite number of cars with a finite supply of material. The thousand dollar cars would be snapped up so quickly by people who would eagerly resell them for ten thousand dollars once the supply of cars was sold out that almost none would reach the general market at the original price. As I understand it in theory the free market is suppose to be able to adjust so that the twenty thousand dollar car retains its value. This is the kind of stuff that keeps economists employed and off the streets.

The conclusion I came to is that the players in SWG must place a lower value on a home than on a weapon. When I realized this I started to think of why that would be and I realized that it was because houses added very little to a character beyond some prestige and a place to store things. It was not only possible for a character to survive without a house, it was easy. Characters already had a rather large amount of inventory space which could be expanded even more through an inexpensive backpack. On top of that characters had copious bank space. For the crafting segment of the population a house offered a location to set up a crafting station, but since a droid could offer similar abilities that was more a matter of preference than necessity.

So how can the value of player housing be increased? Well, it’s tricky because to make a house valuable you end up needing to make it a much more integrated part of your mechanics, I think. You have to decide what it is that you want a house to offer and make sure that what it offers is of practical benefit. The really tricky part though is that the benefit can’t be so great that players unable to afford housing or characters who choose not to own a house don’t feel like they are ‘gimped’.

So what are the benefits of a house? To me it seems that houses offer three things: Shelter, storage, and comfort.

Shelter and comfort may seem like the same thing and certainly they are related but when I refer to shelter I am thinking about the simple rudiments of survival. It’s the ability to have a warm place to sleep where you won’t get rained on and you don’t need to worry about insects biting you. In fact the category of shelter really extends past the building and encompasses anything that has a direct physical impact on a character. A bed is a form of shelter since sleeping on a bed is more restful than sleeping on the floor. A rug is shelter since it provides a thin insulation over cold floors.

Comfort on the other hand is what you worry about after shelter is accomplished. Just for the sake of the discussion it is all the elements of a house that affect the mental state of a character. Paintings on the wall are purely for comfort. Lighting beyond the minimums required for sight are comfort as well. Often things that provide shelter will also provide comfort. Two rugs on the floor may provide identical shelter but if one is more aesthetically pleasing then it would provide more comfort.

Storage is just like it sounds. It’s a place to put things that a character doesn’t want to or isn’t capable of carrying around. This would include items that a character owns but that he doesn’t want to be carrying to free up inventory space as well as items the character doesn’t want to carry because of weight penalties they impose. It’s also probably the single biggest reason why a character would want to live in anything larger than a ten by ten box. A bigger house with more rooms, more places to store stuff (which coincidentally allows a place to be made more ‘comfortable’).

The problem is that most MMO’s that I’m aware of don’t consider the first two benefits, making them valueless except for roleplayers, and often in the case of storage the advantage offered isn’t a big deal (and more than a few MMO’s don’t even give you that). To have real value the benefits have to have real effect, and here’s where it gets tricky.

Storage is probably the easiest to address of the three. Even in games with copious storage space players always want more. The problem is that the value of that extra storage works in relation to the base number of items a character can carry. If a character can already store over 200 items then the space for an extra 50 items, while nice, isn’t going to be that significant. Players tight on storage can make a ‘mule’, throw out the items that aren’t as important, or find some other way to survive with the smaller inventory. Increasing the number of items that a house can store will make it more valuable but will also bloat the database. On the other hand if a character can only carry 25 items than the value of a house that can store 225 items is much higher and will result in exactly the same size of database.

What’s harder to address is the need for shelter. Characters living out of doors for prolonged periods of time without any form of skill would begin to develop penalties to physical abilities to reflect the lack of shelter. The worse the penalties become the greater the value to the players of finding shelter. Some sort of skill at finding shelter should probably be available to help mitigate the effects for people who want to play characters like rangers and druids but it should never fully offset the penalty since even the best improvised shelter isn’t going to be as protective as a real house. This would create a much larger value for the shelter offered by housing.

Finally there is the benefit of comfort. This is the trickiest one, I think. How do you simulate the effect of hanging a painting on the wall or an ornate rug on the floor? Penalties to mental abilities or just leave it as a ‘prestige’ thing? Maybe the significant increase in storage and the advantage of shelter is enough to give housing a decent value and there’s no need to worry about comfort.

So that’s where I am with this right now, mulling over the finer points of how to increase the value of housing to players. The downside of course is that some people will feel that they are being forced towards housing and will complain about favoritism in the design for Architects, but then the same thing happens for Weaponsmiths and Armorsmiths, doesn’t it?