It's always amusing to me when the Turbine team gets decked out in leather, waves around their riding crops and starts abducting members of the public for their innocuous "surveys." Okay, maybe that's just how I mentally envision them going about the task – and I'm sure that says a lot about the state of my mental health these days.
However it happens in reality, Turbine's pretty good at soliciting player opinion on improving the game, and last week we saw them post a thread in the forums entitled "Tell the Community Team - New and Revamped Systems" to do just that. They basically asked players to comment on what game systems they'd like to see improved, what new systems should be implemented, and what regular systems they never use due to time or other factors. PvMP, Radiance gear and Legendary Items were off the table for discussion, but all else was fair game.
I started to tally all these up, but that was an insane task, which I realized only after filling up an entire sheet of paper while I was only on page 5 out of 39 of the thread. Besides, the overwhelming theme of the thread quickly made itself known: players want housing fixed, and in a bad, bad way. So, hey, let's look at the Middle-earth housing crisis this week, and see how we can make it better.
The Sims This Ain't
As many players -- myself included -- are quick to mention, we're quite glad that Turbine saw fit to include housing with the Book 11 patch back in late 2007. While housing isn't for everyone (and if it's not, people tend to be condescending toward those who do love it), having a home in Middle-earth somehow means more to LotRO players than in other games I've played. It's all about having your own place in the world, a Bag End or Last Homely House of your own to return to at the end of an adventure, kick up your feet and eat some eggs and bacon.
And other than just existing, the housing system isn't without a few niceties. There are three types of houses (standard, deluxe, kinship) that come in four varieties (one for each race), and they can be decked out with a wide array of items. You can customize the floors and walls with both textures and colors, arrange your front yard, and display hard-earned (or smartly-bought) furniture and trophies within. There's even a level of practical functionality here, as your house offers another quick port, a mailbox and a storage chest or two.
However, as the rising chorus in this discussion thread -- and indeed, in many other threads dating back over the past couple years -- LotRO's housing simply feels half-baked. Great idea, but it's not quite there in terms of execution just yet. Listen to a few of the testimonials from the discussion thread:
- "I have yet to see a single house in this game that doesn't look fake due to how inflexible positioning is." (CQ-Reborn)
- "As of this moment, I treat my houses like they're intended by Turbine -- empty, undecorated, and using the chests." (Crissaegrim)
- "Go into any furnished player house and look at how spread-out everything is. Then go into any NPC house and see how full and cozy it is." (Jadzi)
There's a few main problems that need to be addressed. The first is that there are far too few "hooks" where you can place items and furniture, and the hooks that do exist are spaced out in a way that makes it all but impossible for you to create a comfortable home. Hooks have different types of furniture assigned to them, which makes it that much more difficult to use them, particularly when you have three "Large Floor Furniture" items and only one large floor spot. In the deluxe and kinship homes, the rooms are veritably massive compared to the paltry few hooks available, giving each locale the look of a well-spaced museum.
The second problem is one of function and use. As LotRO's houses exist in instanced neighborhoods, there's often little reason for anyone other than the house's owner to visit (and even then, somewhat rarely). Players might be divided over how to combat the problem of non-use, but they unite behind the sentiment that houses should offer a reason for people to visit and for you to use it frequently enough on your own, whether that might be for crafting tables, special functional furniture, unique buffs or special stables.
The last issue that's mentioned frequently is the cost and upkeep of homes. I know I've had discussions with other Massively staffers concerning this, with one person saying that they'd return to LotRO in a heartbeat if it wasn't for the fact that their home was in escrow and would require copious amounts of gold to unlock. The upkeep and resulting forfeiture of homes has caused a wave of "ghost town" neighborhoods, which makes nobody happy. As StreetDoc67 on the forums put it, "Housing upkeep should be eliminated. Did I buy the house or didn't I? If I did, why am I paying rent each month?"
If, for some unknown and unlikely reason, Turbine wasn't aware of players' feelings on housing before this survey, it should be hard to ignore after this point. Housing may not be the main focus of the game, but it's a significant system that many players deem important enough to fill up page after page on the forums with rants, suggestions and frustrations. So, without scrapping the current system and starting anew, what are some practical ways Turbine could elevate LotRO's housing system out of the minors and into the majors?
The ideal solution for decoration, according to most players, would be to shift to an EverQuest II-style freeform arrangement, where you could position anything virtually anywhere in your home. Of course, the current system isn't set up for this, and that creates a host of potential problems, so many commenters are willing to compromise. The general feeling I got was that if Turbine would either offer far more hooks than they already have, let you move hooks around and chain them together (to create little clusters of furniture, for example), or free the restrictions on hooks so that you could use more types of furniture with each one, then there might be a lot more happiness floating around.
Some players have asked Turbine to go past that and let them construct the interiors of the houses, perhaps like the modular base construction that City of Heroes offers. Even a selection of different floor plans would be welcome, as the game certainly has its fair share of various layouts already.
But improved decoration is only one variable to making housing into a more desirable and used system, as there needs to be something to do once you're there, other than to just meander around and spend a few minutes taking screenshots. In this, I think there are a few ways Turbine could go, as long as they did something more than what they have now.
They could give housing a fun quality, particularly to promote socialization and parties. After all, what's the use in spending gobs of time decking out your crib when nobody comes to admire it? Personally, I'd love to see more housing furniture and items be usable in some way, particularly if it contained a little game or challenge. Another fun option would be to capture (or buy) and then train housepets, who would then interact with visitors.
They could grant housing functional qualities as well, linking the house to the rest of the game. If Turbine seems resistant to giving players in-house crafting (as they have stated in the past), then there are other solutions to making houses a functional tool for increasing a player's abilities. A buff that grows over time when you're resting at your home, for example, is an easy and obvious solution.
Finally, Turbine could add unique qualities to housing that aren't seen anywhere else. What if there was a new type of hobby -- say, gardening or beer brewing -- that could only be accessed through your house? A special type of crafting (letter-writing?) that would play out between houses? Or a game that could only take place in a home (or in its front yard)? As Stormwaltz said on the forums, "There needs to be more critical services to get people to go - and linger - there."
I'd also agree that Turbine needs to reduce (or eliminate) the upkeep costs, free up abandoned homes for active users, and make the barrier of re-entry into the housing market not as costly as it is today. Some players have also suggested that neighborhoods be scrapped, and all housing moved to the major cities (with instanced doorways).
Next Week, On a Special Edition of The Road to Mordor...
Next week is Lord of the Rings Online's 3rd anniversary (and my author's 5th wedding anniversary -- any suggestions?), and because of this, we're going to devote the column to a look back on the past three years in LotRO's growth and development. I'd also like to post a few of your favorite memories of this MMO, which you can e-mail to justin-at-massively-dot-com with the subject line "LotRO Memories!"