Making Housing Matter

I love the idea of housing in MMOs but have never seen it manifested in any satisfactory manner.  Usually houses are nothing but prefabricated boxes, with minimal decorating capacity, that are used to hold stuff.  What can be done to improve on this?

First off, houses in real life serve three important purposes besides storing stuff: they protect us from the elements, they give us a safe place to eat and sleep, and they provide a contact point for socializing.  Let’s take those in reverse.  

The necessity of having a house to communicate with others is fading over time as people rely less on snailmail and landlines, and increasingly use means of communication that aren’t location-specific (e.g. email, mobile phones).  Still, a house provides a place to get together with friends, even if it’s no longer needed in the process of long-distance coordination.  It’s a desirable setting where the environment is controlled, where people can enjoy food and entertainment of their choice without interruption, at least in theory.  How can this be implemented in an MMO?  Clearly global chat or whispers remove most of the benefits of a virtual physical address; one might however allow packages to be sent only to people’s houses, instead of the generic mailboxes one finds in cities in today’s MMOs.  Honestly, those generic public mailboxes make no sense at all except as drop-off points; how can one explain being able to pick up personal mail in the middle of Orgrimmar or Thunder Bluff or the Undercity, depending on which is most convenient?  Even the catchall “magic” explanation seems pretty questionable.

I also like the idea of having buffs applied to characters over time when they stay in inns and homes; this would tend to increase the density of players in “realistic” locations, which aids in socializing and provides a purpose for such structures.  Perhaps spending time in a player home might increase one’s crafting or other noncombat skills, while spending time in an inn might increase one’s adventuring/combat skills?

Houses in real life are of course used as places to rest and recuperate; in MMOs characters rarely need to sleep (since it’s hard to work into any sort of consistency without making it extremely boring… e.g. either I can lie down and spring right back up fully rested, which is inconsistent with the flow of time, or I have to actually wait for 6-8 hours of in-game time, which is boring for me as a player).  Perhaps instead, houses could provide a bonus to healing effects, especially to recovery from poison and disease?  I think current games over-rely on combat healing anyhow, though of course there’s a balance to be struck here between realistic mechanics and fun gameplay.

Finally, and most essentially, houses protect us from the hazards of the environment; they keep us warm and dry, which is essential to our health.  In MMOs the temperature is very rarely, if ever, even a remote concern.  Characters tromp around in snow wearing chainmail bikinis, and trudge through volcanic caves wearing full plate and heavy cloaks.  OK, stepping in lava usually does damage, and occasionally being in a really, really cold place will also bring adverse effects, but generally there’s no consequence to the weather.  Honestly, this is a tricky one, and I don’t have a perfect answer; any attempts to require shelter or to emphasize weather effects will likely make the game lose some of its fun.  Players don’t want to log in and watch their characters lie in bed with a nasty flu, after all; at least, most players of MMOs don’t; perhaps players of Sim games feel otherwise.

So what else are houses used for?  How else can we emphasize them in MMOs, making them more than simply trophy halls with storage capacity?

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