Yesterday the latest free expansion of EVE Online, called Tyrannis, was released. The part of it which interests me most is planetary exploration and construction, allowing players to own structures on planets to harvest materials. Unfortunately the expansion wasn't feature-complete on release, right now you can only view planets, not build on them yet. That is presumably going to change in two weeks, on June 8th.
The reason I am interested in this is that planetary structures in EVE aren't unlike player housing in other MMORPGs. And player housing in MMORPGs is riddled with a lot of fundamental problems of time and space. Let me introduce some of those problems by telling you about my first experience with player housing in Ultima Online:
When I started playing Ultima Online, there wasn't any player housing where I was playing. I'm not quite sure whether it wasn't in the game yet, or just not on the server I was playing, but it was shortly after UO had been split up in PvE and PvP mirror halves, and I was playing on the PvE side with no house anywhere. I was working on my tailoring at that time, so I was killing walrus on a large icy wasteland, and had logged off my character there. The next day I logged on and found myself in the middle of a city, with the walrus still roaming the streets. Within hours after housing had been turned on, every single flat space in Trammel had been filled with houses. I had a deed to build a house, and spent the next two weeks in frustration searching for a flat space, but there simply weren't any available. In the end I bought a small house on EBay, RMT being legal in UO.
That experience showed me two possible major drawbacks of player housing: Virtual worlds often actually aren't all that big, and building houses in adventuring areas ends up looking quite strange. In an earlier post of mine, which happens to be the one most linked to on my blog, I calculated the size of Azeroth, and found that a "continent" in World of Warcraft is just twice the size of Manhattan. But with most of it not being flat and suitable for building a house on, and skyscrapers not likely to fit into a fantasy world, there isn't actually all that much space where you could possibly build player housing on. Imagine how the look of a zone like the Barrens would change if hundreds of houses would be build there!
That problem can be solved if you make the world bigger. For example Star Wars Galaxies had enough square miles for every player on a server to build houses, and thus allowed the construction of player towns. The downside of that is that really huge worlds are too big to have every corner hand-crafted, and are often created with fractal landscape algorithms. That allows virtually endless amounts of virtual world to be created, but the places often look a bit sameish and aren't all that much fun to explore. And then players complain if it takes too long to get from one place to another. But even if you optimize all this, you still run into the problem of who is actually living in those virtual player-run towns.
Virtual worlds have a problem of housing density that the real world doesn't have: Presence of inhabitants. As a rule of thumb in the industry, there are 5 to 10 times more players on a server than you can find online during prime time. For example EVE has 330,000 subscribers, with 50,000 online during prime time. We don't have really good numbers for WoW, but typical estimates are 3,000 players online during prime time out of 20,000 players per server. Because of this factor 5 to 10, player built cities in a virtual world are always looking rather empty. On a WoW server you would need to find space for 20,000 players, but with only a maximum of 3,000 players online, and those players presumably spending only a fraction of their time in their houses and the majority of time out adventuring, you'll end up with a house occupation rate of around 1%. Running around in a hypothetical player housing town in World of Warcraft and knocking on doors to see who is home would result in 99 out of 100 houses being found empty. Not exactly a lively place to live in.
Thus other games don't allow players to place houses and towns in the virtual world, but put the player housing in instances. Be that Anarchy Online, Everquest 2, or Final Fantasy XI, the player clicks on some entrance to player housing in a city, and finds himself in his house. There are no limits to how many houses can exist this way, as they don't occupy any space, and nobody notices if 99% of them are empty. But it also often reduces your house to an interior which only you can see, or at max some friends you invite in. As a status symbol that isn't quite as impressive as having a castle in the middle of the landscape where everybody can see it. Lord of the Rings Online tried a compromise, where the housing *zone* is instanced, but you can run around that zone and see the houses from inside an outside. But due to the population density problem mentioned above and the small number of houses in each zone, you rarely ever meet your neighbors, and often find yourself all alone in that housing zone.
So now I'm kind of interested to see how EVE Online is handling these planetary structures. There is a large, but limited number of planets in EVE, especially if you consider that most players would want to remain in safe empire space. So the question is for how many players each planet has space. Is that "instanced", that is you don't even see the planet structures of other players, and can go wherever you want? Or are there only a few spots per planet and every viable spot will be taken a day after building structures is allowed? And given that this is EVE, can a corporation wardec another corporation over planetary resources, carpet bomb their planetary structures and build their own structures on that spot?
As for World of Warcraft, I understand why Blizzard never got around to introduce player housing. This is one of these features where everybody says he wants it, but ends up being dispointed by every possible implementation of it. How exactly would YOU design player housing in World of Warcraft in a way that every player can build a house, but those houses not being invisible to everybody else?