The Role of Choice and Player Agency, As Told Through Player Housing

How do you fix something that is not, for all people and in all ways, broken?

That is a tricky task indeed.

WoW, for all of its successes and failures, has one core, fundamental issue that I think is the thing I would trace much of the game’s relative decline in player excitement to.

Today, I’d like to discuss it through the lens of an experience I touched on briefly in the Weekly Hype Train I posted earlier today.

Player Housing By Contrast – What Choice Brings to the Table

The year is 2014, and there are two very similar and yet very different MMOs out and playable. The first is World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, the expansion that added Blizzard’s version of player housing to the game via the Garrison system.

The other is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and the approach it took and still takes to player housing is quite a bit different. Housing is a market, with housing districts tied to each capital offering a fixed number of plots, with wards used as copies of the housing area to increase available plots. Each district also offers an apartment building, which allows individual players to buy a room for much cheaper and to get the housing experience on a still-limited fashion. The game is built in such a way that unless your server is extremely low-population, you are not guaranteed to get housing, and if all plots on your server are sold, you might have to wait in the wings for someone to abandon their house, or try to find an apartment if available. You also have the option of joining a Free Company with a house, which will usually have Private Chambers, which are basically an apartment but even cheaper, since the initial cost of housing was offset by your Free Company.

The approach could not be more different. The Garrison in WoW was a fixed plot, with one location per faction. The size was controlled by player progression, growing from the inital small size to a large keep, and then expanding further in patch 6.2 with the shipyard. There is one design style per faction, with Alliance getting human structural design notes and the Horde getting Orcish design, and using fixed plot locations per faction and a fixed number of plots to allow you to expand. Every building has a gameplay function of some sort, which means that you have difficult decisions to make. If you want some of the Draenor mounts, you need to build and fully level a Stables, but once that is done, the building only offers a passive buff of minimal value. A lumber mill gives you a Garrison follower and allows you an easy way to get more Garrison resources, but they are already free-flowing from the cache, so it feel unnecessary. The number of permutations for a Garrison are extremely limited, and so the system failed to really catch on and the only element that has been brought forward is the combination of a resource currency for the main story of the expansion and the mission table minigame.

FFXIV, on the other hand, has player housing for the sake of it. Now, if you’re me, coming to this idea from the WoW viewpoint, that sounds silly. I agreed with Blizzard that I wanted player housing to have some sort of gameplay beyond just having a house or room. FFXIV basically just gives you the housing plot (or apartment/private chamber) as a blank canvas onto which you can paint whatever you would like. You can buy furniture of various style templates that go from plain and utilitarian all the way up to gaudy baubles built using design elements from creatures and bosses in the game. You can lay out your house or room however you see fit, with the only rules being a cap on the number of pieces you can load in (to help performance), furniture placements must at least somewhat adhere to reality (you can clip a decorative wall element but you cannot mount a bed to your wall), and the remodeling options usually limit you to one interior wall style, floor style, and fixed light style.

I’ve built 15 Garrisons over my time in WoW, even going back on my Demon Hunter to get one and do all the Draenor quests for the sake of unlocking everything, and yet, aside from the first 2-3 times, it has never felt particularly special. The unlock process is annoying, the resource system rarely feels like it matters, save for when you are first getting established, and you have so few means by which to customize anything that every Garrison for a faction past the first feels pretty samey. It also is hurt by the fact that building rank unlocks are required to even keep things matching as your garrison levels up, so you might have alts like mine, with level 1 and 2 buildings that are little Alliance tents in the middle of a castle-wall plot.

FFXIV, on the other hand, has inspired in me a creative side I never imagined the game would unlock. I’ve had the private chambers for under 72 hours, and yet I’ve redecorated it 3 times and spent the full cost of gil that I needed to unlock it in the first place on furniture, remodeling utlities, and decor. The game has a fantastic economic incentive for this as well, as most furnishings beyond the basics are built by players with crafting professions, which makes for a phenomenal way to keep those things relevant. It allows me to have a lot of additional fun in the game without actually doing anything to the core game – having a private chamber doesn’t impact my ability to quest, run dungeons, slay primals, or anything – but it adds a lot to the experience.

But the biggest aspect I would mention, and the one I want to call out in detail here, is this – choice and agency.

FFXIV player housing offers a lot by doing a little – you have the art team create a handful of assets, many of which are already in use in the game world anyways, and you give players the means to buy them, craft them, and use them to furnish a fictional home in whatever way the player sees fit, and then cut players loose, only limited by their imagination and their budget/crafting skills.

This is the thing I think WoW misses in its newer systems. Old talents gave me a ton of ways to customize my character – and while I don’t necessarily miss them, I think they were a pretty good idea. Reforging gave me the means by which I could customize how my character played to a greater degree than I can with fixed drops – even if a given slot has more options in the new system. Purchased upgrades gave me a means to decide what pieces I wanted to have more powerful, and encouraged me to play in the ways I saw fit to earn the currency needed for the upgrade. Fixed gem sockets gave me a reliable way to customize any piece of gear with them, and gave a reliable income stream to jewelcrafters. More available enchants gave me ways to customize my gear further, especially when the enchant offered a fun effect, and it helped me make some money as an enchanter.

The current state of WoW is one of reducing these meaningful choices to random events, or simply removing the choices altogether and allowing the void they leave behind to remain there. Gear upgrades by choice and currency give way to Titanforging – which can feel good in the right circumstances, but can also pop on an unwanted piece and leave you out of luck for later. I have more options for secondary stats on gear, and an average higher number of options per slot per tier, but getting the best options is difficult, and I have fewer ways to customize what I do get to better fill the gaps in my gearing. Item enhancements are much more limited, with a far lower number of gem slots on a given 120 character and fewer enchantable pieces of gear, with less meaningful enchants. The difference between the cheap secondary stat enchants and the beefy ones this expansion is +10 of the stat, yet the material cost is exponentially higher! Also, while I don’t want to go to Mists of Pandaria level, with 20 some odd gem sockets to fill and optimize, I also hate having around 3.

Since Mists of Pandaria, the WoW design has trended towards removing player choice and agency in favor of these carrot on a stick random systems, or just removing the options that might allow you to opt out of the randomness and choose to optimize in place the best you can.

None of this is necessarily new feedback for WoW, from me, or in general. Yet, I often think of something that stands out to me in retrospect – Legion was the same way on all of these fronts, and yet, while we often complained about these specific pieces, we still enjoyed the game. Even WoD was like this, in a way, and yet many of us still played WoD more and complained less at that point in time. I bring this up because I want to be clear – I haven’t fully wrapped my head around why that is or how it works out that this is the case. But I know for myself and many others that this is the perception – BfA is “worse” and yet the systems that raise the most ire are fundamentally the same as Legion. In fact, this is a valid sticking point for a lot of BfA criticism from those enjoying themselves – if the systems haven’t really changed that much, what is the problem?

Answering that is tricky, but I would push in this direction – Legion’s supporting systems, all of those we just mentioned, were married to a full continent, consistent theme, a more robust post-level cap progression model, and faster combat even at the initial level cap. My plan for a few upcoming posts is to dive into these in more detail, as a lot of the discussion here and on other blogs about my prior post discussing the relative quality of expansions has fed into this topic for me! I do think that a lot of the frustration we did feel and expressed during Legion was tied directly to these systems – Titanforging has been a hot topic for around 3 years and I think we’ve mostly settled on being unsatisfied with it, as Blizzard continues to stand up for it constantly in Q&A sessions and interviews. The lack of reforging is something I liked in WoD, when a warforge was +6 item levels and maybe a tertiary stat or socket, but with Titanforging, it means you might realistically need to equip that 415 piece you got in LFR because the raw stats are too good, but losing a preferred secondary in the process makes your gameplay feel worse – particularly if you are a spec that values Haste to an extreme in order to enable rotation fluidity.

The systems in the game fight against us as players and constrain the boundaries of possibility. Couple these systems carrying the same problems forward into BfA with slower combat and a lesser sense of the full scale of the content available in BfA, and the end result is a disappointment. The reason so much attention has turned to these systems now is that the underpinning game is in worse shape due to unrelated changes (GCD, class and spec design, etc) and so there is less to bounce off of, so to speak.

Perhaps I don’t need to be able to reforge every piece of gear, change every stat, or get every gem socket. Maybe item upgrades aren’t a very good system in their own right. But I remember a time when WoW afforded me what felt like a nearly limitless pool of choices, and I liked the gameplay that offered.

For now, though, at least I can get that elsewhere.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if I want to move the hot tub in my private chambers.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Choice and Player Agency, As Told Through Player Housing

  1. Hm that is a good point. Perhaps all the “systems” feels less intergrated in the game, and more so like portals you take to jump through another dimension so to speak.

    Appreciate the insight into a completely different game 🙂 I think player housing will make its way into WoW someday.

    Liked by 1 person

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