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Guild Wars 2's player housing pushes decorating over land grabs

All the fun parts of owning a home, minus the HOA fees.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

June 28, 2024

7 Min Read
A farmlike Homestead from Guild Wars 2.
Image via ArenaNet.

At a Glance

  • Guild Wars 2's new player housing feature is a significant addition to the decade-plus old MMORPG.
  • Implementing this feature required solving very unique design challenges.
  • To better implement homeownership, Arenanet made personal expression—not property management—the core pillar of the system.

Player housing in online games is a surprisingly fascinating topic. It's an oft-requested feature because it adds to the fantasy of role-playing in a virtual world, but implementing it can have a rolling array of knock-on effects if developers don't consider the supply of digital land.

ArenaNet thankfully did not run into this problem while developing the next expansion for Guild Wars 2, titled Janthir Wilds. As developers Joel Eckert, Rick Luebbers, and Andrew Gray put it in a recent interview with Game Developer, their goal with the game's new "Homesteads" feature wasn't to build fully-implemented neighborhoods but to add a new set of spaces for players to customize and make their own.

Or, as Luebbers quipped, "Construction injuries were not something we needed to simulate." Neither were drastically high housing costs or tyrannical homeowners associations.

The Homesteads feature makes for a fascinating case study of how older online games can evolve for their loyal audience. ArenaNet dodged one bullet by making housing unlimited in supply—but it still faced challenges to ensure Homesteads fit into Guild Wars 2's gameplay without trampling the existing experience.

Guild Wars 2's housing feature is built on its existing decorating tools

Related:Deep Dive: Reimagining the battle pass in Guild Wars 2

When an MMORPG has run for as many years as Guild Wars 2 has, many loyal players become motivated by an urge to personalize their characters. But after you've shipped thousands of armor upgrades, Gray said, you start to "run out of real estate on the body" (pun intended?).

Guild Wars 2 already possessed customizable spaces: the shared "guild halls" and "arenas" that can be assembled by groups of players gathered into guilds. In these halls, players can decorate the space with walls, flags, monuments, and even custom lighting. That meant ArenaNet had existing decoration technology to build off of and wasn't starting from scratch.

A player Homestead interior in Guild Wars 2. A high-backed red chair is in the foreground.

Homesteads aren't located in the general game world—they're private instances each player can acquire (though they only get one per account). When they enter the Homestead, they'll find a simple building with a few decorations already placed. Eckert explained that during his time on The Sims 4, he learned that many players need existing decorations in place to not be intimidated by a blank slate and seemingly endless possibilities. "On The Sims, what we found was that there was a large amount of the playerbase that needed some example to jump off of," he recalled. He alluded to how writers (like yours truly) can be intimidated by a basic blank page. "You're presented with a lot of freedom, but also that freedom can be kind of scary sometimes."

After deciding to decorate their space, they can also determine what privileges their friends will have when inviting them over. They can turn on or off fall damage and build custom jumping puzzles. They can establish resource nodes that they can work together to farm.

Here's where things get interesting. Homes in Guild Wars 2 do not serve the same function as homes in the real world. They aren't even comparable to homes players will assemble in survival games like Minecraft, Rust, or Enshrouded. In Guild Wars 2, players wander out into the world to delve into dungeons and fight raid bosses. Homes aren't exposed to the dangers of monsters or outside elements. In some respects, they're as much of a space to be visited rather than a place to start and end their day.

That's all intentional on ArenaNet's part, said Gray. "Our thoughts were more about how to push you back out into the world," he explained. The team hated the idea that players would feel their Homesteads were obligatory to the adventuring experience. Not every player will enjoy having to grind out resources in their Homebase before heading out for the day.

This decision had a fascinating ripple effect on creating systems for Homestead, like the experience points economies. For instance, even though players are "crafting" many decorations to place in their homes, the decoration crafting system doesn't use the "crafting XP" system. It uses what Guild Wars 2 refers to as "Mastery XP," a progression system for players that have reached maximum level with a character. Mastery XP is earned by going out into the world of Guild Wars 2 and completing various achievements.

Gray explained it like this: if a player wanted to make a Homestead item that required a high amount of crafting XP, the quickest way to unlock it would be to stand still and just click "craft object" over and over again to crank that number up.

A player character wielding a spear stands in front of an explosion in Guild Wars 2.

If the player goes out into the world and earns Mastery XP, then they're actually playing Guild Wars 2 while chasing their Homesteading goals. Gray said that ArenaNet wants Homesteads to be engaging for as many players as possible. The studio's goal is that if a player is regularly playing Guild Wars 2 and engaging with content from its many expansions, then they can count on finding something fun to do out in their Homestead.

Adding decorating tools to a 12-year-old game isn't easy

Guild Wars 2 doesn't follow in the footsteps of survival games where players build their homes and decorations brick by brick. Because it's an evolution of the existing decoration tool, it's meant to let players enter a "fly mode" and navigate their camera around the space, placing objects precisely as desired.

Playtesting the Homestead feature also inspired ArenaNet to design new tools, said Luebbers. Players will have access to a "wireframe mode" in their home area that can render objects in their Homestead as easily visible outlines. They'll be able to see through obstacles and terrain and be better able to find decorative objects that they misplaced or previously buried in the ground.

Expanding the existing decoration tool came with some "self-inflicted" tech debt. ArenaNet decided that if it was going to update the existing decoration tools for Homesteads, they needed to be retroactively updated for guild halls as well. After all, there will still be players more invested in decorating their guilds' stomping grounds than their own home. Leaving them with simpler systems could lead to unnecessary disappointment.

Then there's maybe the more important issue: updating how decorative objects work across Guild Wars 2 would break how those objects work with the old decorating tools. Entire halls would be thrown into ruin. Obviously, that's not an agreeable outcome.

A Homestead interior in Guild Wars 2. It looks like a log cabin with various fantasy accoutrements.

Maybe the biggest limitation, Gray said, was that data storage on an "elder game" can be a complicated task. That's why players are only allowed one Homestead per account that's shared across all of their characters. Gray recalled that the team was "trying to figure out the maximum amount of [inhabitable] space, the number of decorations—all sorts of things that could allow us to push the envelope." If every player character were allowed to have a Homestead (versus every player account), it would "drastically shrink" how expansive Homesteads could be.

Gray and Luebbers made familiar overtures to the idea that adding player housing to an MMORPG needs to obviously be fun before it's "realistic." But adding this feature so late in the game's life shows the creativity needed to even make such a feature "fun." It doesn't simulate a realistic experience of living in a fantasy world, trading ordinary tasks like gathering resources and assembling buildings by hand to the process of just giving players easy tools to plop down furniture where they see fit.

But if the purpose of your housing system is self-expression and not survivability—why would players want to simulate the everyday challenges of home ownership? Prioritizing player creativity shows how ArenaNet—and other developers—can nurture more and more life out of long-running online games.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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