Right now the World of Warcraft community is getting ready to say goodbye to its garrisons of two-ish years. While they won’t go away when Legion launches, Blizzard won’t be carrying the idea forward and is nerfing aspects of garrisons (particularly gold generation) to make them obsolete. Soon enough, garrisons will be a thing of the past, an interesting idea that didn’t quite pan out the way anyone had hoped — developers or players.
Personally, I think it’s a shame and slightly aggravating that Blizzard spent so much time working on garrisons only to throw its hands up and walk away from them now. Back before Warlords of Draenor launched, I remember asking people what the game would do with these player bases once the next expansion rolled around, because I had a hunch that there really wasn’t the foresight or interest to keep them going past a single x-pack. This isn’t an “I told you so!” so much as an “I was hoping to be pleasantly proven wrong.”
So as we prepare to pack up our mental attachment to garrisons and move on to class order halls and a different continent, I thought it might be worth giving garrisons a brief post-mortem here.
Blizzard has long had a weird hang-up about player housing, even as many, many MMORPGs — including its major contemporaries — added such systems to their games. The reasons the studio historically gave felt flat and lame to players’ ears, and it didn’t take much effort to read between the lines to, “We just don’t wanna, because… reasons.” I suspect that the higher-up decision makers never liked housing and so such a system didn’t have an internal champion, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Then comes Warlords and the announcement that WoW would get player housing after a decade… sort of. In a weird move away from simply copying what was working in other games and improving on it, Blizzard decided that garrisons would be its own weird hybrid beast that would eschew customization for lots of utility and quest integration.
So what worked and what didn’t?
What works with garrisons
I know that there’s a lot of backlash and resentment over garrisons, and I acknowledge that I haven’t been in this expansion long enough to feel some of the fatigue that others have claimed. Still, I can’t bring myself to condemn garrisons wholesale, because there is some good in them (I can feel it).
I really like how the system feeds into some collection aspects of the game, particularly with followers and music. The music scrolls thing in particular is a nice little touch of customization and highlights one of World of Warcraft’s strengths.
The system really was woven well into the expansion, growing as your adventures progressed. There were those giddy moments of seeing new buildings and improvements go up, or waving to the various locals who had migrated to your mini-town.
I didn’t even mind the much-maligned mission system, probably because I like getting stuff and appreciate offline systems in other games like SWTOR and Star Trek Online. Once I finally got the follower mission system churning, I was raking in a nice bit of money every day.
Garrison’s greatest strength, however, was its functionality. This whole place was meant to be used, not just gawked at, and that comes through strong. Players can use it to work on professions, pet battles, money generation, and so on. It took a lot of the headache out of leveling up mining and engineering for my main characters, and even if garrisons become outdated in the future, I can still see them as being useful for up-and-coming toons.
And it is certainly nice to have that extra hearthstone and a place to begin and end each day’s adventures — as housing should be.
What doesn’t work with garrisons
While there are aspects of garrisons I like, it’s very hard to argue that it was a ringing success — particularly even if the studio has lost all confidence in it. I think the biggest misstep here is that Blizzard stubbornly refused to acknowledge that players don’t just want an identical castle to everyone else in the game, but that they craved their own personal space to customize.
There is virtually no room in garrisons to express individual creativity. Sure, you can place buildings slightly different and choose music and I think pick a tapestry here or there, but my garrison is going to look pretty much the same as every other alliance character’s place. If you look at the incredible ways that players have used housing systems in EverQuest 2, RIFT, and WildStar to show off creativity and create social spaces, it’s such a missed opportunity to not have that in World of Warcraft.
Maybe it would’ve been more work? So what! It would have been worth it if the studio had put in the effort. Housing items could have been another carrot to place as quest rewards or in loot tables, and that could have boosted the economy (and even opened the door for a new profession). Look at how rabid players are with transmog — it’s because that’s pretty much the only way that the game allows them to express creativity and visual personality. Proper player housing in WoW could have been that to the nth degree.
Back to garrisons, however. People really did not like feeling pressured to log in every day (sometimes multiple times each day) to deal with the mission system, yet it wasn’t so much of a choice when missing out meant that you’d be losing potential gold. The shipyard was a big bust, practically the same mission system that missed out on the chance to have a ship minigame or allow players to actually sail their own vessels.
Another critique of garrisons is that they allowed the community to get too isolated, which I’m afraid Blizzard is going to use as an eternal example of why it should never try to do housing in the future. And that wouldn’t be fair, because real housing is inviting and social, whereas there’s almost no point to ever visiting someone else’s keep here.
But yes, lots of isolation. You could game entirely within your garrison, doing all of the fiddly bits there and queuing up for raids and dungeons and PvP from inside your walls. It took players out of the cities and common areas too much.
I don’t think that class order halls are going to be a smart counterpoint to the isolation of garrisons, however. I suspect that players, who like to imagine they’re the only/best member of that class and cherish their identity as such, will resent having to rub shoulders with a crowd of ONLY their class on a regular basis. We will see.
Alternatives to abandonment
But instead of abandoning garrisons and kind of pretending they never happened, Blizzard could be using the system as an opportunity to do something interesting and new. Maybe past the Warlords of Draenor experience and the garrison integration, these spaces could open up for more true housing touches. Maybe we could buy and actually decorate the main halls to our liking, even as the functionality of the garrisons evaporates.
Maybe Blizzard could give players tools to turn their garrisons into more social spaces — for roleplay, group games, and even small PvP matches. I’m not saying all of this should be done, just that it could be done instead of letting nature reclaim these keeps and hoping that time would erase players’ memories of garrisons the way that it has for the Pandoria farms.