A World of Warcraft garrison post-mortem

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.


8 thoughts on “A World of Warcraft garrison post-mortem

  1. jameshateswordpress July 7, 2016 / 9:25 am

    I’m my opinion, Garrisons were poorly designed from the start. There was more of a social aspect in Pandaria farming.

    What I really miss is the jousting in the Argent tournament back in WOLTK.

    Every expansion completely abandons the previous efforts. Look at how busy Shattrath used to be…or the Barrens!

  2. Forrestra July 7, 2016 / 10:08 am

    I liked the garrison because it was less of a social space. I liked how MY pets milled around and MY mounts appeared in my stable. MY archeology artifacts went into a trophy room. MY music scrolls went into MY music box. And the guards (whose race I got to choose) didn’t complain when I got on a mammoth mount to sell stuff while standing next to MY mailbox.

    That isn’t to say it wasn’t a social space:
    – You gathered up your friends to help you with invasions, the expansion’s only 3 player content.
    – There were holiday decorations. If you used the dailies for more than just making money, you could show others who were more about the money what they missed.
    – You could invite guildies or strangers to your garrison for realm hopping, ore trader, Harrison Jones and buildings that they didn’t have. Basically it was your personal outpost people could visit, but on your terms. Yes it looked mostly like theirs, but the differences created reasons to visit.
    – You could even share your success in recruiting an Inn follower who would give out a toy to anyone who asked.
    – You grouped up with your friends or strangers to gather barn materials. I found the mechanic interesting. Group gathering.

    I disagree that the farm was more social. Your farm was a way to escape the crush of people crowding around the tightly packed cooking trainers and quest givers. I never used it as a social space. Even while doing Halfhill dailies, I would meet my groupmates at the quest locations, not Halfhill.

    If you want to mention a social space in MoP that moved forward into WoD, I’d use the Timeless Isle and Tanaan Jungle. Both had placed to meet up, gets quests, and from there you ventured into the wilderness to kill stuff together. Either for quests, objectives, rep grinding or just plain rare hunting.

    That isn’t to say the garrison was perfect. The garden and mine took the farm concept too far. It devalued gathering too much. I never gave up gathering in MoP because I had a farm. But I did in WoD. Probably the combination of the garden and mine with the profession buildings. I found the Garrison’s to be even better for catching up cooking and first aid, but it almost seemed too easy. Just sit at the trading post buying ingredients to get to 700 cooking and first aid, from as low as level 1. At least in MoP, you still had to work for the last bunch of points of cooking.

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus July 7, 2016 / 10:15 am

    The irony here is that Blizz was already on record, via Tom Chilton, as saying that they didn’t want to do housing because they did not want to pull people out of the world. And yet they did garrisons which, again via Tom Chilton, was billed as some sort of housing option for WoW, which offered very little in the way of upside on the housing front… identical garrison is identical… and managed to pull even more people out of the world that just housing would have because a good chunk of the expansion required you to be there.

    And now, having managed to find just the right “worst of both worlds” mix, you can expect WoW will never, ever have actual housing ala EQII or Rift, because the self-fulfilling prophecy of garrisons was self-fulfilled.

    For me, running a garrison with a single character wasn’t too grindy, but when I ended up with five garrisons they very quickly ate up all my play time in maintenance.

  4. Tyler F.M. Edwards July 7, 2016 / 10:55 am

    I largely agree with your points, Syp.

    I will also add that trying to maintain garrisons on multiple characters was an ungodly chore. They really should have been account-wide, at least by faction.

    I still think garrisons had tremendous potential and that it’s a terrible shame for them to simply be abandoned.

  5. Syp July 7, 2016 / 11:10 am

    I agree — one account-wide garrison would have been welcome and useful (and Blizzard could have kept the gold inflation in check that way)

  6. Shintar July 7, 2016 / 5:20 pm

    I don’t think the lack of attention paid to garrisons going forward has anything to do with their perceived success or lack thereof. Abandoning or even removing major features after the expansion that spawned them is past its heyday is simply their normal modus operandi.

  7. Forrestra July 7, 2016 / 10:05 pm

    I’m not sure how shared garrisons would have worked. Would there be 1 per faction? What if you had two subscriptions on the same account? Or 4 (I think that’s the max)?. So you could have 44 characters sharing one? Would it get bigger the more toons you added? If so how would a garrison for 44 toons look like? Seems hard to balance.

    What bugs me about people complaining about having too many garrisons to do, is that nobody was making you do every activity on every one of your alts. I tried that in the beginning. I was spending too much time doing chores and not enough time playing what I found fun. i have 7 max garrison that I do whatever tickles my fancy (currently mostly just gold missions). So much choice of activities. Dungeon quests, gathering, invasions, crafting, pets, etc.

  8. ~effs~ July 8, 2016 / 11:58 am

    The problem is that you didn’t need to leave it for 2/3 of the expansion. You can get incredible gear, gold, materials from it instead of spending longer out in the world (which doesn’t add much anyway unless you were there when it released or are still doing the pathfinder achievement). I’ve spent most of my time AFK while waiting for bgs, arenas, LFG in my garrison and the only times I leave (apart from doing those things), is when I visit the auction house or farm old content. So glad that the order halls seem to be a better version of garrisons! 🙂

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