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WoWOct 1, 2015 5:00 pm CT

Garrisons: A Look Back

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — whatever your feelings on Garrisons are, you have to admit it was an extremely robust and well-designed feature. It executed exactly what it was designed to execute, and did so very well. In fact, I would argue that it was overdesigned, and did far too much, rather than that it failed to deliver anything.

Another way to put it would be to say that if you take the Garrison by itself, it’s actually brilliantly conceived and executed. The ideas behind it are sound — a hub from which your character will explore this new land and head up your faction’s efforts against the Iron Horde. A home base that sends you from zone to zone as you level, from which you mount your campaign to take the fight to your enemy once you’re at max level. And it makes sense that you’d have people at your garrison with various professional skills, and that you’d exploit the natural resources of the area in a manner similar to Warcraft 3 and other RTS games in the Warcraft milieu. That’s fine, on its own.

The problem of the Garrison is what happens when everyone has one.

The mistakes of Warlords and how Legion must avoid them

The Garrison’s successes

Speaking strictly about the Garrison as a home base that you return to between zones, it was a triumph. Going from 90 to 100 the Garrison is your refuge, your staging ground, it allows for a sense of continuity between zones like Shadowmoon or Frostfire and Gorgrond, Talador, Spires of Arak and Nagrand. Rather than a wandering adventurer exploring piecemeal, you’re on a mission to defend your world, and the Garrison feeds into that feeling admirably. You go to these places as part of your mission, not just to see what’s there. Whether or not that’s how you prefer to play WoW aside, the Garrison executes that vision admirably.

Follower missions are less important when you’re leveling, because they’re something you do in-between going out to strike a blow for Azeroth. In this role, they’re quite admirable little bits of flavor with small positive benefits to your gameplay. Gaining new followers as you level gives your mission a feeling of success, of accomplishment as others flock to your banner. It’s all quite organic and works well to give you a sense of scale and scope to your time. Why am I on Draenor? To stop the Iron Horde and save Azeroth. It’s a compelling narrative that the Garrison helps to set up and support.

Similarly, while you’re leveling, having access to various professions is pretty great. It means you can enchant new items much faster, use the materials from your mine and herb garden proactively. It gives you something to do when you return home after having stopped the Iron Horde attack on Shattrath or having dealt with the Arakkoa in the Spires of Arak. But it’s here that, for me at least, the first cracks begin to show.

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The Garrison’s failures

First up, the effect on server economies caused by the Garrison is very wide reaching. People have alts that they play entirely to run follower missions for gold, and which they’ve used to amass large gold funds that have utterly thrown the auction houses into chaos. Add in the effect of everyone having a mine and an herb garden, and the lack of flying on Draenor, and suddenly there’s very little reason to go anywhere once you’re max level. A player who primarily raids through LFR can literally sit in her Garrison, do her follower missions for gold and resources, harvest her mine and garden and queue for LFR. All of her WoW playing takes place isolated, away from other players, the exact opposite of the feeling of a live, bustling city. It’s an MMO devoid of the Massively Multiplayer angle.

The very inclusiveness that makes the Garrison so useful while leveling is what makes it so debilitating once you’ve finished leveling. The leveling process goads you to get out into the world, do the quests, see the zones. At max level, there is no goad. Until the deployment of Tanaan Jungle, there was essentially nowhere to go unless you were doing the Apexis daily quest or the Garrison Campaign. If you needed resources, you’d queue for a dungeon. If you needed ore or herbs, you’d get those at the Garrison. The Auction House is at Ashran, which is a simple portal away, and you’ll really only go there to pick up your Seals of Fate for the week’s raiding.

The beauty of the Garrison is that it serves as a central location to range out from, but when there’s no compelling reason to range out from it, it becomes your entire game experience. You don’t go anywhere, and so it’s just you, talking to your minions all day. If you need gold, followers will provide. The follower missions become a minigame that you manage with an add on for maximum success, any game play aspect of the system automated. The naval missions tried to bring a sense of jeopardy back by making failure costly, but that just made us even more risk averse. We see here the danger of a system that was meticulously and methodically crafted to be a central location with everything you need, it provides everything you need.

Players will take the convenient option, if you give it to them. But that’s not necessarily good for the game.

Finally, things like Garrison Invasions were a neat idea, but they ended up not really being much more than a curiosity in practice. I think this is a good concept that needed a few more iteration passes.

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The lesson of the Garrison

For starters, I think that the Garrison definitely did some things very right. The idea of a place players can hang their hats between exploration and adventure? That’s a great idea. But Garrisons lacked certain key elements that I think we need to start owning up to for the future.

First, Blizzard, you seriously need to get with the times on the whole Player Housing thing. This isn’t even a demand at this point. The fact that you introduced a feature that was so close to player housing and yet managed to be completely devoid of elements like customization, cosmetic upgrades, or any means to differentiate it between players is outright baffling to me. Secondly, when designing the Class Order Halls, please remember that you need to give people a reason to leave. Max level characters need a reason to go out into the world. If you put everything in the Garrison, they’re not going to go anywhere. Don’t do that.

Thirdly, the successes of the Garrison were all seen in the leveling content. Leveling content and group play content are entirely different, and require different impetus for players. Putting ore and herbs inside the Garrison sounded great on paper, but they ultimately meant that everybody was harvesting them (so why even have herbalism or mining?) which flooded the AH with mats, and kept people firmly wedged into their comfortable home bases. Draenor is a big, lavish world, the last thing we should have been doing was encouraging people to avoid it. A simple expansion of the daily quest system so that the Garrison served as more of a hub once you were at max level could have helped here.

Overall, I think the Garrison had its positives, but what made it great when you level makes it bad for the game overall at max level. It kept people safely within its walls, when we needed them out and about.

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