Garrisons: Solving the Wrong Problem

Sometimes you put a lot of time and effort into solving a problem, only to realize that you were coming at the problem from the wrong angle and your solution doesn’t actually fix anything, or even just makes things worse. (Or at least I do. I do this all the time.) It’s what I think of as “solving the wrong problem.” Blizzard Entertainment, creators of World of Warcraft, has been solving the wrong problem in the latest expansion, and garrisons are the manifestation of that mistake.

The Aliance garrison, where I’ve spent entirely too much of my gaming time.

It’s not that there aren’t problems to be solved. WoW‘s player base is getting older and a lot of us have less time to play, can’t sit down and play in long sessions like we used to, and aren’t as interested in investing lots of time and effort into chasing big goals, but we still want to play and enjoy the game. Garrisons were, in my opinion, a good-faith effort at solving this problem, but they came at it from the wrong direction.

This weekend is Blizzcon, Blizzard’s big event when they talk about what’s coming for their games and we’re going to hear all about the next expansion for WoW. I hope we hear something that addresses what garrisons got wrong.

The Horde garrison. I’ve spent too much time here, too.

Garrisons 101

Here’s a quick introduction to garrisons for those who aren’t familiar with the game. Those who are can skip ahead to the next section.

In World of Warcraft you play a wandering hero who travels the land fighting monsters and rescuing the helpless and all the usual hero stuff. Your character starts out weak and gains power as you play and confront bigger threats. A big part of the game has always been what is called raiding. A “raid” is a lair of monsters that are so tough that a single hero, no matter how strong, can’t tackle them alone. To defeat a raid, you have to gather a group of people (anywhere from ten to forty, depending on the particular raid) to go fight the good fight. If you have nine or more friends you can all get together and do the raid; if not, you’ll have to find some strangers you can join up with.

Raiding can be a lot of fun. I used to do it and I have fond memories of those days, but it takes a huge amount of time and effort. It can also go very badly. Take a bunch of people who don’t know each other well (or at all), and have them face a difficult challenge: nerves get frayed, arguments start, a few bad experiences can ruin an entire evening. These days I’m just not interested in putting myself through that for a game, and there are plenty of other people in the same position. Garrisons were designed for us.

In the latest expansion, as usual, our characters traveled to a new land with new monsters that need fighting, but this time instead of just wandering from town to town and staying only as long as there were beasties to slay, we got a fortress of our own to build up, defend, and return to after each adventure.

Now, normally in WoW you see other people’s characters running around, but the garrison is “phased,” which means that while you’re there other people’s characters are invisible to you and vice versa, so it’s like you have the place all to yourself. In a sense, everybody gets their own individual version of the garrison, they just all happen to be in the same space in the game world. (Or, technically, in two different places: there are two factions in game, the Alliance and the Horde, and every player character belongs to one of them. The Alliance has one garrison site, the Horde has a different one.)

The garrison is full of things to do entirely on your own. These things are easy to do, don’t require a group, and don’t take much time. Most of them involve giving orders to your troops, who then go off and do the thing for you, then you check back in with them later for the results.

Why am I pushing papers in a garrison when I could be fighting monsters in a place that looks like this?

Immobile Gaming

The design principle behind the garrison is cribbed from mobile gaming, and it’s easy to understand why. Mobile games are designed for people to play when they’re waiting for the bus, in between classes, on a coffee break, or other times when you have a few minutes to spare but might get interrupted at any moment. It’s defining feature is its interruptability: you can pick it up and put it down as needed and most of your gameplay is setting up things that will happen while you’re off doing other things.

You can see why Blizzard would look to this model when trying to create content for people like me. If our problem with the game is that we don’t have a lot of big blocks of gaming time, then something you can do quickly by setting up a few orders that will hum along in the background while your doing other things sounds like a winner.

But that’s the wrong problem. Garrisons play the game for you. Don’t have time to raid? Send your followers out to do it! Too busy to go search the world for herbs you can brew potions with? Have an herb garden you can harvest daily and a helper who will make the potions for you! Don’t have time to go out and ransack monster lairs for gold and treasure? The garrison has a button for that!

Our characters end up as home-bound heroes, leading from behind and never setting foot outside the garrison, which is a real shame because the world outside the garrison is amazing. Just look at some of the places we’re not doing things. There are great things to do out there, but the garrison gives you no reason to go find them.

Instead of being heroes, we became middle managers. This isn’t what we wanted. We wanted a way of playing the game that gave us challenges to overcome and places to explore, but that we could do an hour at a time, on our own schedule, without depending on the good behavior of a bunch of strangers.

The landscape design in this expansion is gorgeous. Will you see any of it from your garrison? Nope.

What the Garrison Got Right

The garrison isn’t all bad. There are some good features to it that are well worth carrying forward, but in some other form. Things like:

  • Followers. Sometimes when you do quests out in the world, the people you interact with will follow you home to your garrison and join up with your forces. It’s fun gathering a following and seeing them hang out in your home base.
  • Missions. I enjoyed sending my followers out to do stuff for me, but I wish that it had been something that supported my gameplay instead of replacing it. When I send followers out on a mission, I wish they would be out in the world waiting for me to show up and would help me tackle a challenge rather than going off and doing it for me.
  • A place of one’s own. I really like the feeling of having a place that is just mine and no one else’s. That said, what I really want is a place I can organize and decorate how I want. The garrison lets me pick which of a handful of buildings to build in designated spots, but I want to actually pick what my buildings look like and what kind of furniture and furnishings to put in them. The game world is full of beautiful art assets; I want to be able to take them home. Yes, you heard me: I want to track foul monsters back to their dark lairs and steal their pillows! (For those who play the game: I want transmog for buildings.)
I can fill my garrison with werewolves if I want. Why can’t I change the drapes?

The Way Forward

Blizzard has a bad habit of making wild swings in design from one extreme to another. I hope the poor reception of garrisons doesn’t drive them to give up on trying to make the game playable for people like me who want accessible solo content. What I want is a way that I can play the game on my own terms, not something to do instead of playing the game.

Another beautiful place I’m not spending any of my gaming time.

Images: Screenshots from World of Warcraft.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.