There was one point that was made crystal clear during Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft: What’s Next?” panel at Blizzcon on Friday: Blizzard has come to treat WoW as a platform for a variety of activities rather than a contained game. It’s not difficult to see the influences of other popular games on the systems within WoW, and they don’t limit themselves to systems present in other MMORPGs. WoW is like Blizzard’s giant Katamari, picking up bits and pieces from whatever it rolls over increasing the gravity and stickiness of Azeroth as it moves along.
The garrison system presents an especially interesting case in this regard. It is difficult to imagine that Blizzard feels a ton of threat from casual Facebook and mobile games like Farmville, Mafia Wars and Tiny Tower. It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of potential overlap between the audiences for those games and the players of WoW, especially since it sounds like the garrisons will be limited to high level players. That doesn’t mean, however, that the developers at Blizzard aren’t looking at these games and thinking about what makes them so interesting and addictive to play. In those games, the basic treadmill experience is leveling up resource production to level up production facilities, to get more money which then gets re-invested in increasing production in an endless cycle of levelling and improvement.
The other type of game I see Blizzard absorbing here is the browser based strategy and resource management game, like Dragons of Atlantis, Tribal Wars, Grepolis and countless others. Garrisons appear to be almost entirely menu driven, with the garrison itself serving as an 3D menu that you can walk your avatar through to check in on various buildings. Most of the management happens in menus that come up in the UI including selecting and customizing followers, assigning missions, and building selection and customization. While we have yet to see the system in action, from what was shown at the panel it doesn’t seem like a wild leap to draw lines between these different types of games.
As presented during the panel, the garrison system in the Warlords of Draenor expansion will enable players to select a plot of land in the zone of their choosing, then add and level up buildings and followers within this complex to make them more productive, gaining crafting and gathering abilities and other equipment and achievements. During the panel, most of the screenshots presented of this system looked like standard WoW UI menus with options to select in terms of what to equip on a follower or what quests to send them on. The UI in the screenshots looked to be along the same lines as the crafting UI as it exists today.
One of the main bullet points that made me think of systems like Tiny Tower and Zynga games was the idea of asynchronous or offline gameplay. Based on the information delivered during the panel, it looks like you can place an order for a gathering mission or a crafting mission, then keep playing while your followers go out and fulfill your order. This system is also reminiscent of the companion missions in Star Wars: the Old Republic, but it sounds like your followers will only be visible within the confines of your garrison, and won’t be following you out into the world at large.
Given the cosmetic similarities between this new system and (not well-loved among gamers) Facebook and mobile games, what are the potential gains and pitfalls of Blizzard adding a system like this to a game world that is already stuffed full of a variety of activities? Is the garrison system a sufficient response to housing systems in competing games, like the robust system in the upcoming Wildstar?
The potential drawback of Blizzard adopting these systems is immediately obvious, so let’s go through those first. Many of the games I’ve noted as potential influences on the garrison system use a mechanic that potentially preys on one of the worst facets of human nature: impatience. Farmville and Dragons of Atlantis allow you to take actions that might not produce results until hours later in real time. Some people enjoy this delayed pace, because it allows them to dip in for a brief period of time and let the game play while they go about other business. The negative side of that, especially for people trained on higher paced action games, is that it can feel like you’re being held in a time out box until whatever needs to happen happens. Those games offer a solution to those players: pay money and the timer will disappear.
In Dragons of Atlantis, the timer is explained by armies having to march long distances to attack other settlements. The cash buys a magical Atlantean item that can increase their speed for a short time, making the timer run down more quickly. Could Blizzard introduce similar items in WoW? With indications of an in-game cash shop on the way, it’s not inconceivable, but hopefully they are rigorously testing balance issues before making decisions about how players will interact with these systems. There’s a fine line between offering cash shop items which make gameplay more convenient and making players pay to take away pain that the game artificially introduces, not to mention the poisonous connotation that a game is “pay-to-win”.
Another controversial and thankfully less common practice of social games is automated spamming of friends and contacts with requests for assistance to draw them into the game. This seems like a much less likely practice for Blizzard to borrow. During the presentation they mentioned the Recruit-a-friend program, and they seem satisfied with having recruitment be a more conscious action on the part of the players instead of blind spamming. While World of Warcraft is definitely a much easier and more accessible game than some of its predecessors and even its past incarnations, there is still a decent barrier to entry that would prevent someone from just casually dipping in and getting stuck unless they were disposed to liking computer gaming in the first place.
There are potential benefits to Blizzard adding features inspired by other types of games. Away from keyboard levelling and progression are useful features of these timer based games. Writing as a time constrained gamer, the idea of being able to make progress in a game even while I can’t be at the keyboard is appealing. Games like Glitch demonstrated that these systems can be engaging without disincentivizing logging in and adventuring in the game world. Given that the means of interacting with buildings and followers in the garrison system looks menu based, it’s not difficult to imagine Blizzard updating the already feature-rich WoW mobile app to include a screen or two for garrison management.
Also, given the cosmetic similarity to browser based strategy and resource management games it’s not a huge leap to imagine a world where you can raise your followers in WoW into an army and conduct raids on other player’s garrisons. New player versus player systems are very appealing to developers because they provide an endless variety of content for players without a huge investment for the developer. In practice, these PvP systems in browser based MMORTS games are a fun system of careful resource management and risk vs. reward assessment that might provide WoW players a less action focused alternative to the PvP systems on offer now.
World of Warcraft is moving further and further towards living up to its label as a “theme park” game; all of these different systems provide different types of experiences which players can hop in and hop out of as they wish once they get into the WoW ecosystem. Not every ride will appeal to everyone, but Blizzard seems determined to add enough systems that everyone who plays will find something in the game they enjoy. Warlords of Draenor seems like an expansion pack aimed at addressing long standing requests of players. Is it enough to make you want to dip back in and possibly re-subscribe? Is the variety of systems interesting, or would it be better to see them focus and make the core experience better? Let us know what you think in the comments below.