Warlords of Draenor, Hermeneutics, Feedback Loops (Part 1)

I can’t stop logging onto World of WarCraft. Yes, I see it partly as a matter of choice: I want to play the game. On the other hand, Warlords of Draenor added a hook to Azeroth that makes it simply irresistable NOT to log into all your characters at least once a day, if not more. That particular feature, the Garrison, tells you a lot about how Blizzard plans to capture you and all your friends into a spiral of Facebook proportions.

So Garrisons equal a return to the WarCraft in the World – in other words, shameless nostalgia bait for those who liked the real time strategy games in this universe. On the other hand, it fills the role of “player housing” that so many MMORPGs implemented for years. Blizzard refused to do so for whatever reason, citing it as a detraction from the game, but I think I know why now: simple aesthetics don’t keep most players hooked. You need incentives, perhaps in-game incentives, to truly snag people into player. Garrisons fulfill this role and more by functioning as your very own town.

Most of my characters use Engineering as a professions; I like stupid things with zero in-game use but to make me laugh. Also, helicopters and Sky Golems! Yay! But usually, I never find the motivation to gather up materials for crafting. Sure, I’ll level it up, but who wants to spend all day farming materials? The Garrison lets you build an Engineering station so that the game can let you buy new recipes and produce materials at a cheaper cost through Work Orders – I find this an excellent change. What’s even better is that you can build a profession building of a profession you’ve never trained and reap the benefits of said profession’s crafting! As long as you can gather the materials, it can deliver you some stuff. I figured my plate-wearing classes of choices needed a Blacksmith, so I built a Forge. Simple enough, right?

Other buildings provide strange incentives like daily dungeon quests (a personal favorite) to increased movement speed to game-breaking items (not usable in PvP for obvious reasons). None of them fundamentally change the World of WarCraft; rather, they let you tailor your own experience to what you consider convenient and helpful. Hey, want a bank? Sure, build it! Plus, leveling up buildings provides new perks, so you always want to do that. And you can level up easily by actually doing stuff around your garrison, which is great!

On the other hand, building said structures requires a generic resource called Garrison Resources. And money, no surprise there! Garrison Resources accrue naturally, but the more you quest and conquer Draenor, the more Garrison Resources you will generate. This also applies to building blueprints, which you need to build the best of structures, and upgrading the Town Hall/Great Hall, which lets you build more buildings. It is the most blatant example of a giant, coercive feedback loop I’ve yet seen in a game like this, and it seriously works. The elements of the game now play perfectly into one another instead of existing in this weird, seperate world between crafting and playing. I like it!

Garrison-Alliance

There’s one other element that lends me to the Facebook comparison, though: Garrison Followers. Literally, you recruit guys with special attributes, and you send them on Missions to gather bonus XP for you, for themselves, gold, Garrison Resources, or even gear! You want to send them on Missions (which costs a small number of Garrison Resources) where they “counter” the threat on hand, which gives you a higher success rate. Followers earn experience points every time you send them on a Mission, and they even get it when they fail. Since Missions don’t even immediately (ranging from 30 minutes to 10 hours – seriously), you can send people out on Missions, quest a whole lot, or never log in, and still see some sort of reward when you play again.

Frankly, I find it almost brilliant on Blizzard’s part that they could get me, a notable critic of Facebook and mobile game of this ilk, to log into the game just to mess around with my Followers or my Garrison. Even if you cannot quest, there’s always something to do in World of WarCraft. On one level, it fixes problems with the game. But man, that’s kinda frightening if you think about it. This sort of design keeps people playing far beyond any reasonable level of interaction. I am reticent to call it “addiction”, but we could go down that road (and plenty of WoW players will attest to its enrapturing qualities).

The issue in question, to me, walks less in the direction of “addiction” and more in the pathway of “good game design”. Let me explain.

There’s a difference between engaging, substantive play, and play that merely exists for the sake of fulfilling an obligation. Some play actually demands mastery and fun, while others represent a repetitive task, performed repeatedly but not for their own sake. It takes a lot of time, effort, and minute attention to detail to make for gaming that actually engages, rather than putting up a smokescreen of induced “fun”. I hate games that try to trick you into menial tasks while gussying them up, and MMORPGs tend to be the worst of the lot.

The thing is, World of WarCraft’s default game mechanics (i.e., killing everything) actually remains fun. The further up you go the PvE or PvP ladder, the more difficult lies the next step, whether it lies in gear acquisition or number crunching or proper rotation and positioning. Unfortunately, the quest design never really moved past “kill all the things” or “touch such and such many items”. It teaches you the basics, but only barely; knowing how to play just makes the grinding process more efficient. To circumvent interesting quest design, they often replace real depth with narrative and lore – since I actually like the lore, it helps, but that’s just a disguise to cover up a lack of intriguing game dynamics in the level up (read: grinding) experience.

And no player should need to slog through content they don’t enjoy to play the REAL GAME, right? World of WarCraft’s business model necessitates that they lock the cool stuff behind the Door of Time Spent, and while they’ve taken steps to reduce it, that door remains as locked and as tight as ever. Much of this tells you why, even though I play World of WarCraft and enjoy it  a whole lot with friends and family, I’m not sure I could place it on The List: this problem always jabs me in the eye every time I end up in a new expansion.

Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.