Home Sweet Garrison

Is everyone ready for another episode of Shintar talking about an expansion feature from several years ago as if it was novel and interesting? Ready or not, here it comes!

The panda duo that the husband and I created last month hit level 50 a couple of weeks ago, after running each WoD dungeon exactly once and completing all the quests in the first two zones (for Alliance), Shadowmoon Valley and Gorgrond. Since then we've been putzing around finishing up grey quests for the story and working on various achievements, many of which are related to the Garrison.

Back when Warlords of Draenor was the current expansion and I wasn't playing, the main things I remember hearing people talk about in regards to Garrisons were:

  • Discussions about whether they qualified as housing or not, how well they worked as "Blizzard's version of housing" and whether they encouraged players too much to hide away from the rest of the world.
  • Talk about how Garrisons generated tons of resources and made gathering professions feel somewhat obsolete as everyone, regardless of their chosen professions, could harvest free herbs and ore in their Garrison every day.
  • They were also said to generate a lot of gold before Blizzard nerfed them in the run-up to the next expansion. The other week I heard a content creator imply that if you worked your Garrison back in WoD, you should basically still be flush with money now, three expansions later. I'm trying to take that with a grain of salt, but it was clearly a big deal.
  • I remember Wilhelm really liking his Garrison to level battle pets or something...

My own first impressions were not so positive. Everything cost prohibitive amounts of gold for a new character and since I initially refused to have my main sponsor my panda, my garrison basically consisted of a level one lumber mill and not much else. It was only after my husband hazed me one too many times about being able to chop down bigger trees than me that I relented and sent myself about 15k gold to start upgrading my buildings, plus I was starting to approach the cap for Garrison resources and really needed to spend some.

And I'll admit... as I started to unlock more buildings and quests, the whole thing grew on me. I did immediately love the stable and how it allowed me to harvest herbs and interact with things without getting off my flying mount, as if I was a druid... 

My initial worry about "doing it wrong" quickly dissipated once I realised that you could raze and re-erect buildings to your heart's content, though I guess the gold cost still makes it somewhat prohibitive to do that all the time.

As I've explored the system more, I've been quite impressed with the depth of it, all the benefits you can unlock, plus how it interacts with the follower system. It's quite complex! I can tell that Blizzard must have poured a lot of work into it and it doesn't surprise me that certain kinds of players found their Garrison extremely engaging. It doesn't really feel like housing at all though (in my opinion), more like a personal hub that replaces hanging out in a capital city.

The other day we also unlocked the ship yard, and I can see why people weren't too thrilled with that, as it's basically another Garrison mission table, only worse.

All in all, these are features that have the potential to provide a lot of busywork - I can only imagine how much time it must have taken players who had Garrisons on multiple alts back in the day to go through them all, collect resources from every building and who knows what else. It must've made for quite a different play experience than most WoW expansions.


My Experience on a US Server

I mentioned as a side note in a post from January that I had somehow managed to create a free trial account for the US servers by accident. Despite the fact that I never even logged into it, my Battle.net launcher annoyingly keeps defaulting to that account whenever I want to play retail, which is a bit of a nuisance.

The other day I had a bit of a discussion in Redbeard's comments about Chromie Time and how it works, and it made me want to test some things out for myself, specifically in regards to the new player experience. Of course, you can't very well simulate being a new player on an account that's been active for over a decade... which was when I suddenly remembered my empty US trial account. At last, a purpose for it!

I don't really have all the answers to my questions yet, so I won't  talk about Chromie Time or related matters in this post, but just the experience of rolling up new characters on a US retail server was interesting enough that I wanted to write about it.

I started by creating a night elf druid called Shintar on Ysera - I can't believe that nobody else tried to grab that name over there in over a decade, but it was certainly convenient for me! As expected, I didn't have a choice of starting zone but was put into Exile's Reach by default. Classes that have their own starting zones and start at a slightly higher level, such as death knight and demon hunter, were greyed out with a note that they required level ten to unlock.

When my druid loaded onto the Alliance ship where the Exile's Reach experience starts off, I was confused to find another druid standing there, already up to level six, and spamming a single spell over and over. I was initially a bit mystified as to what spell they were even casting... after all, there were no enemies there! Only after a few minutes did I realise that it was Moonfire and hitting the ship's target dummies... which are killable and award XP. The character was just tab-targeting and hitting Moonfire so fast and consistently that I can only guess that it must have been a botted. People do the strangest things.

Anyway, aside from that, the whole thing wasn't very remarkable. As I said in my original post about Exile's Reach, it's a zone that's perfectly serviceable but extremely generic. The only thing that stood out to me was that as a druid, the brief class quest you get about halfway through the zone taught me travel form at level six... but I guess due to homogenisation no class is allowed to go faster than another at that level, so using it actually made me go no faster than night elf or cat form. I could see that being somewhat confusing to genuinely new players...

I also noticed that I was automatically put into a channel specific to new players where people called "guides" would answer questions. I vaguely recall hearing about that system before but I'd honestly forgotten it existed and still don't really know anything about it beyond what I saw. People mostly seemed to use the channel to ask (to me) uninteresting questions like "Which class should I play?" or "How do I link an item in chat?".

As soon as I hit level ten, I logged out and went back to the character creator. All classes were unlocked now, and I was able to choose any starting zone, so I rolled up a human paladin and started her off in Elwynn Forest for comparison purposes.

I'd forgotten what a weird number Cataclysm did on Elwynn, as it actually kept a lot of the vanilla quests more or less intact, but what changes Blizzard did make feel very jarring for old-timers, such as Princess being right next to the quest giver who wants her killed and Goldtooth chilling in a camp outside the Fargodeep Mine instead of inside of it. The changes to Northshire also feel pretty rubbish, what with the oh so threatening "invasion" by lots of neutral mobs. I did note though that Blizzard appeared to have removed the basic "use your abilities on the target dummy" quest I remember appearing after Cata - probably because truly new players for whom this sort of guidance would make some sense all get funnelled into Exile's Reach anyway.

Anyway, I ran about hunting kobolds, murlocs and what not, and it was very noticeable how much less streamlined and efficient this was than the Exile's Reach experience. It's kind of funny to me that I found myself in a world where the Cataclysm content is the one that feels outdated, considering I still always think of the Cataclysm revamp of the old world as the "new" content (compared to how things were in Vanilla).

However, what surprised me was how... comforting it all felt. Redbeard made a post yesterday about briefly logging into retail and going to Goldshire, where he was immediately put off by the crazy mounts. The timing on that was funny to me because my feeling about visiting Goldshire in retail was almost the opposite in this instance. Were there crazy mounts? Probably; I didn't really notice. What I did notice was that there were people out in the town square, chatting, showing off and goofing around, which felt heart-warmingly familiar. There was also a random corpse on the ground, something that represents "typical old-school Goldshire" to me like nothing else.

While I was out questing in Elwynn, local defense went off about the Horde attacking the inn and I had flashbacks to my very first night playing WoW back in 2006, where that exact same thing happened as well.

Another fun moment was when I tore through the murloc village north of the Eastvale Logging Camp - in terms of button presses, retail is of course much more engaging than Vanilla/Classic and characters get more powerful early on, so I was tearing through those murlocs like nobody's business, AoEing and healing myself, which is very unlike the old days... but at one point it did almost seem like I had bitten off more than I could chew, so I was very grateful when a hunter and mage decided to add some damage of their own and probably saved my butt.

I logged into my BC Classic server on EU for comparison and rode down to Goldshire there. All I saw was two levellers passing through, one of whom instantly logged out the moment he entered the inn. People in BC Classic don't "hang out" in Goldshire anymore in my experience. You log on to do the content you want to do and then you log off again. Anecdotal for sure, but food for thought nonetheless.


WoW Classic's Population Problems

I woke up to the shocking news this morning that come August, Blizzard is planning to shut down more than half of all BC Classic servers in the West. (There are currently 79, and the plan is to shut down 22 of the US ones and 21 in the EU.) My old home Hydraxian Waterlords is among those servers meant to be put out of their misery, after Blizzard already killed it off for all intents and purposes back in November by offering free transfers away from it.

Seeing Blizzard announce such a large number of actual server closures is quite shocking, as they've long had a reputation for never shutting down servers. Connect into clusters, sure, but outright shut down? Never!

Now, this was never entirely true... for example there were some EU servers many years ago that acted as unofficial Russian servers and were closed down when Blizzard decided to set up actual Russian servers, but by and large, Blizzard definitely made sure to avoid any bad press associated with that kind of thing. Players would point and laugh at other MMOs for closing and merging servers, but never WoW.

So, does this mean that Classic's dying? Not at all, but boy, does it have other problems.

I actually started writing this draft about server populations a couple of days ago, after Redbeard brought up the subject in a comment. You see, before Hydraxian Waterlords' sudden death I had been blissfully unaware of Classic having any population issues at all, but since then I've been looking around and the situation is actually pretty incredible, to the point that I'm continually surprised that there hasn't been more reporting on the subject.

Let me once again illustrate what I mean by using data from ironforge.pro. I've referred to this site before - it collects weekly data on how many characters are featured in raid combat logs or as having participated in arenas. As I've also said before, this obviously doesn't present a complete picture of a server's population, as there'll be many players who don't get captured by either of those measures, but it does give a pretty good indication of general trends. And they are crazy.

I'd like to illustrate this by comparing the historical data from the last week of OG Classic to data from last week, which was Burning Crusade Classic's 52nd week... so exactly a year later. I will be excluding arena data from this, as there's no comparable PvP data for OG Classic, so it seems more fair to only look at PvE (while keeping in mind that dedicated PvPers are also out there, somewhere).

First off, let's look at the overall numbers. The last week of OG Classic registered 207,365 active PvE endgame characters in the US and Europe. Last week in TBC Classic a stunning 275,243 characters were counted using the same metrics, which is nearly 33% more! I'm not sure we can interpret this growth in numbers as a growth in actual player population, considering that it's much easier in TBC to also do some raiding on alts, but we're definitely not dealing with a dying game.

Next, let's look at the overall faction balance. Blood elves have caused a pretty dramatic shift here - where Classic finished with the raiding population being 54.5% Alliance, it's now down to 47.8%, with the majority of players being Horde instead. Still, in the grand scheme of things that's not really a problem, and it's actually surprisingly close to even.

However, when we dig down to a server level, things don't look nearly as good. For the purposes of this post, I defined a "decent" faction balance as the larger faction making up less than 65% of the population. I know this is fairly generous, and I'm sure there are people who already consider that unpleasantly unbalanced, but I just had to pick a cut-off point for comparison purposes and that's what I went with.

The point is, even with that fairly generous interpretation of what makes for decent balance, less than half of all servers (38) qualified for it at the end of OG Classic, and now, a year later, that number is down to 13. If you actually enjoy encountering the enemy faction out in the world and standing a chance at a fair fight, your options have become increasingly limited.

The absolute extremes of imbalance show in the form of what can only be called "single-faction servers", where one faction has effectively died out to the point of the other making up 90% of the population or more. By the end of OG Classic there were already 11 servers that could be classified as such, but now we're up to 15.

However, all this wasn't the real shocker to me. Are you wondering why Blizzard is shutting down half of Classic BC's servers if there are actually more or at least a similar amount of characters being played each week? Because while by the end of OG Classic there were only four "dead" servers (defined by me as having less than one hundred PvE endgame characters logged), we are currently sitting on forty of these in Burning Crusade. Blizzard finally shutting these down is way overdue.

If the total population has grown or at least stayed roughly the same, and half the servers are empty, where did everybody go? The answer is that through a combination of free and paid character transfers, the Classic player base has increasingly congregated onto a bunch of mega servers. Before the launch of Burning Crusade, the largest server in the West was Gehennas (EU) with 6,706 endgame characters logged. A year later, the new "king" is Firemaw (EU) with no less than 29,163 known max-level PvE characters - nearly five times as many. Incidentally, Gehennas has also grown to a population of 18,560 - however, it has also gone from having good faction balance at the end of Classic to being 100% Horde now.

I can't even imagine what it must be like to play on one of those servers. Nethergarde Keep with its ~3k active endgame players is way down the list but still feels a bit too big to me even now. I miss the cosiness of Hydraxian Waterlords being less than half the size of that before it was killed off. However, apparently this is not what the majority of players want, and therefore it had to die.

And then it hit me: This is what has been wrong with Classic all along; I just never realised it. Even when #nochanges was the motto of the day and people like Asmongold were campaigning even for bugs to be reintroduced into the game, there were two areas were people were surprisingly quiet on matters of authenticity. One was the user interface, because the most outspoken campaigners were going to mod it all away anyway (when a client update suddenly introduced up/down arrows for gathering nodes on the mini map it took me ages to find even one person to mention that this was a Legion feature and not something that should be in Classic). And the other was server population.

I talked about this a bit during my private server days. During the heyday of Nostalrius, its fans were often going on about how amazing it was that the server could (supposedly) support 10k concurrent players. Meanwhile I was happily plodding away on the much smaller competitor Kronos and grateful for the peace and quiet.

When Classic became official and Blizzard sought input from its intended players, the Nostalrius narrative remained dominant. Never mind the fact that servers were limited to about 3k concurrent players back in the day, that was just a hardware limitation and there's no reason not to cram as many people as possible onto a single server nowadays! There are no downsides, honest!

I was never comfortable with this narrative, but during OG Classic, I was lucky without even realising it. I started on Pyrewood Village, which is now the biggest PvE server in Europe, and did bemoan even at the time that it was too busy for my liking, but I re-rolled on Hydraxian Waterlords after a few months and immediately loved that it was more quiet there

I remember commenter Kring complaining about Classic servers being too big in those early months, but thoughts like that quickly receded into the distance for me because I was now playing on a server that was actually fairly "vanilla-like" in its population: where known "server personalities" would shoot the shit in the LFG channel and you'd join a group for a dungeon you didn't need just because it was an odd hour and you felt like being kind to those strangers looking for just one more to be able to start their run already. People would complain about bots and boosters and GDKP runs ruining Classic on the subreddit and it all felt alien to me because none of those things were happening on my server. Because it was small.

It makes me wonder whether we aren't witnessing WoW being "ruined" all over again, just in a different way. WillE posted an excellent video on this only yesterday, but even he thinks that players congregating on mega servers "is the sensible thing to do" because apparently having the biggest possible player pool to choose from for your dungeon groups and having a full auction house are the only things that matter nowadays?

I feel that just like the automated LFD tool, this is one of those things that looks like it has no downsides when you look at it from a purely utilitarian point of view, but then you see some of the increasingly aberrant behaviours that arise in the environment you've created and go all surprised Pikachu.

The main difference when it comes to population issues is that they can't entirely be blamed on Blizzard. Players have campaigned for massive Classic servers from the beginning, and have paid good money for the privilege of jostling elbows with thousands of other players in Stormwind and Orgrimmar. I can't entirely blame Blizzard for letting those players do what they want, not to mention that the cost of all those server transfers must be raking in crazy amounts of money for them. However, I do have to say that I think it's part of an MMO developer's job to be able to say "no" sometimes and to recognise that there are things that are detrimental to a game's long-term health, even if there are people clamouring for them in the short term.

I wonder if mega servers will end up being one of those things for Classic or whether Blizzard will manage to come up with some sort of solution. Just like with automated group finding, I don't actually think that big servers must necessarily cause problems for an MMO, but they sure seem to be leading to some wacky behaviours in Classic right now and they are definitely not true to the original Vanilla or Burning Crusade experience.


Remembering LFD

In case you missed it somehow, the announcement of Classic Wrath of the Lich King was accompanied by a disclaimer that the devs weren't planning to include the automated dungeon finder that was part of late Wrath, since it seemed to them that this would go against the spirit of WoW Classic. This piece of news caused a huge uproar in the community and I believe there's been a bit of back-pedalling on the subject from Blizzard since then, though last I checked nothing definitive had been announced.

I went back and forth a bit on whether to write anything about the subject at all. Since I've settled on not wanting to play Classic Wrath, my first instinct was that it wasn't really my place to express an opinion... but after seeing that this hasn't stopped a lot of other commentators, I figured to hell with it.

My actual opinion on the question of whether the Looking for Dungeon tool should be in Classic Wrath is extremely easy to sum up anyway, because my approach to Classic has always been one of striving for authenticity - not because I necessarily believe that Classic was the perfect game, but because we've had more than a decade of Blizzard trying to make the game better for one group of players or another, and the results are never quite as expected, so I just wanted to stick to what was a known quantity. Therefore, I would also strive to emulate the original Wrath of the Lich King by adding the dungeon finder with the ICC patch, just like it was the first time around.

It seems that neither Blizzard nor the players care that much about authenticity at this point though. #nochanges is out, endless arguments on the WoW Classic subreddit about why you think your personal vision of the game would be the best are in. Blizzard said they want to spend more time listening to the players, so you never know when shouting loudly will suddenly pay off. But that's a subject for another post...

Really, what I'd like to talk about in this one is not so much whether LFD should be in Wrath Classic or not, but how I experienced it changing the game and how that has affected my views on it over time. I'm in a great position in that regard, since I started this blog five months before WoW dropped its 3.3 patch and I wrote a lot about my experiences with pugging dungeons, so I have receipts for my experiences back in the day (as the kids say these days).

My observations of dungeon finder day one were overall quite positive. There were technical mishaps, DCs and ragequits, but generally it was all one big adventure. As I stated in that post: "The main advantage of the new tool is simply that it's incredibly fast." If you liked running dungeons, you could now do more of the thing you liked! 100% win.

However, only three days later I already wrote another post with the title: "Three things I don't like about the dungeon finder", which included the line "some people seem to forget that there are other human beings playing with them, not bots created for their entertainment". And that after three days! I concluded by saying: "Don't get me wrong, I still love the new dungeon finder, but clearly the added conveniences are not without a price."

That largely remained my attitude throughout the months that followed, with the main thing that changed over time being the importance I assigned to getting things done fast vs. being treated like a bot. In the early days the advantages just seemed to outweigh everything, and the bad behaviour seemed largely forgivable. After all, I'd sometimes had manually assembled pugs go bad too, right? And even when people were being rude, we were still getting stuff done, right?

However, I was basically a slowly boiling frog. I don't think I ever wrote a post where I said something like "I hate the dungeon finder now", but you can see things deteriorating pretty quickly, as my "fail pug" stories went from mostly amusing to increasingly exasperated. In February, only two months after the dungeon finder's launch, I wrote a post called "An exemplary UP pug", in which I had nothing but praise for a run in which only one person dropped group randomly and where, upon me causing a wipe, only one member of the group was mildly rude to me. My standards for what made for a fun dungeon run were in free-fall and I wasn't even really noticing it.

Or maybe I was. In June I wrote about an awful Pit of Saron pug which I had to drop after the people in it voted to kick my boyfriend's warlock for no real reason, and which ended with a rant about how this sort of thing never would've happened in pre-dungeon finder times. In July I wrote about my "pug peeves of the week" because there were now so many bad behaviours on display in my dungeon runs that you could sort them into categories. In September, on a more humorous note, I wrote a checklist of the many ways in which pugs can fail in Halls of Lightning, which consisted of twenty-five different items.

In October I wrote a post called "Ten months of dungeon finding in review" in which I summed up the major pros and cons of the feature as I saw them. The main pro was the revitalisation of levelling dungeons... but the cons were a loss of immersion (what a novel concept, I doubt many people playing WoW even care about that anymore) and the deterioration of people's social skills. However, I still concluded: "Looking back at the dungeon finder's release with all the knowledge that I have about it now... I'd still want it to be introduced again, because I think the basic concepts of automating the group-finding process and enlarging the pool of available players are absolutely worth it."

After that, Cataclysm dropped and I didn't end up talking about the dungeon finder as much for a while, as I was busy focusing on the new quests and doing things with my guild. I did write a post in January called "State of the dungeon finder", which I think got a lot of link love based on the number of comments on it and which basically posited that the increased difficulty of Cata heroics made pugs a bit scary, but people's bad behaviours hadn't really changed in significant ways. It wasn't long afterwards that I noted that my passion for WoW in general was decreasing for unrelated reasons.

The general perception of the dungeon finder definitely seemed to be shifting by that point though. Rohan of Blessing of Kings wrote a post in March of the same year in which he wondered why he wasn't seeing all those bad groups that people were complaining about and speculated that it might be related to playing the healer role. I actually responded to that post with a comment of my own, which I think shows a lot about my state of mind at the time:

The majority of my runs are successful too, but that doesn't equal "fun". The other day I ran heroic Halls of Origination with my hunter, and the tank decided to skip four of the seven bosses and the rest of the group kicked our healer for "not healing enough" even though he had kept everyone up with no problems and we even got the Faster Than the Speed of Light achievement. This is fairly representative for my average run - yes, we'll get it done, but not without someone being a jerk to someone else (not necessarily me) for no reason. I "grew up" in WoW enjoying dungeons for the social experience they provided, even when pugging with strangers from the same server, but since cross-server LFD this experience has become a sour one more often than not.

I had definitely soured on the whole concept by then, which becomes even more evident in a post from a few months later that includes the line "it's widely known that the dungeon finder has a bad reputation" in its opening paragraph. The actual title of the post was "Dreaming of a different dungeon finder" and funnily enough, the features I described in it sound eerily similar to the pre-made group finder that WoW ended up adding in Warlords of Draenor. I'd never thought about that!

Anyway, what all this shows is that my descent into dislike for the dungeon finder was a very gradual process. I'm not saying that everyone's feelings necessarily followed or would follow the same trajectory - if all you care about are rewards/results, then getting runs faster might still be preferable even if people behave badly in them, compared to dealing with the decreased efficiency of a manually assembled group. However, for me it became evident over time that the rewards were worthless if I didn't enjoy the gameplay leading up to them, and I missed having pugs engage with each other as fellow human beings.

Now, the really interesting thing is that for all that, I'm still not entirely against automated group finding for PvE content in MMOs nowadays... I just think that the dungeon finder as it was introduced in Wrath was truly set up to bring out the worst in people. When I started playing SWTOR it didn't have a group finder, something that many people complained about, but to me this was actually refreshing after the cesspits of Cataclysm's LFD. When SWTOR did go ahead and added an automated group finder with its 1.3 patch a few months later, I was worried about what that would do to the game, but it actually turned out to be okay.

You still get a little bit of that sort of "I don't care" behaviour, such as tanks dropping group if the randomiser puts them into an instance they don't fancy at that particular moment, but it's not nearly as bad as some of the stuff I saw in WoW during Wrath's heyday. I couldn't tell you exactly why that is, but let's just say that I  suspect that the details of how this sort of group finding is implemented do make a difference.

Lack of cross-server queues means that there's some accountability for example, and the fact that pops can be slow sometimes gives players a vested interest in not dropping group instantly the moment anything looks less than ideal, because it will mean more time spent waiting. From what I remember, SWTOR has also never offered unique incentives to focus on running random instances over other content - in comparison Wrath's dungeon finder was ridiculously over-incentivised, meaning that lots of players were running heroics purely for the reward, even if they didn't enjoy the gameplay at all. In hindsight it hardly seems a surprise that this led to unpleasant behaviour and conflicts of interest.

It remains to be seen whether Blizzard will cave and add the dungeon finder to Wrath Classic after all, or whether they'll try to achieve some sort of compromise with a modified tool, e.g. by adding something like retail's current pre-made group finder. Considering how much the community has changed, I expect that those deciding to play Wrath will be in for an "interesting" time either way.