Pokemon first burst onto the scene when I was in elementary school. I’ve always been lukewarm at best toward anime and “cute” things, so it never really interested me. My friends at the time, however, bought into it hook, line, and sinker. I thus found myself relentlessly bombarded by all things Pokemon for the next several months, whether I liked it or not. I therefore developed a passionate dislike of the franchise that continues to this day.
This may go some way to explaining why pet battles are one of the few things I’ve never done in World of Warcraft. I’ve done almost everything else you can in Blizzard‘s legendary MMO — my PvE-focused self even had a brief, disastrous arena PvP career — but pet battles? Not even once.
And yet I have a great deal of respect for pet battles as a feature. When I think about it, they’re the exception to almost every bad habit WoW has, and in many ways they’re an exemplar of what I think a good MMO feature should be.
Pet battles were introduced in Mists of Pandaria, one of two flagship gameplay modes added in that expansion, the other being PvE scenarios. Non-combat pets had existed since the game’s inception, but as in most games they were strictly cosmetic. Pet battles changed that by allowing you to form a team of your companion pets and engaged in turn-based battles with NPCs, other players, and even wild pets (which can then be captured).
Scenarios, meanwhile, were quick, low-stress PvE battles that often served as vehicles for crucial story-telling. Unlike pet battles, scenarios were something I loved, but the feature never carried over to future expansions. Since then, abandoning features after one expansion has become Blizzard’s preferred modus operandi. First scenarios, then garrisons, then artifacts, then the Heart of Azeroth, and now (presumably) Covenants.
And yet, pet battles endure.
Every subsequent expansion — and even many smaller content patches — has included at least some new content for pet battle fans, even if it’s just new pets to collect. Now and then there are bigger updates as well. There have even been a few pet battle dungeons added over the years. It’s a side feature to be sure, but a well-supported one.
Meanwhile, I, someone who has no interest in pet battles, have been able to get by all this time without touching them at all. They’re completely optional. And really, how often do you get to say that about things in WoW?
Nearly everything in World of Warcraft is designed to in some way contribute to player power and funnel people towards endgame. It tends to make very little truly optional. Even if all you care about is story, you still need to put some effort into gearing up in order to get into the raid instances where all the important stuff takes place.
Yet Blizzard has entirely resisted the urge to tie pet battles to player progression. The studio has its own internal progression — and from what I hear optimizing your pet battle team can be just as arduous as getting BiS raid gear — but those of us who don’t care can safely ignore it.
Pet battles even seem to at least partially dodge Blizzard’s obsession with power creep. I have heard some chatter about newer pets sometimes being more powerful than older ones, but it’s not like they’re needing to reset the entire progression scale every other expansion to avoid breaking the game. The level cap for battle pets has been consistent since the feature launched, no increases or resets. Ongoing progression mainly comes from collecting new pets as they’re added. Dare I say it’s almost like a form of horizontal progression?
World of Warcraft is more laser-focused on vertical progression to the expense of all else than nearly any other game around. That any feature in it even vaguely resembles horizontal progression feels nothing short of miraculous.
Put it together, and pet battles start to feel like the antithesis of almost everything WoW has done wrong in recent years. It’s continually supported, optional yet robust, and exists just for fun, rather than as “serious” progression.
Imagine if this kind of philosophy were applied to other areas of the game. There are so many features from recent expansions that could have benefited from this kind of treatment.
Imagine if garrisons had between treated like pet battles. Instead of being a central form of progression that no one could escape, like it or not, they could have been an optional housing feature, more focused on customization and minor perks than being your one-stop shop for everything.
Imagine if garrisons had continued past Warlords of Draenor, each expansion bringing new garrisons for people to claim (if they want). Mediterranean villas in Aszuna, Troll palaces in Zandalar, hallowed Tombs in the Shadowlands, and so on.
While slightly more difficult to balance, I suspect artifacts could also have been given a similar treatment. They would’ve needed to be a less massive source of power in the first place, but with the right tuning, we could have had a world where customizable artifacts and standard dropped weapons could have co-existed, with the choice between them coming down to individual preference.
When you don’t make new features the be-and-end-all, with massive power creep to match, you can carry them forward into future expansions. When they’re things the average person can safely ignore if they choose, it doesn’t intimidate or confuse new players as much.
I’m not saying that every system and every bit of content can follow the pet battle model always and forever, but I do think World of Warcraft would be in a much better place if the philosophy used for pet battles were applied more widely. In many ways, this silly minigame that I couldn’t possibly find less interesting is a shining example of good MMO game design.