World of Warcraft is finally breaking down one of the walls that has helped define its gameplay for almost twenty years as the studio announced earlier this week it was going to be allowing cross-faction dungeons in the MMORPG. The long-standing separation that has stood in its player-base is being eroded: the segmenting of the playerbase along Alliance and Horde battlelines.
Come patch 9.2.5, WoW players will be able to join raids, dungeons and other activities together, regardless of faction - with Ion Hazzikostas, game director of WoW stating simply that “it’s time” for the move in an interview with IGN.
For someone who hasn’t played World of Warcraft for its entire life, it’s a welcome move. I remember when my friends left Lord of the Rings Online to go play WoW around with Wrath of the Lich King came out. I was keen to try it with them, but seeing as they mostly played Horde and I really wanted to play a Night Elf, we were segmented from the start. I felt like I was missing out on a story they would be experiencing simply for the sheer fact I choose to be a different race. Meanwhile, we couldn’t play together when we were on thanks to this story-driven wall between us. As such, I fell off WoW, going back to LotRO after only a month or so.
Being forced to choose between friends and the type of character you want to play is something many players over World of Warcraft’s long history have had to contend with. But it’s more than that. During my brief time playing WoW, the faction lines that define the identity of the Alliance or the Horde ran deep, sometimes causing toxic rifts in player bases and servers. I know people from college who wouldn’t associate with someone the second they found out they were Horde and vice versa. It was outrageously sad to see, and it still is around to some degree to this day.
As a story device, this segmentation makes sense. It’s a way to explain the foundational conflict between the Orcs and Humans, and the subsequent allied races. It adds conflict that is central to the story, regardless of the overarching plot or threat to Azeroth in the meantime. At times that conflict takes center stage, as was the case in Battle for Azeroth most recently.
This is something that Hazzikostas addresses in the IGN interview . This segmentation for the MMO is a “foundational pillar” that has served it well, though has had its downsides for some players.
"It was just kind of one of those accepted rules back then if you meet a friend, and you discover that you play on different servers, oh well, you're never going to get to play with your friend. That's just how WoW is. Whereas those boundaries have increasingly been torn down and tons of communities have formed and there are Discords and WoW communities and people who are friends on Twitter and other places. The downside of maintaining that hard line grows with each passing year.”
Tearing Down The Pillars
The hardlining of the factions in World of Warcraft is something that turned me off early on, as I mentioned before. And I can’t say that I’m the only one - even players within the game have been asking for at least some leeway with the faction systems, specifically allowing you to queue for dungeons, raids and more.
Other games have figured this out too sooner than WoW it seems. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, while the Jedi and Sith don’t like each other and are polar opposites ideologically, we have instances of the two sides working towards a common goal against a shared enemy. It brings the two-player bases together in a way that you might not think possible in such a rigid world like Star Wars.
The Elder Scrolls Online launched with as rigid a faction system as they come originally, with races segmented based on geography and which Banner they supported in the war central to the story’s plot. Yet only a few years later ZeniMax Online Studios pivoted, giving players the ability to choose their faction and race freely, as well as start anywhere they want in the world, regardless of those two choices. While I felt at the time it might undermine the narrative being told, it actually helped make it more interesting, especially since my friends and I could play the characters we wanted along the way.
How it made it more interesting was that the choice of the faction wasn’t simply down to what our characters were born as. It took notes from one of the defining pillars of Elder Scrolls: player freedom. By allowing players the choice, the draw to the faction you belonged to, at least for me, became more important. I wasn’t Daggerfall Covenant because I was a Breton, Redguard or Orc - I was an Imperial Templar who chose to be there.
This is where World of Warcraft differs. You don’t get the choice if you’re a Blood Elf, Tauren, Human or Orc. You’re born and bred into your faction. This is what helped maintain that rigid barrier all this time. Humans weren’t suddenly going to be welcome into Orgrimmar, and I daresay we weren’t going to see an influx of Undead grab a flagon of ale at the Lion’s Pride Inn (except on Moon Guard). Tearing down that barrier, for most of WoW’s existence narratively, didn’t make a lot of sense.
Yet it’s something players have been asking for, so why now?
Alliance and Horde United
The ending of Battle for Azeroth saw a truce declared between the two factions, though it wasn't the first time in WoW's history where this has been done. With the events of that expansion, as well as the subsequent adventures going on in Shadowlands, the mingling of the two factions is pretty normal now. There are even instances of Horde and Alliance mainstays helping each other against the Jailer, such as Thrall and Jaina Proudmore working with the player to attempt a rescue on Anduin early on. There are plot reasons to keep this moving forward beyond Shadowlands and into the future.
Cynically? It’s a way to make up for lower player counts and cut down on longer queues. It’s no secret that World of Warcraft has seen an exodus of players, possibly as a direct result of the lawsuit currently surrounding Activision Blizzard, which centers on the Warcraft creator specifically. Final Fantasy XIV’s incredibly generous free trial - and just the sheer quality of the MMORPG itself - has attracted many players over the last eight to nine months, so much so that Square Enix has had to stop selling the MMORPG - twice - to keep server queues at least somewhat manageable.
Whatever the reason, World of Warcraft feels like it’s in decline, and while people have been saying this as an off-hand comment for years, it might now really be true. As such, finally allowing cross-faction parties in select activities, it patches up one of the issues many players could be facing: long party finder queues.
Yes, if you’re an Alliance player joining a Horde dungeon the story being told might be a smidge different, and vice versa, but who really cares? Like we saw in Shadowlands cross-faction storytelling works. It can be done, and as a result could make queues faster for those playing the MMO.
Detractors might say that by tearing down this pillar it ruins the shared universe of World of Warcraft, yet the faction division still exists elsewhere in WoW. Guilds, random Battlegrounds, Mythic dungeons and more will still remain faction-based, as will the MMO’s open-world PvP.
Additionally, to those players who don’t want to see this, that’s fine. As Hazzikostas says in the initial blog post announcing the feature, it’s opt-in. It’s not being forced and you can still retain your “For the Alliance/Horde” mentality if you so choose - though you might face longer queues if you do.
I can only see this as a net positive for World of Warcraft in the short and long term. It makes me more willing to recommend to a new player to just play the character they want to, knowing that for dungeons, raids and some PvP we aren’t segmented if we happen to be on opposite sides of the faction divide. It also makes me optimistic we’ll see more blurring of these lines moving forward, eventually allowing in later expansions and zones more freedom for players.
It’s been a long time coming, and the reasons behind why it’s happening now might be player count driven, but cross-faction gameplay in World of Warcraft has me more excited about its future than I was just a few days ago.