The story of Warcraft is a story of, well, war. Orcs against humans, Horde against Alliance, time and time again the story of Blizzard’s fantasy saga—told across the classic strategy games and, for the past 18 years, groundbreaking MMORPG World of Warcraft—has turned back to stoking conflict between its two biggest factions. That could, at last, be about to change.
As if there somehow wasn’t enough fandom-shaking gaming news today, Blizzard took the opportunity of a tumultuous news cycle to reveal something of a wild shake-up of its own (separated, of course, from a separate tumultuous news cycle involving it and its parent company Activision’s protracted history perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment at the studio). As part of an upcoming update to World of Warcraft, the studio is beginning to test cross-faction matchmaking, allowing players to team up for dungeons, raids, and Player-vs-Player arenas regardless of whether they’re part of the Horde or the Alliance.
Since World of Warcraft first launched in 2004, its player base has been defined by a singular, fundamental choice made on creating a character: the choice between those two aforementioned factions. Picking your faction in WoW was one of the most important decisions you could make, deciding what races you could pick from—even classes in the original version of the game, with Paladins restricted to the Alliance and Shamans to the Horde—what areas you would visit, which characters you would interact with, and what perspective you would see of the game’s wider overarching story. These communities were fundamentally divided, unable to play together, or interact in-game altogether outside of attacking each other in PvP. You couldn’t talk to them thanks to an in-game language barrier, and their cities were off-limits unless you fancied rousing a garrison of in-game guards to chase you off. Horde and Alliance were two sides of the same coin that is the WoW fandom, and its community is largely driven by players feeling a kinship to their faction of choice.
That might be about to change, but it’s not changing entirely. In announcing the testing, Blizzard stressed that there will be limitations on cross-faction play—player communities, called Guilds, will still have their memberships restricted by faction, and players who utilize the in-game random group finder tools to run content will still only be paired with players from their own faction. Warcraft’s developers clarified that, as big as a change breaking down the fundamental barriers between Alliance and Horde might be, that they see the new system as a strictly opt-in choice for players. That, and so far at least, this is a strictly mechanical choice, with no impact on World of Warcraft’s 18-year-long narrative. But maybe that last bit should no longer be the case.
For as much as World of Warcraft’s story has been necessarily driven by conflict, time and time again it has pushed the potential of members of the Horde and Alliance putting aside their differences to confront larger threats—be those threats to their individual peoples or the entire planet of Azeroth itself. WoW’s power creep in terms of threats naturally makes its biggest narrative foes massive, incomprehensible godlike beings who don’t really care what banner their enemies fly under, pushing the Horde and Alliance into uneasy co-operation over and over, allowing certain major characters to develop a desire for diplomacy and peace between the two factions as significant parts of their arcs. But for all the times the Horde and Alliance have buried the hatchet to confront these threats, each time they’ve also promptly unburied it as the game inevitably draws itself back to that fundamental interior conflict—even when it doesn’t make all that much sense to.
The chains of the Horde-vs-Alliance conflict have stymied Warcraft’s storytelling potential for years at this point. The game feels stuck in a sort of narrative rut, repeating the same patterns: a new threat bigger than all the old threats arises, dangerous enough for the Horde and Alliance to agree to work together to defeat them, and then they go back to stabbing and yelling at each other until the next time. It stops characters like Thrall or Jaina Proudmoore, who have long been the forefront of attempts to find peace between their respective factions (and sometimes vacillating between wanting that peace and wanting endless war, especially in the latter’s case), from feeling like they’re capable of growing beyond this basic want, unable to develop as they’re locked into the inevitability of watching their hopeful alliances crumble back to the same old hatreds. For as long as Warcraft has been around, and now World of Warcraft as well, it feels like the series has barely grown and evolved, still committed to telling this same cycle of stories, turning what should be one of gaming’s most sprawling fantastical worlds into something of a re-heated saga left on loop.
So maybe in order to really evolve and expand, Warcraft needs to take that step beyond making these faction crossovers simply a mechanical benefit. There would be resistance, of course—players have been tied to these divides for nearly two decades. But if Warcraft wants to keep its story alive for another two decades, it has to do more than rehash the same old conflict it started out with.
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