After 18 years, World of Warcraft is finally relaxing its deep, historical faction divide between Alliance and Horde players, and letting them play together at last.
As Blizzard announced today, an update is currently in the works that will allow Alliance and Horde players to form parties together for dungeons, raids, and rated PvP. Though not available yet, the change is planned for release as part of an eventual 9.2.5 update sometime after the upcoming major patch, Eternity’s End.
The shift is, by necessity, somewhat limited in scope. It has to be. World of Warcraft has always followed its Warcraft heritage in dividing the Alliance and Horde into warring factions — in fact, the majority of the game is built on and around that divide. It has historically pursued storylines that set the two groups at odds, pit the two against one another in PvP, and separated out the groups completely for social structures like guilds, parties, and even communication out in the world. One of its more recent expansions, Battle for Azeroth, explicitly centered around that faction conflict, though its resolution ended in a tenuous truce.
So at the moment, Blizzard is keeping things simple… well, relatively. Players will be able to directly invite members of the opposing faction to parties if they are already friends via BattleTag or RealID, or if they are members of an existing cross-faction community. When making pre-made groups in the Group Finder tool, they can open applications up to members of both factions, or just their own faction. They’ll be able to communicate through party chat while in a party, and trade items, fight together, and earn achievements while inside instances.
Meanwhile, guilds and all random matchmaking activities will stay same-faction, and players will still remain unfriendly or hostile out in the world even if they are in a party together. A handful of instances with explicit faction-divided components will also not work with cross-faction groups at least at the outset, including Battle of Dazar’alor, Trial of the Crusader, and Icecrown Citadel, though these may be reworked in the future.
Cross-faction play is something the World of Warcraft community has been asking about for years now. But when I asked game director Ion Hazzikostas “Why now?” he quipped back with “Why not?” before explaining that this shift was actually part of a larger reexamining of World of Warcraft’s fundamentals — a process Blizzard began back in patch 9.1.5.
“Part of the blog that we put out that laid the foundation for this was about looking at assumptions we’ve made about how character progression should work, about player versus account and all these other things. And really revisiting things we’ve said ‘no’ to that people in the community have asked for…And one of them has been the desire for cross-faction play in some form…The answer had always been well, it’s Warcraft, it’s orcs versus humans. It’s Horde versus Alliance. It’s what defines our whole IP.”
Hazzikostas begins to compare it to Star Wars, suggesting that in a Star Wars game, you wouldn’t let Jedi and Sith cooperate. But then he corrects, saying that example is actually quite different.
“Jedi and Sith and that universe are ideologies, they’re choices,” he continues. “Someone chooses to walk the path of the light or to go to the dark side…You’re born Alliance, you’re born Horde. That’s not a choice you make. That’s something that’s assigned to you and that predestined fate isn’t necessarily something that we want to necessarily stand by, the idea that your lot in the world because you were born an elf, you must hate trolls and nothing can change that. And because you were born a troll, you’re their eternal enemy.
“That’s not the world we want to build, but it’s also not the world we really have been building or the story we’ve been telling for the last 20 years and going back to Warcraft 3. At the end of the day, it was about the factions coming together to defeat Archimonde to stop the major threats to our world.”
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Another big reason the change is happening now is because of how communication outside of World of Warcraft has changed over the years. 17 years ago, Hazzikostas says, people met their online friends and communities through the game, and thus through their factions. But increasingly over the years, that’s changed radically.
“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.
“We frankly probably reached the tipping point a little while ago. But in a game like this, we’re stubborn and traditionalists and it’s scary to say: let’s uproot this foundational pillar of what the game has been for over a decade. But it’s time.”
Hazzikostas wants to emphasize that, at least for now, Blizzard isn’t ready to jump to extremes like eliminating factions entirely and letting a bunch of humans into Orgrimmar. That would undermine Azeroth’s shared reality. But by keeping it focused on cooperative play, it allows players to define their own boundaries for faction identity, while also conveniently letting them play with friends who just happen to be with the opposing faction.
That said, another reason they’re keeping the change within scope for now is because it’s a technically massive undertaking, touching on systems from how quest credits are shared to trading items to simple communication between players.
“On a fundamental level the code was written to assume, well, a party has a faction and that party’s faction is Horde or Alliance,” Hazzikostas says. “There’s a bunch of things in the game that reference that. And so it’s been a large undertaking of collaboration between our gameplay engineers, our UI, and our content and systems designers. And some of it is also assumptions made in different instances about the group being one faction or the other. We’re doing work to unwind and account for the vast majority of those; some of them are beyond the scope of what we can really deliver in legacy content, like Battle for Dazar’alor. We want to get there someday. We want to be able to support it so you can do your transmog runs with your friend.”
Hazzikostas says there probably won’t be a story acknowledgment about the gameplay change, as the factions are currently already at an armistice. But he does think it unlikely they’ll ever do an “all-consuming faction conflict expansion again” like Battle for Azeroth. He thinks it more likely they’ll focus on a wider range of perspectives on the divide through characters and quests, such as the survivors of the burning of Teldrassil, Genn Greymane, members of the Forsaken, and all those in between — all while letting players decide for themselves where they stand in relation to the opposing faction.
Of course, none of this stops Blizzard from eventually taking things further. Though Hazzikostas suspects they won’t have either technical or ideological reason to implement the change in World of Warcraft: Classic, he’s open to hearing community feedback and reconsidering if the desire is there. And he acknowledges it’s possible they may down the line want to consider other elements for the Retail version, like cross-faction guilds. But they’re being careful about how they move forward.
“At this point I know better than to close any doors,” Hazzikostas says. “This is a one-way process only…We’re not going to loosen rules, allow social bonds to form or communities to grow, and then suddenly turn them back and say, nevermind, that was a mistake…Technical considerations aside, something like outdoor gameplay would be a mammoth undertaking because of how all of our quests are built. Those considerations aside, we want to be conservative here, but we’re going to be listening to our community, guided by the results of how this experiment plays out and still trying to preserve Alliance and Horde identity, but do so in a way that is harmonious with how the game is played and how our players feel in 2022 and beyond.”
Given that Hazzikostas had described the faction war as a “foundational pillar” of World of Warcraft, I asked him what, then, World of Warcraft’s foundational pillars are with this one uprooted.
“It’s easy to assume as shorthand that the core idea is Horde versus Alliance. I think if you go back to like Warcraft 1 or Warcraft 2, well then yes, that literally was the case, because it was just a two-faction RTS game where the plot was created as a contrivance for why these factions are fighting each other.
“But really from Warcraft 3 onwards, I think the ideals of Warcraft have been adventure, exploration, but also the fact that we actually fundamentally have more in common than what separates us. That Alliance and Horde are both defending their homes, searching for homes, fighting for family, for honor, for justice.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.