I was in the middle of a whole other draft post, but wow, this needs to be addressed.
Today, Blizzard announced that in patch 9.2.5 (an update coming after the main patch that is still not dated), Blizzard will be enabling cross-faction gameplay with some restrictions. The basics are as follows:
-Cross-faction is allowed in organized, instanced gameplay – meaning at launch that it is for dungeons, raiding, and rated PvP only.
-You can choose to invite people on your friends list, in a cross-faction community, or using the Group Finder in-game. Group Finder will have options to restrict to faction lines if you so choose.
-Guilds will not cross-faction nor will random groups via queued matchmaking.
-Cross-faction is only enabled inside of instances, in the open world restrictions still apply, including you being able to gank your group members if you both are in War Mode.
-Some older dungeons and raids with faction-based mechanics and encounters will not work at launch with cross-faction play, with a vague indication of support coming later (Battle of Dazar’Alor, Trial of the Crusader, and ICC were named as the exceptions).
So…what to make of this?
Well, I think firstly, it is absolutely a good thing. WoW’s game design and balancing choices on racial abilities has frequently made serious groups for content have to consider faction, and playing Alliance for most PvE content has effectively been considered a “wrong” choice, as Horde racials are incredibly powerful in those modes and so a lot of the players pushing Mythic Keystones or high-end raiding are Horde, if not by their own choice, because the game effectively forces their hand (I’ve heard conflicting reports this is not the case anymore, but a lot of people remain Horde anyways due to sunk cost). At least allowing players to cross the divide allows each player some measure of identity and choice in the matter, and some of the newer Alliance racials are decent depending on your class and spec, so I would expect to see some amount of min-maxing around factional lines to be done as well.
The faction line has barely existed in the lore for ages now – BfA snapping back to faction conflict after the long and tenuous peace that has largely been in place since Wrath was weird, and while MoP had some elements of faction conflict, it ended up being Garrosh vs Everyone Else, so even in that example, it was not really present past a few quests to start things off. A lot of players have asked for a long time to get this as a feature, because factions being strictly enforced in gameplay was very dissonant with the lore we were getting, so on that front, I don’t think it really negatively affects immersion in the game. I mean, if you are an RPer who really fiercely believes that they are against the opposite faction, I suppose that matters, but you can be in groups that still restrict to a faction, so it provides a built-in opt out for you.
The larger question, as I see it, is why the restrictions that remain are still in place. Not being able to guild-up with opposite faction players still creates a lack of harmony in communication and chat in-game – you’d either need to make a cross-faction community to mirror that or simply do all your communication outside the game via Discord or the like, but outside of that, it just feels like a strange limitation to have in-place (and for that reason, I do think there could very well be technical limitations in play that need time to be removed). I’m also curious how this affects Mythic raiding – will you be able to cross-faction group within the same server and tackle things week 1, or will you need to wait for the Hall of Fame to close to bring in cross-faction groups? For the upcoming tier, this question is already solved – since the tier will launch without cross-faction, it is irrelevant, and it gives Blizzard until 10.0 to figure out the answer to that (along with maybe the guild question, hopefully).
The restriction on instances with factional triggers makes sense, and it feels like something they could, at easiest, just build a selection toggle for and at worst, build either a faction-neutral version of the old content or simply use group ratios to determine the “winner” faction that becomes the fight’s flavor. Of course, I am not a programmer and so my idea of simple may not actually be simple in a real code perspective, so take that with a grain of salt.
In the past, this is where I’d coyly step up to a line where we wonder aloud why the game needs this, but it’s pretty freaking obvious why the game needs this and is doing it. Population numbers are dwindling, and the imbalances of racials have pushed player perception towards rolling certain factions or even faction-changing to do certain content such that if you’re Alliance and trying to do PvE content, it sucks, and vice-versa for PvP content. There is a non-zero number of players I’ve heard of outright quitting the game because they wanted to stay Alliance but be capable of pushing Mythic content, and they just couldn’t get the kind of group they were looking for. Sure, this is an edge case and one that likely doesn’t apply to most, but addressing a handful of edge cases can be pretty impactful if you get enough people to try again.
Ultimately, the faction divide has been one of those concepts that was outdated early in WoW’s lifetime and the insistence on clinging to it by Blizzard has been a meme for a long time. It was so much so, in fact, that Blizzard even referenced the Blizzcon 2019 answer where Ion shot it down to boos in their post about the change!
Long-term, my hope is that the game’s social fabric becomes a cohesive whole and that players have choices of what groups to be in across any and all lines.
Further long-term, this feels like a seismic shift in response to player feedback, which is a welcome sight. One of the major flaws of WoW has always been that Blizzard has elements of their design they are attached to and unwilling to kill or change, even when player discontent with a thing reaches critical mass, and this feels different to the myriad of “fix it in the last patch” things we get every expansion for god knows how long now, where the game ships with something busted that is fixed just in time for it to be thrown out and replaced with a new, busted thing. This is a thing that has been requested for nearly a decade in some circles and something that Blizzard has pushed back on hard every time, so for it to change now feels like we’re witnessing something potentially very good in the works.
Ultimately, for me, does this address the core issues with design at the heart of my decision to leave the game personally? No. But it does add a little bit of hope that a 10.0 announcement would be a worthwhile watch, that there might actually be something to be excited about in all of that. If we get a 10.0 announcement that specifically mentions not having an expansion-wide disposable system in place, I could see actually wanting to come back for that. That wasn’t a thing I had hope for even just this morning, but there’s a renewed hope for a prosperous WoW future in this news.
And sure, there’s a cynical reading I would normally be inclined to as well – that Blizzard is trying to stop the bleeding, that this change was low-hanging fruit that could stem the tide, that it doesn’t represent a sea change as much as it does a simple act of desperation, but in this case, I feel like the cynical read isn’t my first instinct. Sure, all of that is probably true on some level – but at the same time, this has been such a long-standing issue they’ve never wavered on before, even in similar situations of decreased public perception, and while the current lack of enthusiasm for WoW (and Blizzard as a whole) is unprecedented, it is still a decline that is not unlike that of Warlords of Draenor in terms of scale of player impact. At the same time, I will keep an arm’s length from the change and say that while it is a good omen, good omens only mean something if continued good action follows.
Based on the hints we keep getting from Blizzard about news of what’s next coming very soon, we might not have to wait long to find out, and today’s news gives me at least a little more reason to hope that the game might have better days ahead, which is good!