You know, part of me honestly figured that the speculation around World of Warcraft abandoning the faction split would have died out months ago once we all remembered that Blizzard seems about as interested in fundamental upheaval based on story development as a bear is interested in a pack of toilet paper; just because we might associate them doesn’t mean they care. But no, with the latest patch’s bit of storytelling there definitely are teases about actually seeing a future without the faction split.
So… what would that mean? Because I could have sworn that was something I’d written before, but to my surprise it’s a topic I haven’t actually discussed before now even though it seems like one of those things that would be obvious. Maybe I just was so certain that Blizzard would never do it that it didn’t seem worth it, and to be honest part of me is still certain that it wouldn’t happen… but let’s speculate. What would a post-faction-war WoW actually look like?
First and foremost, while I said “factionless” even in the header, I don’t think that we’d ever get a game in which we literally didn’t have the Horde and the Alliance in the game at all. These things are too deeply embedded in the game’s fundamental code for that to work; no matter what happens, these factions will still exist.
But there are varying degrees of importance, and the real question is about a world and game experience wherein the factions have a role but aren’t basically the limit of who you can interact with. We’ve already seen that cross-faction communication is increasingly a thing with this expansion, somewhat ironically, and that alone does a lot to change the idea that the two factions exist in their own separated worlds.
Obviously, the odds of all the quests referring to a faction war being changed are… nil. That’s just not happening. That being said, the game has long accepted that it doesn’t actually form any sort of narrative playing from start to finish, so I don’t see that as a particular problem. Similarly, PvP will still probably be faction-based no matter what, but you can always justify that as war games, part of lingering animosity, or what-have-you.
So what would the game look like to actually reinforce the idea that the factions are at peace? I can think of three potential outcomes: the “because we said so” approach, the “Going Rogue” approach, and the “factions in name only” approach.
The “because we said so” approach is easily the most disappointing of the three. How do you know the faction war is done with? Because the NPCs tell us it is. Also, you can talk to the other faction normally in chat now. That’s it. That’s the only way anything is different, you still can’t party with people on the other side or really interact with them in new ways. But you know that they’re at peace because NPCs tell you that peace is here.
This is, obviously, a completely half-baked and bland way to handle what ought to be a pretty significant change to the way that the game world works. If you’re a cynic, it’s also probably what you would expect from the premise. Your mileage may vary.
The “Going Rogue” approach, by contrast, is named after an actual expansion that approached a similar split in a satisfying way. At the core of this approach, yes, you’d still have the Alliance and the Horde. At low levels, you would start out with either the Alliance or Horde, and up to, oh, let’s say level 30 you would be stuck there. But as you level up a bit, you would start getting the option to decide that this wasn’t your scene any more.
Complete a series of quests, and you can move to an intermediate state wherein you still belong to your core faction but you can interact more with the other faction. Keep going that same route, and you could ultimately wind up siding with the other faction altogether. These could easily be randomly generated missions taking place across the maps in your level bands, or even different questlines you could undertake depending on your level band. You could always swap to one side and then swap back, but the important part was that you could switch.
This obviously still creates a sense of factional identity; if you’re Alliance, you’re still partying up with Alliance players. But it also means that the definition of the dividing line is more broad, because it’s not like you can’t have an Orc in the Alliance. The bulk of them aren’t, but it’s not unheard of to see that.
Of course, part of what would help this is to give the factions a distinct philosophy beyond just “they don’t like one another and one of them keeps deciding to follow genocidal maniacs every few years.” But, hey, that’d probably be a good thing anyhow.
Last but not least, the “factions in name only” approach takes things even further. Players can party up with anyone for PvE content, regardless of faction. Quests can be undertaken for either faction and factional splits don’t matter at all. Aside from possibly having the other side start at a lower reputation, like Unfriendly, you’re never actually forced into doing anything if you’re an Orc who wants to hang out in Stormwind.
This one also has the benefit of being, well, pretty low-effort. You don’t have to actually add in new content or mechanics, you just change some underpinning aspects of the game and tell people that now they can hang out wherever. It does create some weird disconnection with older content, of course, but it effectively eliminates the factions from anything other than PvP, which would at least theoretically be the goal here.
Of course, it’s also kind of a lazy approach to a big change to the game’s fundamental structure. But it would at least still be the change to the structure, so while it’s not the approach I’d personally like to see without a little more explanation it would at least get a bigger thumbs-up than the first one.
Which one do I actually expect? I have no idea. I don’t at this point know if I expect any of these. Quite honestly, I’m astonished that at this point we’re having this discussion and it doesn’t feel like it’s purely wishful thinking.
The fact of the matter is that the faction split in the game has been something I’ve never liked. By segmenting off the population, you basically have two groups that have no need to interact or engage with one another, thus outright depriving the game of a potentially interesting vector for development. Thinking that we might actually get to start interacting and enjoying the game across faction lines alone is a big potential plus for me that I’d long written off as a pure pipe dream.
It’s possible that all of this is fundamentally window dressing. The teasing of it is kind of perfunctory, and it wouldn’t stun me if we wound up teaming up to kill Sylvanas and then just moving on as if nothing had happened just like at the end of Siege of Orgrimmar. But I feel like there are paths forward in which things are different, which is… nice to think about, at least.