For Azeroth! It’s time World of Warcraft left Alliance versus Horde in the past for good
The antagonism in World of Warcraft between Alliance and Horde has gone on too long and it’s time to unite if Azeroth is ever to flourish again
Along with the launch of a new expansion cycle is another new beginning in World of Warcraft when it comes to Alliance and Horde relations. The Dragonflight pre-patch introduced a number of quality-of-life features to the game. Many of these changes allow players on both sides of the faction line to live together in harmony, both in the literal and diegetic sense. This is appropriate, as the current storyline in Dragonflight involves the two former warring factions making peace and working together for a shared common cause.
Myriad gameplay, narrative, and community reasons exist in regard to these sorely needed changes. While the hallmark of WoW for much of its lifespan has been the Horde versus Alliance dynamic, all things must end. Having come out on the other end of a stretch of expansions subjectively considered the most disappointing in the game's history, it seems time to try new things.
For game longevity, for ease of play, for enjoyment, and for Azeroth: It's high time World of Warcraft moved on from Alliance versus Horde.
Alliance versus Horde: At the beginning
The World of Warcraft Alliance/Horde narrative started at the beginning of the franchise in 1994. Titled Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the RTS game told the tale of an invading force of green monsters coming through a portal to another planet. Led by demonic overlords, the Horde sought to take over the planet of Azeroth from the Alliance, a contingent of human nations that came together to fight for their lands. This has been the focus of just about every Warcraft story since then. Even as the Horde found its freedom from slavery and struck out as a band of misfits finding its place in the world, it seems war never changes.
Narratively, this rivalry between the Horde and Alliance continued even as the orc-led resistance became heroes. It's also the basis for the world and game design of vanilla World of Warcraft, released in 2004. Not only could players from opposite factions not communicate with one another, but from a gameplay perspective, they were isolated.
Even if you didn't play on a PVP server that allowed players of one faction to attack the other at any time it still had an effect on gameplay. Added in the Dragonflight pre-patch was a feature that allowed members of both factions to tag and loot the same enemy monsters. This is a massive change from game design in the past, as up until now a monster attacked first by one faction couldn't be looted by the other.
At best, this led to a line of sorts at the spot of rare or quest-related enemy mobs. However, at its worst, this led to quest hotspots becoming PVP free-for-alls that would grind any player's progress to a halt.
That separation continued for almost two decades. Until recently Horde and Alliance players couldn't group together for dungeons and raids. Meanwhile, PVP-centric expansions effectively cut off swaths of content if you were the type to avoid player versus player.
Perhaps this was just the developer giving players what they wanted. And maybe things change over time.
A Facebook Warcraft group post on any given day.
You can't look through a WoW-centric Facebook group, Instagram post, or Blizzard discussion board without immediately seeing some kind of Alliance versus Horde conversation. Which, fine: It's all harmless fun sometimes to poke fun at the opposing faction. After all, we're all in this big and wide world of Warcraft. However, that same energy almost always ends up turning into some good old, classic online vitriol. Some of this is driven by the fact that in the early days of WoW faction pride was a big source of how players had to sometimes create their own fun.
Raids on the opposing faction's capital city, races to be the first side to unlock the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj, and more. However, there's a big gulf between giving a /yell of "Lok’tar Ogar!" and players essentially having to leave and do something else in-game because a group of opposing rogues won't stop killing low-level players outside Orgrimmar.
And this is the heart of the Alliance versus Horde debate when it comes to gameplay design. How long must players suffer the griefing of others to the detriment of their own ability to simply play the video game? It's one thing for players to queue for a faction-based PVP battleground and another to get hard-stuck with no way of opting out of the experience if the opposing faction decides to grief.
This leads to a poor community experience in-game for new players and increases a major problem that Blizzard continues to fight to this day: Is it fun to wait in line?
Come stay at Blizzard World
There's a famous statistic from Vanilla WoW and its last raid, Naxxramas that I covered on an episode of my narrative lore podcast Essence of Azeroth. The developers revealed that less than one percent of the total WoW player base ever saw the inside of the infamous raid. Since that time more and more of the design choices in World of Warcraft have leaned towards a model best described as akin to Disney World: Get as many players on the ride as possible and streamline the experience so that most players see the most amount of content.
The problem veers off the rails when literal lines form in-game to kill the same enemy mob that only spawns every minute or so. This is a problem alleviated by the recent changes to tagging, but other features still carry old scars forward.
Also, if we're keeping track this problem is exactly why WoW Classic was a terrible idea. But, that's another story for another time.
This has led to contentious design choices throughout the years, such as the Looking For Raid feature that essentially created an easy mode of the game's premier content. This, in turn, created a socio-cultural divide between players who felt there was a "right way" to play World of Warcraft.
Real players support their faction. And play PVP. Real players only do non-LFR. So on and so forth.
YouTuber Dan Olsen has talked about this topic at length, including in his most recent video Why It's Rude To Suck at World of Warcraft. The video details the strange decorum that comes along with the nebulous concept of "being good" at World of Warcraft. Many of these morays worsen the Disney World model of content design within WoW, creating unspoken rules that further darken the waters of just playing the video game. Which, in turn, informs the factional culture war in World of Warcraft between the Alliance and Horde.
The most prominent example is server faction balance. At any given time in PVP game modes, a server may heavily favor Alliance or Horde, almost purely based on population. However, this population is influenced by whether or not the Horde or Alliance is the primary dominant faction on said server. For instance, my former home server of Argent Dawn was known as Alliance-centric, with the Horde almost never winning modes such as the Battle for Wintergrasp. This, in turn, further creates a divide in the server's population as players either swap to the "winning side" or just leave.
The designations of “faction A” and “faction B” no longer serve any usefulness in the current landscape. In a time when dungeons and raids are now cross-faction, it only serves to highlight that more of the game should be integrated. This doesn’t have to mean an end to Alliance and Horde as identities or signifiers. However, it does highlight the functional use of all participants being on the same side in regard to gameplay. Leave factions and team pride to the narrative side of things.
Speaking of that, let’s talk about the path forward for World of Warcraft as a narrative.
Alliance and Horde: An expedition into tomorrow
Credit: Square Enix Co
From a lore standpoint, the last three expansions have been a mess for the denizens of Azeroth. Alliance and Horde alike have suffered at the hands of faction warfare, mistrust, literal genocide, and multiple threats to all life on the planet. More to the point, the extreme focus on “us versus them” storytelling means that the game can only take on one singular, morose tone. So much of the narrative throughout Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands is seen via the lens of an all-out war between the two factions. This has led to major narrative casualties, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, as longtime fan favorites such as Jaina Proudmoore suddenly become warmongers.
And let’s not forget the Defense Against the Dark Arts-like position that is Warchief of the Horde. A role that saw the last two holders of the mantle become big, bad raid bosses and unrepentant monsters. Both sides of the war eventually grew tired of seeing the results.
But that was then, and this is now: Dragonflight is a new day, and with it comes a fresh change of scenery and entirely different perspectives. The end of Shadowlands saw the Horde and Alliance bury their collective hatchets, with newly elected leadership taking over for both camps. Dragonflight even begins with a declaration of togetherness. Alliance and Horde venture to the Dragon Isles together in a harmony not seen since right before Wrath of the Lich King.
Honestly, it’s a positive thing. I'm going to give a subjective opinion, but the constant churning noise coming from the gears of war is tiring at the least, and boring at worst. As someone who has played World of Warcraft since its inception, it just feels lazy to lean on the game’s oldest tropes. It’s also a smart thing from a marketing standpoint that the game and its canon are moving in more lighthearted, whimsical directions.
The recently released short story The Vow Eternal by New York Times bestselling author Christie Golden highlights this best. The story follows Wrathion, the Black Prince of the Ebon Dragonflight, and his journey to Suramar for the wedding of two friends. The story is a perfect example of characters from both sides of the aisle interacting and having fun. It feels closer to the tone of Final Fantasy 14, a game that World of Warcraft now finds itself in direct competition with for new players.
It’s also a game that isn’t interested in gating players into vague boxes and limitations. Instead, it leaves players to create their own fun in ways that foster interesting and vibrant communities. World of Warcraft needs Alliance and Horde to come together if it's ever going to stay competitive heading into its second decade.
A new day ahead
World of Warcraft players, whether Alliance or Horde, deserve a fresh start for one of gaming’s biggest legacy titles. It’s time to throw off the shackles of “us” and “them,” placing everyone in the same toybox and creating a new world for World of Warcraft. The rumored cross-faction guild option teased by Blizzard developers, a long time coming and sorely needed. If we’re truly committed to saving Azeroth, the first thing that has to happen is uniting everyone under a common banner.
For the Alliance. And the Horde. But most of all: For Azeroth.
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Editor | Twitter @Hammer_Barn
Will has over a decade of print and digital journalism experience, with bylines in Polygon, The Escapist, The Toledo Blade, The Austin American-Statesman, and more. He's also the host of the World of Warcraft lore podcast Essence of Azeroth, loves Murlocs just a bit too much, and owns too many cats.