Tuesday’s patch contained bug fixes, Dragon Soul nerfs, and a new (and irritating) game file cleanup process. It also contained one new feature that the community is slowly beginning to buzz about – Cross-Realm raiding with Real ID friends. While we’ve all probably dealt with the effects of the other changes in the patch, this one is something we haven’t even begun to feel the full effects of yet.
Some members of the WOW community were thinking ahead – already a new forum has sprung up for those interested in Cross Realm raiding. This new site called “Twitterland Raiding” is a fantastic idea, and I’m excited at the potential it holds. I’m not incredibly active on Twitter (more of a lurker), but I’m thrilled at the opportunity to play with some of the vibrant, interesting people that I’ve “met”.
As I registered for the Twitterland Raiding site, my mind started churning. “This is only the beginning,” was one thought that kept bubbling up.
I don’t envy Blizzard. Everything they do has consequences far beyond the immediately obvious. I know their staff is full of smart people, but even they can’t think of every implication. The introduction of Looking for Dungeon, Real ID, and Looking for Raid have taken a lot of heat and had dramatic effects on the community. Even looking back, it’s hard to tell whether there is an exact correlation between these new features and trends we’ve been seeing in the game. All we can really do is speculate, because Blizzard just doesn’t release the volumes of data we’d need to statistically analyze things.
So here goes a whole bunch of speculating and musing about the past and future.
When WOW launched, Blizzard’s technical architecture was probably very different from it is now. As their skill sets in the world of MMO development, scale, and data management have advanced, they have added new capabilities for WOW players. So many things that Blizzard thought they would never be able to do have come to pass: account bound items, Real ID chat, cross-realm battlegrounds and dungeons, automated guild transfers, and so much more. As time has gone on, the concept of a “server” has meant less and less.
Servers are no longer isolated silos (although there are still some remnants of this, like the Mail system). They have an enormous pool of instance servers (virtual and physical) that your character interacts with when they go into a battleground, dungeon, raid, etc. This means that anything that is “instanced” has the potential to break the traditional realm barriers in terms of group makeup. Chat is also a separate service that runs outside of realm boundaries. Blizzard has slowly taken advantage of this architecture. It began way back with inter-battlegroup Battlegrounds. As their technology has improved they were able to expand to Dungeons, Raids, and even scale to go beyond small clustered battle-groups to encompass entire regions.
Initially, these Cross-Realm activities provided enormous convenience to players, shortening queue times dramatically or providing automated solutions to manual tasks. They also seemed to have a side-effect of diluting social aspects of a realm, and guilds. Although people claimed that these features would be the death of WOW, or guilds, or fill-in-the-blank, the effect was limited. You still needed a guild to raid Normal or Hard Modes. You also couldn’t actually choose to end up with players you knew from other realms, so anyone who wanted a familiar community of players stuck with their guild and/or realm for core group activities.
Combine cross-ream features with Real ID, however, and you have the makings of a cataclysmic change. It’s still been a slow one… almost a trickle. It’s sneaking up on us in tiny steps.
First, Real ID was announced, and after the kerfuffle died down it left us with a very simple in-game chat program.
Then Blizzard announced the potential for using LFG with Real ID friends – originally as a paid service (remember that?). As Blizzard worked on implementing this feature, they changed their minds about making it a premium service. I can’t claim to know their reasons, but it had something to do with realizing that social interactivity is the core reason players continue to subscribe to WOW. Due to privacy concerns, this again had rather limited impact.
And now we arrive at the Cross-Realm Real ID raiding. Another small and very natural step. It is still limited in a few ways: (1) Real ID isn’t something that many will use due to privacy concerns, and (2) Cross Realm LFR is for legacy raids and Raid Finder tier only, no Normal or Hard modes.
Blizzard has some very tough choices to make from here on out, if they continue on down this path. The effects of choices already made will continue to be revealed. My mind is spinning with possibilities… I see hundreds of parallel universes opening up, some quite clear, others are blurry, and still others are beyond even my imaginative.
Battle Tags (account pseudonyms) are already on the horizon. This strips away the first limiting factor of Cross-Realm LFR that I mentioned above.
One huge question is looming over us. What about #2? Will Blizzard ever allow you to engage in Cross-Realm raids in Normal or Heroic modes ? It’s obviously not a technical concern for them, purely a strategical choice. Have they decided ultimately that the answer is no, or are they just waiting to see how things pan out?
Whatever the answer, we can still ponder what the future holds. What will happen to server communities? To guilds?
The Death of Realms?
Let’s go down the route of saying that yes, Blizzard opens up Cross-Realm LFR wide, and you can play with whomever you want in any instanced content. Just imagine the potential consequences. Cross-realm guilds could exist loosely, but the game structure doesn’t support or reward this. You wouldn’t get guild achievements, you wouldn’t be able to share items or banks. You wouldn’t be able to quest together.
Mechanic-wise, this would be awkward and not user-friendly, but it could happen. This could leave the remnants of server communities in shambles. Server firsts aren’t meaningful if the guild is made up of members from multiple servers. The entire existence of servers would be an archaic, unintuitive barrier. To make the game truly cohesive, Blizzard would need to kill servers altogether.
Other games exist in single-shard fashion, such as EVE Online. None of these games have quite the scale that WOW does. It would be an immense technical challenge. You couldn’t have millions North American players hanging out in Stormwind at once – it would be impossible to render. Characters would need to be distributed through various servers but it would need to be seamless to the player. It wouldn’t do to be standing in the exact same spot in Stormwind as your friend, but be unable to see them. Condensing WOW into a seamless single shard makes my brain hurt - I’m just not that smart.
Inevitable Social Change
Even if they don’t allow you to do “real” raids cross-realm, there is a lot of change in the wind. Casual players will be free to do LFR with anyone they meet on the internet. Normal and Hard mode raiding guilds will need to consist of players more truly committed to the idea of raiding. This could be a good thing, in terms of stripping from the pool applicants who only joined because it was the only way to raid and were barely paying attention. But as we have already seen, recruiting is getting very hard. Raiding guilds are dying left and right, due to many of the more committed players losing interest in the game after playing it for so many years.
The spectrum of what players can accomplish and get out of the game is widening further. The biggest struggle and drama in the social aspects of WOW has always been staying on the same page as the rest of your group. Everyone has different interests, goals, and opinions, and meshing these is incredibly hard. Without limitations like guild, server, etc. for participating in end-game content, players can be even more fickle and flexible with those goals.
Those of us in the “middle” – those of us who like the committed aspects of guild raiding and teamwork, but don’t have time to put in tremendous amounts of effort, are going to face some tough times. Will our guilds be able to raid in the way that we have? Will we lose those players on the one end of the spectrum that we traditionally attracted – those that “sorta like raiding but don’t really care too much about it and just want to hang with friends”?
Despite all the potential unrest, these new features have promise to breath life into a very old game. Being able to play with anyone, without barriers, is a lovely idea. Most of us know people that play the game, in real life and online, but having the ability to actually play with them can stimulate friendships and new levels of social interaction.
Guilds will even receive a really nice benefit from all of this. Players can try to find the right fit without paying for a server transfer. Sidenote: It would be even more amazing if Blizzard could implement an actually useful cross-realm Guild Finder tool instead of the half-assed tool that exists now. At worst, perhaps some community tool will take off in the manner that Ask Mr. Robot has for gear. Recruitment might actually get easier – if people know what they’re getting into they’re more willing to take the risk of committing money for a transfer.
Blizzard’s Grand Experiment
As many others have said before me, WOW is just a grand experiment for Blizzard. Everything they’ve been doing is all leading up to their Next Big Thing, likely Titan. It’s a little frightening sometimes to think about, and leads pessimists to claim that Blizzard doesn’t care whether their choices in regards to WOW are devastating to the game. That’s conceivably true with some other company, but Blizzard has a track record of making things right. That track record is perhaps why they have been so successful in the first place. Blizzard is constantly trying to make the game better – and when they make a big mistake (ala the initial Real ID forum implementation), they tend to admit to it.
That’s not to say that they won’t accidentally kill WOW with these new features. Messing with social networks, and community perception is bigger than even they really understand. But there is also the potential for WOW to become something even more amazing.
If you got through this brain dump, then thank you. Being concise has never been a strength of mine. Did I say anything that struck a chord with you? What sorts of things do you imagine for the social future of WOW?