“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” - Norman Maclean
Looming quite close, just over the metaphorical digital horizon, is Patch 4.3.2. A minor patch with a few tweaks, a few fixes and one new feature that, had it come a year ago, would have sent the WoW community into a frothy orgy of excitement: Cross-Realm Raiding.
People have been clamouring for the ability to Raid with their friends on different servers for ages, and it seemed like an idea that was inevitable ever since the cross-realm Looking For Dungeon system was introduced in Patch 3.3. And, of course, Patch 4.3 introduced the Looking For Raid system which allows raiding Dragon Soul with random cross-server people at a unique difficulty level.
But what LFR does not address is the ability to form Raids to tackle normal and heroic difficulty modes with people who are not on your server. And while the current raid tier, Dragon Soul, will not be available initially, that's what this new Cross-Realm Raid system is designed to do.
KINDA LIKE KISSING YOUR SISTER
Unfortunately, excluding Dragon Soul leaves me a bit underwhelmed with cross-realm raiding. There will be no scouring Twitter to find a last minute replacement to fill in for your Mage who is being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning leaving you one short for your regular raid night. No cross-server guild partnerships to form a 25-man raid out of two 10-man guilds. No Dragon Soul All-Star Raiding Dream Teams will form up spontaneously to crush the heroic modes.
|Portrait of a Pissed-off Dragon Aspect|
What it can be used for is to join LFR with a larger group than was previously available (yes, it's Dragon Soul, but only the watered down version), join a Battleground as a premade group, and to run through older tiers of raiding content.
Very useful stuff, and I think that the Battlegrounds feature especially will be used a lot. However, the system will never live up to it's potential until the current raid tier is able to be done with a cross-realm group.
I can only speculate as to why they decided not to include it. Perhaps they felt that it would dilute the value of guilds. Maybe Blizzard didn't want people instantly transported to the raid instance as they are with LFR, thereby preserving the one, final reason people have for actually leaving the capital cities. It's possible as well that there is a technical reason, too, but most likely Blizzard decided to exclude Dragon Soul for a gameplay or balance reason.
Regardless, it seems that Blizzard is taking the cross-realm capabilities of WoW very seriously, and I imagine that seeing cross-realm raiding with no restrictions is only a matter of time. Which is great. I really look forward to the days ahead where the entire WoW population (faction permitting, of course) is at my disposal when I need to fill a hole in a raid.
INSULATION FROM ISOLATION
However, once cross-realm raiding of current content goes live, how long until we have cross-realm mail? Cross-realm chat channels? Cross-realm universal auction houses? And eventually, are cross-realm guilds possible?
I am just indulging in some wild and completely unsupported speculation here, as Cross-Realm Guilds are certainly not a feature that anyone has even hinted at being on the horizon, but it seems as if it would be the next logical step in the direction that Blizzard is taking us. It would pretty much remove all the remaining barriers between the various different Realms and create a single cohesive WoW population.
If this truly is the direction that Blizzard is moving, it may serve to be a very clever way to prolong the games life.
I think that it is clear that after being at the absolute top of the MMO world since 2004, there are more days behind WoW than there are in front of it, at least as the biggest and most relevant of the genre. Don't get me wrong, I don't think WoW is going to die any time soon, but I don't think it's possible that any game—even this one—has 14 years of staying power. Times change, games change, new games come out. Such is the way of the world as so will it be for WoW.
It is a certainty that at some point WoW will start to diminish in terms of active players. It will be slow and subtle but will eventually leave some servers as ghost towns, their capital cities echoing with the unheard cries of NPCs trying vainly to add colour to an empty world. I've always believed that the first definitive sign that WoW is truly on the downward slope is when Blizzard starts consolidating servers in order to keep the population of active players high enough to be viable.
However, what does it matter if your server is virtually abandoned if your guild is spread-out over 20 or 30 different servers? While it would be rather odd to go to Stormwind (or whatever the hang-out du jour is in the distant WoW future I'm describing) and have it deserted save for a single, lone naked Night Elf dancing on the mailbox, as long as there are enough people online on some server somewhere to do the group activities the game will have the appearance of vitality.
And in the end, in order for a game to survive it has to still be fun to play. WoW without people isn't fun. And the perception that there are loads of other people around ready to do something with is critical for any MMO to stay alive and vibrant.
To that end, the cross-realm features that Blizzard has implemented, as well as those we can speculate that they might implement at some point are great steps to unify and enlarge the pool of players that a person can interact and play with, which will help the game survive and prosper for longer than it might otherwise. And as someone who plans to play this game for a long while yet, I think that is a great thing.