Repopulating the Old World: Cross Realm Zones

Sometimes I think you want me to touch you.
How can I when you build the great wall around you? - Tori Amos, China

In a move that surprised everyone, Blizzard has announced that they are going to begin testing Cross Realm Zones in the Mists of Pandaria Beta. I love this idea like a big sloppy Dwarfling kiss, and given the subject of my last post, the timing of this announcement is particularly serendipitous.

I am a unrepentant Wrath Baby; I created my first character in the very twilight of the Burning Crusade expansion, mere months before Wrath of the Lich King went live. Because of this I have never experienced the Old World as the thriving, vibrant place that it was in Vanilla.

For me and thousands of other people who joined the game late, levelling in World of Warcraft is a solitary experience. The wilderness of Azeroth outside of the major cities is filled with bears and bandits and monsters of all types, but even on busy, highly populous servers, meeting another character is something of a rare occurrence. It's a lonely life, being a lowbie in Azeroth, but the new Cross Realm Zones aim to change that.

The way that Blizzard is trying to implement this is quite brilliant, if you ask me. Basically, certain realms will be linked together based on population, and each of those realms will share certain zones that are flagged as "Cross Realm". Using the Barrens as an example, a character on Sargeras would walk out of a realm-exclusive Orgrimmar into a Barrens shared by 5 other servers, and would see and interact with characters from all of those realms normally, just as if they were all on the same server. At the same time, Blizzard will have the ability to keep highly populated zones (Cities, to be sure) exclusive. This way Stormwind won't be crushed under the weight of thousands of people standing at the fountain oogling the fifteen thousand naked Night Elves dancing on the mailboxes.

I think this feature is fantastic. Not just a technically brilliant solution to make an older technology scale and adapt to the changing reality of the current, max-level focused state of the game, but also as a step to the ultimate goal of eliminating realms completely. I talked about this back in January, but the elimination of the barrier walls around the different realms is a very clever way for Blizzard to extend the life of the game. Right now, if Blizzard chooses to do so, the only realm-specific areas are the main cities, the Auction House and any zone that is going to be populated enough not to be a concern like the Cataclysm zones and the new Mists of Pandaria zones.

As a social, massively multiplayer game, it is always a little bit odd to run around the world outside of the two major faction cities of Stormwind and Orgrimmar and see, well, nothing. By repopulating the Old World, new players will finally get an experience that is close to what older players experienced when WoW was new and when having a maximum level character was rare: A world that is full of people to interact with.

It really doesn't matter that there are no group quests in the game any more, nor is there any real need to team up with people to defeat the quests that people are given. Having a lot of people busily running around doing there own thing is exciting. It adds an immense amount of flavour to the game.

Like the bustling sidewalks of downtown New York, it's all about vibrancy and life and activity; it's about the soul of this game, which is missing in the low level zones. Bringing that kind of life back to zones other than the cities is going to go a long way to help make new players—and old players who love lowibe alts like myself—remain excited about this game for years to come.

After all, it is World of Warcraft. Bravo, Blizzard. Well played.

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