What is the future of cross-realm play?

Matthew Rossi
M. Rossi|06.21.12

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What is the future of cross-realm play?
I have way more friends than I have any right to, really. Considering my personality is just shy of misanthropic and I look like I was trapped in a cave for 10 years, the fact that I seem to make friends in World of Warcraft surprises me. But I do, and there lies the issue: My friends are everywhere. They're on Malfurion, Cenarion Circle, Norgannon, Sisters of Elune, Zul'jin and now Ner'zhul. I still have characters on Dark Iron to chat with friends there.

The advent of Real ID, allowing me to group with these disparate friends, has made my life in game a lot smoother overall. Why, just last night I convinced Anne over on CC to log on an alt long enough for me to go inside Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj and punch everything in the face. Just because. I had no reason; there were bugs with unpunched faces, and it was bothering me.

Recently, I've noticed a spate of discussion on low-pop realms. Low-population realms have been one of the most enduring problems World of Warcraft has had in its years of operation, so much so that recently it's been announced that Mists of Pandaria will include a new feature allowing certain zones to exist across several realms for ease of grouping and questing. The cross-realm zone concept is as much to help with the shortage of low-level characters in general (most of a realm's population is often at or near the level cap at any given time) as it is to help low-pop realms, but it's still a step in the right direction for them.

With Real ID and now Battletags allowing for cross-realm raiding and the implementation of entire zones across several realms, I find myself wondering if the future of World of Warcraft will see a radical shift in how we think of the realm and how it is used. We already can randomly group with players on many realms for dungeons, Battlegrounds and the Raid Finder. We can group across realms with our friends for dungeons, PvP or raiding, as well. We're about to be able to meet players from other realms as we level. What's next?

Boots on the ground

For starters, we see with Dungeon and Raid Finder that a chat channel can be maintained across several realms. You don't even need to be inside the dungeon or raid to see the channel. Therefore, it is at least feasible that guilds could go cross-realm. Cross-realm guilds would need to be carefully considered, as they would change a lot of things. Do you allow all members unrestricted access to the guild bank, or does this pose too great a chance of crashing realm economies? People today use guild banks to pass items to players not close to them, even with instant mail between guildmates. Allowing them to do so when the players are on different realms gets around the current limitations preventing people from different realms from trading items or currency.

There would be advantages and disadvantages beyond this for the cross-realm guild. If all guilds were cross-realm, you could recruit players without their having to pay for realm transfers, but you'd also have to compete with every guild in existence. You'd lose the headache of dealing with a low realm population that just doesn't have the players you need, and you'd gain the headache of trying to stand out in a sea of guilds that includes every guild.

Cross-realm guilds may or may not be too big a headache to tackle. I have no doubt Blizzard could solve all the technical problems and put safeguards in for economies, but I do doubt whether or not the rewards would be worth the effort. Likewise, while cross-realm zones are being tested for zones like Duskwood or Thousand Needles (leveling zones that need the help to feel more populated and promote player interaction), the chaos of extending that to the capital cities would seem to my eyes to not be worth it. Can you imagine 20,000 people trying to use the Orgrimmar AH at the same time? Even if you don't link realm economies, so that each player only sees the AH on his or her realm, going cross-realm means that players from other servers can be in the same zone, fighting for the same herbs, mining the same nodes. Making the capital cities cross-realm means that even if the AH's aren't likewise linked, the locations in game where you go to use the AH could be flooded with people. Anyone who remembers Ironforge in the old days knows what I'm talking about.

You gotta level that content

However, while the cross-realm zone concept might be a terrible idea for cities, I definitely think it has merit for leveling content and absolutely should be extended to Outland, Northrend and eventually Cataclysm leveling zones like Deepholm and Uldum. Not only do these zones feel very strange when you're there by yourself, cross-realm functionality would provide a means to do harder grouping content (like the Crucible of Carnage) without having to nerf or remove it because it's so hard to find groups for it. One of the statements I really wanted to emphasize about cross-realm technology was this one from the official forums:

Nakatoir - Low populated/ unbalanced servers
We do realise that this system does not address all of the issues affecting low population and faction imbalanced realms, but we do feel that it will improve things quite a bit. This is a brand new technology being developed for World of Warcraft, with the purpose of bringing life back to the more barren parts of the world, so this is only the start. What needs to be understood with the cross-realm zones technology is that it opens more doors to future systems that could help with those other matters as well.

While I've listed some of the pitfalls that could be opened with it above, I am still very interested to see how this technology is used and what doors it opens for new systems. I think a system where most of the world is cross-realm could end up being a very good thing.

One thing I imagined was that once you enter into a cross-realm group with a Real ID or Battletag friend, you can see them in the world as you can on the map at present. This would increase the immersion and allow you to do fun things like group quests, dailies, and even just run around together. Another possibility would be to effectively have several low-population realms share almost everything except capital cities, including the ability to form raiding groups across those realms. Limit cross-realm guilds like that to the low-population realms at first, so that several realms with extremely low Horde or Alliance population could form a guild together to increase the available pool of talent without having to fight every realm for people.

Blizzard is taking their usual baby steps with this concept, and for once, I'm completely in agreement with them. You don't want to rush this or use it haphazardly. But if properly executed, cross-realm play could alleviate the need for free character migrations and end any talk of server merges, because there would be no penalty for being on a low-population server.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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