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Battle for Azeroth is all about the Horde’s identity crisis

Blizzard talks about the Horde’s nature, the Alliance’s response, and a future where neither exist

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Over the 24-year life of Blizzard’s Warcraft series, the battle between orcs versus humans — which became Horde versus Alliance — has been a constant. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, the MMO’s latest expansion, brings the enduring conflict front and center for the first time in years.

We recently spoke with Steve Danuser, Warcraft’s senior narrative designer, and Ely Cannon, Warcraft’s lead artist, to talk about the renewed conflict in Battle for Azeroth.

While the Horde and the Alliance have never been friends, we have seen them team up in past expansions to fight threats greater than themselves. However, Danuser said that things have never been easy between the two factions, even in times of great need.

“You did see those fires flare up at times between the Horde and Alliance, it’s always been part of the Warcraft DNA,” said Danuser. “We’ve always had that conflict kind of simmering, and it’s flared up at different points. In Pandaria it flared up and you had the pursuit of Garrosh. Ultimately, the Horde and the Alliance came together to take him down, but there were still definite points where both of these forces were struggling against one another. We wanted to refocus on this red versus blue conflict.”

Blizzard Entertainment

But while war between the two factions is at the heart of Battle for Azeroth, it’s hard not to see the Horde as the focus. In the weeks leading up to the expansion, the Sylvanas Warbringer cinematic left some Horde players feeling disenfranchised with their own faction. Only days later, the Old Soldier cinematic revitalized those same players. It’s been a bumpy few weeks for the Horde, but this struggle with the faction’s core identity was always meant to be a focus in Battle for Azeroth.

“There has always been some question as to what the Horde stood for,” said Danuser. “And that has changed and evolved over time. Is it this disparate collection of outcasts that nobody will align themselves with? And that’s why they’re together, out of necessity? Or is it this group that’s driven by honor and courage? Players have been able to identify and pull out parts of the storyline that they favor and maybe turn a blind eye to some of the other things, but all of those things have been part of the Horde’s history.

“While we’ve had conflicts like the Siege of Orgrimmar, none of those really resolved what the Horde is. Battle for Azeroth is absolutely an opportunity to look at both sides [honorable and evil] that have made up the Horde storylines throughout the years and pull them together. And maybe give a chance for the Horde to look inward and maybe become something new, something stronger than it ever was before.

“We look at this as an opportunity, and the thing is, to get there, we have to look at those scars that have come along the way. That’s the only way we can grow and move beyond, is taking an honest look at the things you’ve done, and nobody is exemplifying that path to the Horde more than what Sylvanas and Saurfang and those other heroes are doing. They are embodying the other aspects of what the Horde was. So to get to the future of the Horde, we have to face the Horde’s past, and face it in a very real and tangible way.”

While the Horde certainly seems to be the focus in the vanilla version of Battle for Azeroth, the narrative team hasn’t forgotten the Alliance, and the players who ally themselves with them.

“The Alliance has its share of disparity within it as well, and different facets that have bubbled up over the years,” said Danuser. “The Alliance is going to have to realign itself. Especially the Night Elves who lose their home. How are they going to react to this? There’s going to be a real self-examination of what the Alliance is about, and how they want to behave. Do they want to get revenge on the Horde, or do they want to build a better world? That’s a question they need to answer.”

Blizzard Entertainment

The Horde and the Alliance are both heroes and villains in this expansion, at least at the start. But it’s hard not to feel like this could be the final hurrah for both of these factions, at least how they currently exist. After all, how can you keep the same faction war fresh for another 24 years, even if it’s the DNA of the series?

To close out our time with Blizzard, we asked the most straightforward question we could: Will we ever see a world where the Horde and the Alliance no longer exist?

“Well, what I would say is that there is definitely room for what those factions represent to evolve and change and for their relationship to change,” said Danuser. “Those factions are so tied into player identity, when you see those banners, you know what they stand for — they’re personal to you as a player. You did things for that faction, you fought that enemy, you held the line for them, defended your capital. All those things. That wouldn’t be something we would take away lightly. That’s part of the Warcraft DNA. But shaping what those factions mean in the world and how they interact with one another? That’s something this expansion really allows us to focus on and resolve in a way that will be satisfying for players on both sides.”

The future of the Horde and the Alliance is certainly at risk in Battle for Azeroth. But Blizzard seems less concerned about where we’re going, and more interested in how we get there. While we don’t know how Battle for Azeroth will end, we can certainly say that the Horde and Alliance won’t look the same in just a few years from now.

Correction: Steve Danuser title has been changed to be more accurate, and now displays as senior narrative designer.

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