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Are Factions Still Relevant?

January 22, 2014

Dear Reader,

I’ve written about factions before.  To be frank, not a terrible lot has changed since then, except more examples of the same points.  Still, as more and more games continue to come out that use factions to clumsily create a vague sense of narrative tension, I’m constantly reminded of why I’m sick and tired of factions.

The most recent example for me has been Wildstar.  Since they’ve announced their factions via videos on the website, I assume I can talk in general about them without breaking the NDA.  In Wildstar, you have the “Exiles” and the “Dominion.”  Both factions are fighting over control of the planetary setting.  What bothers me is that for AAA MMOs, I don’t think there’s ever been as clearly a “good guy” faction and a “bad guy” faction.  The Exiles are just trying to survive, to resettle after their planets have been destroyed, whereas the Dominion wants to crush the Exiles and take the planet’s resources for its own use.

Even in Star Wars, there were decisions by the Republic that weren’t perhaps the most just, and at times the “light side” solutions were stupid or naive (or even too brutal).  In WoW, the Alliance and the Horde both have many nuanced shades of gray, as does Star Trek Online, where each “empire” is fighting for dominance of its political ideal, and Rift, where one faction believes in using the bad stuff to fight the bad stuff and the other thinks using the bad stuff is a bad idea.  It makes me think that anyone who knowingly chooses the “bad guys” must be sociopathic; why would you choose to dominate, oppress, and murder everyone else?  (Of course, I don’t really think that those players are bad people, but it does confuse me.)

In all of these cases, the factions primarily seem to exist to provide three basic elements: a reason for PvP, a background story for the setting, and a secondary experience with playthrough.  What drives me nuts is that there’s plenty of other ways to handle each of these, if they need to be handled at all.

PvP can take place for any variety of reasons, such as tactical war games, resource squabbles, or vendettas.  You do not need factions to explain any of those.  Outbreaks of violence happen for all sorts of reasons; factions are just convenient ways to avoid coming up with better stories.

Nor do you need factions for a world’s background, and in fact there’s virtually never simply two factions involved.  Creating bi-factional backgrounds only leads to strained suspension of disbelief; instead, why not have multiple factions, some of which are allied, some of which are enemies, and some of which are neutral.  Fallen Earth did this well; there were 6 factions you could associate with later in the game.  Doing quests for one gave you a lot of rep for that one faction, a little rep for a couple others, and negative rep for others.  This “Faction Wheel” became a major element in later gameplay, as players tried to find ways to get everything from all of the factions.  That sort of more complex gameplay better illustrates how things work in the real world, rather than just a bifurcated political environment where you’re either all for or all against one group of people.

Lastly, you certainly don’t need factions to support multiple playthroughs.  In fact, you don’t need multiple playthroughs at all; look at how Guild Wars 2 has handled it; each race gets a separate starting area, and you can, should you choose, try to finish the entire world map on a single character or experience the zones separately on different characters.  Early on I plotted two completely separate leveling paths so I could play the game differently with my buddy and my wife.  Yet, no factions were necessary.

Admittedly, some games do well with factions.  Of all the games I’ve named (and some I haven’t), I think WoW probably does the most, story-wise, with them.  To be fair, they’ve had a LOT more time than almost everyone else to develop that story, but at least the factionalization makes sense in WoW.  And yet, there’s plenty of characters who don’t see the reason for the factions (or didn’t until their city got blown up), so even within the story there’s admissions that the faction system is weak.  Why couldn’t an orc prove himself to Varian through a series of tests and be allowed to defect?  Why didn’t Van Cleef side with the Horde instead of trying to build his own army?  Why didn’t we all work together in Icecrown or Dragon Soul to stop the potential planet-ending disaster?  Not only did we not work together, we actually attacked the other faction.  You’d think that if you failed you’d want there to be another line of defense against the end of the world!  That’s precisely the sort of strain factions put on suspension of disbelief.

I just think the standard two (or even three) faction solution is lazy.  There’s so much more nuance in the world that it makes no real sense to force an early alignment on a player.  If you must have factions in a game, then WoW’s Pandaren solution makes the most sense to me; let players experience the culture of both, then decide which they feel the most affinity for.

Or just do away with factions all together.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and a consensus builder, not a faction-maker)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2014 3:27 pm

    I find I agree wholeheartedly for the same reasons; the “Factions” at this point seem to be a hollow excuse to split the player base and provide PvP justification. In most games I think they run counter to the fundamentals of an RPG. I liked how FFXI did it; you had 3 factions, but you could still socialize and group with people from other factions. All the factions did was help sort you for PvP and determined some of your story quests.

    It’s funny because I brought up the Exile/Dominion thing with a friend the other day, it’s weird (to me) to have a faction that is so unrepentantly evil when most MMOs try to humanize both sides.

    Great post!

    • January 23, 2014 9:41 am

      Thanks! Secret World sounds like FFXI, and I could deal with those factions; MMOs don’t need any more barriers to people grouping together.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. theerivs permalink
    January 23, 2014 9:38 am

    I love factions, and love taking pride in my faction. I wish there was more evilness in MMO’s lol

    • January 23, 2014 9:44 am

      I suspect that you could take pride in any organizational alignment: race, guild, corporation, whatever. And the evilness isn’t usually related to factions, so in both cases, while I understand your position, I have to disagree that factions are required.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • theerivs permalink
      January 23, 2014 9:48 am

      Well I come from an earlier age in the MMO days where I played Dark Ages of Camelot, where factions vied in PvP, or Realm versus Realm. Perhaps I long for those days and am a relic. Though I look forward to Camelot Unchained, and a return to that way of thinking

    • January 23, 2014 11:41 am

      I think Realm vs. Realm is a great alternative to factions; it allows you to group as you want on your realm, but also provides a legitimate “us vs. them” mentality for PvP.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • January 24, 2014 8:11 am

      I am pretty much the exact opposite. I hate faction walls, they feel contrived and forced. You have to understand though that before WoW the games I spent the most time playing were Everquest and DAoC… with a slight caveat on the last one. I played on Gaheris, the carebear server… where you could play all of the available class/race combinations… the co-op server. I hate that making a faction choice immediately alienates me from a certain sections of the population. EQ/EQ2 had about my ideal faction system… you were a member of one but it only actually influenced where you could personally go in the world, not who you could associate with.

      I am all about having a good and an evil faction… just don’t create a faction wall between. I have never really bought into the red vs blue mentality, in part because I am just not that competitive. I have just as many hordie friends on Argent Dawn as I do alliance friends, and thanks to the miracle of battle.net based chat we can keep in contact. I have alts in their guilds and they have alts in mine. I don’t really care for “us vs them” in any game, because it seems so limiting.

  3. Cain permalink
    January 23, 2014 3:28 pm

    I wish they’d eliminate them in wow. All it means for me is that I can’t play with some friends because they are the other faction. Especially with the ability to change factions and it results in people I’ve played with for years and I’m suddenly not able to. The defeat of Garrosh would have been a perfect time to unite the two factions too. They’ve had us share cities in the past. We can both tag rares and work together now. It’s my own faction that results in most of the PvP on the Isle now not the other, so PvP isn’t really a reason if they are willing to let us PvP vs anyone. We can talk cross faction with RealId/Battletags now. The story during Cata had us helping Thrall the whole time, and during MoP we helped the Trolls. Just eliminate them already and let anyone play together that wants to.

    • January 23, 2014 7:43 pm

      Agreed. From a story point of view, we’ve had many opportunities; heck, we were “working together” to take down Arthas, and the Alliance side after Deathbringer Saurfang made a gesture of peace letting his father take him away. That could have been a time of happiness. Then we worked together to prevent the end of the world. Even that wasn’t enough, though.
      Silly.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. January 23, 2014 3:47 pm

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my favorite parts of WoW involved situations where the Alliance and Horde were working together (or at least not attacking each other). Hell, it’s one of the reasons I really liked the Horde in Vanilla/BC and started disliking it in Wrath and beyond with stuff like the Horde attacking the Alliance at the start of Icecrown.

    It was just STUPID and backstabbing — why the hell WOULD the Alliance trust the Horde after stuff like that?

    I mean, hell, I actually quit from the end of BC to the end of Wrath — when I returned, some friends wanted me to faction change to Alliance and I was hesitant but agreed. But after doing the quests and seeing some of the trailers/raids/etc…that feeling of wishing I had stayed Horde evaporated quite quickly.

    • January 23, 2014 7:45 pm

      Yeah, I’ve wanted to have cross-faction raids for a long time now. How cool would it be if once per xpac a threat was great and immediate enough to warrant teaming up with players of the other faction to down it. It could be like an Ordos – a world boss – or a short raid like ToES. The options are there, but nothing.
      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Samus permalink
    January 24, 2014 2:37 am

    My biggest issue is that factions are always completely divided by race, as if 100% of the humans are all on one side, with 100% of the dwarves, but 100% of the Taurens picked the other side. I feel like factions should have almost nothing to do with race, or at least that the races should be fractured between multiple factions, with many of them unaffiliated with any faction.

    • Beshara permalink
      January 24, 2014 10:10 am

      I agree with this. You should be able to pick a race, then pick a faction at least, not be tied to a faction based on race.

    • January 24, 2014 12:31 pm

      Yes, this has been particularly mind-boggling in games like Rift, where there doesn’t seem to be a historical reason for it, as there is in WoW. Even in WoW, though, you’d think a time would come where s Tauren might say, well, the alliance has been pretty cool recently, and the orcs haven’t; maybe I should check them out. But no. Stupid cows (;
      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Beshara permalink
    January 24, 2014 10:17 am

    Factions are really starting to upset me in games, mainly WoW. It’s hard enough to find the right people to play with, why separate the player base with factions that can’t work together? Keep faction affinity for story purposes, but allow opposite factions to group together for group content and guilds.

    • January 24, 2014 12:30 pm

      I completely agree. Along with the server merges, you’d think Blizz might have at least tested a cross-faction activity to see if it would help alleviate group compliment issues and queue times.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  1. The Importance of Factions | A High Latency Life

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