Are Factions Still Relevant?
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.
Stubborn (and a consensus builder, not a faction-maker)