[WoW] Out-of-Game Factions

Posted on November 4, 2011

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As seasoned roleplayers and PvP veterans can tell you, faction conflict can be an even greater source of motivation than rallying against the end of the world.  The upcoming return of focus to Horde-Alliance warfare in Mists of Pandaria could see this faction fervor spread throughout the general population, most of whom have lived their end-game experience based out of Shattrath, Dalaran, and the LFD.  Will this in-game surge of war be powerful enough to reach into other areas of players’ lives?

For many players, factions are just another game mechanic to play with, while a quick google search will reveal that other subscribers will slap a faction symbol on anything with a smooth enough surface, from their computer screens to their biceps.  How will players react to being constantly shoved up against their sworn enemies?  There are a few points to consider:

  1. Horde vs. Alliance is a lore-driven conflict.  If Blizzard intends for the Alliance to reclaim Ashenvale, Horde players can’t overrule that decision by winning Warsong Gulch.
  2. Relatedly, Blizzard can’t make every zone work like Wintergrasp/Tol Barad.  If the PvP imbalance on a server is bad enough, this would lock the weaker faction out of the end-game altogether, and that’s the kind of situation that makes itself worse as the decent PvPers transfer away.  Loss of subs is a real threat in these cases.
  3. WoW is a Massively Multiplayer game, and any one person can have up to 10 different names on the same server.  Personal PvP grudges are difficult to hold.
  4. A grudge against one player isn’t the same thing as a grudge against an entire faction.
  5. Even the most invested players understands that people are not their characters.  Reprehensible online behavior makes one a bad person, not a bad Gnome.  At the same time, “that evil undead” you have to kill can also be your best friend in real life.
  6. People who don’t bring WoW outside of Azeroth won’t change their behavior for a lore decision

My opinion is that based on what we know so far, the World of Warcraft community isn’t going to see too much of a difference when the war hits us.  As mentioned in my second point, Blizzard can’t allow core game experiences to hinge on the result of PvP conflicts.  This is by far the most important limitation facing Blizz in terms of really escalating player emotion, since it’s almost impossible to create something important to the game that can be taken and stolen without falling into that “core” category.  My terminology was deliberate: “taken and stolen” are different from “gained and lost”.  Frustration aside, there is no roiling of emotions when the one who took your prize away from you is an AI.  AIs despawn after events end.  Enemy players take that prize and gain their own benefit from it.  This storm of anger/jealousy/hate (not endorsing the last one) and the reciprocal elation/relief/pride upon finally winning is the most effective means of propelling WoW into other spheres of life, but is the hardest to capture.

That being said, what other weapons have they promised to add to our conflict?  World PvP is back in a big way, eroding my third point about personal grudges.  We already know that there will be no new sanctuary city, but unlike Stormwind and Orgrimmar which are separated by the Great Sea, the two new hubs will be in the same contested zone.  The disincentive of city raids has traditionally been the logistics involved in assembling enough high-level players in the same place, but with end-level players all congregating  in the same zone, these two factors no longer apply.  Added to the mix of opportunity for world PvP are the return of world bosses and the scattering of profession trainers across zones.  This influx of faction juxtaposition makes it far easier to harbor grudges, as any dutiful miner or herbalist on a high-population server can tell you.

This leads me to an (extremely moralistic) question: is Blizzard encouraging players to make minority-based judgments?  My fourth point, that a grudge against one player isn’t the same as a grudge against a faction, is just a logic statement.  The force of logic doesn’t stand up to raw emotion in all cases, and expand the one grudge to two or three and the point is even further weakened.  There is no doubt in my mind that Blizzard knows this.  The uncertainty lies in whether Blizzard is ignoring it for the sake of a greater objective, or using it to further said objective.  “-isms” are some of the strongest motivators in the human experience, and it would be understandable for Blizzard’s official stance to be “The Horde and Alliance don’t exist out of game.  Encouraging players to have strong character-based emotions for and against these factions have no bearing on their out-of-game lives.”  Is this true?  And, especially in the younger playerbase, will attaching these emotions to risk-reward structures create a pattern of behavior?

The two-headed nature of point five (people are not their characters) comes into play.  How will players view a grudge that is both factional and personal?  Are enemy players pushing our hub hard because of the faction structure, or are they actually trying to make our gameplay less enjoyable?  There are arguments for both sides and the community will undoubtedly experience a mix of both.  This still circles back to the “massively” multiplayer tag: players are only qualified to speak to conditions on their own server.  Forum threads and blog posts will never be universal.  A Horde might start a conversation about how Alliance guilds on his servers station 24/7 patrols in low-level questing zones, while an Alliance from another server might reply that in his experience, it’s the Horde that constantly griefs.  Both could be half-wrong anyway, since players tend not to pay attention to the less honorable activity their own faction engages in.

Ultimately we must also ask whether it matters if players across servers or even within servers share a sense of pride and unity, as long as they simply feel something toward the two factions.  Further tuning player faction response requires time and resources that are currently invested in other areas of the game, and Blizz is constantly juggling faction content with the other aspects of the game.  It seems that factions are going to get a bigger slice of the pie in Mists of Pandaria, but how big is that slice?  Can Blizz successfully elevate faction pride to the level of team or club pride?

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Posted in: WoW