Friday, June 28, 2019

Why Can't We Live Together? : WoW, EQ2, Rift

According to Massively: OP, the cinematic Blizzard released to promote World of Warcraft's latest update strongly hints at some kind of lasting rapprochement between the game's two long-standing antipathetic factions, The Horde and The Alliance. If true, the developers would be following in some well-trodden footsteps indeed.

The MMORPG genre grew out of a wider tradition of roleplaying games in which a fundamental schism between belief systems was almost always a given. Dungeons and Dragons finessed the split with a complex alignment system but in the end it still came down to Good vs Evil.

The usual alternative to such a moralistic, not to say religious, dichotomy was the supposedly more universal choice between Order and Chaos. Warhammer plumped for that one, first with the original tabletop miniature wargame, then with the paper and pencil RPG and finally with the online game.

When MMORPGs arrived in the late 1990s they took the concept and ran with it. EverQuest turned alignment into faction and assigned allegiances to every mobile object in the game, players not excepted. You had to make some serious choices before you could even set foot on Norrath. Deciding whether to be Good or Evil at character creation was a decision whose significant consequences you'd have to live with for years.

WoW and EverQuest II, when they went live in 2004, both had similar faction systems. Your choice didn't just dictate which NPCs would give you quests, it had impact on which players you could group with, what guilds you could join and even who you could talk to.

I didn't play WoW at the time but from what I can gather, the hard line went down rather well. People chose their side and stuck with it, treating allegiance in a not dissimilar way to supporting a sports team. In EQII the system was almost universally reviled.

EQII was a horrible mess of a game at launch. It had countless design flaws, almost all of which would require correction over the course of the first twelve months. The merciless delineation between Freeport (Evil) and Qeynos (Good) was one of the first to go.

Information on how it used to be is remarkably hard to research, but from memory, all guilds had to be created in either Qeynos or Freeport and while anyone could join either, all guild-related quests and writs were faction specific, meaning guild members on opposite sides of the fence couldn't share them. I also seem to remember restrictions on what could be sent through the mail and naturally characters were kill on sight in the opposing capitals regardless of guild affiliation, which posed a problem seeing as all guild housing was located in one or the other.

Over time a lot of this was changed or simply fell out of use. The restriction on sharing quests was removed, guild halls got their own instance separate from any city, mailing restrictions went away. A betrayal system was introduced, allowing characters to change faction and Good vs Evil in the the game moved inexorably to a state of flavor.

Rift was another MMORPG I played that began with rigid barriers between two sides, the unhelpfully-named named Guardians and Defiant. As I recall you couldn't even make characters of the opposing faction on the same server, something that made sense in an open-world realm vs realm game like Dark Age of Camelot but less so in one with a very strong bias towards PvE.

As Rift's population declined those restrictions were inevitably relaxed and finally removed altogether. If there are any differences between the factions today I couldn't tell you what they are.

The attraction for developers of allowing all their players to play together seems so obvious it's more surprising that any of them start out with player factions to begin with than that those restrictions are eventually taken away. It's not even as though having Good vs Evil is essential to the form, or at least not for the players. MMORPGs that avoid hardwiring moral positions onto character creation seem to work just fine.

Once you've taken the decision to go with two implacably opposed sides, though, it's a lot harder to sell the "let's all be friends" line later on. If your designers and writers did their jobs properly, by then your players will be about as likely to accept a truce as fans of Manchester United and Manchester City would welcome a ground-sharing scheme.

In my experience, the watering-down of player factions leads to blandness. It's not the worst thing and the convenience definitely compensates, but over time you do find yourself wondering why you ever bothered to choose a side in the first place. Oh, yes, it was because the one place that decision never gets rescinded is at character creation.

And over time the absence of meaningful faction based on moral or universal tenets tends to percolate through the entire game. Not only does your "good" character find herself doing favors for NPCs she despises but the NPCs themselves seem to lose their focus.

I came across a great example of this in EQ2's Scorched Sky festival yesterday. There's a new quest, "The Heat Is On", which takes place in Darklight Woods, one of the ugliest zones in the entire game and also one of the starting areas for "evil" characters in general and Dark Elves in particular.

The quest involves finding and picking up first the eggs and then the hatchlings of a large lizard, so an NPC called Limora Roamhill can take them to a more suitable environment to hatch and/or grow up in safety. It's a standard-issue quest for any MMORPG but something about it immediately struck me as out of kilter.

The dialog is highly sentimental, both on the NPC side and in the responses provided for the player. It would be entirely unremarkable in Antonica, where the writ of "good" Queen Antonia Bayle runs and it would be par for the course in treehugging Greater Faydark, where elves and fairies prance. In Darklight Woods, the back yard of Neriak, home of the paranoid and sociopathic Thex dynasty, the quest sticks out like a severed thumb.

What's more, according to the Wiki, the questgiver herself is a Dark Elf. If so, how she could have survived to adulthood defeats me. In fact the wiki is wrong, since the quest clearly identifies her as an Ayr`Dal, a half-elf, which at least explains her name.

Even so, her dark complexion suggests a Teir`Dal as her elven parent and her presence just a few yards away from Neriak speaks to a familiarity with the dark side. Perhaps she's just addled. Her concern for the welfare of what most Norrathians would consider vermin certainly suggests as much.

Then again, who am I to talk? My berserker, a right-hand rat of  Lord Lucan, Tyrant of Freeport and current holder of the undisputed All-Norrath public execution title, having put a citizen to death on the hour, every hour since 2004, is supposed to be Evil with a capital "E". Judging by my character's paw-ringing response to the plight of the poor Tuatura mother, his betrayal not just to Qeynos but Kelethin can be but hours away, although not if I have anything to do with it.

This, unfortunately, is the sort of thing that happens once the bonds of faction loosen. I don't play much World of Warcraft so it won't impact me personally should the Horde and Alliance shake hands and swap phone numbers (I imagine there are telephones in Azeroth by now - I mean, they've had motorcycles for years...).

At this stage of play, fifteen years after launch, it's probably far too late to worry about the integrity of the faction system anyway. It's all about ease of use and letting friends play together by now. Which means WoW isn't planning on being much of a role-playing game any more.

Just like all the rest.


  1. I was also really surprised to read that speculation about WoW dropping its factions, because Blizzard has always valued that division very highly. Not only have they regularly made fans chant "For the Horde!" or "For the Alliance" at BlizzCon, the whole TV ad campaign in the run-up to Battle for Azeroth was about avoiding people that play the other faction in real life because "it matters"!

    It also makes me wonder whether WoW's player numbers are really down that much, because usually MMOs drop the faction barrier when queues for one or both sides start to get long. It certainly would be very unlike them to simply drop the faction rivalry because it makes sense story-wise.

    Anyway, I myself am firmly in the camp of preferring the inclusion of factions for flavour, even if I'm not particularly fussed about how the separation works in detail. The most recent game that made me think about this was ESO, which initially seemed to have really strong faction identities, what with the whole three-way PvP thing and each faction having its own distinct levelling path. But then you hit max level and get a quest to do all the other zones anyway, as if you were a member of those factions...? I was also quite disturbed when I started on one of the DLC zones and the NPCs kept handing me quests which described my faction as evil without acknowledging that I belonged to the very same group, asking me to kill soldiers of the same Dominion that I had fought to preserve for fifty levels... it just felt so weird.

    1. That ESO story is really at the extreme end of the "we've got a lot of content and we don't see why it should go to waste" approach that many MMOs end up adopting in midlife. ESO isn't even all that old yet, either.

      Falling population was certainly behind Rift's change of policy and I agree it's usually behind most faction re-writes. In EQ2 I think it was mainly because they'd botched the whole thing so badly, as they ahd with half the systems in the game. Plus the whole "Freeport is evil, Qeynos is good" thing came completely out of leftfield to begin with . In EQ1 Freeport is exactly as its name would suggest - neutral.

      I'll believe WoW's dropping the Horde/Alliance barier when I see the patch notes and not before. If it happens, though, money will be the reason, not lore.

  2. I have long despised player factions in MMOs (PvE MMOs, anyway). I've never really seen an upside; it only serves to divide people and foster toxicity. You'd be amazed how many WoW players genuinely and vocally believe that playing the opposite faction constitutes a moral or intellectual failing of some kind.

    As a result, I almost always support relaxing or removing faction barriers in MMOs. Whatever messiness it might create, the benefits always outweigh the downsides by leaps and bounds. I just wish we could convince developers to stop including the damn things to begin with.

    I am very, very skeptical of the idea of WoW ever abandoning its factions. They've already had so many opportunities to do so -- we had much the same conversations in Mists of Pandaria, an expansion which BfA increasingly seems like a cheap knock-off of.

    That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the Alliance/Horde conflict in WoW is always something that's existed in spite of established lore rather than because of it. Yes, the first two strategy games were all about Orcs versus humans, but Warcraft III -- which established most of the lore on which WoW is based -- was entirely about the factions learning that they needed to work together.

    Not only that, they succeeded. The conflict had been quite thoroughly put to bed by the end of WC3, and all evidence was that the various races were going to continue getting along. Then out of nowhere everyone hated each other again when WoW launched, and they never really gave a good reason as to why.

    It also removed a lot of the texture of the world and its cultures by forcing everyone under two banners. The Night Elves never had anything to do with the Alliance, and to this day I am not aware of anything in the lore that has ever explained how, when, or why they joined it. I think it robbed them of a lot of their identity, and it may be part of the reason Night Elves now feel so much more like generic fantasy Elves than the much wilder and more original culture they were first envisioned as.

    For that matter, the Undead and Blood Elves being in the Horde is only marginally less far-fetched...

    I will go so far as to say the faction conflict is the biggest mistake WoW ever made. At this point ending it may be too little too late, but it would be interesting to see how it plays out at least.

    1. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on the basic worthiness or otherwise of player factions but there's probably not much diferecne between our points of view on how badly they're often implemented.

      I'm not all that fond of the generic bipartisan structure, anyway. I hugely prefer a range of factions, all in some degree of conflict or alliance with each other, meaning player characters are welcome in one place, treated with suspicion in a second and attacked on sight in the third. This can all be handled by factions with NPCs on a PvE server without bringing player factions into it. That allows complete freedom for players of factions that hate each other to play together - it just means the individual players will have very different experiences as they travel around grouped together.

      If the players are indeed friends then this will open up all kinds of exciting opportunities to show that friendship in a practical fashion. If you're playing a character that can't sell to merchants anywhere on the continent you're curently on then you will need to trust your friends, who are locals, to sell for you.

      I had many thrilling and memorable experiences in EQ when I was grouped with players of radically different faction to my own. I can remember numerous occasions when I had to make a swift calculation whether to damage my own standing by protecting a group-mate from a guard allied to my own faction or stand back and let them sort it out on their own rather than blot my character's reputation. I am all for factions of that kind.

      Separating characters off by a wall that stops them even speaking to each other or, in Rift's case, meeting each other at all, seems to be missing the point. Factions should be real in the world and for the characters but the players should stand outside, or above, all that.

    2. Couldn't agree more. My introduction to MMOs was EverQuest and the faction system they had really helped to make the world feel 'solid.'

    3. The model of factions you describe seems more interesting. When I rant about hating factions, I refer specifically to the WoW model wherein players are completely segregated and cannot interact with the other faction other than by killing them.

  3. To my memory in re: EQ2 --

    You could always group with and communicate with the opposing faction without any restriction. One of my fondest memories is making a high elf fighter, betraying to Freeport in the teens, then running back through the (very scary at the time) Nektulos Forest to get back to Antonica and then grinding out a scarecrow group to hit 20. When I did, the other 3 "good" characters said gratz, and then were all SHOCKED that a high elf in Antonica turned into a Shadowknight, rather than a Paladin. Good times!

    You were "kick out" on sight to the opposing faction's NPC guards, but they didn't actually kill you, just did a single-hit on you and then you loaded on the other side of the nearest zone entrance. It became something of a mini-game to try to sneak into and around the opposing city without getting booted. I think some quests actually had you sneak in and around the other city too at points, but those were rare.

    Guild halls weren't introduced until the game had been out for 4 or 5 years, so being in an "opposing faction guild" literally meant nothing. And when they were introduced there was a bell to go to them, no need to worry about the city guards.

    Shared bank space and messages were faction limited originally, but that got removed quickly, as people wanted to send things to their alts. The market boards were faction specific, but there were also "neutral" boards that pulled from both cities that weren't too hard to get to. Freeport's was a short swim out in the harbor, IIRC, and Qeynos.... tbh, I don't recall where that one was.

    1. I spent a while readiing old patch notes before I wrote yesterday's post. Amazingly they're all still on the official website, along with a bunch of other press releases. It's a real trove of information and I'm going to have to dig deeper sometime.

      Unfortunately I couldn't find what I wanted, which was the change to guild writs. You're absolutely right about the grouping; there were never any restrictions on Qeynos and Freeport characters being in the same groups. What I remember causing big problems in my guild was guild writs.

      Most of what the guild did together early on was run guild writs to level up the guild or get status or whatever the point of them was at the time. The writs were given by NPCs in the two cities and those NPCs would only give them to citizens. EQ2 had a quest sharing mechanic whereby if you grouped with someone and they had a quest you didn't they could share it with you and it would go in your journal but that didn't work with guild writs. As a result we had endless issues over whose writs we would do, with people complaining that they were wasting their time doing stuff they couldn't get the credit for.

      I remember that being changed before our guild broke up. As for guild halls, that's what I said in the post. The big guild halls came much later and were outside the cities but at the start there was specific housing available only to guilds in each city (as far as I know it's still there). Our guild had a "guil hall", the guild housing option, in Qeynos and our Freeport members had a rough time getting to it. It's true that you didn't get killed, just deported to Antonica or the Commonlands, but it still annoyed the hell out of people. These days you can just waltz into either city and ignore almost all the guards because they've gone grey but back then they were deep red and spotted you from a mile a way.

      I'd still like to nail all this down in the actual updates though. I have read a lot of fairly recent research on how memory works and I no longer trust anything anyone says about how anything happened any longer ago than five minutes - especially not anything I tell myself!

    2. Trawling more widely I found this, which is a very comprehensive overview of how the guild system worked at launch and for the following few months. There's a taunting entry in the official EQ2 news archive titled "Upcoming changes to the way guilds work" from January 2004 but it's blank and no-one on the web appears to have saved the content. I'm going to keep chipping away at this. It might become a post one day.

  4. 'One of the ugliest zones in the entire game.'

    How dare you! That's where I grew up! :-)

    1. I submit the above screenshots as evidence!

  5. From a lore and story perspective, factions are fun and give you a reason to level up different factional characters. From that perspective, I support factions. It makes the world more interesting.

    From a gameplay perspective, I hate when factions prevent me from playing with my friends. Who cares what faction someone is in when we're trying to do repeatable -- especially instanced -- group content? None of the gameplay stuff matters to the story. We only defeat a big bad once, not every lockout so why not let folks play what they like and be in the same guild for endgame content? Since gameplay is more important than story to Blizzard I wish they would just allow cross faction play for the game-y stuff and leave the factions to their (weak) stories. :sigh:

    1. Yes, when you move into the modern MMORPG game, where most of the action happens in instances involving no-one but you and your pals, anything that prevents you playing together seems ridiculous - although as we saw in WoW recently, developers do have very particular ideas on who should play with whom for all kinds of reasons, not just faction.

      The more I think about this, the more clear I am that I like characters to belong to in-game factions and for that to have meaningful consequences but that players should be free to play with whomever they wish. I think that gives us the best of both worlds.

  6. I'm very much in the camp of wanting fewer barriers to 'just playing with friends'. However, I like the idea of NPC-controlled and fluid factions. I rather loved the factions in the earlier EQ2 zones where you could do quests and grind rep to open up vendors. WoW has had a few of these as well but all gets drowned under the mechanical and story weight of the two main factions.
    More nuance and less sledge-hammer storytelling please.

    1. I can't remember what factions those were in EQ2, unless you're talking about the various city guilds that needed faction to sell you stuff like furniture. I'm not sure EQ2 has anything like that now, other than the inevitable rep grinds in each expansion. EQ was full of that stuff, though, so I imagine it would have been a carry-over.

    2. I may have crossed wires but there are the Sootfoot goblins in Lavastorm. Also the Tizmak clan minotaurs in Velious? I've a terrible memory for these things as I've only played most early zones once through. These neutral NPCs that you can befriend is what I was talking about, which may be rather different to what was in EQ.

    3. Oh, I think you're right about both of those. It's more of a quest thing, where they like you more and more the more you do for them, which is something that happens in EQ2 a lot. It's similar to the EQ faction but a lot more explicitly integrated into the regular gameplay. I think it went out of fashion for a while but the expansion before last used it a lot, to something of a mixed response.


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