Monday, July 1, 2019

A Secret Understanding: Why Faction Matters

Following Friday's post and the comments it provoked, I've been thinking some more about faction in MMORPGs. It's clear that the word has two very different meanings, which I confusingly conflated, both in the piece and in my replies.

The original spur for the post was Blizzard's rumored retrenchment on the long-established bi-partisan structure of World of Warcraft, wherein players choose sides at character creation like children in a playground, then spend the next however many years thumbing their noses at the opposition while sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting "La la la not listening!". I am very much not in favor of that approach - at least not in most kinds of PvE setting.

It works well enough for PvP, provided players can be induced to split into roughly equal numbers. I prefer having regular sides rather than being assigned a team at random. It gives what can often be a somewhat artificial enterprise at least a veneer of purpose.

Gnome Magician
Being a sensitive little flower, I actually prefer PvP environments where opponents are prevented from trash-talking each other, so the imposed rule of silence works for me. There's also an argument for it in competitive PvE, such as EverQuest II's Proving Grounds. (Does anyone still do those? I only tried a couple and I hadn't thought about it for years until I started writing this)

Even there I don't think it's strictly necessary. The crucial factor is that the restrictions only apply while you're doing that content, not across the entire game. The rest of the time, you can make your choices about who to group or talk with for all the usual bigoted, prejudiced and irrational reasons without having to delegate your snap judgments to software.

The other kind of faction is far more interesting. I was surprised to see someone as well-versed in the genre as Tyler Edwards express what seemed to me to be surprise after my lengthy reply to his original comment, in which I waxed somewhat lyrical about the good old days of EverQuest. Not, I should hasten to clarify, that he seemed surprised to find me banging on yet again about how everything in EQ was better - god knows that's a record I broke years ago.

What did suprise me was that he seemed to be unaware of the complex network of NPC factions that formed the engine that drove much of EQ's original content. It hadn't really occured to me to what extent that concept, once a key driver in the genre, had fallen into disuse.

Half-elf Ranger
To clarify for anyone who hasn't experienced the way those factions worked - and for that matter still do work, in modified form, in some of the current game - we are not talking about what I believe is known in WoW as "rep grind". EverQuest had that as well and the two things are closely inter-related but they aren't the same.

Your journey in Classic EQ, as in most MMORPGs, began with your choice of race, class, gender and deity. Gender was purely cosmetic. It had no effect of any kind on gameplay, although if you chose to play a female troll it might have a big effect on your EQ social life.

Class had the same obvious gameplay connotations of any rpg, compounded both by the fact that classes were race-locked and that their distribution did not follow strict lines of Good vs Evil. Most classes were effectively neutral (a warrior is a warrior is a warrior, after all). Some were inherently one or the other - there's no such thing as a neutral Necromancer, for example - and a few cleaved to their own rules, which stood outside of morality altogether .

If you wanted to be a Shaman, for example, you had to choose one of the races considered to be more primitive. In the original game this meant Ogre, Troll or Barbarian. Ogres and Trolls were evil. Barbarians were good.

Some races could only be Evil. Some could only be Good. Some could be either and some were Neutral. But picking an alignment didn't in itself dictate how others would see you. Just how "Good", "Evil" or "Neutral" you were was itself nuanced by your race, which God you followed, what class you were.

The Gypsy camp in Oasis. Oasis was a popular zone because it was handily-placed between Freeport and Oggok and Grobb and the gypsies would trade with anyone.

"Good" in Norrath always seemed a more monolthic concept than "Evil". Choosing between wood elf and high elf or Tunare or Karana did have consequences, but they tended more along the lines of which shopkeepers wanted your trade than who would race out of a nearby building and try to cleave you in two with a greatsword.

Gnome Rogue
If you were "Evil" it made a big difference just how evil. Trolls lived down at the very bottom of the pit. Even Ogres couldn't stomach them. Good races generally didn't see much difference between trolls and ogres but an Ogre who chose to be a warrior and follow the God of War, Rallos Zek, could scrape by in a Neutral city like Freeport. Well, the bad parts of it, anyway.

On the other hand, going gnome and calling yourself "Neutral" didn't cut much with slack with the good guys if you took up Necromancy in the name of Bertoxxolous. Evil is as Evil does - and as it worships. Most gnomes followed The Duke of Below, Brell Serillis, who generally didn't get many people's hackles up, but If you wanted to be truly neutral you had to go with Agnostic, which fortunately was an option.

To players used to the more straightforward choices of modern MMORPGs this is probably already looking over-complicated but it's just the start of how faction could affect your life in old Norrath. Every NPC you would ever meet, from the lowliest moss snake to the King of Ak'Anon, (possibly not the best example since the gnomes actually built themselves a clockwork king so they wouldn't have to keep changing him when he died)  would weigh you in an exceeding detailed set of invisible scales before deciding how to react.

The Goddess Tunare
The NPCs would have some of the same criteria as a player character. Everything had a race (with species being the same thing for the purpose of the game). Animals and monsters presumably had a class under the hood, so to speak, although it wasn't always made plain. Humanoids and/or sentients also had deities and guild affiliations.

Oh yes, NPCs had guilds and they mattered. Every NPC had some kind of allegiance to a city-state or similar legislature plus membership of one or more professional, trade or specialist organizations. Certain cities didn't get on with others. Certain guilds were in commercial competition, professional rivalry or were just implacably opposed on ethical, religious or philosophical grounds. And all of them expected you to fit in with their prejudices if you wanted to trade with them, learn from them, quest for them or simply walk past them without getting your head ripped off.

If this sounds astoundingly complex that's because it was. And it still wasn't everything. In the very early game there were wild cards, creatures that would usually leave you alone but occasionally might take against you for no apparent reason. Elephants in West Karana were a famous example. Other species, like Aviaks, were so easy-going most of the time that almost everyone thought they were harmless - until you happened to add someone playing a Troll to your group.

Players were also given a wide range of tools to modify their faction and that of others. Enchanters, for example, could illusion themselves as other races, gaining the benefits or disadvantages that came with the appearance, but they couldn't hide their own religious beliefs. It's all very well looking for all the world like a high elf but the guards outside Felwithe can smell a follower of Innoruuk from a hundred paces.

A magician's pet pretending to be a grimling. Pets started out carrying the player's hate list (I believe) but never had specific faction of their own (again, I think...). Grimlings hate everything except other grimlings.

Some of the options were counter-intuitive in the extreme. As a druid I spent a lot of time in wolf form because everyone likes a puppy, apparently. Going wolf allowed my druid, a human worshiper of Karana, free access to the Ogre capital, Oggok. Provided I kept clear of one specific guild, that is. I forget which but I think it might have been the Warriors.

All of this was more than enough to keep your mind busy when soloing or simply moving from place to place. Imagine the situation when there were six of you in a full group. Because EverQuest put absolutely no restrictions on who could group with whom, you might easily find your Barbarian Shaman grouped with an Ogre Warrior, a Dark Elf enchanter, a Halfling Rogue, an Erudite Wizard and some random Half-Elven ranger who you'd invited out of pity.

That combo could give your group half a dozen races, deities and classes, any and all of which could have theoretically predictable but practically unfathomable effects on just about any NPC you might meet. And it didn't stop there.

Good guards doing their job. Because everything has faction, NPCs and mobs know who to fight and who to ignore. They fight among themselves all the time, something a smart player can readily use to their advantage.

Oh, no. Not hardly. While certain aspects of who your character was were hard-wired, many were mutable. EQ's version of rep grind meant that you could, if you put the hours in, make NPCs who hated you start to take a more moderate view. If that Ogre tank had done what my Shadowknight did and spent countless hours skulking around the back streets of Freeport, luring bad guards to their deaths and handing in their helmets to the good ones as proof, he might be able to wander past the Knights of Truth and swagger into the bank just like a regular citizen.

Oh, didn't I mention the "good guard/bad guard" thing? Just because an NPC looked and dressed exactly like all the other ones nearby and had the same name under his portrait didn't mean he was the same as them. Looks can be deceiving.

All in all it was a lot to take in. I loved it. I thought then and think now that it was a huge part of what made EQ the runaway success it was. We hear a lot now about how slow the old MMORPGs were, how much grind there was, how hard it was to do anything on your own. What we hear far less about was how much they made you think.

Felwithe gate guards, always mindful of sneaky dark elven enchanters trying to weasel their way in.
When today's players wonder how we old ones could stand it, all that sitting and medding and camping and shouting /lfg and basically not playing for half or three-quarters of the time, what they're missing is the thinking. I was always thinking about the implications of everything I did, everything I was planning on doing. I had to. If I didn't the consequences, well they wouldn't bear thinking about.

If I had to put my finger on a single difference between the original wave of MMORPGs, EverQuest in particular, and what came later it would be that the old games were more cerebral. Faction was a big part of that, although by no means all.

EverQuest itself eventually moved towards a much simpler set of coded relationships within the game, as this informative thread explains. That was the right choice in the commercial environment of the time, but in the years since then I feel the pendulum has swung too far, not just for EQ but for the genre itself.

All of the above are NPCs. Mr Fizzle is going to win.

There's room in all our MMOs for more complexity. Not more button-pushing or fancier combos but for in-game systems and mechanics that make us think. That's why, I believe, The Secret World was such a hit with a certain segment of the audience, one that's been badly served for years.

We're overdue for some MMORPGs that recognize there's more to virtual life than flashier animations and bigger hats (although I never say no to a good hat). Complexity doesn't have to be limited to ever more challenging dance moves.

I can't imagine we'll ever see the like of EQ's original conception of faction again but we can surely do a lot better than the schoolyard name-calling of Horde vs Alliance. Let's consign player factions to history and put the hate back where it belongs - in the imaginary hearts and minds of our NPCs.


  1. I'd be happy to say that quick button-pushing and mechanics dances aren't even complexity. They're just fast simplicity. Complexity in games, to me, is about planning ahead and managing trade-offs. Building the finger reflexes to handle a rotation and mechanics isn't complex. It's skilled, but that's a different dimension.

    1. Can't argue with that. I guess you can have complex skills but that's very different from having a complex world or complex gameplay.

  2. I hadn't thought about all of this sort of thing for a long time. This was, as my own broken record comments tend to go, lifted pretty much from TorilMUD. Vendors would refuse service to individuals based on race, class, or alignment. Some cities were no-go for certain races or alignments. Some were obvious, like towns for evil races. Others were less so. I remember the city of Bloodstone, which was attack on sight for good alignment, but which didn't care about race or class.

    My from-the-rocking-chair assessment was that this was all from a slower time of smaller games that could afford to dabble in subtleties like this. When your user base is smaller and the market doesn't contain a winning formula like WoW, you can afford these things. When loud sections of your user base objects to anything that is different from WoW... well... and so it goes.

    1. WoW's runaway success absolutely put the final nail in the coffin of all these kinds of complexity, even though many of them were present in Blizzard's take on EQ at launch. By 2004, though, EQ itself had already moved a long way in the direction WoW would travel. I remember one of the big attractions of Luclin, when it launched in 2001, was that it had a large hub city whose inhabitants treated every race the same. From memory the Vah Shir didn't even care what god you followed - they'd been separated from Norrath for so long they'd lost all their prejudices.

      I doubt we'll see much of it again in anything you could call a mass-market MMORPG but it is creeping back in things like Project:Gorgon and Pantheon. I think there are ideas there that could be adapted to a wider audience to give some modern MMOs some much needed depth but I don't really expect that to happen.

  3. At the risk of further shocking you, I've never heard about any of this prior to now. I never played the original EverQuest (and EQ2 only very briefly), and when people talk about the game, I only ever seem to hear them discuss camping things, corpse runs, travel time, or raids. The faction system somehow never seems to come up.

    This is one of the main reasons I read your blog. It's a good way to learn about era of MMOs I have little firsthand knowledge of, and in some cases not even much secondhand knowledge of.

    EverQuest's factions sound a little over-complicated for my taste, but on the whole probably still a lot more compelling than any modern game's take on faction or reputation. Surely a happy medium between the two extremes must be possible.

    1. It is interesting just how far out of consciousness this aspect of MMORPG design has slipped over the years, along with quite a number of other staples of the genre. I think it's quite hard to put across the full experience of playing EverQuest and the other Diku/ToriMUD-inspired games to anyone who didn't experience them as they once were. There are reasons millions of people became "addicted" to them and it wasn't all about the novelty of being online or the skinner box aspects. They were games that appealed to people who liked planning, strategy and codebreaking among many other things.

      I'm glad you find it interesting, too. It's hard to expalin some of this stuff without people nodding off.

  4. I like few examples of this in GW2 like Sons of Svanir's casual misogyny or secret locations of Order of Whispers. I'm not sad that it's not more complicated though, that sounds like something interesting to read about, but not interesting to actually play. Well, that's true for a lot of EQ concepts.

    1. GW2 is very good on NPC interactions with other NPCs. I once spent a whole session folowing NPCs around Metrica Province just listening to them and it was good entertainment. As far as I could tell, all of that was scripted, which is an amazing effort for backrground ambience.

      Unless there's an event involved, though, players can't generally interact with them in any meaninggful way. The GW2 NPCs do have factions, though. You can tell by the way you can see some fight others. You can see who hates who if you play a stealth class that can pull NPCs onto each other and then disappear. I imagine most MMORPGs have factions under the surface - it's the table that dictates how everythng reacts to everything else, after all - but most of them don't seem to use it for much these days.

  5. I LOVED how factions were done in Everquest. They were complex and brilliant, and really affected how you played your character. I still fondly remember my human monk walking into Cabalis and making Iksar players stand and stare.

    It had taken me a month of handing in those damn bone chips to max that faction, but oh so satisfying when it was done (and of course I could then go on to complete the bracers quests).

    I have been eternally disappointed with factions being completely and utterly meaningless in every game every since. In EQ they mean't something. They affected your gameplay, how you travelled from place to place, who you could interact with and so on.

    The ability to change sides, and that long, involved questline with the single neutral city while you worked on it was brilliant gameplay for roleplayers.

    The challenge of travel as an Iksar Necromancer was great.

    Add to that the language learning opportunities, and my characters just had so much more depth as a 'person' living in that world than in any MMORPG since.

    The fact I still think (and whinge) about this whenever the 'faction grind' in WoW rears its ugly head, is testamount to how important I believe factions *should* be in a game. Although I hasten to add, that the ability to change them - with a heck of a lot of work - was one of the things that made them special as a player.

    1. I very much agree with all of that. I was attempting in the post, not entirely succussfully, to stick to original EQ before any the expansions, just to keep the explanations as clear as possible, but Kunark and then Luclin changed a lot of things up without spoiling the underlying concept.

      Kunark really doubled down on the "evil" thing with Iksar being KoS to literally every other race. I made an Iksar SK at launch, got him to about Level 9, then put a huge amount of time and effort trying to get him to the Freeport area without dying, only to find there was pretty much no way I could play him there anyway. I'd played a Troll previously and leveled him up in Qeynos Hills and I thought it couldn't be much harder than that!

      Faction grind in EQ had its own issues but it was far more than just a "rep" grind. Vanguard used a similar system to EQ, unsurprisingly, so I have high hopes that Pantheon will too. If it ever happens...

  6. This sounds really great. Wish there was still some of that kind of complexity in more current titles.

    Although it could be quite a PITA at times I loved (and still do) the complexity of classes in EQII, and how they complement each other with their skills and buffs. Filling a 24 man raid with the right classes in the right positions was an intricate puzzle.

    Hence my disappointment when I realized that in SWTOR it almost doesn't matter at all which classes you have in a group or raid. As long as you have one tank, one healer and two dps per group you're golden (which is the only group composition ever used 99% of the time too).

    1. Class complexity and interdependence is another topic I might get to one day. It gets discussed a lot more frequently than faction but it needs constant re-stating because it's so alien to the way almost every MMORPG works these days. Several upcoming niche games are claiming they'll bring that kind of gameplay back but I'll believe it when I see it. The concept of a "Holy Trinity" of Tank/Healer/DPS is so deeply ingrained now I doubt it can be overturned, unless it's by something even more basic.


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