Why faction identity is so strong in WoW

I love having factions in games, and I’ve always thought that it was a good idea. It gives new players something to identify with immediately, and an inbuilt group of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ players to work with and against in game.

Without factions, it’s easy to feel alone and directionless. With them, you may inherit some of your faction’s goals right from the start. And I’ve always thought that if you set it up carefully, you could motivate experienced players to recruit and train newbies in order to strengthen their faction.

There are different types of factions:

  • NPC factions (like villain groups in CoH or the Argent Dawn in WoW). You may see these guys around but you can never actually join their gang, although they might sell you stuff.
  • Player run factions. A guild is a kind of faction. In some games player-designed factions are even more explicit than that. In my old vampire MUSH, the various vampire clans were all run by players. It may be possible to switch factions, but that depends on the players and the game.
  • Hard coded factions. This would be like the Alliance/ Horde in WoW, or Order/ Destruction in Warhammer Online. When you create your character, it is a member of a faction. You may be able to change this faction later (like in EQ2) but it’s led by NPCs regardless. This has the benefit that the faction does not collapse if one player leaves.

My first experience of factions in MMOs was in Dark Age of Camelot where your faction levelled in completely separate (safe) areas from the other lot, and also you couldn’t communicate with them in game. So you spent a lot of time with your own faction. They were the only people you could talk to or group with. The only way you could really interact with the other side was by fighting them.

I suspect the main reason for this was to stop people cheating, they wanted people to fight the other faction, not collaborate with them. But it also had the effect of fostering a strong faction identity.

Of course faction identity is strong, it defines your whole game experience

It’s not surprising if people do identify with their factions. It probably dictates gameplay even more than class in a lot of current MMOs. Your levelling experience can be very different between Horde and Alliance, for example. Your choice of races is dependent on your faction. You’ll use different quest hubs, different travel routes, and different capital cities. You may spend more time in different zones and instances. You’ll interact with different NPCs. You’ll also have faction specific lore and history, for those who are interested in such things.

You’ll talk to different people. You’ll see different guild tags. You won’t mix much with the other faction and when you do, it won’t be cooperative. (Actually players will tend to cooperate, even if the game makes it difficult. I know I’ve had my character’s life saved by friendly wandering Alliance dudes before and I bet that’s not unusual.)

In Warhammer, it’s even more differentiated. You could probably level in completely different zones based on your race, never mind just the faction. (So three different levelling paths per faction.) Your faction in WAR also dictates which classes you can play, and there is no crossover. If you want a Choppa, you have to go Destruction and you have to play an orc. It’s less flexible but I quite like it as a way to give the factions a very different flavour (and a lot of replayability).

The problem with giving each faction vast replayability is that somehow the whole mess needs to be balanced.  Ultimately Blizzard gave up on balancing shamans and paladins and gave both classes to both factions. Part of the outcry at the time was because people felt that faction identity was being watered down (the horde has a lot of shaman lore, the alliance has a lot of paladin lore).

In any case, the designers really really want  to foster tension and PvP, dammit. So the game is designed to give players a strong faction identity, and to give them reasons to compete and fight with the other factions.

We can argue about how well they actually implement this, but certainly in WoW Blizzard have experimented a lot previously with getting the factions to compete in different zones. They’ve dropped that in Wrath, probably due to monumental lack of interest (although I rather liked Halaa, the neutral town that you got to fight over in TBC.)

Faction identity vs Server identity

You could argue that a player’s choice of server has just as much influence on their game as a choice of faction. After all, different servers have completely different communities. You can’t talk to people on a different server in WoW from inside the game (I think you can in EQ2). And, more significantly, a PvP server offers a very different levelling experience to a PvE server. Unsurprisingly, players made much more of a fuss when Blizzard offered PvE to PvP server transfers than when they just implemented transfers between similar server types.

It isn’t just about ease of levelling. It’s about server identity being all bound up with the levelling experience. People who played on a PvP server used to know that everyone else they played with had also levelled in the same way. Yes it does mean that they shared similar assumptions beyond just which quests they had done, but part of being a PvP server player was that you’d done your time in the Stranglethorn trenches.

We do get a lot of our identity from nostalgia, and from things we have done in the past, and from making connections with other people who have done the same things. If you get a load of people of a similar age together, it’s only a matter of time before they start discussing TV shows they used to like as kids. (If your friends don’t do this yet, it is only a matter of time.)Similarly, a bunch of Alliance players may joke about Hogger and Van Cleef, both of whom are due to make guest appearances in the next 5 man instance, in patch 3.2. Old School Horde may point to Barrens chat and the Sons of Arugal. These things are shared experiences that helped to form the Alliance/ Horde player identity.

I like having strong faction, racial, and class identities in a game. But identities aren’t always things that people don and doff at the drop of a hat. So it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people have a strong reaction to the idea of paid faction transfer. In a way, it makes the shared experience just that little bit less shared.

A game that was designed from the start to let people switch classes or factions would probably handle identity and class/ faction switching in a much smoother manner.

It’s hard to say if that’s how trends are going, when SWTOR is boasting that every faction/class combination will have a completely separate levelling experience. Wonder how much they’ll charge to let me switch my jedi to a stormtrooper if it all doesn’t work out :)