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 🙂

18 thoughts on “Why faction identity is so strong in WoW

  1. I can’t say that I’ve ever really identified with a faction in an MMO, aside from the forced identity in Warhammer. I suppose that if you’re going to be RPing, then faction makes a BIG difference, but otherwise I see it as an artificial mechanic that the developers threw in so they have an excuse who the “them” is in the “us against them” premise.

  2. I completely agree that be able to switch factions changes something. In fact, my first reaction that to finding out WoW is going to let players switch bewteen Horde and Alliance was, “NO!” somehow I felt this violation of loyalty (even though I recently started an Alliance toon). There’s something about those loyalties that are part of the game for me, even without any RPing going on. I’m proud to be one of the “ugly” side.

    How does it change that to have some converts? Well, it doesn’t really. It just *feels* different.

  3. It has a lot to do with feeling, as there are not really convincing rational arguments against faction switching.

    My main problem is that more and more services are implemented in the itemshop mentality.

    They could also offer a quest chain that has a 6 month timer to change faction – renegade Orc, renegade Human for example. 🙂
    But no, they sell it right away… good for them. But for me? 🙂

    I think the whole faction model in WoW is outdated and primitive. Let players pick their loyalities, then you could have smexy blood elf female and still play for the Alliance. 😉

    On the other hand it is based on the races associated with a certain faction, so this possibility is somewhat outruled by the background story that not many actually care about. Just think of Broll Bearmantle and Valeera Sanguinar and the King of Stormwind, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere – I did not know or read the comics before. They are not so one-dimensional Horde/Alliance as Blizzard set up the game from the very beginning.

    I have more of a personal problem with the faction switch: My human female Warlock turning into a blood elf or undead female is somehow destroying the char’s history FOR ME, what I experienced with her. Though I can think of a horrible way to die and come back undead, this would be possible…^^

    But this is no proper reason to prevent others from switching factions as they want. It is just why I would not like to do it.

    Regarding faction identity, it is important to insult and curse the other faction! 🙂

    Undead were the no. 1 race in the ugly menagerie of the Horde, at least not a beast and imba traits, this is why the Horde got blood elfs and why every gay person plays a blood elf paladin, after all! Barrens Chat gives testament to the mental capabilities of Horde players, who are also whiny and envy the proud people of the Alliance their cultural achievements. They are savages, after all, no wonder that they live in huts!

    SCNR – I just wanted to point out how important FACTION IDENTITY is to make cruel fun of the other faction. You confirm your own identity by projecting all your negative traits on the enemy, it is a quite human (yet silly) thing to do! 🙂

  4. Ah, but since demonizing the Other is so deeply ingrained in us, do we really need a Faction to do it for us? Can’t we pick our own targets?

    “PaladinzROP”, “nurfLocks!”, “casuals suck!”, “M&S” and all that…

    To me, the ability to shift allegiances (or even job, with a class change) doesn’t dilute the allegiance/faction/class identity, it just has the potential to dilute the identity of *my character*.

    Ultimately, that should be my choice.

    • Well, sometimes other players enjoy the faction identity and don’t want it diluted by you doing your own thing (ok, one person making the choice wouldn’t matter but if a majority did then you’ve lost a lot of your faction flavour). It’s not a single player game. Choices you make can affect others.

      If you leave them alone, players will carebear everything. They will ignore your carefully paced storytelling. They will cooperate even when the game world and setting explicitly says that characters don’t.

      On the other hand, they will enjoy the flavour of the setting as designed and will probably enjoy it less if everyone else does what they want too. If the game sells itself as orcs v humans then you probably expect the orc side to be mostly orcs (and not mostly bored humans). It’s a paradox actually. But from running a RP type game, I learned that sometimes you have to say no to players. We never liked doing this but you have to know when to respect the integrity of the setting for the sake of those players who do care about it.

      • Oh, sure, but in these MMO things, the setting should be more of a playground, rather than a scripted story. You just can’t maintain tight reins on that many people and not expect some backlash. Players should be the drivers of the story, not the devs. GM control can work in tabletop games because they are more flexible and are working with far fewer people. MMOs don’t translate well to that sort of control, both for scale and for technological reasons.

  5. I don’t actually thing faction identify is very strong. It’s ironic for a game which lore is so heavily based around Horde and Alliance that actually it has such little impact in game.

    I think factions – or teams or sides – are a very temporary thing. I noticed this a lot in EQ2 on my PvP server, where you could betray and switch faction. For months you would play against “Qs” or “Freeps” and then eventually switch sides and suddenly fight against your previous faction. It had very little impact and no one really cared 🙂

    • Maybe faction had less impact on EQ2 because you could switch? But tbh it’s not such a PvP type of game anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if they’re notionally at all out war or not.

  6. There was a conversation going in guild chat the other night with a few of our players.

    The meat of it was that people dont have faction pride anymore. Alliance walks right by Horde, never killing each other (to be fair we are on a PvE realm, what do we do, taunt them to death?).

    WG, I think, kind of shows this. We are on a server that outnumbers horde nearly 5:1, and throughout the largest part of Lich King, we have almost always owned WG, save for a few times during the late night and early morning. Lately, it has been reversed. We never own WG. Is this a falling out of WG or loss of the “drive” to get some horde? I think the latter. There is hardly any faction pride any more.

    (For the record, I walk around flagged PvP on my server, and often pick fights 🙂 )

  7. My own faction identity is minimal. I don’t hate the horde in any meaningful way. I was surprised last night when two hordies attacked my warlock, and I was even more surprised when I killed them both. (I had just desecrated a horde fire, which flagged me, then went off picking herbs, la de da de da)

    I tend to play the game as just a game, and see the different factions as a mechanism for keeping people engaged in the game. Since I don’t immerse myself enough to make it personal, it has very little bearing on my outlook.

    My only horde character is a level 20 tauren shaman. Perhaps my faction identity will grow stronger as I understand the differences between the two sides.

  8. I fell in love with Runes of Magic’s factionless system.

    It heightened danger and excitement as anyone at anytime could break out in a fight with you.

    It also has players in my server(Smacht) putting more importance/emphasis on guilds. In a way, I think some of the bonds you find forming and desolving in MMO’s are a bit stronger in RoM, maybe, in part, because of this factionless system. I really formed a strong online friendship with about 5 of my guildmates that still last to this day. I kinda feel bad too, they’ve been saying they want me back on vent cuz they miss me.

    Of course this could be more of a personal experience, but I think the factionless system has a little to do with it.

    • One thing I wonder about the factionless system (well, pure player faction really) is whether it forces everyone to be in a guild. I know Darkfall (which I think is similar) doesn’t sound workable if you’re not, for example.

      • Indeed, and perhaps the other side of what I mentioned may have a larger following:

        Players that dislike it feel there’s no(or not enough) incentive(s) to “war”

        Also they feel this system has backfired and created an entrenched “carebear” system in my PvP server where all the guilds create alliances, not through the game systems, but through chat or vent, and it has reduced the number of people PKing randomly or “just for fun”.

        Some bigger guilds made these “alliances” and if someone just wants some fun, they attack and have like a dozen people jump them repeatedly until they agree to leave this or that guild alone.

        But personally this hasn’t affected how I play. I just ignore it:P 😀

  9. @firespirit
    sorry for double post:(

    Just wanted to add, I do a little RPing in Akama, and my friends and I started the guild “Dept of Horde Affairs”

    We track and write down Horde Offenders and Horde Sympathizers, then create a letter/list into an item we post on auction house with how to get off the list.

    Just a way to spice up the game:) It’s aim is to keep faction pride alive and strong.

  10. I think Blizzard seriously fails at factions. Just about every MMO does, in fact. The only game to ALMOST get it right was Vanguard and that was only because you could do diplomacy with some of the lesser known factions.

    The Horde / Alliance thing is small for WoW. It’s HUGE for Warcraft and its RTS ilk, but so much has been done in the game to pander to the intermingling (sanctuary cities, etc) that faction doesn’t really mean anything anymore. You choose a race because it looks neat, not because you agree with the ideals of the faction.

    WAR, on the other hand, depicts what I think of when I think of humans in that era, or Orcs and their society. Not really sure how I feel about Chaos, but the dwarves are definitely done right.

    The other thing you have to realize is that no one is defecting in WoW. You won’t be an Alliance undead or Tauren. You won’t be a Horde Night elf. Switching factions just means you’re being born again as someone else.

  11. “The only game to ALMOST get it right was Vanguard and that was only because you could do diplomacy with some of the lesser known factions.”

    I didn’t feel this at all in VG. I played for 6 weeks in Feb and March and can’t even remember which faction I was in.

    Best faction experience for me was SWG but people were pre-disposed to consider it a faction game because of the IP.

    As for WoW well clearly there’s a little team somewhere that has to think of ways to add RMT extras into WoW that don’t seem to change the sub-based nature. They said “0.1% of players will pay us $15” and the dev team said “but but…. not factions!…story!….identity!….server balance” and the powers on high choose between the two cases.

  12. I play both Horde and Alliance on a pve server, and frankly advise anyone to do the same, you miss a lot of storylines, lore and content by favouring only one side.

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