Are bad factions more popular?

Every time a new game launches which has more than one faction, where one is identified as ‘the good guys’ and the other as ‘the other guys’ we end up wondering whether players in general prefer to play as good or evil.

In WoW, the Horde vastly outnumbered Alliance on PvP servers at the start, and still does. In WAR, Destruction vastly outnumbered Order on all servers at the beginning. A friend who plays Aion noted that Asmodian seemed more popular than Elyos on all the servers he checked recently.

The population balance isn’t always for the same reason. In WoW Horde really did have better PvP racials and classes (shaman) at the start. Destruction always looked much cooler than Order in WAR. When I took a look at the Aion beta, my first reaction was that Asmodeans looked cooler than Elyos too and I thought most people would prefer them.

So I see a few common points:

  1. Designers find it easier to make the evil factions look cool (where cool is some combination of look and styling that appeals to gamers). How a character looks is probably the single strongest reason for a gamer to pick it initially.
  2. Tied to #1, evil factions often have a backstory that primes them as being very tough and badass. Instead of heroes, they are portrayed as anti-heroes to make them more powerful as enemies. The bad guys also often have more interesting stories in general – is it just easier to write lore about evil or savage races?
  3. ‘Evil’ factions follow a morality that supports how gamers play (i.e. go out and commit mass slaughter and looting). They have more ‘fun’.  So many gamers find it easier to relate to them. This is one of the reasons a lot of PvP type players are drawn to the bad boys in game.
  4. Even though many games had a majority of the evil faction at the beginning, this often balances out later. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are natural balancing factors, others are devs rebalancing to lure people to the weaker faction. One of the big balancing factors in a PvP game is that the less played faction gets more fights. Either because there is a battleground mechanic that limits how many of each side can play, or in an open world game, they’re just more likely to encounter enemies when they go roaming.

Frank@Overly Positive reminded me about this with a post about faction balance in Star Wars. Fans on the SW:TOR forums are complaining that Bioware is making the Sith seem too cool. I think the fans have lost it – Star Wars has some of the most badass good guys in cinema. The Sith have to be very cool indeed to lure players who planned to be Han Solo over to their side. And if Bioware’s game is going to rely heavily on balanced PvP then there need to at least be some Sith in game.

Star Trek is going to have similar problems. All the films and TV series are about the Federation. So how to lure people into playing enough of the ‘bad guys’ that there’s going to be some people for the good guys to fight.

Some of this will be resolved by hardcore players deciding that only pansies want to be Han Solo et al and again picking the side that is likely to be less numerous because it’ll give more PvP and a badass demeanor. And even if PvP in these games winds up matching the numbers of the more popular good side against the hardcore badassness of the bad side, at least that’s atmospheric.

No, the problem comes a few months down the line when the hardcore guys are winning enough of the fights that lots of other people join them. At that point, the side that was less numerous at the start ends up being more more hardcore and more numerous. Some of the hardcore switch sides, and the cycle begins again.

Do you feel drawn towards playing the bad boy antiheroes? Like the goth Asmodean styling? Does it make a difference whether it’s a heavily PvP game or not?

27 thoughts on “Are bad factions more popular?

  1. When I started in WoW I picked Horde, I quit and then came back when I met some new friends and they played. They played Horde so I started up again as they were on a different server. Eventually they were bored of the Horde lifestyle and swapped to Alliance, I went with them and got my first level 70 through that. We quit and came back for Wrath and I got my Priest to 80 and then levelled my Shaman to 80 also. However, I still hankered after the Horde I created Greenborne for this and then life came along and I quit again. I am playing now for a couple hours a week when I have nothing else on and am back on Horde because I just prefer their races, their quests and their zones… just seems a better all round game when I’m on that side.

    • *chuckle*

      I’m decidedly not a fan of “evil is cool” design (I think it’s juvenile and puerile more often than not; stupid power fantasy tripe), but if given a choice of British or American, I’m going with the Old Country.

    • Trying to think of MMOs where the good guys are american and the baddies are brits now. I suppose WAR did and that was a mistake because they all should have had british accents 🙂

  2. In WoW, at the start (on the servers I was on atleast) the Alliance were the more popular side, as WoW was out on the tail end of the LOTR movies, and everyone wanted to be a Legolas, or a Gimli, or a Frodo or whatever. PvP Wise, the horde were always on top. When they released the Honour system, we were always outnumbered but regularly held Southshore, the hardcore PvPers were attracted to the Horde, while the PvEers went Alliance. Being a PvEer on the horde on those early days was hard, and Despite spending 6 months there, we never saw a boss in Molten Core and ended up moving to Alliance. After a while, the horde itch came back, another server switch and I’ve been there ever since, PvEing the whole way, the balance was pretty even between PvP and PvE.

  3. As a counter-point, consider that it’s different for classes in WoW. Paladins are an extremely popular class (and have always been) and are the definitive “good” class. Meanwhile, warlocks have always been relatively unpopular, and they are an outright “evil” class.

    Also, it may be a PvP-only thing. On PvE servers, alliance was absurdly dominant, until the introduction of Blood Elves. Maybe the Killer archetype picks the “evil” race. WAR and Aion are marketed as PvP games.

    In fact, perhaps it’s a bad sign for Aion. If Asmodians are dominant across all servers, that might indicate that the game is picking up the majority of purchases from Killers, and that the vastly greater numbers of Socializers and casuals are *not* buying it.

    • That’s a good point and I do wonder if the badass looks and style does appeal more to Killer type of players.

      Warlocks have always been reasonably popular on the Horde side, as far as I recall, also. (Partly because forsaken warlock is a very solid type of background if you want to be an eeeevil goth demonic summoning type. It’s much harder to figure out some lore for a gnome warlock.) Warriors also seemed more popular on horde side to me, even in vanilla. That may be connected with the whole spiky armour thing, plus alliance having night elf hunters. (I realise this sounds as though it makes no sense, but orc warlock or warrior is very iconic for horde in the way that night elf druid or hunter, or human paladin is for alliance.)

      With Aion I get the impression that they’re quite heavily controlling the factions, people just aren’t allowed to create characters of the more numerous one. So they probably have that under control.

  4. Regarding WoW: whilst I think you may have a point about PvP realms , certainly on the PvE realms I have played on, Horde has been hugely outnumbered by alliance.

    Horde side raiding on my server (RP-PvE) used to be several tiers behind alliance in burning crusade, largely due to lack of players. Even now in Wintergrasp, I will have the tenacity buff (and usually 3-4 stacks or more) in 95% of games (at normal times).

    It is generally accepted amongst my friends on horde side that it is not worth ganking or getting to world PvP fights, as inevitably any alliance will broadcast the fight to his guild or in trade chat and we are soon outnumbered 3 to 1. Horde never owned Halaa for longer than about 30 minutes. In order to get items from there I remember having to organise raids on the place- the chance of just turning up and it being Horde controlled was zero.

    In general, our theory to explain the population imbalance is that players are typically drawn to the attractive “hero” character models on Alliance side, shunning the ugly “monsters” on Horde. This may well be different on a PvP server where players may wish to have an “evil” persona. But in general I have found that players (especially those new to the game and not thinking of racial abilities etc) will choose the friendly/pretty/cute looking human/night elf/gnome over the monstrous “ugly” “evil” orc/troll/undead. We noticed a definite swing in population numbers when the “prettiest” race (blood elves) debuted in Burning Crusade.

    So in general, my experience (albeit based only on one game and on non-PvP servers) is the complete opposite to your article!

  5. On my first server (Argent Dawn EU), Alliance had about 85% population, and the second server (Defias Brotherhood EU) was 50-50, so I can’t say that my own experiences match yours. If anything, I’ve heard lots of whining and gnashing of teeth about the ugly Horde and on how Blizzard favors Alliance. 😉

    That said, I did play Horde almost exclusively. Because I played on RP servers, my main character was a study on how sociopathic, manipulative and vicious I could make her.. while still keeping her reasoning sound and her actions heroic. I knew some people who made similar experiments on Alliance side, like a paladin who willingly participated in the Purging of Stratholme and a progressive, diplomatic warlock.

  6. It should be noted that MOST players chose the “GOOD GUYS” in MMORPGs. But HARDCORE (better informed, did more research regarding the game?) and PVP players apparently often like to pick the bad guys! Visuals also play an important role, of course.

    This is why my initial choice was Elyos. Less claws, more human, and no glowing red eyes -> attracts all the cool kids, doesn’t it? But well, now I am playing an Asmodian, too.

    Due to the forced balancing, server balance is quite okay in terms of pure numbers:

    But as your friend pointed out, Asmodians are more popular, and only due to the forced balancing and queues a 51-53% : 49-47% ratio could be maintained.

    Regarding WoW, I think the early zones are not nearly as good as the Alliance zones, Blood Elves excluded. But I like the Troll Village, the wilderness of Kalimdor screams “play a Hunter”, IMO. 🙂

    Evil characters are often more interesting characters.
    HE IS A GOOD GUY is not very interesting. It is mostly the evil villains that fascinate us in novels. “Good” Hero characters often suffer from the “I hate this Mr. Superguy” phenomenon, while we often feel compassionate with the fates of bad guys.

    I really wonder about the Starfleet vs Klingons/Romulans ratio in Star Trek Online once it has been released.

    BTW, shameless self promo: 6% of the Population of Thor are > level 20, I am level 24 and will probably reach the Abyss tonight! 🙂

  7. I wouldn’t consider the alliance “the good guys”. Both factions have had terrible acts of violence in lore and against the world.

    I would consider the forsaken to be evil though but not the orcs, trolls and especially not the taurens.

    • (I think one of the things is that a lot of players are attracted to “human-like” characters, that’s why thy added bloodelves to warcraft.


    It’s lazy, but effective. Designers take the easy route and make the evil guys cool because it sells. (So it’s not dumb to design that way; know your audience and serve them. I call it lazy and unambitious because games could be more than they are, but that’s the idealist in me.) Games are all too often just fantasy power trips, and being able to do “bad” stuff you can’t get away with in real life scratches that itch.

    • I think you’re probably right. Interesting links there with the tvtropes (but it’s older than a tv trope, I think it’s a storytelling trope, and if good seems boring in books it is because the hero is usually the self-insertion character for the reader.)

      I was coming into this wondering if ‘evil’ tended to be used as a shorthand in fantasy no-nonsense, libertarian, savage, ruthless, and other adjectives that actually might appeal to gamers, rather than actual nasty horrible evil. But just from work I’ve done in the past on RPGs, we put just as much effort into making the good guys cool and appealing as the baddies. (Admittedly one of them was about angels and demons, and if you can’t manage to create a badass angel that wields a flaming sword to battle injustice then you aren’t really trying.) So I wonder if it’s actually using good vs evil as a shorthand in fantasy that’s the problem. It has been pointed out that the horde in WoW isn’t entirely evil (not in the way that destruction was in WAR) but it certainly is savage and uncivilised with some evil components.

      • Oh, yes, it’s a storytelling trope. Old as stories themselves. Even there, though, I think the whole “I’m being *bad* without *really* being bad” is something that can be both educational and escapist, depending on the story and venue.

  9. Woohoo, pingbacks! I gotta love em.

    I fall into the stereotype of good guy, really. I’ll typically play a goodie-goodie race and if they have a silly-looking part of that race (such as gnomes) I’ll be tempted to play them.

    But I do take a curious turn when morality and choices figure into things. I have made friends give me funny looks when they see an outwardly nice guy like me brutally kill homeless bums in a game like Fallout 3, “just because I could”. The reason for this is perhaps my detachment to my toon as opposed to me – it’s a virtual depiction of myself but it doesn’t have to be me as I would react IRL.

    Maybe that’s why so many people like badasses – because they are a distortion of themselves in a virtual mirror that they can live out with few consequences.

  10. I can’t stand the idea of playing an ugly character. I don’t care if that’s shallow, I have to stare at the back of that head for hours on end, I want it to be not-unpleasant viewing. So originally I wanted Alliance or Blood Elf only.

    But I HATE the human and dwarf starting areas, I find myself directionless and out of quests (in Loch Modan) or running frustrating distances (Westfall/Redridge) long before I’m ready to strike out on my own in contested areas, and the leveling just stagnates.

    Fortunately, Draenei, Blood Elves, and … Trolls appeal to me visually, and Bloodmyst, Ghostlands, and the Barrens can get you past level 20 without any shortage of things to do.

    Which characters have/have not “stuck” for me has less to do with faction and more to do with level design. If I can’t stand to get the character out of the starting zone, they’re not really worth bothering with.

  11. I haven’t read all the comments, so I don’t know if this was mentioned but….

    My experience with “good classes” is that they tend to be protection/defense oriented and do lower damage, where “evil classes” tend to be more dps oriented… and everyone loves to do lots of dps, so there you have it.

    SWG was anomalous, though — it was each person’s individual choice as to the faction (or no faction) that they chose, and since anyone could be any class they wanted via the skill system, it was simply a matter of which faction was perceived as “cooler.” And as a result, Rebels tended to outnumber Imps by about 2 to 1 on most servers. Devs sought to correct this by offering really nice faction rewards for Imps, but it wasn’t until the NGE gutted the game and then new players came in and went “oh look, the Imp faction rewards kick the Rebel’s butts” that the balance went the other way.

  12. What’s ironic spinks is that the whole star wars movie series exemplifies this-it’s not a story about luke, or han. It starts with darth vader, and ends with it, and everyone reacts to or is influenced by him. The bad guy is cooler and much more appealing.

    Call it the wolverine effect.

    • I don’t really agree, you know. I think the first three star wars film were absolutely about Luke. It’s just that George Lucas was fascinated with Vader and went on to make more films about him. And also that Vader actually does grow and change (a bit) as a character in the course of those films — but not as much as Luke, Han, et al.

      • I don’t know about that, I think the first three films were about vader’s redemption with the prequel 3 his fall. A new Hope was really the only time that han and luke shined on their own; from empire on what they did was react to what vader did, whether it was being frozen in carbonite, or “I am your father.”

        I think Luke didn’t actually become a character on his own till they started to do the expanded universe novels. Vader dominated so much that it wasn’t till he was gone that Luke could start to develop. Before that it was all reaction to Vader. Vader also really has the power-Luke’s struggle was not so much to defeat the emperor as to win his father back, and it was up to the father to really defeat him.

        It’s really interesting stuff to think on.

  13. Pingback: Fighting the Good(?) Fight « M.M.O.S.H

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