Loss of Nuance
I had this topic that I wanted to talk about this morning, and jotted it down so that I would not forget. Then last night I suffered from a bout of insomnia. So my hope is that even without much sleep I can still make this topic work, and devote the amount of attention it deserves. For years I have talked about my dislike of the faction wall system that was first popularized by Dark Age of Camelot, and then carried forth into the modern genre of MMOs thanks to World of Warcraft adopting it. For many players they know nothing different than picking a red versus blue faction and living their entire gaming life’s within the confines of it. I think I struggle against this concept because I remember a time when this wasn’t necessarily the case. Lately I have been spending a lot of time playing my smuggler in Star Wars the Old Republic, and yes I realize that game is a very faction locked experience. However if you think of the Smuggler itself in the Star Wars mythos, it has always been a character that skirted the lines trying to exist in Republic, Imperial and Hutt space at the same time, carving their own path balancing between them all.
The problem is, other than the original Everquest no game really supports this notion. You cannot live between the faction lines making your own choices, instead you are asked to choose an allegiance that is about the most impersonal experience imaginable. The problem is that I feel no personal responsibility for choosing Horde or Alliance or in many cases Red or Blue. They don’t represent me as a person, and as such I have no real loyalty tied to them. However in Everquest you were assigned essentially a default template of allegiances based on your racial choice… but from that point on you could blur the lines at will. I remember spending copious amounts of time hunting Kobolds in the Warrens off of Toxxulia Forest, for the purpose of gaining faction in the otherwise aggressive city of Paineel. Why did I do this? Honestly for no real reason other than I could, and that I thought the city of Paineel was extremely cool in its layout. Sure I could have simply banked and quested at the far end of Toxxulia Forest in the already friendly city of Erudin, but instead I made the conscious choice to hang out with the Necromancers.
Sapping Creative Expression
The problem with the faction wall system is that it forces all of the players to essentially be the same person. Later games started throwing in optional faction grinds, but those grinds are always connected to “things”. Gain this much reputation with this faction and you will get a nifty sword, or a pretty mount… but otherwise once the current expansion is over they will be utterly meaningless from that point on. The problem here is that these tertiary faction choices don’t actually effect the players game experience. They don’t unlock new areas of the world, or more so close off other areas that the player did have access to. Granted in the early days of World of Warcraft they did manage to create a few of these Factions that did actually do interesting things. Namely I am talking about the back and forth seesaw of the Bloodsail Buccaneers and the assorted Goblin factions. If you were truly insane you could skirt a thin line between gaining faction with the Bloodsails but also doing faction repair work with the Goblins to make sure you were not ever hitting “Kill On Sight” status.
The problem here is… this was an isolated example that granted players access to a handful of boats in the ass end of the world. This area was made immediately irrelevant as soon as the Burning Crusade and subsequent expansions released. Instead as an Alliance player I always wanted to figure out a way to gain factions with the Tauren. They were the only Horde race that seemed to cling to any ideals I could get behind, and I thought it would have been so interesting to be able to gain faction in a way that would allow you to enter the town and do commerce there. Things are never completely black and white, and even in the lore there are characters that skirt the lines managing to be friendly to two different groups at the same time. The entire World of Warcraft experience would have been so much richer if it allowed players through sheer will to grind out their own niche that lay somewhere between the predetermined choices. I think it would have been interesting to allow players to create the ultimate “diplomat” that was friendly to essentially ALL of the races.
Fear for the Future
The problem with games being iterative is that once a feature set becomes common, it essentially stays there forever. This past weekend when we talked about Tron 2.0 in our AggroChat Game Club show, one of the lines of discussion was how the cultural norms for shooters have changed over the years. What used to be representative of most of the shooters that were out in 2003, is no longer recognizable through the lens of the basic feature set that we now have come to expect. World of Warcraft borrowed heavily from the games that came before it, and since it chose to go with a walled off faction system, games that have borrowed from it have essentially followed that mold. Red and Blue factions with their own walled off areas of play have become the template for how to build a game, and right now the only real evolution has been a return to three factions instead of just two. Sure games like Rift have torn down the wall and made faction into “fiction” but they have not really gone anywhere in the struggle of making faction a personal choice.
Now going back to the original thing that spurred this topic, Star Wars the Old Republic. How much more rich would the smuggler have been if you quite literally could have been a freelancer in action and not just name. The game does a decent job of making you feel like you live somewhere between the red and blue lines, and then when the second chapter happens it essentially rips all of that forcing you to align to the Republic faction. Sure you can still play a dark side Smuggler, but these aren’t “real” decisions with any sense of “real” lasting consequences. You can’t decide to say screw the republic and opt to live entirely in Hutt space or Imperial space. You can’t decide to say on Alderaan or Balmorra and improve your faction with one of the leaders, opening up new questing opportunities that are unavailable to the average player. Everquest is a game that I could never really play again, because I just can’t handle the essentially “primative” game client. There however are still things that the game got right, that no other game that I have played have really tried to copy. The problem is… right now I cannot see a game adopting a more real world faction system, without somehow turning it into a marketing focus and losing sight of all of the other things that have to be in place to make a game enjoyable. Essentially I want real factions… but still be able to keep all of the things that I have come to expect from an MMO to this point. Unfortunately I fear that the era of MMO experimental-ism is over… and at this point our feature set is locked in place just like the feature set of shooter is locked as well. In the meantime however… I will still carry a rose colored torch for this features that I wish I could have in modern games.