Better Faction Systems

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Loss of Nuance

Paineel

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

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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

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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.

 

The Tower Guardan

There are many stories that at the time were frustrating but become more humorous through the lens of nostalgia.  I think we as gamers all have thousands of such tales in us, and with this new feature my goal is to try and devote some time to committing these to paper.  Nostalgia is a powerful force, but one that is fun to wallow in every now and then.

Ignorance is Bliss

The original Belghast the Celt Champion I’ve told bits and pieces of my time in Dark Age of Camleot in the past, but today I thought I would delve further into what was ultimately the second MMO I played.  I remember being in the beta process and thinking that the game seemed so much more advanced than Everquest that I had been used to.  However I did not really play the game seriously until the launch of Gaheris the co-operative server.  Most people think fondly upon Dark Age of Camelot of the realm versus realm combat, for me however it was all of the interesting PVE things that I did with my friends.  At that time we had an extremely small and close knit guild called the Whispers of Legend.  In fact the only real remnant of that guild is a posting on Zam’s for an item I submitted under our guild name.  One of the best things about Gaheris was that we could literally play any class in the game together, and explore any realm freely.

Our motley group consisted of a Dwarf Warrior as the main tank, me on my Celt Champion as dps and off tank, a Lurikeen Enchanter providing dps and crowd control and a Celt Bard being dual boxed by our warrior providing all of the healing and song twisting.  Much later on I picked up a second account and ran my very own bard, but much of the content that we experienced we did as a trio, with my friend Shadoes playing both the role of main tank and main healer.  This game was also the very first appearance of me using the name Belghast, so even if I could never actually return to playing it… it will always hold a special place in my heart.  There were so many times we ventured someplace we should not have been only to end up trying to fight our way back to our tombstones, more than anything to prove to ourselves that we could do it.  It was a different time in online gaming, when more often than not we were playing with people we were able to lay our physical hands on in the real world.  On average the three of us would get home from work, and log directly into Dark Age of Camelot for that nights adventure.

The Tower Guardian

alb-tower-guardian The adventure that most stands out in my mind was our finding of the Tower Guardian.  When the Shrouded Isles expansion hit we spent a good deal of our time wandering around its wilderness looking for interesting things.  With that expansion a number of named encounters were introduced and spread through out the world.  So it became our mission to try and find all of them… and farm them for every last bit of loot.  In fact the item that I talked about submitting… I am pretty sure came from one of these such trips.  One night while wandering the Dales of Devwy we stumbled upon this giant clockwork golem looking creature that towered over even the trees.  I think at the time it conned purple to our group, but we decided to give it a shot anyways considering the area around it was difficult but easily huntable.  While it took several attempts we managed to down it and got some really nice loot.  So we proceeded to farm it, each time getting better at the process until we had it down to a science.

A few days later we happened to be in a local game shop, that had several folks that played Dark Age of Camelot far more seriously than we did.  We were talking about our fun farming the golem, and the shop keeper had a somewhat stunned look on his face.  I turns out that apparently this encounter was designed for a raid to take it down, and while it took upwards of thirty minutes for us to actually defeat it… we managed to do it with four characters, two of which were being played by the same person.  While games have evolved to have hard requirements on what you need to bring to be successful, I have never forgot the lessons that we learned playing this game.  That while you might not have the optimal grouping, you can sometimes persevere through sheer force of will.  There have been many times I’ve tried to do things in an unorthodox way, but no game has rewarded it quite as much as Dark Age of Camelot did.

Sometimes We Failed

sshot_11sshot_15 I won’t lie and say that things always worked out in our favor.  In fact I have quite a number of  screenshots like one above, with us dead in fairly horrible places.  However we always seemed to manage to pick ourselves back up and keep trying long after others had given up.  This trip down memory lane would not be complete without a photo of Shard our Dwarven Warrior main tank.  The thing I find so odd about this game is that our experiences and our memories are so vastly different from most players that wax nostalgic about it.  This was not a pvp game for me, but instead a game that let me explore freely every corner of three vastly different and exception realms.  This was the game that really cemented in my mind how poor of a design decision that hard faction walls really were.  Dark Age of Camelot went from being a lackluster experience, to one of the most memorable with the simple addition of the co-operative play server.

Do you have any memorable stories of games that you and your friends maybe played in a less than suggested style?  I would be curious to hear some of your stories of times you entered something vastly unprepared but managed to pull out a victory nonetheless.  One of my fondest memories from World of Warcraft for example was the time we took nothing but hunters into Upper Blackrock Spire and timed our aimed shots on the same target, just watching it explode before our eyes.  It was like we were a walking firing squad, slowly mowing down our targets or burning it down while one of us kited the pack.  Sometimes unconventional play can be extremely rewarding.  For years I’ve found myself getting caught up in trying to do things the right way for the sake of speed and efficiency.  Sometimes however you just have to break the rules and play games in a manner no one in their right mind ever planned.  I freely admit that I still wish there wa such a thing as a melee hunter.

Fighting Nostalgia

Familiar Itch

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Over the last few days I have been feeling immensely nostalgic about World of Warcraft.  This tends to happen to me as we near Blizzcon time, and I start to see twitter a buzz with people excited to be attending the convention.  Some of my tweeps have even resorted to Blizzcon countdown clocks, and yesterday they finally reached the 20 somethings in days left til the conference.  With this wave of nostalgia comes the all too familiar desire to re-up my account and play some of it.  It would not have been the first time I did so on a whim, and is more than likely not going to be the last.

However I am wise to this trickery, or at least have a contingency plan in place.  I have come to the realization that I like the idea of playing WoW a lot more than actually playing it.  As a result I keep a trial account at the ready for when of these urges strikes, and last night I patched up my client once more.  I figure if I make it through playing the trial account with the desire to play more WoW… then it is probably time to re-up.  I figure this is a decent litmus test to see whether or not the desire to play is real before I spent $15.

Fighting Nostalgia

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As a result I rolled a brand new Worgen Warrior on my trial account and proceeded to play.  Immediately the buzz of the nostalgia started to wane.  I had honestly forgotten just how spammy playing a low level warrior was, and by example EVERY World of Warcraft melee character.  The unpredictable nature of rage and to a lesser extent energy left me with a decision.  I either spent the entire time fighting watching my bars to optimize cooldowns… or I could just spam whatever basic attack I wanted to ALWAYS go off.  Being a relatively impatient player… I always chose the spam route.

After a few minutes of spamming Heroic Strike… I remembered just how much my fingers used to ache after a dungeon run, always banging on the key I wanted to fire next because I could not be bothered to actually watch my bars.  Basically my master plan of fighting the wave of nostalgia worked, all too well.  I made it to about level 5 on my baby Worgen, to the point at which the forsaken show up… at which point I was supremely bored and logged out of the game.  Having a taste of the gameplay reminded me that it really was not as fun as my mind had built it up to be.

Project Phoenix

projectphoenix

Sometimes a game is much more enjoyable to remember fondly, than to actually play it.  Right now there is a kickstarter going on called Project Phoenix.  The goal of it is to essentially recreate the magic that was City of Heroes/City of Villains.  I had so much fun playing these games, and regularly descend into bouts of nostalgia swapping with another friend of mine on mumble.  The problem is… I think CoH is another game that is much more enjoyable to talk about fondly than to actually play it.  I remember so much about the game, but every time I tried playing it again during its later free to play years the whole experience just felt lacking.

I wish this project the best of luck, but super hero games for me seem like they were a phase of a bygone era.  I have tried Champions Online and DC Universe Online and in both cases… I was carried into them on the nostalgia of City of Heroes but found both gaming experiences somehow unable to live up to my memories and as a result my expectations.  I think World of Warcraft and City of Heroes are both games for me like the original Everquest… extremely enjoyable to sit around and talk about the “good old days” but not really fun for me to play any longer.

Thing is… I think that is perfectly okay.  I think nostalgia works that way, it makes us romanticize things that would now be trivial.  For example I can remember being amazed at just how huge the sandbox that my father made for me was, and how I spent hours playing in it with my Tonka trucks.  However were I to evaluate it from adult eyes, I would likely find it tiny and boring… and be ready to stop in a few minutes.  Often times things we remember so fondly end up tarnished if we go back and re-experience them.  This has been the case for Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft and a long list of other games that I have moved on past… but tried to rekindle that flame.