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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

The Faction Trap

Posted by Ortwig Saturday October 12 2013 at 4:28PM
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One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation.  In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance.  Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth.  This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story.  Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.

If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope­.  The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between.  It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting.  It’s good to know who the enemy is.

In Game of Thrones, a character cannot really change their House – they are born into it and really can’t defect.  That said, within those houses, there are many personalities, loyalties and betrayals, and there’s no saying that a Lannister who felt his house was in the wrong, might not help out the Starks if the end goal were to steer his own house in the “right” direction, however subjective it might be to that particular character.  Tyrion loves his family, but is willing to do things they assuredly would not agree on in order to see things along a path he feels is the better course.  And in some cases, is willing to outright defy the house if his own life and happiness is threatened.

Of course, one of the main reasons for these hard faction divisions in an MMO is player-vs-player gameplay.  You need those teams to be able to run a battleground, or to designate safe cities for a faction.  If you are playing open world PvP, even faction might not matter – a rich faction member might be a target from a poorer player, no matter what group they are aligned with—but many games use these team designations to build their maps, and having a fixed number (usually 2 or 3) factions limits the strategic points on those maps, and allows for balance.

What if game factions were more a bit more Game of Thrones-like, possessed a few more options than the usual Chinese walls?   Here’s a few possibilities:

Optional Factions

In this model, factions are completely optional and players can remain neutral (factionless) or join a faction at any time.  Here, factions are bit more like guilds or nationalities.  You may be born into a particular nation, but are free to move around and change citizenship should you feel strongly enough to do so.  There may be limits depending on your reputation with a particular faction and you may need to prove yourself in some way in order to join or switch factions.  Changing factions is not easy, but it is not impossible either.  You may have to do undo some things you have done, or go through some kind of ritual, series of quests, or tasks otherwise designed to prove your loyalty.  Faction-hopping might be penalized in some way, but it would not be impossible as long as you proved yourself.  In this style, a player might start out in a faction (they are born in a particular country), but at a certain point they have the option to leave their faction (become neutral or an outlaw), switch factions or perhaps even become a member of multiple factions (dual citizenship), as long as they are not in conflict.

Permeable Factions

What if, for the most part you remained as part of your faction, but there was no specific prohibition against spending time in other faction’s territories or with members of other factions?  You and a member of another faction could group together if you wished, do dungeons.  For purposes of PvP teams, perhaps you could become a neutral mercenary and play for the team paying the best rewards.  You might be penalized in some areas if you had gone against the faction’s agenda in some way.  Maybe there are warrants out, assassins tracking you, or maybe it’s simply being shunned in some businesses, or refusal at the gates of certain territories or cities.  What you have done, and who you are aligned with matters, but the faction choice is yours.   The Secret World follows this style to some extent, but doesn’t allow players to switch factions.

Coalitions Instead of Factions

Here, there are no true hard-edged factions.  Instead there is a system whereby individuals or guilds can create or break alliances, or coalitions.  In the way France, England, the United States and Russia formed the Alliance of World War II, a number of guilds may opt to form alliances.  These coalitions can be temporary and fodder for betrayal and power plays if players aren’t careful, but offer a much more dynamic and ever-changing political landscape.  There may need to be some parameters around these allegiances in order to prevent one coalition from dominating, but it may simply come by way of incentivizing (economically or politically) independent action over coalition action, or disincentives from becoming too big.   In this kind of universe, building strict battlegrounds may be more difficult, since teams could become lopsided, so this is perhaps best in a full sandbox, where factions pick their own time and place to settle conflicts (EVE Online is probably an example of this style of play).

Guilds Only

Even more fragmented might be a world where guilds rule all, and national boundaries matter less than ideologies.  Trade guilds, or religious blocs might form organically, and player might be members of multiple guilds and religions.  Instead of a monolithic faction, each player picks from any number of options and as many as he or she wants.  In this case, we’re almost dealing at an individual level, but the most popular guilds and organizations grow more powerful as they are able to recruit.  This might be especially interesting in a world where there are many pantheons on cults rising up and falling by the wayside.  In this case, it’s almost a situation where the developer creates as many interesting options as possible, and just sits back and lets it grow and take shape of its own accord.

The Race Question

Of course, Game of Thrones has only one race (human), but what about worlds where you have a variety of more diverse and “monstrous” races?  Do the factions simply become each individual race, or is the Warcraft faction example the best way to pair things?  Must it be “ugly” vs. “beautiful?”  How about a more diverse, Star Trek, style universe where racial looks matter less than behavior?  How about a beautiful, yet evil races that multiple races and factions must combat?  How about being a bit more careful about what we define as evil.  I could get very enthusiastic about a monstrous good character in the vein of Beauty and the Beast.

Well, no real system or programming suggestions here, and I realize allowing for this much flexibility makes it difficult on the developer.  But turning some of these fantasy tropes on end can only make for a more rich and diverse gaming experience.  But how to code it?  Is it even possible?  Would love more thoughts on the idea, but it seems that the less control needed over player-vs-player battle grounds, the easier it would be to allow more fluidity in factions.  Which leads to open world pvp vs controlled and designated fighting areas and servers.  Given past history with players abusing pvp, I can understand why it’s a concern, but there must be some middle ground, some place that allows for conflict, but minimizes abuse.  Is it about law enforcement?  A criminal justice system that punishes those who act beyond agreed-upon laws?  And how does that play out?   Maybe look at some ways of managing this in the next column!

MMORPG.com writes:
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