A fellow writer’s critique of in-game faction systems in MMORPGs brought these thoughts into my head. In his piece, he states that in-game factions, by which players divide themselves, being led by NPCs, unelected, and with pre-scripted function, are inherently disappointing. As are having battles already scheduled to be won by a particular side with no impact from the player. Calling for factions to be led by players through some form of political system decided upon for players, by players is a good idea, and has been put into practice a couple of times. EVE is probably the most prominent example of a sandbox with political structures put into place by the players (and one of multiple polarizing aspects of the design). The unfortunately canceled World of Darkness had potential to spare in this regard, given the deep roleplay origins and the inclusion of politics as a significant game feature. Yet there are ways for player-driven politics to rise within the boundaries of a game’s story too.
The Matrix Online featured three factions inspired directly by the characters in the film series - Zion, The Machines, and Exiles, which were all open to any player character under the result of an uneasy truce organized by Neo. The potential for roleplay was high, and indeed, you players roleplayed as Machines or as Exiles, as well as human operatives. Eventually, through circumstances, plots, and dissatisfaction with leadership and policy, several spinoff factions arose. E Pluribus Neo was a splinter Zionite group who sought to uphold the ideas of Neo and Morpheus, who was murdered in the game’s storyline. EPN was divided into two subgroups, one radical (terrorists) and one more moderate and peaceful. Another group, the Cypherites, allied with the Machines, preferred the dream life state of The Matrix over reality, like the original film’s character Cypher.
The Cypherites were also similarly split into sub-factions. The Cypherites and EPN were not simple mirrored in one another either. All of these, the game’s original three factions and the split factions were all part of the game’s preconceived narrative, there was enough on offer to really give players options how they wanted to play their characters. Once the events introducing these factions were over, however, it was players that continued their existence, including as part of the game’s volunteer live events group later.
My guild voted itself into supporting EPN, and we even had yellow EPN tags apart from our guild tags. Although I recall voting against changing alignment, EPN won out, so off it was into a bit of rebellious new territory. My guild wanted to shake things up a little bit and it fit with our roleplay at the time, though some of the dissenters spun off too. This bit of nostalgia serves a purpose. To function successfully and in an organized way, some sort of structure needs to exist. Whether that structure is established and maintained with consistency by players or begins through narrative decisions and is later sustained by a game’s players, developers, or both, it has to exist first.
To bring this into current games, I’ve read some complaints around the internet about ArcheAge since the game launched. Some claim that it’s advertised as a sandbox but feels too much like a themepark. Some would categorize it as more of a sandpark, especially early. Players note that the game does feel much more directed in the earlier levels, but these serve as a virtual tutorial that happens to last much longer than average. They’re all right, in that the game is a sandbox, yet it is guided by some story, including questing. Yet ArcheAge is a sandbox that very much lets players direct their experiences within the game. You can do pretty much anything you want within the game as long as you have the labor points to do so (or if it’s something bad, you can always pay off your debt to society if convicted in court under the player-run judicial system). It wouldn't be fair to call the game a sandpark just because there are a few restrictions and some guidance, as well as some quest content to get players going and as an alternative later if they do seek structure.
Players have the room to grow and build their own factions, political or otherwise, and they have been doing so. It's a real shame we won't be seeing World of Darkness though. With the IP's rules and the promise of player-driven politics, economy, and other systems in society, there is a hole that I don't think any other announced game will be similar enough to fill. Yet structure provided by the developers shouldn’t be considered a dirty word. Sometimes structure is really another word for springboard. This was the case back in MxO, and it's also the case in ArcheAge.
Sandbox players have several releases out now or to look forward to, which is great for player choice. Yet even story and quest-driven themeparks don't have to stifle player imagination or roleplay. The world might exist in a way that players don't impact it as much as some might like, but there is enough room there, as well as features, and spaces, that allow players some freedom within the walls.