Category Archives: MMO Social Theory

Factions Have Outstayed Their Welcome

The hype around Battle for Azeroth has once again brought the seemingly endless conflict between World of Warcraft’s Alliance and Horde into the spotlight. Despite being a long-time WoW player, though, I find myself giving serious thought to passing on this expansion altogether for the simple reason that I have long felt the factional conflict is, in a word, stupid.

A Lightforged Draenei character in World of Warcraft

And that’s not just true of WoW. Factions in MMOs — or at least in PvE focused MMOs — have always been one of my pet peeves. They harm games far more than they’ve ever helped them.

Factions Add Little

First of all, it needs to be said that factions really don’t add much to the experience of playing MMOs. They’re unnecessary, at best.

The chief argument that seems to be put forth in favor of dividing players into factions is that it instills a sense of pride and faction identity, but I’ve never heard anyone clearly articulate why that’s actually a good thing. Mostly it just seems to feed toxicity between players (more on that in a minute).

The next biggest argument for factions is that they provide a basis for PvP, but in reality they’re completely unnecessary for PvP. It’s entirely possible to still have player competition without them. Guild Wars 2 offers multiple PvP modes, including massive world versus world, without any discrete factions at all. And that’s just one example that I could give.

If anything, factions harm PvP more than they help it. It’s very difficult for developers to balance the population numbers between factions, especially given people’s predilection to gravitate to whichever faction has more “pretty” races. Just look at Aion’s eternal struggles to balance the Elyos and Asmodae factions.

The only benefit from factions that I personally have ever seen is that they offer variety when it comes to storylines and leveling content. Leveling up as an Imperial character in Star Wars: The Old Republic tends to be a very different experience from doing those same levels as a republic character.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2, a game blessedly free of player factions

But even then, factions aren’t really necessary for that. Guild Wars 2 offers a healthy selection of distinct starter zones and personal stories based on its various races without any need to divide players between arbitrary factions.

They Go Nowhere

Another thing that grinds my gears about factions is that the conflict between them can never truly go anywhere. It’s a story with no drama. To keep the game balanced, neither side can ever win a major victory or suffer a major loss. Doing so means favoring one group of paying customers while disadvantaging another, and that’s such bad business it borders on economic suicide. No developer is ever going to do that, nor should they.

When Blizzard revealed that Battle for Azeroth would be an expansion focused on the Alliance-Horde war, they immediately revealed that it would be a filler expansion and killed my hype right out of the gate. We already know this story can’t go anywhere. Neither side is ever going to win or lose this war.

We see this already with the pre-patch. The Alliance losing Teldrassil or the Horde losing Undercity each individually could have been a powerful moment for this story, but this perfectly balanced eye for an eye scenario pulls the curtain back from how stale and artificial this conflict truly is.

This isn’t a unique problem to WoW, either. The fundamental nature of MMO design prevents faction conflicts from ever having a proper resolution. Even in games where players are able to fight other factions for territory directly, true victory or defeat is impossible. It doesn’t matter how often the Daggerfall Covenant loses in Cyrodiil; they’ll always keep coming back.

And They Drive Us Apart

For all the reasons listed above, I consider factions in most MMOs to be superfluous. But that’s not why I’m really against them. The worst thing about factions is that they divide the community.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic frequently unites the Dark and Light sides

Firstly, they divide us in a simple, literal sense. If I’m playing Alliance and my friend plays Horde, one of us has to transfer, or we can’t play together. If your game has two factions, you’ve effectively cut your playerbase in half. In a genre where more people to meet and group with is almost always better, that’s a powerfully asinine move.

You can mitigate this by allowing people to group across factions — as Elder Scrolls Online wisely has — but at that point one has to wonder why bother having factions in the first place.

Worse, it breeds toxicity in a genre that already has far too much of it. Developers seem to think factional rivalries lead to fun, neighborly competition, but the reality ends up looking more like a blood feud between competing mob families.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone make the earnest claim that Horde players are bullies or that Alliance players are crybabies (both stereotypes that have more truth to them than I care to admit), I could pay for my subscription for years to come.

It’s not just the occasional snide comment on forums, either. The bile between player factions can sometimes escalate to serious, ongoing harassment. Developers have been known to receive death threats when one faction or another is viewed to be unfairly favored.

MMOs should be about bringing people together, but all factions do is drive people apart.

* * *

There are some games for which factions make sense. PvP focused games like the upcoming Camelot Unchained simply wouldn’t work without player factions, and I have no problem with that.

But it’s time to acknowledge factions as what they are: A niche feature that doesn’t fit in most games. For a PvE themepark, factions offer little, and take away much.


Comparing MMORPG Group Content

MMOs are, at their heart, about playing with other people. Even as a mainly solo player, I acknowledge this. To this end, developers have come up with many forms of content designed specifically to be tackled by groups, but they’re not all created equal. Each form of group content has its pros and cons.

A group flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Dungeons

Dungeons are the archetypical RPG experience: a party of adventures venturing into forgotten ruins in search of wealth and glory. In MMORPGs, dungeons are usually for groups of about four to six players, which makes them a happy balance between being social but not too crowded.

Dungeons tend to represent a stepping stone between the easy outdoor content and the more challenging raids. This is both one of their chief virtues, and their downfall.

The problem with dungeons is that they are, almost invariably, viewed only as that stepping stone. They are rarely granted the privilege of being an endgame unto themselves, instead being treated as little more than a funnel into raids. This makes it hard to achieve satisfying progression as a dungeon fan. You end up living as a second class citizen to the “real” players, who raid.

Raids

For better or for worse, raids have long been held up as the pinnacle of MMO group content. They feature the largest group sizes, the highest difficulty, and the best rewards.

For those who enjoy them, raids are as good as it gets. The MMO community is full of stories of fond memories, lifelong friendships, and even marriages that grew out of raid groups.

The downside is that while the raiding community is incredibly vocal and passionate, it’s also incredibly small. Due to the high time and skill requirements of raiding, most players simply can’t be bothered. Hard numbers for such things are always difficult to come by, but from the evidence I’ve seen it seems that raiders usually make up about 1-5% of a MMORPG’s playerbase, at best.

Fighting the Sha of Pride raid boss in World of Warcraft

The problem arises from the fact that raids are also very resource intensive, and by their nature as the intended pinnacle of endgame, they tend to offer the most desirable rewards and the highest production values. Thus, huge amounts of development resources are being devoted to a tiny minority of players.

It’s not impossible for raiders and non-raiders to coexist, but it’s a difficult tightrope for a developer to walk. You need to reward the raiders for their hard work without kneecapping everyone else. Raids are inherently disruptive to the balance of a game.

Small Group Content

By “small group content,” I mean content that is designed for groups, but groups of a size less than the traditional dungeon group — two to three people.

The fact there’s no commonly accepted term for content scaled to this size — the way there is for dungeons and raids — should tell you how common it is. World of Warcraft experimented with scenarios in its Mists of Pandaria expansion, which were catered to three player groups, and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth will add a similar feature in the form of Island Expeditions. Secret World Legends also has a feature called scenarios that can done by duos, but beyond those I struggle to think of many examples of dedicated small group content in MMOs (feel free to mention others in the comments).

People who prefer to play in twos or threes are therefore usually relegated to playing quest content that was designed for soloists, forcing them to endure phasing issues or difficulty that wasn’t tuned for more than one person.

And I really don’t understand why. Again, not being a developer or researcher, I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally as a longtime MMO player, I’ve found that groups of two or three (often couples or close friend groups) are by far and away the most common form of social group in MMOs. The fact that most group content is built solely for larger groups baffles me.

PvP

The chaotic PvP combat of WildStar

PvP doesn’t immediately come to mind for me when discussing group content, but duels and the occasional gank notwithstanding, player versus player gameplay is almost always group-based.

The trouble with PvP from a social perspective is that it necessitates losers as well as winners. For this reason, it has a higher potential for toxicity (not that PvE doesn’t have its fair share, as well).

As a result, I think it’s better to enter PvP with a group of people you already know and trust, rather than trying to form connections mid-match. The exception may be for slower paced, larger scale PvP such as Guild Wars 2’s WvW or Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls Online. The persistent nature of those contests gives time for meaningful social connections to flourish.

Public Events

A world boss spawns, and the call goes out in general chat. In a matter of minutes, dozens or even hundreds of players descend upon the unsuspecting mob, full of fire, fury, and the lust for loot.

First introduced by the dearly departed Warhammer Online and made a major selling feature of both Rift and Guild Wars 2, public events are MMOs at their wildest and most chaotic. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on personal perspective, but for my money, I feel public events are the purest expression of what MMORPGs should be, organic and epic in equal measure.

That said, there are other perspectives. Many argue — with more than a little justification — that public events are naught by mindless zergs. Even as a huge fan of the concept, I struggle to defend them from this criticism.

Others say that the lack of organization makes it difficult if not impossible to form meaningful social connections. If it’s just a mindless swarm of people spamming abilities, where’s the opportunity for friendships to form?

It’s a worthy concern, but I must say that the one and only meaningful friendship I ever made via MMOs was with someone I met at a world boss fight in The Secret World…


F2P is Individualism; P2P is Collectivism

In a genre dominated as much by raiding as it is by grinding for that next level, these two revenue models invite two different styles of play. Plenty of discussion has transpired on which is best, with fair reasons on both sides. Genre fans have debated each model’s merits ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed is which revenue model fits which social theory best.

Until now. I’ll be arguing why free to play mirrors individualism and pay to play mirrors collectivism.

What a crazy topic you’re thinking. Social theory on my MMO Bro? This isn’t some Nick Yee gaming science website. Nope, but it’s fun to contemplate motivations and personalities on a deeper level than the game mechanics themselves. So let’s break down each argument separately.

individualism vs collectivism

F2P is Individualism

F2P players are more focused on themselves. They want the most optimal deal on the market. Good free to play MMO games offer fun growth opportunities for completely free players, small spenders, and whales without diminishing the fun of the other groups. However, their low barrier to entry invites very transitory individuals. Without a financial investment, friends will drop as frequently as a theme park roller coaster. Every social list is doomed to an inevitable field of grayed out, offline users. This is because once a free MMO loses it’s appeal to an individual, another substitute awaits.

Pay to win also appeals to the individual. A select few may extend beyond that but only just so. An example here would be ArcheAge, where it’s hard even with a deep wallet to drive the narrative by yourself. These create oligarchic scenarios with a few people at the top running the show. Whether paying to win creates a dictatorship or oligarchy of winning, the focus is still on the few. Luckily video games like these aren’t the real world (at least universally) so annoyed players are free to hop off the real world money death train and move on.

Whether it’s a fair free to play model or a pay to win model, the individualist social theory persists. F2P players find fun in games in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social, hate cooperating, or won’t help others. This simply means the focus is first and foremost on themselves. They don’t derive as much satisfaction from accomplishing tasks as a group, but instead seek personal benefits for such activities. Further exemplifying this mindset is the heavier focusing on grinding in a free to play game. Grinding is a low level mental task based on repetition with a reward of powering up individuals.

F2P players are more focused on their own growth, choose themselves first over communities, and make independent decisions.

P2P is Collectivism

Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? The more you invest in something, the less likely you are to abandon it. Are you more likely to abandon a game you’ve spent $200 in game purchases and subscriptions fees or one you’ve invested no money? This forms a core foundation for pay to play MMOs as a collectivist draw.

Pay to play games want to reward players at the highest level for participating in group activities. Whether it’s raiding in World of Warcraft, conquering Nullsec in Eve Online, or performing trials in Elder Scrolls Online these require near equal participation from a dozen to several dozen individuals. The cooperation and skill requirements in these games exceed the mindless encounters of say, a world boss in Black Desert Online. This forces a reliance on other players to accomplish high end goals. Thus pride in one’s guild or corporation develops as a result of such accomplishments.

When someone ponies up for a monthly subscription, they’re typically eschewing other potential time competitors. This gives the community more chances to interact with one another, and thus enhance a game’s gravitational pull. The bonds and friendships that such games create can be difficult to break. Further, players aren’t looking to break these bonds. The friendships and communities that arise from P2P games are the point. MMORPGs aren’t known for award winning mechanics, but their ability to bind people together is unparalleled.

P2P players are more focused on community growth, choose community first over themselves, and make decisions with consideration of and from others.

In Between

Like every rule, exceptions exist. Guilds formed of F2P players jump from game to game like individuals, but their guild focus aligns closely with collectivism. Many individual players get into a game like World of Warcraft for the story, the exploration, or the single player questing. They don’t care one lick about group progression and will pick up group if and only if it’s needed to advance. Life is rarely so simple to completely equate one thing with another. That said, the link looks pretty strong here.

Where do you fall on the free to play vs. pay to play preference? Do you see yourself more as individualist or a collectivist?