In light of the current ‘political season’, so to speak, I would like to take a look at one area of gameplay in MMOs that truly does have a strong impact on player communities: Player factions. Now, when I speak of something like factions, I do not specifically refer to guilds. Rather, factions are groups of players within a game that are, generally speaking, opposed to each other, and/or have some sort of conflict or even more political relations with each other. They are also often encouraged by gameplay.

Many games see aspects of factions such as these within them. Dark Age of Camlot, World of WarCraft, EverQuest 2, Final Fantasy XI, PlanetSide, and even games such as EVE Online and ShadowBane have various types of factions that players can join and/or create.

Factions can be a tricky thing in a game. They split up your community and often place them in opposition with each other. This can potentially cause huge rifts in your communities – indeed many games with player factions find a certain amount of unease between players on different sides. However, there is also some great potential benefit to them as well.

Pre-Defined Factions

One of the main types of player factions that you see in games are those that are implemented directly by the developers. These are the realms of Dark Age, the two cities of EverQuest 2, The Horde and Alliance of World of WarCraft, the kingdoms of Final Fantasy XI, and the armies of PlanetSide. These are (usually) groups that players choose when creating their character. They are also groups that players will generally stick to during the entire time they play that character, unless they choose to reroll on a new server.

Factions such are interesting. While they are often used in direct PvP-centric games, such as Dark Age, this is not always the case. Final Fantasy XI and the PvE (and majority) of EverQuest 2 servers can attest to that – although factions in both games are less pronounced than in others. Regardless, you will be hard pressed to find a game with factions like these that are not at odds with each other in some form.

This, of course, means that you are splitting your player-base up into smaller groups and effectively dividing your community. Now, this may seem like a bad thing. You are dividing your community and you’re generally doing it with some sort of a conflict between them. Anyone who has played a game like this will undoubtedly know that the message boards usually have at least a few posts of players declaring their dislike for the opposing factions.

Yet, is this divide necessarily a bad thing? Well, to really find out we need to do a brief sociological study on humanity – oh yes, we’re thinking deep this week.

Smaller Communities
Humans tend to prefer existing within smaller communities. How do I support such a claim? To begin with, that doesn’t mean that people do not enjoy living in cities – in fact, I currently live in a city of some three million people. I have also spent a fair share of my life in a city of eight thousand people. Personally, I would not say I prefer one to the other. I will admit that there is a much larger number of people in this city that I do not know. However, community does not necessarily mean the town or city in which you live. Rather, community refers to the people that you interact with, the people you consider friends, and the people who share similar interests as you.

That is a rather different definition of community than how the word is usually used. It is even different than how it is often used in MMOs – which refers to all of the people who play that particular MMO. However, online games, and indeed online environments as a whole, are inherently different than real world communities in some ways – and even real world communities are becoming closer to the virtual ones. The player-base of an MMO inherently has a few commonalities beyond their existence within a shared-space. It means that they all enjoy playing games, that they all enjoy that particular game, and that they all enjoy that particular gameplay style – even if they may complain about it, they are still around. This shared interest allows people to feel more comfortable amongst each other and increases the chance for bonds to be formed – as opposed to getting on a subway and shying away from talking to anyone you aren’t good friends with. In an MMO, however, you might find yourself in a group with people you do not know, merely because you have a commonality: you have some goal you wish to accomplish

Even when looking into the real world, we can see small communities that form within larger ones. The regulars of a bar, the cliques in schools, and of course, the personal networks that people have. What I mean is, someone may well be standing in the middle of a group of people that they are unfamiliar with, talking on the phone with someone that they do know. For all intents and purposes, those other people around him have not entered into his personal network, and thus they have not entered into his community. This really is similar to what you see in social networking sites: there are a lot of Facebook and MySspace users, but your own community on those sites are much smaller. Well, this isn’t the greatest example, as there are people who will often accept someone as a ‘friend’ without ever sharing any communication, of course. Still.

What does this have to do with dividing up the community in an MMO though? If people like to live in smaller communities, then the game is effectively providing them that. When players are divided into factions, they have a narrower group of people that they are playing on the same side with. While this may sound negative, it also provides more of that ‘small town’ and ‘tight knit’ feeling that can strengthen that community. You are also more likely to have commonalities with the other people who picked the same faction that you did.

So, why not just make server populations smaller? Well, why doesn’t everyone just live in the country side? Of course, that isn’t practical for everyone, but there is something to be said for being involved in something that a huge number of people are a part of. While your in-game faction may only consist of a third of the game’s population, you are still involved in something that even greater numbers of people are a part of. You may not bond with your enemies (or bond as well with them), but you do interact with them and take something out of that experience.

The Rivalry

Speaking of being involved in something larger, that points out another reason why player factions can increase the strength of a community – perhaps far greater than just the smaller community does. This is the feeling of working together with your faction.

Much like sports rivalries, school rivalries, and even rivalries between companies can help bond those on the same side, so to do rivalries within a game. It is not just the simple fact that a rivalry is present and that you must defeat your enemies, rather it is the fact that you are now part of something larger. You are on a side, with numerous other people, who are working toward a goal. That goal may well be to win a PvP battle against another faction, or it could be another goal entirely. Getting your player-base focused on working together to achieve something builds a great deal of pride within them, bonding them closer and strengthening the community greatly as a whole.

Of course, having a goal to work toward in a collaborative manner does not necessarily imply factions of players. After all, the player-base could be fighting against a single NPC force, or some other set up. That is true. Players could be fighting as one whole against a single NPC enemy… but who is their rival? Yes, in a way, the NPCs are, but at the same time, killing (or whatever) the NPCs is what must be done to achieve the goal. While that alone can do a lot to strengthen a community, pushing it further and giving the players another group of players to work against can do a lot to build up greater excitement, greater involvement, and tighter bonds.

This can be done with direct PvP, but this can also be done with a PvE model as well, such as Final Fantasy XI’s system. One way or another, however, player factions can do a lot to help a community grow strong, as strange as that may seem.

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