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There’s an excellent article in Issue 213 of The Escapist about the trials and tribulations of Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online. Though by no means out of the game, WAR has been struggling since the get-go, and many have to wonder how a game with such potential could have simply missed the mark. There are countless things that people can point at as responsible for WAR‘s lack of success, but one thing stands out to me: There are only two player factions.

Now, wait a moment. I know what you’re going to say: “But World of Warcraft has only two factions, and it has eleven million subscribers!” Yes, it certainly does, and the factions serve a similar purpose in WoW as they do in WAR. When a player chooses a faction, it helps them establish an identity in the game right off the bat: I am a proud (Race), a member of (Faction A), staunchly opposed to the damnable (Faction B). Right away, you know who you are, who your allies are, and who the game wants you to hate.

This goes beyond the game, too. Watch two strangers find out that they’re both WoW players, and I can all but guarantee you that the very next words out of their mouth are some variation on the question, “Horde or Alliance?” If they’re part of your faction, then great! You have a common ground and can reminisce about raiding Southshore in the good ol’ days in an instant bond. But if they dare say that they’re one of the enemy? Well then, you’re clearly at odds: How could they ever know the pain of crossing the killing field that was the bridge into the Alliance base in Alterac Valley? It isn’t that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, it’s that they’ve always been playing on Easy Mode!

This isn’t a bad thing, this is a great thing. By getting players invested in the story of their faction and hating the enemy for the simple reason that they are the enemy, you’ve immediately drawn them into your game in a way they might not have been otherwise. So what was wrong with Warhammer’s factions?

There were only two of them, and there just wasn’t enough to do with them.

Unlike in WoW, the idea of (mostly) open-world PVP combat was central to WAR, and was one of the game’s biggest selling points. Excited fans dreamed about laying siege to the enemy’s bases, assaulting their forts and capturing them for the home team. The rivalry between the factions would play out on the battlefields and territories of the world of Warhammer. Sounds great on paper, right?

It’s surprising that no one saw it coming – almost every piece of promotional art made Destruction look absolutely freakin’ badass, while Order looked bland and run-of-the-mill. Why be a bald human in a plate dress with a mallet when you could be a lethally sexy Dark Elf or a rampaging Orc? So the game came out, and surprise of surprises, Destruction outnumbered Order on the majority of servers. For Order players, it was frustrating to always be the underdogs, and for Destruction, where was the fun in steamrolling the enemy based on strength of numbers almost every time?

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In a game that wants you to be invested over your territory and unhappy when the hated enemy occupies it, having a pair of factions is inherently constraining. With only two factions, any given keep has only two states at any one time: It is either in your hands and you are defending it, or in the control of the enemy and you are on the assault. The game may do a good job at saying, “Right, here are your ancestral foes, you hate their freakin’ guts,” but none of it ever changes. If I play Order, I will hate Destruction at level 10, I will hate Destruction at level 40, and I will hate Destruction until they pull the plugs on the servers for good.

Now, for a moment, imagine that the game had shipped with three factions: Order, Destruction, and, uh… I don’t know, the forces of Lolcats. Right away, the entire dynamic changes. If Destruction outnumbers both Order and Lolcats, neither of the underdogs can win on their own – but what if they team up? A temporary truce with the enemy of your enemy might be just what it takes to win, but how long does it last? If one faction controls a fort, and another faction assaults it, the third faction becomes a potential game-breaker. Do they help attack in hopes of stealing the victory, do they try and help defend, or do they attack both sides in the name of causing havoc?

The Lolcats might hate the blazes out of Order today, but what happens when the balance shifts? Down the road, maybe Destruction might be the bigger threat, and then we will be at war with Destruction, as we have always been at war with Destruction. There’s still the benefit of allying yourself with a faction – you still get the initial sense of identity, and you’d probably be just as likely to ask a fellow gamer, “So, which side are you on,” but a three-or-more-faction system is almost inherently self-correcting.

In WoW, the PvP wasn’t ever their main selling point. There’s certainly a large PvP element, but it was never promoted as the core of the game as it was in Warhammer. Maybe the Horde outnumbers the Alliance on my server, but hey, the imbalance doesn’t bother me because there’s tons of PvE content that I can occupy myself with.

With Warhammer, though, it was advertised from day one as a PvP game. The game was supposed to build up from Level 1 as a road to assaulting and sacking your enemy’s home city. That was supposed to be the game’s Crowning Moment of Awesome, and if you weren’t a big fan of PvP, then it wasn’t the game for you in the first place. But what if the PvP itself doesn’t work? What then?

It’s perhaps even more confusing by the idea that Mythic had done this exact three-faction setup in Dark Age of Camelot. They should have known better – but two factions are easy to conceive. They’re easy to implement. They’re easy to balance in instanced PvP arenas like WoW‘s Battlegrounds or even WAR‘s own Scenarios.

But for a game that bets its success on the opposing forces hating each other forever, it just makes things boring in the long run.

John Funk hates those dirty Horde … most of the time.

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