Vague Patch Notes: When MMOs pit their playerbase against itself

Faces and offs.

Today’s Vague Patch Notes is about something weird that I feel like someone should definitely done something about a long time before now. It’s a strange decision because in a litany of games that have offered similar splits it is somewhat unique, and yet it also seems to have long been encouraged and embraced despite that fact for so long that a lot of issues have persisted even now. It’s caused a problem that didn’t have to be a problem and did not even need to happen in the first place.

What am I talking about? The strange way that World of Warcraft has set up an oppositional relationship with its own players.

To be clear, I don’t mean this to be talking about the way in which the developers and the players seem to now regard one another as enemies; that is bad but it’s also not unique. No, I’m talking about the way that the players have long been pitted against one another for their allegiance in a wholly fictional conflict between two factions in the game, something you can see in every single BlizzCon introduction in which they ask players to identify as either Horde or Alliance and then drown out the other side.

Let’s not mince words: The faction split in WoW has long been a weird thing. It’s been super active for a lot longer than it should have been, and it persists mostly because the game was developed to make it very important no matter how little logical sense it has ever made.

I don’t want to get deep into WoW lore here (we have a different column for that), but in many ways what makes this factional split different is that there is no philosophical difference between the two sides in any meaningful fashion. This is not like, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic or RIFT where the two factions have a basic and fundamental difference in philosophy that cannot be resolved without major changes; it is also not like WildStar, where the two factions are defined strictly by their opposition to one another and have long faced only each other as threats.

But even none of that is as big a deal as the weird way in which WoW has long since handled these factions, which is to expect that you will find one faction or the other to be “yours” (based, again, on no actual philosophy) and consider the other part of the playerbase to being your vile enemies who must be destroyed at all costs.

This is kind of weird.

PvP games having factions players identify with is not in and of itself all that weird; after all, I would imagine that few longtime Dark Age of Camelot fans don’t have some attachment to their personal factions as opposed to the others. Primarily PvE games doing so is a little bit weirder. But these games did not, in my memory, expect players from different factions to hate one another as players in my experience. It just… seems like a kind of bad look and a bad approach to creating an actual unified playerbase, you know?

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Now, I freely admit that I am not and have never been a member of every MMO community out there as a whole. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many games I’m interested in playing. (Don’t blame me; blame the boundary conditions of the universe.) Nor am I trying to pretend that this is the only case of playerbase splitting out there, there have always been cases wherein two divergent groups of players have seen the other one as being somehow inimical.

What I’m singling out here is the developers encouraging this animosity, which has produced a very different environment than usual. In City of Heroes, it was understood that even if you mainly played hero side and someone else mainly played villain side (or blue side and red side, if you will), you were still both part of the same overall community. You were not actually fighting a war of good vs. evil in any sense. It was pretend, it was a game, it was not a real conflict.

As a result of this developer-encouraged split, though, you have people treating “Horde” and “Alliance” as if they’re actual personal flags, like belonging to the opposite faction in some way marks you as a different sort of person and presumably your faction is the good one. It even goes far enough to have people saying, without irony, that if you remove the faction divide the game is no longer going to have any war to continue being called “Warcraft.”

This is, of course, patently absurd. There is plenty of conflict there with or without an artificial player divide. But when you keep being told over and over for a long enough time that the other faction is composed of villainous players that you have to defeat, you’re going to internalize that as if it were somehow normal, as opposed to being a really destructive and frankly insane way of splitting what was once a very large playerbase roughly down the middle.

And quite frankly, I feel like it might have had impacts on our industry and on the overall development of MMOs beyond what we acknowledge.

I'm purely decorative!

Tribalism among MMO fans has been a thing basically since the days when there was more than one MMO on the market; heck, I’m willing to bet that there was tribalism between people playing Ultima Online and dedicated MUSH players decrying it as a graphical flash-in-the-pan lacking any real substance. (Even if I had wanted to play UO, I didn’t have internet at home when it launched; I was not the target audience.) But WoW tribalism seems even more pronounced, sharper, more targeted to everyone, and just as surely there’s a backlash to that, with some people long viewing being opposed to WoW as being the same thing as having a personality.

A studio promoting that tribalism – telling you to embrace an us vs. them mentality because you wanted to play an elf in 2004 and someone else wanted to play a cow – will have a ripple effect.
When you literally have a studio promoting that tribalism, telling you to embrace an us vs. them mentality because you wanted to play an elf in 2004 and someone else wanted to play a cow, that’s going to have a ripple effect. It’s going to make waves into the larger world. And it’s going to affect how you see the game and all future games. It’s going to normalize and promote the idea that you are on the right side and the other people are on the wrong side and you don’t need to regard them as people so much as obstacles.

You know, like regarding the other people who are in your random dungeon run less like other actual players and more like impediments to getting the loot you want because they’re so freaking stupid and why engage with them on a personal level? They’re just problems.

No, I don’t have an elaborate multi-year study to confirm all of this or the ability to indisputably point to this as an absolute starter point, nor am I trying to claim that every flaw in our industry is the result of clueless WoW developers leading the crowds in Horde vs. Alliance chants during overblown convention-size tributes to themselves. But it all does feel like an oddly compelling case of convergent evolution, and it definitely feels like there are impacts from telling a group of players to treat faction divides in a pretend game with pretend stakes as a very real thing to calcify your views around.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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