WoW Factor: Was the faction split ever good for World of Warcraft?

    
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Local Panda Recalls When She Was Special.

Before I had played World of Warcraft and back in the time when I allowed myself to speculate more freely on what games would be like rather than just actually researching them, I had an image of the interesting situation the game would likely put me and one of my friends in. I knew he was likely going to play a Tauren, and so I liked the mental image of his character and my own Alliance-side human from Theramore teaming up despite the somewhat suspicious stares of both of our larger factions.

This, of course, was speculation that was wildly unfounded. Not only would I be unable to team up with his hypothetical Tauren, I would be unable to have any interactions with him that didn’t involve violence between us. And I’d be lying if I said that initial idea based on nothing more than my own speculation hadn’t influenced my way of looking at the game’s faction split over the years, but it’s still an area wherein I don’t think my feelings have changed all that much because the way WoW has historically handled factions doesn’t even match the source material.

If there was ever really a time when you could expect that most of the audience for WoW had played Warcraft III, that time has passed now, but it was at least the default assumption when the game launched. A lot of things were in the game that made more sense (or any sense) if you had experience with the franchise. But the faction system was not one of those because… well, by the end of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, there was kind of only one faction still standing, and it was the Horde.

The Alliance had lost its center in Lordaeron, and the people that were left had undergone a hard split from their longtime allies in Silvermoon; it was even implied that Jaina was leading Theramore down a much more independent path. By virtue of its independent storyline, the Horde was the last faction that seemed to really be a whole thing, and it was definitely a thing where the Night Elves had largely settled their beef with the outsiders altogether.

It’s not exactly a surprise, either. Since as far back as the original StarCraft, Blizzard has loved telling stories wherein multiple factions have to team up in order to take down a bigger bad. Sure, it doesn’t mean that this is necessarily a state of peace for everyone forever, but the point of the storytelling pretty consistently tells the story wherein sectarian grudges are bad and coming together is good. For all the bad-faith whining about how it’s supposed to be about war because Warcraft, this has been a constant thing where everyone feels like a total dingus for fighting over little stuff when there’s Evil Army X about to kill everybody.

You could maybe have sold the faction split if actual WoW had broken from this storytelling tradition, but instead it kept on the exact same path.

HASHTAG A WIDE VARIETY OF CHANGES

The base game did not have the same kind of clear plot throughline that later expansions did, but there is a progression of threats from elemental lords to dragons to evil bug empires and so forth. The game’s storytelling clearly tries to split the difference between the faction divide by acting like it’s basically the house competition from Harry Potter, like eventually Khadgar’s going to show up and award the most points to the Alliance for helping to stop Ahn’Qiraj or whatever.

But past that point, it’s very consistently a reminder that holding on to old grudges is bad and working together is good. Velen shows up to gently admonish the Blood Knights after restoring the Sunwell, everyone hugs and laughs, gosh it was so silly for us to act like we were enemies. Wrath of the Lich King gave us a Varian who hated the Horde in no small part because otherwise there was no one in Alliance leadership who actually hated the Horde, and even that was mostly contrived.

In other words, every single major storyline in this game was Dire Straits singing “Brothers in Arms” at its most war-focused.

This is all compounded by the fact that even from vanilla onward, the developers and writers have never given a compelling reason why the Horde and the Alliance are even at odds. Most of the conflicts generated have always required ignoring other bits of information. “Remember how the orcs learned that they shouldn’t go logging in night elven forests and that was disrespectful? Well, they kept doing it anyway, which actually kind of undercuts any argument that the Horde and Alliance are both decent groups when you put it out there like that.”

As a result, despite the faction split being held up as a pillar of the game in terms of both gameplay and story, it’s always felt like a weird holdover from history, with races wedged into factions when they don’t make much sense there. And when you look at it purely from a gameplay standpoint, it’s pitting your own playerbase against itself in a way that is at best non-productive and at worst horribly creepy. Yes, nobody should take the whole faux conflict too seriously, but the developers play it up, and that is in and of itself an issue.

But the real question is what does the faction split add? What is improved by the idea that the Horde and Alliance cannot interact meaningfully except as opponents? It doesn’t make the conflict feel more vital; it flattens interactions with the other faction by making them easier to view as just NPCs you can’t communicate with, definitely not friends you’ve spent time with.

I’ve never been able to come up with a compelling answer.

This could be us but you playin'

Oh, sure, there are different aesthetics across the factions, but they don’t really matter a lot of the time. Horde-specific armor is more often based on Orc aesthetics, and Alliance-specific armor is more often based on Human aesthetics, but that doesn’t give me any emotional context. If anything, both factions seem to define themselves as not being the other faction, rather than having any coherent ideology or reason for fighting.

The faction split gives slightly different NPCs to talk to and slightly different questlines, but not much in terms of meaningful differences between the two factions. Sure, as a Horde player I’m killing these boars for tusks to use in a Troll ritual, but as an Alliance player I just need to kill 15 boars because they’re encroaching on the land, but at the end of the day I’m still killing boars. And these days it’s rare for you to even have that much of a difference between the two factions. More often you started your quest in Stormwind or Orgrimmar and then you wound up in a neutral village that wants some dead boars.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious, a way in which having the hard faction split made the game better. But I think back to my days in Final Fantasy XI (my first MMO) when I would party with people from the other two cities, objectively worse than my own, and we would have genial rivalries and be friends and visit one another. Players still identified with their choice of cities regardless of the fact that it didn’t actually lock you out from interacting with people who chose differently.

But when I look at it now, the erosion of faction lines isn’t just overdue; it’s correcting something that has never added to the game, only subtracted.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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