The Long War: Factional dynamics and cooperation in World of Warcraft

Factions. Allegiances. Sides.

Regardless of what synonym one chooses to use, it still refers to the same concept that has come to define core aspects of the MMO experience. World of Warcraft’s faction dynamic is arguably one of the most iconic, as it relies on storylines and concepts that already had a strong root and standing among much of the Warcraft franchise fanbase.
In some ways, it was too good of an opportunity for Blizzard to not utilise the Alliance vs. Horde dynamic in WoW as it had in previous Warcraft games. Therein, unfortunately, also lies the problem: Factionalism, as both a concept and a practice, has gotten old.

A foray into nostalgia

Let’s take a journey back to the origins of factionalism.
In the original Warcraft game, I would argue that “Alliance vs. Horde” was near-synonymous with “Good vs. Evil”. The Orcish Horde represented a brutal invading force that was responsible for pillaging, genocide and the upset of an otherwise “peaceful” kingdom. Indeed, in Warcraft I “Alliance vs. Horde” simply meant “Humans vs. Orcs”.

Warcraft II and its expansion attempted to present more nuance on both sides by introducing additional races for both the Alliance and Horde, as well as more complex storylines. On the whole, I would argue that the “Good vs. Evil” concept wasn’t toned down fully: The spectre of the Horde’s demonic heritage and the Alliance’s image as victims defending their, still remained to a large extent.

Enter: Warcraft III. From a storyline perspective, I consider the last Warcraft RTS and its expansion to have been tremendous successes, in part, because they effectively shattered our old conceptions of the Alliance and Horde duality.
To begin with, the introduction of powerful new factions such as the Undead Scourge and the Night Elves presented alternatives to a dynamic that, while familiar, would have felt quite stale on its own. This was then followed by dramatic changes introduced to the original factions: Ogres and Goblins were no longer members of the Horde (not as a collective race, anyway), while the majority of the High Elves left the Alliance to become the more sinister Blood Elves.
Supplanting all this was an exploration of identity: Darker sides of the Alliance were revealed with Arthas’s betrayal, as well as Admiral Proudmoore’s zealous attacks on Durotar (the latter, in particular, served as an excellent throwback and rejection of the old dynamic). The Orcich Horde, meanwhile, gained new allies in the Tauren and also began to reconnect with their shamanistic roots. Indeed, if Arthas the Human’s was a story of downfall and betrayal, then Thrall the Orc’s story was one of triumph and new hope- both very important threads that served to flesh out our understanding of what the Horde and Alliance were now.

Sidenote: In this post, I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore the problematic aspects of presenting Orcs as “noble savages”, since that strays so far enough into real-life connections to postcolonial theory, that I am convinced it would detract from the more lighthearted nature of this blog and its various analyses. Just know that it’s very much something that I’m both aware of and contemplate often- not only in relation to Orcs/Warcraft, but to many games, Blizzard and non-Blizzard.

Setting the stage

I first began to pay attention to World of Warcraft’s development around 2004. My first reaction, upon reading plans for factions in the game was: “What? They’re bringing back the Alliance and Horde?!”
Bear with me for a moment: I had just finished playing both Warcraft III and The Frozen Throne. The very idea of the villainous Forsaken, whom I have just helped to gain their independence, joining the Horde was unthinkable. The idea that the proud, distrustful Night Elves who had banded with the other mortal races out of desperation to defend Mount Hyjal, were now members of the Alliance seemed equally silly. I also recall thinking “Wait… Wasn’t humanity largely wiped out after the Scourge and plague of undeath obliterated much of the Eastern Kingdoms?”
You can only imagine my horror a few years later, when I learned that the Blood Elves were… Becoming members of the Horde?!

Fast forward to ten years later, and it would be foolish to say that Blizzard’s venture was anything but successful. Despite my misgivings on the seeming improbability of various factional backgrounds being unable to put forward a convincing story of “unity”, we’ve seen a lot of effort put into exploring the intricacies behind each faction’s individual races and their interactions with one another.
I don’t deny that some of these interactions have been poorly expressed in game (like say when nearly half your “capital” cities remain distressingly empty!), but on the whole I’m impressed with how far Blizzard has managed to take what initially seemed to be rather improbable pairings, and make them work.

Unfortunately, it also puts into sharp perspective just how dated the factional concept really is. As a franchise, Warcraft has moved beyond “Orcs vs. Humans”. We have also moved beyond “Big ugly demons” as the ultimate Bad Guy, and we’ve also clearly gone beyond the need to continue relying on Orcs vs. Humans being the driving force for the many conflicts which we are all embroiled in. Consider, for example, that even the Siege of Orgrimmar (possibly one of the strongest throwbacks to “Orcs vs. Humans”) contains elements of Old Gods, Proto-Drakes, and plenty of bouncy Panda wisdom, all to spruce it up beyond the original idea.

Indeed, I would argue that some the most exciting times (and this is a strictly personal perspective) in the game were when we plumbed the depths of Ulduar in search of Titanic knowledge, fought against Ragnaros and his elemental minions or thwarted Nefarian’s plans to raise an unstoppable army of Chromatic minions! This doesn’t even begin to touch the epic feeling associated with actually meeting characters in game whom you controlled (and often, helped rise to power) in earlier Warcraft games, such as Illidan, Arthas, Kael’Thas, etc.

Looking to the future

To be clear, I am not arguing for the elimination of factions as a concept. They’ve become such an integral part of WoW, that it would be silly to do away with them entirely. I’m not even making arbitrary suggestions about including third or fourth factions, since that strays more into “Where I wish the story would go”, rather than what I hope for actual gameplay.

What I do want to see is the “Alliance vs. Horde” concept to be challenged. It’s easy enough to pit members of both factions against one another (both in PvP and in PvE), but what about cross-factional cooperation? The Alliance and Horde have already cooperated in concept to fight against threats such as the Lich King, and even in the Siege of Orgrimmar itself- why not manifest this in-game by giving players the ability to adventure with their Horde friends?
My characters may be of the Alliance persuasion, but do they have to necessarily see each and every member of the Horde as enemies? If the situation were desperate enough, why wouldn’t they willingly join forces with the Horde to achieve common goals?

Yes, my factional leader may have expressly forbidden me from doing so under pain of death- so what?! Since when do all subjects of any kingdom obey their ruler without question? Does the presence of neutral Auction Houses not already suggest that clandestine trade among the Alliance and Horde is already reality?
In addition, I don’t know about you but constantly being at war with the Horde is starting to get boring. We’ve already seen examples of in-game characters such as Jaina attempt to forge peaceful ties with the opposite factions, so the idea of players being able to cooperate cross-factionally is nowhere near as far-fetched as some might think.

The proverbial “fourth wall” that separated the Alliance and Horde (in-game, anyway), has been shattered by the inception of technologies such as RealID and BattleTag. If anything, seeing so many of my Horde friends on and being unable to group with them is a reminder of a limitation that feels increasingly archaic now.
Put simply: If I can battle my own faction in Arathi Basin, why can’t I team up with a Blood Elf and a Troll to put an end to the evil lurking inside the Temple of the Jade Serpent? Consider further that groups such as the Cenarion Circle, the Ashen Verdict and the Argent Crusade exemplify the ability and willingness of traditionally “Horde” and “Alliance” races to cooperate.

For the sake of emphasising a point, let me repeat that I am not calling or factions to be eliminated, or to stop mattering completely. It is doubtful that we’ll see Orcs walking the streets of Stormwind, just as it is doubtful that Genn Greymane will forgive the Forsaken for destroying Gilneas.
Doubtless some players will balk at the concept of being able to raid/dungeon or even quest with opposing factional players, to which I say: “There’s always PvP servers!”

Jokes aside though, I feel it’s high time for players to begin experiencing and even taking an active hand in attempting to begin breaking down barriers between factions in the game. There’s dozens of ways in which this could be implemented without ruining the factional concept: Limit what types of content can be experienced together, make it so only certain parts of the world allow for this type of interaction (i.e. not in front of your capital’s very gates!), and ensure that trade, while incentivised, still remains in the hands of a third party.
All things considered though, I can see the potential for much added gameplay and a furthering of the immersive experience of the game by allowing players the option to cooperate and play together more. Indeed, if I could make one specific request off the bat, it would be to allow for linguistic comprehension between factions to also be implemented in game.
It also helps that the conclusion of the Mists of Pandaria storyline sets the perfect stage for such cooperation to begin: Garrosh’s mad bid for power serves as a stark reminder of what factional supremacy can turn into, and his subsequent defeat (along with the cost of the war) would probably leave large numbers of both Horde and Alliance citizens rather disillusioned. What better time to try and explore the potential for change?

This has turned into an overly long post, but one that I felt wouldn’t have done well if split into multiple parts. While we’ve already seen initial plans for PvP zones and Horde/Alliance cities (ah, Dalaran and Shattrath, how I miss thee!) in Warlords of Draenor, there’s no telling how the story- and in-game tech- will pan out.
Here’s to hoping that factions in WoW continue to evolve and hopefully shake off outdated concepts of immersion.

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2 thoughts on “The Long War: Factional dynamics and cooperation in World of Warcraft

  1. Anshlun

    What a wonderful post Mag, and I couldn’t agree more. More and more Blizzard show in the storyline that Alliance and horde can cooperate, since the classic Cenarion Circle, up to the recent events in Siege of Orgrimmar.
    This whole argument bring up an old discussion, which I never understood, why not to revamp the reputation and faction system. One of my biggest complaints about WoW was always that I am a Night Elf, not a member of the Alliance, I am only under the Alliance banner because I was never given a choice. Maybe it was an issue in 2004, but nowadays Blizzard doesn’t lack the tech to make more complicated faction and reputation systems to the game.
    Why can’t “Horde” and “Alliance” be, instead of forcefully having given races, be like political parties, like they do with the pandaren?
    Or even have players associate with the faction group they like the most, let’s say the Kirin Tor or The Ashen Veredict, having different groups as allies and enemies depending on the allegiance?
    As you mentioned, the whole Alluance x Horde gets old, even more if you’re not much into PvP, and instead of just wanting to kill people, you’re actually trying to save the world against the impending doom of the expansion, but can’t team up with other races for some unknown reason.

  2. Anshlun

    What a wonderful post Mag, and I couldn’t agree more. More and more Blizzard show in the storyline that Alliance and horde can cooperate, since the classic Cenarion Circle, up to the recent events in Siege of Orgrimmar.
    This whole argument bring up an old discussion, which I never understood, why not to revamp the reputation and faction system. One of my biggest complaints about WoW was always that I am a Night Elf, not a member of the Alliance, I am only under the Alliance banner because I was never given a choice. Maybe it was an issue in 2004, but nowadays Blizzard doesn’t lack the tech to make more complicated faction and reputation systems to the game.
    Why can’t “Horde” and “Alliance” be, instead of forcefully having given races, be like political parties, like they do with the pandaren?
    Or even have players associate with the faction group they like the most, let’s say the Kirin Tor or The Ashen Veredict, having different groups as allies and enemies depending on the allegiance?
    As you mentioned, the whole Alluance x Horde gets old, even more if you’re not much into PvP, and instead of just wanting to kill people, you’re actually trying to save the world against the impending doom of the expansion, but can’t team up with other races for some unknown reason.

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