Norrath's Fictional Factions

EQ

I'm hardly an Everquest expert, but I'm in the process of writing an essay about law and governance in Norrath, and I was drawn into a side issue on which I wanted to elicit comments.  (So beware, I'll steal your thoughts if I like them). 

My primary focus in the essay will be on two issues that I feel more qualified to discuss: first, the general relation of game rules and game governance systems to "real" law, and second, the relation of coded (so-called "architectural") software constraints to legal regulation.  Still, in parsing out these issues in relation to Everquest, I feel obligated to  discuss Everquest as a text that actually represents a fiction of governance, and investigate, to some extent, how this fiction relates to the other "governance" issues I want to talk about.  So here's a (slightly edited) bit of my thinking:

The lack of coherent fictional government in Norrath was a conscious choice on the part of the game's designers.  As opposed, for instance, to the fictional world of Star Wars, where the Republic (and later the Empire) control the galaxy, or to the fictional world of Ultima Online's Britannica (Everquest's sister MMORPG), Norrath's fictional space is divided into continents (e.g. Faydwer, Odus, Antonica, Kunark, Velious), and "planes" (e.g. Fear, Sky, Growth, Mischief, Hate) that are subdivided among competing races, religions, and factions...

In the fiction of Norrath, both the player avatars and their NPC and mob electronic counterparts are constrained by political allegiances to various racial, religious, and factional groups that struggle for control of the cyberspaces of Norrath.  The players are drawn into these racial, religious, and factional conflicts simply by the nature of their avatar presence in Norrath: in order to traverse the text of Everquest, one must choose an avatar that must owe certain political allegiances.  All avatars in Norrath are aligned with a particular race, a particular religion, and a particular profession.  This creates a bewildering variety of potential political fractures, as conflicts exist within and between various allegiances.   For instance, at the time of the Kunark expansion (circa 2000), there were 17 different deities to whom players could swear their devotion (an 18th option was the lack of faith), as well as 13 different "racial" identities, and over 100 known organizational factions.

Given the diversity of religious and racial divisions, it is not surprising that the various cyberspaces of Norrath are hardly cohesive fictional polities, but instead are overlain with profound divisions, secret enclaves, and alliances between subgroups in order to further goals in larger struggles between "good" and "evil."  To take a few examples: on the continent of Odus, the Toxxulia Forest region is claimed by two divergent factions of the Erudite race (the good council and the evil Necromancers).  On the continent of Antonica, in the region of Freeport, a war rages between the Paladins and the Freeport Militia.  Players (Everquest subscribers) whose avatars are of the paladin "class" are killed on sight by the guards of the Freeport Militia.  Players who choose the Wood Elf race will begin the game in their racial "starting city", the tree-city of Kelethin on the continent of Faydwer.  However, new players should be advised that it is not in their best interest to kill any Frogloks (frog-like humanoid mobs) that they encounter, because doing this will cause them to "lose faction" (social standing) with the Froglok race.  This will create strategic problems in completing quests later in the game.  One could go on, but it is hardly necessary-the fictional and factional politics of Norrath are clearly envisioned by the game designers as a profoundly Byzantine affair.

So my first question is whether I'm right that the divisions in Norrath's fictional alliences run  a bit deeper than the fictions of governance in other MMOGs?  Based on my own experiences with WoW, CoH, DAoC, and a few others, that certainly seems to be the case, but my impression is that Shadowbane, Anarchy Online, and some of the other big MMOGs portray fairly factionalized systems of government.  Second, does this diversity peg EQ as a more "MUDish" MMOG?  In other words, is there a MUD-->MMOG trend here from complexity to simplicity in fictional goverments?  (Putting aside ATITD, which seems like a special case.)  From what I've read, the roleplay in some MUSHes entails particularly dense forms of political intrigue that don't translate effectively into the 300K subscriber hack & slash grinds that characterize the  more simplified mass MMOGs.  Third (and related), I don't have an EQII account yet.  Has the factional diversity of EQ been expanded, contracted, or more or less retained in the new iteration of the game?  I'm curious about this, because it would shed some light on the trending issue.

Of course, in the classic Terra Nova tradition, feel free to ignore these questions and start a more interesting discussion about Frogloks or something...

Related prior post: Reading Everquest


Comments on Norrath's Fictional Factions:

Flatfingers says:

It's "game" vs. "story" again.

The impression I have is that developers of mass-market MMOGs choose to believe that "players" want simplicity in all things. The feeling seems to be that if players ever have to spend one second asking themselves "What do I do next?" they'll become frustrated and quit. So any design allowing shades of gray is avoided.

But shades of gray is exactly what you get in a world with multiple axes of alliances (such as EQ). If you run into another player who's allied with you in five ways and opposed to you in three ways, how do you know how you're supposed to interact with that player?

For some players, that kind of ambiguity is interesting; it opens doors to storytelling. For other players, it's an unnecessary distraction from the action. Most developers seem to be designing games for the latter group.

Another justification I've heard made is that having player guilds allows players to generate their own "factions." So you can have political divisions -- you just have to create them yourself. (Or as a developer might put it, "We don't impose political allegiances on our players.")

Honestly, I'm not sure what I think about this. Is it really preferable to hard-coded and forced allegiances based on racial and religious factions?

Is it always better to give players freedom? or structure?

Or should that decision depend on what kind of players you expect/want to attract?

Or is it possible to have a design that does both well?

--Flatfingers

P.S. I wouldn't mention the Frogloks. I don't play EQII, but I hear that those who do are upset about the Froglok-unlocking quest....

Posted May 26, 2005 11:56:29 AM | link

Estariel says:

I always felt that the variety of factions in EQ1 was one of the best aspects of the game. It gave a consequence to indiscriminate slaughter. Kill a few frogs and any subsequent frogs will attack you. Kill the frogs enemies, and the frogs will help you with quests and equipment. Your choices mattered, and had a lasting effect on you in the game. In some cases (a few Luclin zones), the monster populations even adjusted to accurately reflect which species were killed more.

The trend is away from this. High level guilds tend to ignore the factions, and kill (almost) everything, regardless of the faction consequences. Later expansions of EQ1 contained less and less meaningful choices between factions. Everyone faced the same enemies.

Even killing your own deity stopped having any negative consequences. When early (Kunark era?) raiders killed the goddess Tunare, any of her followers who took part, found themselves exiled from their home city, and unable to ever do their religious quests. By the time of the later Planes of Power expansion, the paladins of Mithaniel Marr could kill him repeatedly, and yet still be welcomed home to his temple in Freeport like lost sons.

EQ2 goes even further away from factional choices. I have only found one faction with any even minor consequence to its loss (Thundering Steppes centaurs). There are no religion based factions. The racial allegiances are collapsed into 2 alternatives: good or evil. Even this dichotomy is less significant. The chosen alignment places few restrictions on you: some minor differences of available professions, difficulty in visiting certain parts of the enemy city, some minor quests are unavailable. Beyond the lowest levels, every significant game opportunity and storyline is equally available to both alignments.

Early rumors of being able to attack or otherwise hinder the enemy city have not been borne out in the implemented content.

I see this as a loss. My ingame actions are less meaningful, as they have no consequences for me in terms of which political and species groups like or hate me.

Dumbed down maybe? In an effort to attract people with a shorter attention span, it looks like some key differentiators got lost.

Posted May 26, 2005 12:51:03 PM | link

greglas says:

Thanks for the validation about the trending, Estariel. And I just found something today about that confirms the hunch about the original thoughts behind the faction system. Seems Roger Uzun and Bill Trost were intentionally trying to get beyond simplistic politics and good/evil mechanics. Uzun had been playing Daggerfall. This is in Robert Marks, Everquest Companion 40 (2003).

Posted May 26, 2005 2:43:44 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Greg Lastowka wrote:

In other words, is there a MUD-->MMOG trend here from complexity to simplicity in fictional goverments?

Yes.
--matt

Posted May 26, 2005 2:47:55 PM | link

Flatfingers says:

Estariel references another useful point: if player factions have real effects on what players are permitted to do, that limits the amount of content they can access.

Content today is considered hugely valuable. For one thing, the ratio of developers-to-players is usually so low that every bit of developer-created content has to go as far as possible. And for another, players howl if their access to any Cool Thing is limited in any way. So restricting a player's access to content seems to be the big no-no these days.

But then what's the point of allegiances?

--Flatfingers

Posted May 26, 2005 2:49:38 PM | link

Bart Simon says:

I agree with Flatfingers... game vs story -- Greg, can you explain why we should care about the fictional governance structure of Norrath when its not clear that players find this structure meaningful? At least in Star Wars the model of governance hits home because George Bush uses it to devise policy but Norrath???

Far more interesting is guild level and server level politics which of course doesn't cut across the fictional model much... although I have seen all dwarven guilds, and such.

I have to say I am liking the WOW fictional system better perhaps because of its relative simplicity. I am doing this quest chain now that has me going back and forth between westfall, stormwind and the redrdige mountains with some story about troop support and spies and such but I lost track of the narrative pretty quickly. I was more impressed, indeed taken a back by my first pvp encounter.

Some undead rogue was wrecking havoc in westfall and see players run from far and wide to massacre the fellow was quite a sight. Now I know there's game incentive to killing hoarde players but this nicely brings out the nationalist militarism of the fictional world at war... in this case the narrative is well suited to the basic player desire to draw blood at every opportunity.

Methinks this is better training for the US army than America's Army... and all fictional factionalism disappears in the face of the real enemy. Afterall who cares about the defias brotherhood when the hoarde players are in town.

Bart

Posted May 26, 2005 2:59:23 PM | link

Galrahn says:

flatfingers>So restricting a player's access to content seems to be the big no-no these days.

Odd, this exact thing is the new main element behind the Chronicle 3 expansion in Lineage 2, specifically dusk vs dawn. The more I learn about trends for mainstream games, the more interesting I find how the trends seem to be the opposite in games with a 'hardcore' label attached to them.

PvE advocates should raise the roof for a 'hardcore' pve game that bucks the dumbing down trends.

Posted May 26, 2005 3:27:45 PM | link

greglas says:

Bart> I agree with Flatfingers... game vs story -- Greg, can you explain why we should care about the fictional governance structure of Norrath when its not clear that players find this structure meaningful?

Well, no, but the players can be required to find the fictional governance structure meaningful. Ideally, the game would be structured in a way that would make the factional story part and parcel of the player's strategy, like Estariel suggests it was at one point. To the extent the story is simply window dressing for the ludic structure, I agree that my personal inclination would be to ignore it. Dave Myers has a DiGRA 2003 paper pretty much on point: The attack of the back stories (and why they won't win). Fwiw, I generally ignored the back stories in CoH. (Though in WoW, I thought the racial back stories were largely irrelevant to the game play, but pretty interesting.)

Posted May 26, 2005 7:47:20 PM | link

magicback says:

I don't think it's Game vs. Story, but rather gamey vs worldy.

I don't want to kill foozles and have the God of Foozles and its minions grief me. I want to do the killing and griefing. (OK, not my personal perspective, but this is what I imagined people would say).

But as people implement fractions in code and add more AI agents, there are too many unexpected consequences. One story I read in an Gamasutra article talk about how the team designed a great fractional system, but was dogged by the following problem: a AI guard got hungry so he went to kill a deer in a nearby zone which had laws against hunting and was arrested by another guard for tresspassing and "murder".

Grrreat.

Developers are sticking with the WoW model.

Posted May 26, 2005 8:17:43 PM | link

Lordfly says:

Anything that increases a player's sense of accomplishment and ability to change the game world is a Good Thing in my book.
A few weeks ago, I was doing the trial of EVE Online (brilliant game, but too damned slow to really get my interest... I could multitask with 4 windows AND play another game between trade runs). Along the way I did my usual pokes-and-prods to see what really could and could not be done (as opposed to the marketing hype the Fanboys and the main page gives you)... it seemed to me that EVE's "factioning" system was very in-depth. There were various NPC factions, of course, but they were inconsequential compared to some of the huge player-run corporations, who had the ability to bend the universe's economy to their will (shutting off the supply of a direly-needed resource to a region, for instance, or simply camping the jump points of a system and blasting anyone that comes through). That makes the folks in those corporations (and those fighting them) feel like they're really making a difference.

Even more interesting to me was doing trade runs... it took me about a week before I realized that I was ferrying goods between a producing player to a player that needed it; I was therefore affecting both players' ability to play and enjoy the game (ie running their business); perhaps in the grander view of things I was funding one corporation's war on the other by doing supply runs; had I stuck around, I may have become part of that.

But, you do need some sort of narrative restrictions in order to spur this development... EVE online actively encourages PvP and corporate warfare. A completely social world like Second Life however, where there is zero world-based factionalizing, players tend to not coalesce into anything more than very loose trade groups/social groups, with no real bearing on one another.

So perhaps it's a fine line.

LF

Posted May 26, 2005 8:18:44 PM | link

Bart Simon says:

LF> So perhaps its a fine line

Yes exactly - and I agree with you Greg about the core issue being the meaningfulness of the fictional narrative to the players. I think now though I want to spin this point to say that meaningfulness does not just have to be code generated. All the code is doing is effectively structuring action so that in the end there is no choice to play otherwise (this is the rational choice perspective at work behind game design). Look - the clearer the faction system is the more it will be exploited for its instrumental value rather than for its meaning.

My point about WOW is that despite an obviously instrumental pvp faction system (kill opposing players get kewl loot) I experienced this element dare I say it - nationalism (or at least "imaginary community" ala Anderson, which as a general social phenomena is really difficult to reduce to instrumental rationality.

So my point here is about the meaningfulness of fictions beyond their instrumental value in terms of their ability to bind individuals beyond the smallest scales of interaction.

Now it becomes an interesting question if this can only be generated by limiting/structuring action closer to the EveOnline model since I agree there ain't much to write about in Second Life (but there I'd argue that the social model is neo-liberal consumer individualism in any case -- governance structures would just get in the way by imposing on essential freedoms in that world).

Nice thread Greg -- we can steal back from you right?

-Bart

Posted May 27, 2005 9:39:15 AM | link

greglas says:

Bart, thanks -- and while I like to talk about idea theft, as TJ said: "While you can keep an idea to yourself, as soon as you share it anyone can have it. And once they do, it’s difficult for them to get rid of it, even if they wanted to. Like air, ideas are incapable of being locked up and hoarded."

Nice tie-in to Anderson -- I hadn't been thinking about that... And I agree with your point (I think) that it's hard to hard-code a particular political fiction into popular game play that diverges from the politics that are appealing to the player-consumers. I've always thought that MMORPGs as texts, for all their feudal fantasy trappings, are primarily re-tellings of the Horatio Alger story. :-)

Posted May 27, 2005 9:53:37 AM | link

PJ says:

In EQ at least, faction is just another part of the game to be farmed. Need X faction? Then kill a lot of Ys (enemies of X) so the Xs like you. Blah.

Posted May 27, 2005 10:09:46 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

PJ> In EQ at least, faction is just another part of the game to be farmed. Need X faction? Then kill a lot of Ys (enemies of X) so the Xs like you. Blah.

Yes, blah, but that's over the short term. Over the long term, what happens when you decide you need Y faction (maybe because that's how you unlock some bit of new content)? What if (as is sometimes the case) there's no way to gain Y faction at all?

It gets even more interesting in situations where factions can be allied to each other. Killing a bunch of Ys to gain X faction may make the Xs love you, and the Zs like you, and the Alephs better disposed toward you... but will make the Ys hate your guts, the As despise you, and the Bs badly disposed to you. Go kill off lots of only a couple more factions, and you could wind up kill-on-sight to numerous factions that you never actually did anything to directly.

It's these second-order effects that make complex factional systems so interesting. (Interesting to some, annoying to others.) You're right that someone who's just out to farm faction as quickly as possible won't be weighing these long-term consequences.

But there can still be consequences.

--Flatfingers

Posted May 27, 2005 5:18:15 PM | link

Patrick McKenzie says:

Stepping back from the question of how to raise factions and whether to keep track of them or not, you need to look at the possible outputs of having faction from the perspective of a player. An NPC can either:

a) Kill you
b) Give you a quest
c) Offer to trade with you
d) Ignore you (or talk to you using a prescripted response which has no consequences, which has essentially the same impact).

Given this extremely limited range of NPC interaction in current muds, why bother with a complex factional system? You could, I suppose, code additional favors (the Dwarves are merely lukewarm to you rather than completely hating you or loving you, so when they talk to you they use rougher language and refrain from addressing you by your title -- a refinement most players will blow past without every seeing, wasting your development hours). Some of the possible refinements actively impair gameplay -- for example, given the relative difficulty of raising faction versus lowering it its entirely possible a thirty minute experiment could get a player locked out of ALL significant NPC interaction absent hard-coded restraints (such as WoW's ironclad "You cannot attack your own faction, That Would Be Wrong" restriction), which results in either a tech support call, a reroll, or an account cancelation, none of which look good from either player or developer's point of view.

Posted May 29, 2005 9:47:58 PM | link

Aradune Mithara says:

This is true - Trost and Uzun came to me and were not happy with the original design for EQ, which was your basic MUD good to evil -1000 to 1000 alignment.

They proposed the faction system, and I thought it was extremely cool. Not only was it more realistic and interesting then old school alignment, but we could tie it into quests, the lore, etc., so I think it brought more depth to the game.

I also think in one way it's the genesis of solving the problem of how to make a player in an MMOG feel like he's changing the world, or that he's the hero. Just brainstorming, but a more advanced faction system could keep track of what you were doing for this faction and that, other NPCs associated with those factions could make comments about you or your group, etc.

Posted Jun 5, 2005 4:17:27 AM | link

magicback says:

A good and advanced faction system would be a good addition, but so far the market experience is that to it well will require quite a lot of effort. The post-mortem of NWN on Gamasutra indicated how annoying it was to implement in a primarily single-player game. There are a few examples of this out there.

Most social software development is looking at developing tools that allow fractions to form and develop a critical mass. ATITD seems to have done it from one angle and EVE Online has developed it from another.

Don't know EVE Online too well, but the structure of the game has the framework for corp-govs to form. Anyone can comment?

On computer-coded faction system? It's on the wished for but must pass list :)

Frank

Posted Jun 5, 2005 7:27:56 AM | link

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