Gameplay vs. Lore: Faction Conflict in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game steeped in lore, with stroylines spanning thousands of years and major expansion themes playing out the emotional lives of lore characters. Nevertheless, it’s a common refrain that gameplay trumps lore (a few discussions of the idea here, here, and here). There are many examples: player characters can come back from the dead, while NPCs (mostly) can’t; heroes who defeated a godlike manifestation of evil at the end of the last expansion may struggle to kill an overgrown crab at the beginning of the next; leveling up from 1 in the game as it stands now is a dizzying exercise in time travel through fifteen years’ worth of story, all of it still happening “now” in the zones of the various expansions. These breaks from lore fidelity make the game more fun and more playable, so even those players who care about the lore in depth generally accept them. The story is there to create background and flavor and give us a reason for going out, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Whenever the lore threatens to get in the way of the monster-killing, stuff-taking fun, it just steps aside and gets out of our way.

With one big exception: the faction conflict. The conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is the product of lore, not gameplay, but for years it has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay and make players’ experiences worse in a way that no other lore element has.

The faction conflict in WoW is a holdover from the Warcraft real-time strategy games. In the RTS context, a red-vs.-blue battle serves a good gameplay purpose. In the early years of the World of Warcraft massively multiplayer role-playing game, it made sense to carry over the familiar elements of the setting that fans of the RTS franchise would know, but WoW is no longer bound to its RTS roots and it hasn’t been for years. The defining game mode of the Warcraft universe is now an MMORPG. It’s time for the game to reflect that fact.

As a multi-player game, WoW is built around groups of players teaming up to take on difficult challenges. While there is plenty to do in game as a solo player, the endgame content that everything builds towards is all geared toward groups of players banding together. By dividing the player base in half and arbitrarily preventing them from playing together, WoW is working against its own game mechanics.

An argument sometimes made in favor of the faction divide is that, although it is detrimental to the player-vs.-environment aspects of the game, it is essential for the player-vs.-player elements, but this argument is manifestly untrue. One of the accommodations Blizzard has made in recent years to the faction divide is the introduction of “mercenary mode,” which allows players from one faction to temporarily join up with players of the other specifically to play in PvP content. If the faction divide can be wished away in the parts of the game that are specifically designed to pit players against one another, what purpose can it possibly serve in the parts of the game that are supposed to bring players together?

Even as a lore-dictated design element, the faction divide has never contributed much to the game story. How many expansions have we seen start with “Oh no, the Horde and the Alliance are at it again, and this time they mean it!” and end with “We have learned our lesson and must put aside our petty differences to work together against the greater threat”? Even in Battle for Azeroth, which has taken the faction conflict more seriously than any expansion before, the Horde-Alliance war has ended up being no more than a big speed bump on the way to fighting the big threat of N’Zoth. The core of WoW‘s gameplay has never been about the Horde vs. the Alliance; it has always been about killing monsters and taking their stuff. The important stories in WoW are about where the monsters came from and why we need to kill them, not about why we can’t kill them together.

The faction divide seems to survive largely for the benefit of a small base of fans who like having something to argue about on the internet. So far, Blizzard seems to be calculating that keeping that small base of fans happy (or, rather, continuing to give them things to get angry about, which seems to be their version of happy) is worth more than making a better game for everyone else.

Perhaps someday the faction divide will finally be removed and my Tauren and Eppu’s Dwarves can go kill monsters together. Until then, we live with a game whose gameplay is subject to an out of date, unproductive relic of lore.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.