So let’s say you fire up some 90s style shooter built around rocket jumping and circle-strafing. Something along the lines of Doom, Quake, or Serious Sam, with a heavy metal soundtrack and copious violence. You play through the first couple of levels and everything is more or less what you’d expect from this genre. But when you get to the end of the first area, the game asks you to pick a “clan” to join:
- The Warrior Clan. Masters of firearms and rocket launchers, these fearless fighters have no equal in battle.
- The Banker’s Clan. These financial planners are the masters of money and savings.
Maybe in an RPG these would work out to be equally viable routes through the game, but in the context of a classic shooter there’s no reason for the player to pick Banker. This game doesn’t have dialog trees, trade, or money. Being a banker might sound appealing to some players in another genre, but that’s probably not what this particular audience was looking for when they chose this game.
Even if you’re an outlier and you like the idea of playing as Banker, you already know what kind of game this is. You know the mechanics do not have any systems for diplomacy or investing. You have no idea what the decision means or how it’ll impact the game going forward, but the safest, most sensible thing for you to do is pick Warrior. Whatever happens, you probably can’t go wrong if you pick the group that’s thematically and mechanically aligned with the gameplay.
This is the weird situation we find in New World, the new MMO from Amazon Game Studios.
Age of Sail for Sale
New World takes place in (roughly) the age of sail. Europeans and Asians have sailed to the new world, only instead of the Americas they find a strange continent of magic and supernatural wonder. The game is focused on PvP. Sometime around level 10 or so, the player is asked to join one of three factions:
Since the game is built around these factions fighting each other, I have to assume the designer wants them to be roughly equal. So you’d expect them to make the factions equally appealing. But… no. We get:
- Marauders (Green): Now, when I hear the term “marauder” I think of “murder and looting”.Either that, or that one meme character from Mass Effect 3. But this game suggests that marauders fight for “honor and glory”. That strongly aligns with the self-image that PvP players like to project. It also fits nicely with the mechanics of the game, which are built around martial combat with a splash of magic.
- Syndicate (Purple): This faction isn’t unappealing, but their stated methodology of fighting with “cunning” doesn’t really align with the gameplay . It’s a safe bet that you’re going to end up going toe-to-toe in button-mashy combat with rival players. Since that’s the case, why wouldn’t you pick the faction built around that idea, rather than this faction that wants to pretend that their hectic melee is some sort of chess match?
- Covenant (Yellow): A religious faction. Oh dear. Now, if the designer called these guys “Demon Hunters” or gave them some over-the-top personality (like the Paladins of Warhammer 40k) then you might have an idea that players could grasp onto. But this faction seems to be built around the idea of organized religion as an abstract concept. That’s already a weak sales pitch with today’s youth, and it only gets worse when you realize that the 1600s are not remembered as a high point for European-based religions.
The Two-Party System
I’ve been on four different servers now, and the emerging pattern is pretty clear: Marauders and Syndicate fight for control. The Marauders usually have a bit of an edge. Meanwhile, Covenant is always a hilariously weak third party that can’t hold much territory and doesn’t do much aside from acting as a spoiler in the battle between the Greens and Purples.
More alarmingly, I don’t see anything in the mechanics to balance this out. Ideally you’d have some system where the more territory you have, the harder it gets to hold, and the less territory you have, the easier it is to win. Instead, the feedback loop goes the other way, with winners getting stronger over time.
Territory is controlled through cities. When you control a city, you get to maintain it and collect taxes. Players will pay taxes when they use the auction house, when they purchase homes, and when they craft stuff. Same-color players will enjoy a discount on these taxes. The winning team also gets discounts on Azoth. Azoth is used as a currency for the fast travel system. It’s also used to craft magic items. This means that the winners will have more Azoth, and in turn they’ll be able to craft better gear.
So the system already has a bit of a feedback loop that creates an advantage for the winners. That’s bad enough, but then the whole thing is amplified by player behavior. What level 10 player is going to look at the green and purple map and decide to join yellow?
It would make sense if faction quest givers only had so much XP, gold, and InfluenceInfluence is a currency used to purchase items from faction leaders. I think the WoW equivalent would be “Honor”. to give out, and it had to be divided among everyone working for the faction. So you could join the overpopulated winning side and enjoy lower taxes and more frequent use of the fast travel system, but it would take longer to make money and level up.
I can’t promise this would magically fix the game. In the real world, factions are supported by real-world ideologies, cultures, races, and religions. An Englishman fighting in the Nine Years’ War isn’t going to switch to the French team because the French have been winning this week. But in an online game, most players are willing to go where the fun is and aren’t genuinely aligned with in-universe groups.Although I did see WoW players taking the Horde vs. Alliance conflict more seriously than made sense. Then AGAIN, you literally can’t switch sides in WoW, so fanaticism was reinforced on a mechanical level. If the Red team is always losing, then some Red players might not be as eager to log in. If Blue team is always winning and if being on the winning team is advantageous, then you can expect new players to favor Blue.
I might take my religion seriously. I might take my nation seriously. I might take my culture seriously. And depending on what color I am, I might be compelled to take my race seriously. But I have no fealty to the color-coded factions in your fictional world, and I’m likely to change sides based on nothing more than aesthetics and a desire to keep things fun and interesting.
The point I’m getting at is that massively multiplayer games are horrendously complex and difficult to balance. I can’t promise that any given change would even things up, but the system as it exists now is inherently unstable.
The Only Winning Move
I see a level 55 character killing a level 12 newbie for giggles.
That’s just the rules of the game. Totally fine. If the newbie didn’t want to die in an impossible fight, they shouldn’t have turned on that PvP flag.
Look at that. It’s a mob of a dozen players that are roaming around, ganking stray members of the rival faction in hilariously lopsided fights.
It’s all part of the experience! You have to take the good with the bad. We don’t want to put limits on what the players can do, because that makes the game less dynamic and less interesting.
Wow. This hardcore PvP player is just killing this guy over and over until the loser logs off in shame and frustration.
(Shrugs.) Hey, don’t hate the game, hate the player. We just create a set of rules. It’s up to players to decide how they want to engage with those rules.
Like, half of all player names and groups are penis jokes, and most of the rest are weed jokes.
That’s fine. We don’t want to limit anyone’s self-expression!
I found a companyA collection of players. Most MMOs call this a “guild”. with “Holocaust” as part of their name. They say the only requirement to join is that you “be racist”.
We’re strongly against that sort of behavior, but look: We can’t be everywhere. We can’t control everything. We can’t monitor every little thing done by every player. You need to accept that when you play online, you’re going to be exposed to some things that you might not like.
Okay. I guess I can see where you’re coming from. I can see you’re pretty hands-off about how players behave.
Thanks for the understanding. Now go have some fun.
Oh I will. I found a fun way to play. I’ve decided I’m not going to pick a faction at all.
YOU… FUCKING… WHAT?
Yeah. No PvP for me.
YOU WON’T GET AWAY WITH THIS. THIS IS A COMPLETE SUBVERSION OF THE INTENDED RULES.
I just want to stay independent.
THEN I’M NOT GOING TO LET YOU DO MOST QUESTS. YOU’LL BE CUT OFF FROM THE EASIEST SOURCES OF MONEY, XP, AND GEAR.
Why would you cut me off from PvE content for refusing to engage with the PvP parts of the design?
GET YOUR ASS INTO A FACTION RIGHT NOW, OR I WON’T LET YOU CRAFT IMPORTANT ITEMS.
Oh come on. You seriously won’t let me craft a better backpack because I won’t pick one of your stupid teams?
I WON’T EVEN LET YOU DO THE FETCH QUESTS FOR THE FUCKING BARTENDER! NOW PICK A SIDE!
I really don’t want to. What happened to “self expression”?
NO MAIN QUEST FOR YOU. WHICH MEANS NO DUNGEONS. NO STORY. YOU’RE CUT OFF FROM TONS OF GEAR. I WON’T EVEN LET YOU BUILD THE STAFF REQUIRED TO FIGHT THE CORRUPTION.
Having Fun by Refusing to Play
This is a very slow way to play the game. I don’t have a faction, which means I can’t do the auto-generated faction quests that pay the best money and XP. Factions are also the only way you can get a “rune of holding”, which you need in order to make bags to increase your carrying capacity. There’s a quest at level ~10 where your quest goal is to join a faction. That quest is a necessary step in the overall quest chain where the game awards you the tools to fight the corruption. Lots of other quests around town (like doing fetch quests for the bartender) don’t open up until you’ve joined a faction, even though those quests don’t have anything to do with the faction conflicts.
I’ve leveled into my 30s by playing the game the intended way, and I’ve done it again with my faction-less character, and the difference is pretty stark. By level 30, my regular character had thousands in gold. I used the fast-travel system freely and I still had plenty of Azoth.Like I said, Azoth is used for fast-travel AND for crafting magical items. Your Azoth is actually capped at 1,000 for some unexplained reason, and I was often sitting at that cap.
Meanwhile, my no-faction character is flat broke. Azoth comes in very slowly and I generally consume it all with crafting, so I never have any to spare for the fast travel system. So I have to walk everywhere.Actually, once I crafted a full set of gathering tools that yield bonus Azoth, I’m finally bringing in a small surplus. Took a while to get here, though.
My only real source of income and XP is to do the auto-generated jobs on the town mission board. These jobs don’t pay particularly well, but you can make headway if you do enough of them.
The faction-less game is pretty grindy. I spend a lot of time gathering resources and hauling them back to town. (I actually enjoy this process and find it sort of relaxing.) Then I deliver a bunch of resource-gathering jobs to the town board, craft myself a few supplies, and head out again to repeat the process. I enjoy this loop, although it’s monumentally slower to make progress than playing as intended.
Also, death is brutal when you play this way. The game damages your equipment on death. Taking a nonsensical page from Dead Island, you somehow repair your own gear using money. If I were to die now at level ~30, the total repair bill for my gear would be several times what I have available.Worse: My gear is actually getting pretty old. I’m sure the repair bill would be even more ruinous if I was wearing level-appropriate gear. My regular character can YOLO into risky fights because I’ve got lots of spare cash to fix my equipment when I die, but my indie character needs to be extremely conservative to avoid a downward spiral of failure where death leads to broken equipment, which leads to being under-equipped, which leads to more death.
The Virtue of PvP
Way back in 2008 I wrote Game Developers at the Beach, about how developers often design their games with mechanics that reward Player vs. Player behavior, making it an easier and more direct means to progress. The mechanics take the rhetorical position that there is something inherently virtuous or desirable about PvP, and that PvE is somehow an inferior or less valid way to play. I doubt a developer would use those exact words, but this is how the in-game rewards are structured. Fighting other people is more deserving of rewards than overcoming the in-game monsters.Obviously a PLAYER, being a human being, is going to be monumentally more dangerous than a single AI driven monster. But comparing 1 human to 1 monster is apples-to-oranges. It makes more sense to measure progress per unit of time. 10 minutes steamrolling monsters is far less productive than 10 minutes spent fighting humans.
It’s been 13 years, and this attitude doesn’t seem to have changed. Games with both kinds of content rarely treat both as equally valid means of progression. Instead, games seem to be designed so that PvE leads to PvP, even though those are two very different kinds of play and I strongly suspect a lot of players are only interested in one or the other.
PvP fans are often forced to slog through hours of PvE content before they’re finally allowed to engage with the competitive systems. At the same time, there is a push to “cure” those boring PvE nerds of their inexplicable desire for low-stress play and get them to jump into the arena for a little bloodsport with other players. The worst offender I’ve encountered is Black Desert Online, where you have to endure 50 agonizing levels of grinding before you’re allowed to try PvP, but once you hit level 50 you’re forced to be vulnerable to predation by other players. Referring back to the Game Developers at the Beach post, games are still trying to get PvE players to build sandcastles so that the PvP players will have sandcastles to knock down.
Getting Back to New World
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining that New World doesn’t allow for my goofy-ass playstyle. I’m clearly doing stuff the designers never intended and so it’s not surprising that the rewards and progression systems are wonky. I doubt anyone even tested the game under these conditions. I don’t really mind that progress is slow.Although I am curious how deliberate this is. Like I said, I doubt QA spent much time exploring this style of play. I’m just reporting what I’ve found because I think it’s interesting.
(And yes, I know I could join a faction and then just never enable the PvP flag, which would allow me access to a bunch more PvE content without really doing any PvP. But that sort of misses the point of this self-imposed challenge. I really do want to see what sort of limitations or quirks I run into as I level up as a faction-less player.)
I don’t know how long I’ll do this for. I plan to keep at it until it stops being fun.
 Either that, or that one meme character from Mass Effect 3.
 Influence is a currency used to purchase items from faction leaders. I think the WoW equivalent would be “Honor”.
 Although I did see WoW players taking the Horde vs. Alliance conflict more seriously than made sense. Then AGAIN, you literally can’t switch sides in WoW, so fanaticism was reinforced on a mechanical level.
 A collection of players. Most MMOs call this a “guild”.
 Like I said, Azoth is used for fast-travel AND for crafting magical items.
 Actually, once I crafted a full set of gathering tools that yield bonus Azoth, I’m finally bringing in a small surplus. Took a while to get here, though.
 Worse: My gear is actually getting pretty old. I’m sure the repair bill would be even more ruinous if I was wearing level-appropriate gear.
 Obviously a PLAYER, being a human being, is going to be monumentally more dangerous than a single AI driven monster. But comparing 1 human to 1 monster is apples-to-oranges. It makes more sense to measure progress per unit of time. 10 minutes steamrolling monsters is far less productive than 10 minutes spent fighting humans.
 Although I am curious how deliberate this is. Like I said, I doubt QA spent much time exploring this style of play.
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