In the land of MMO PvP setups, we know for sure that one style, freeform PvP, works. We also know that another style, pre-set PvP, has worked, but has also has a history of failure. The one major example of pre-set PvP success is Dark Age of Camelot, and many point towards ‘realm pride’ as a major reason for its success.
Before I get into the idea of realm pride, let’s first define the two styles a bit just to set some ground work. Freeform PvP is basically what Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call-DarkTide, ShadowBane, EVE, and DarkFall had/have going. It allows basically anyone to team with or against anyone regardless of any pre-set conditions (race/class/faction/etc), meaning you have countless ‘sides’ of various sizes. Population control is largely left in the hands of the players, and managing a huge empire of players is viewed as a highly prized ‘skill’ itself. This style is certainly not problem-free, but the system overall ‘works’ if everything else lines up. Shadowbane for instance did not fail because of its PvP setup, and games like EVE and DarkFall are better games thanks to the fact that sides are not pre-set.
A pre-set system is one where the sides are ‘pre-set’ by the developers, be it two sided (World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Aion) or three sides like in Dark Age of Camelot. (Nothing comes to mind above three). The idea is to start everyone on a team, avoiding the troubling of joining a clan/alliance before having friends to fight with. The very well known problem is always population balance, as one side being more popular than another creates serious and difficult-to-fix issues. This problem is of course magnified if you only have two sides, as you only have one option for an opponent and you fight the same population imbalance at all times. You can’t ‘team up’ on the popular side, or have a side battle between two smaller sides. Once the overpopulated side wins a few encounters, the under populated side begins to lose moral and down the spiral you go.
So what lead to DAoC players feeling a sense of realm pride, or more importantly today, what ingredients might you need to replicate that and pull off a successful pre-set PvP MMO?
DAoC had the success it had because first and foremost, it was a very good game. Interesting classes, good (not perfect) combat mechanics, and a solid engine to run it all, DAoC had the basics and not-so-basics of an all-around good MMO game. Remove even a bit of that and all that realm pride stuff flies out the window fast.
Beyond just being a good game though, DAoC featured a war with three pre-set sides unlike the failed PvP in MMOs such as WoW, WAR, and Aion (soon on that one anyway, and no, an easily exploited NPC side does not count). At least with three sides, you bring in some diversity to any engagement, and population imbalances can in part be ‘corrected’ by the players when two sides team up on one, directly or indirectly. Moral is also not crushed after a defeat since the next battle might be a different combination of friends/enemies. Even the ‘little guy’ has a chance to win battles if they time their entry correctly, or strike when the two other sides are already pre-occupied. Point being, everyone has options, and as long as you have options, you have a chance.
So when exactly does realm pride start to factor into all of this, and how important was it in regards to DAoC’s success? IMO realm pride was the natural progression of players who were playing a game that ‘worked’, rather than some magic formula or feature that Mythic created and then failed to replicate with WAR. The idea of realm pride naturally builds when you are invested in anything that is going well, is enjoyable, or is worth caring about. Players in successful EVE alliances have ‘realm pride’ for their alliance, just like DF players have ‘realm pride’ regarding their clan. The reason realm pride never took off in WoW or WAR is not because some ‘special sauce’ was missing from those games, but just the general fact that neither game had great PvP to begin with, and so those players never felt heavily invested.
With WAR in particular, Mythic missed the boat on replicating DAoC realm pride because they did not deliver a game that was good enough to get heavily invested in. The RvR in WAR was not good enough to log in and care how your side was doing, or how it did the day before. You can point to the fact that Relics in DAoC meant a lot more than capital city stars in WAR to those playing, or that keeps in DAoC seemed to attract more fevered offense/defense than in WAR, but realm pride (or lack of it) is not the direct answer to ‘why’ that is/was.
It’s tough to say whether a third side in WAR would have outright saved the game and allowed it to keep more of its initial player base, or to at least stop it’s bleeding once the tourists moved on, but would anyone argue that a third side would be anything BUT an improvement? The question that is sadly likely never to be answered is just how far away was WAR from being a great game? In many ways it was far superior to DAoC, yet when it came down to what mattered most, a prolonged interest in RvR, it failed. How many people would still be playing if instead of going down to two sides, Mythic had gone UP to four, or even six sides? Would the topic of why WAR players never felt a sense of realm pride even be an issue then, or would many of us instead be talking about the underhanded move the Dark Elves just pulled off when the Dwarves and High Elves were fighting over a capital city?
In short, creating ‘realm pride’ is not a magic fix or feature that can save a pre-set PvP MMO. It is a reflection that what you have created ‘works’ for those playing, that they care enough about what you are offering to go above and beyond their normal routines and to get more involved. When you’re players start to genuinely care about what happens, you know you have them hooked for months to come.