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Let’s first just broadly define alliances, to help us discuss this with greater precision. Alliances are distinct from other types of player organisations because they contain some degree of a common defense mechanism. In other words, to one degree or another the principle “an attack on one is an attack on us all” is applied. This has in most cases also led to some degree of pooled sovereignty – where alliances negotiate as single units and take common stances on questions of the day.
Here’s my two cents (or as some prefer to call it, a thousand words) on why I continue to believe that alliances are a positive aspect of the game. It really boils down into three aspects: community involvement, commitment to the game, and deeper meaning.
Let’s start with community involvement, as it is perhaps the most important of these. Now, I can already hear some of you thinking – surely the public Screeps community at large is enough of a community by itself. Surely communities around specific interests can form without these defensive commitments that slow the game to a halt.
Yes and no.
I’ve been a part of both types of communities over the course of my time in the Screeps community at large, and I can say with some confidence that the degree of community identity in alliances is significantly greater. Why? Firstly, because of the common military commitments, people are willing to share their projects and problems much more openly, and work on these together. You are not going to be ambushed by your alliance partners when you are hunting a pernicious bug in your tower code, and therefore you don’t have to work on it in silence.
Secondly, because of these common commitments, a degree of shared history and therefore identity is formed much more quickly and strongly than in non-alliance organisations. Common trials and common enemies bring a sense of unity. This helps cast a solid foundation for a community that reaches far beyond those official areas of alliance cooperation – for instance, during the current Coronavirus outbreak, the Ypsilon Pact has become a very natural forum for sharing experiences and advice from various countries and gain perspective on what is happening around you. While this isn’t strictly dependent on common defense, it is dependent on a much stronger connection between the players – the fact that we know each other by nickname, and have some genuine caring for each other. Over time the alliance has provided a network to discuss, either in our #random channel or through DMs, a variety of personal and political issues with people not part of your daily life. Alliances are long term communities – in the case of YP, we’ve been around for well over three years. These allow long term connections.
To go onto commitment – alliances allow a level of engagement with the game that is less time intensive than actually playing it, but more engaging than totally leaving it behind. Because you have a group of friends that you are involved with, because you are united by your alliance badge wherever you are spawned (or not spawned), you remain engaged with the game at least through its community which allows for a much smoother return when your life circuimstances better permit.
There will always be some sector that could do with shoring up that you will be invited to spawn in, someone to clear space for you to get started again, and a group of people to engage and catch up with.
While I do not have hard statistics on this, I am almost certain that YP has had significantly better player retention within than the game at large has had.
Finally, to touch on this idea of “deeper meaning” – Screeps is a sandbox. A moderately interesting coding project by itself, but a welath of possibility when one looks further on. Alliances can give you something to work towards that is bigger than yourself, and for many this is highly exciting.
Now, I will be the first to admit that the heady days of 2016 when rival alliances covered the world and the tension was palpable to all have been over for some years. There may never be a return to that.
Yet, even aside from that, whenever alliances find common goals to strive towards, they provide meaning for the players inside of them. They help enrich the game for the people inside of them.
And where alliances do clash, they provide the game with a lore and backstory few other forms of community can. They break up the monotony of the game world, make one region of the map genuinely different from another.
I don’t claim that alliances have not had their problems. I do not deny that some feel that YP in particular has been a “suffocating force” in Shard 1. Nor do I pretend that basic mechanistic concerns about the surface-area-to-volume ratios of military units do not have some validity.
But I think that even taking each of these things at their best, we’ve still a game where alliances stifle conflict in the areas they exist in (thus condensing the rest of players into a smaller and more dynamic territory). We’ve still a game where the “scaryness” of YP in Shard 1 drives players to defend themselves and makes the world feel dangerous rather than meaningless. We’ve still a game where the innovation of players in terms of military code and technology can allow for reasonable military engagements. These supposed downsides are still ofset by the benefits alliances offer both to their members as well as those outside of them. And above all, they are an expression of the basic human spirit of cooperation and tribalism that surely has its place in this sandbox of ours.