Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Final Fantasy XIV is going to be an excellent game, and here is why

A few days back I picked up FFXIV, and while a few days is certainly a small period of time to gauge the quality of the game, I'm convinced that this is going to be one of the best MMOs on the market by the time its first expansion came out. Does it have serious crippling issues right now? Absolutely. But those can be fixed, and the new developers seem to moving quite strongly in that direction. A lot of the mechanics of the game are quite complicated to explain, so for the purposes of this article I will assume a basic knowledge of how the game is currently set up.

5. Crafting and gathering. Simple as that. When I first started hearing information about the way FFXIV was going to do classes/jobs/whatever you want to call them I was a little hesitant to believe that it could work well, but having played the game now I actually enjoy crafting and gathering more than combat. It's no secret that combat in MMOs tends to be pretty repetitive and it's no accident that the word grind is used to describe the process of leveling up. To an extent, that's just the nature of MMOs. However crafting in all of the MMOs I've played has always been the worst in that regard. The few times it deviated from the basic 'choose-ingredients-hit-craft-pray-to-RNG-gods' standard, it just involved gimmicky minigames and headache inducing mechanics that players had to fight to comprehend in order to maximize their chance at a higher quality item. FFXIV's crafting and gathering mechanics are transparent and simple enough to make them easy to understand, but at the same time allow for sufficient depth to make the process entertaining.
Now, you might feel like gathering in FFXIV falls under the gimmicky minigame category, but a few aspects of it separate it out in my opinion. It's sufficiently simple to make it easy to do however many times, while still allowing some variation. The slider, while fundamentally an extremely simple thing, seems to influence what item you are able to get on that attempt, but it's also randomized such that you can't just put it at the top and always get one type of thing, so you have to rely on the hints. You also rarely get a situation where you would have definitely gotten the item if you had just one more chance, largely because it appears to give you an extra chance if you're close enough. This is extremely important because it makes it so that you almost never get the feeling that you just got unlucky, you always have a good chance to get the item, and it keeps you at least somewhat engaged in what you're doing.
Then there's the crafting. For some reason developers usually think that hiding variables from players in crafting is a good thing and make the entire process one giant paranoia headache where you wonder if what you're doing is right. The FFXIV system is pretty complicated and you could probably write an article as long as this one about how it works, but the overall point is that it's pretty clear to the player what is going on and what is up to them. On top of that, with the choices that the player makes during the crafting process you get all kinds of choices and approaches to finishing an item, and it creates a much more interesting process. The simple idea that your approach when crafting normally is different from when trying to get a high quality item, outside of using more bonuses or doing it on a specific game day or whatever vaults FFXIV's system far ahead of it's competition.

4. It's FFXI-2. A lot of english speaking people who played FFXI forget that the game was released in Japan well before it came out in North America, and that Rise of the Zilart was an expansion, not the vanilla game. Ultimately, people know this as a fact, but don't consider it when talking about FFXI's launch. It was a long time ago, and I don't remember much of the details, but as I recall FFXI's launch was also pretty terrible. Now, FFXI had loads of problems even after it got on its feet, and you can say what you want about Abyssea and all the little dumb mistakes that were made in the game's development over the years, but at the end of the day, it had a very solid niche it lived in, and it was successful as an MMO. I contend that WoW is not a benchmark that you can use when talking about other MMOs simply because it's a giant snowball that has been rolling down a mountain for years and years now. Yes it is an MMO, and yes it is and was ridiculously successful, but that kind of success just isn't possible with other MMOs, and it's unrealistic to try for or expect it. Based on all of the time I spent playing FFXI, and the responses I've seen from FFXIV's development team, FFXIV's developers are better than FFXI's were. I'm not saying the FFXI devs were bad, or even anything less than good, but the new FFXIV devs are just on another level. Part of that is their interaction with the community, which I'll get to later, but the conclusion that all of this forces me to draw is that while both FFXI and FFXIV sucked at launch (and you can argue which was worse, it doesn't really matter), FFXIV has a better team than the team that built up FFXI into a quite successful MMO. Based on that, I'm quite confident that this development team can do the same thing even better with FFXIV.

3. FFXIV is FFXI-2 again. Yea I know, same idea in two points? It's an entirely different aspect though. FFXI had TONS of little problems that just made no sense. Needless obstacles to the player. Some people would call the POL viewer one, and that's fair even if I don't agree. The whole windower situation was another, and not just the ability to play the game without it being full-screen. Some of the plug-ins that windower had, such as the one that made recast times easily visible to the player. How much time was left on status effects. All of this was information that the player could access but could not access easily. We could argue about whether or not using these plugins with windower was cheating, or ethical, or whatever you want to call it, but ultimately these were simple variables that made sense to not show the player easily that the game just chose not to. Certainly, difficulty has always been part of FFXI's and presumably FFXIV's niche, but that doesn't mean that you want artificial difficulty. FFXIV, in my admittedly limited experience with it, has addressed this and made these variables available to the player. I don't think they've addressed all of these issues that FFXI faced, but many of them, whether the artificial difficulty or just random dumb stuff variety, have been addressed.

2. Community management. It's absolutely unbelievable how much Square-Enix's philosophy for managing their online communities has changed since FFXI. In this respect, the initial failure of FFXIV is a good thing. Even a year ago, if you told me that FFXIV would have even half the community presence from the developers as it does today I would call you an ambulance to save your life from the massive overdose of whatever drugs you were on. Having real meaningful responses from the developers does so much to help players understand where the devs are coming from. Any good relationship is based on a foundation of communication, and the relationship between the devs and the players is no exception. You could easily argue that this is the most important and the most promising change from FFXI to FFXIV.

1. The developers. These guys are brilliant. It might be hard to see for a lot of people because the outlook the developers have right now is by necessity a long-term one, whereas for most people playing the game right now short-term is what matters, but I have more respect for these developers than I have for any others in the entirety of the game industry. If you go through any of their posts on the community forums, any of their interviews, anything at all virtually every word that comes out of their mouths makes perfect sense and they're taking the game in the exact right direction (making it FFXI-2) for this to be a respectable pay to play MMO. These guys are taking a train-wreck of an MMO with a gem of a game hidden with in it, cleaning off the crap, polishing the gem, and adding new content at the same time at an impressive pace. Is it tons of new content? Of course not. Are they going to be able to fix the game overnight? Of course not. They are however doing EXACTLY what needs to be done, in exactly the right way, and they deserve a lot of respect for that. You can argue about short-term things like balance changes and things to that effect, and you're certainly well within your rights to do that, but at the end of the day those are just short-term changes, which will undoubtedly fluctuate periodically. The long-term changes, the ones that will define what kind of game FFXIV will be in the future, are the ones that we need to pay the most attention to, and they are fantastic.

FFXIV is indisputably flawed. It is far from perfect, or even good, but the future holds loads of promise. To be clear, FFXIV will not be a game for everyone, and it was never meant to be. It isn't a WoW-killer, and no one should expect it to be. What it will be is an EXTREMELY solid niche MMO that may very well be the second or third most successful MMO on the market for many, many years. If I had to guess, it'll be free to play until the first expansion, which will coincide with the PS3 release, and Square-Enix will play it like a re-release, essentially treating it like a new release. I know it's hard, no longer being able to play FFXI because Abyssea changed it into something that you no longer love, but there is hope for the future, and while FFXIV disappointed us all, its future should not.


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