Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

This game swallowed up must of my autumn. As of now, I haven't touched it for a month, my subscription has expired and I have no real desire to go back anyway. Therefore it's a good time to make a writeup about the first and (probably) last MMORPG (just MMO from now on) I have played. First one I have played properly anyway; I did play one and half starting areas of World of Warcraft, mostly for the same reason I started this game - it was easier for me to justify starting an MMO when I did with a friend or two. On the one hand, playing an MMO alone is not that much fun at all. On the other hand, limiting playing time to playing with friends helps against sinking too much time to the game (that's wishful thinking, just so you know). This post is likely to be a long one because I want to go through some game mechanics (and dynamics) and talk about my own experiences, including the reason I quit playing.

1. FFXIV - the game

As an MMO, this game's pretty traditional. Game mechanics wise it follows in the footsteps of World of Warcraft and as such I'm not going to delve too deeply into the basics. It's a Final Fantasy game, clearly made for fans of the series - it has everything people expect to see in FF. For me personally the biggest deciding factor in choosing to play this over other MMOs was entirely technical: it was released for the PS3. On top of my office work and my daily Dota 2 dose, I really cannot sit in front of a computer much more. Not that sitting on a couch with a pad is super healthy, but the ergonomy is just way better. Anyway, the combat mechanics are cooldown-based with some abilities on shared cooldown (called global cooldown) while others on their individual cooldowns (these abilities are referred to as cooldowns... because that's not confusing at all). 

All in all, the mechanics are pretty slow-paced and not challenging in the least to execute. Gameplay decisions revolve more around positioning, rotations (the order in which different abilities are used) and timing of cooldowns. It's honestly not that interesting, which is why I always find it weird when single player RPGs choose to adopt similar mechanics (e.g. Xenoblade). Based on what I heard from people who have played other games, positioning matters slightly more in FFXIV - at least with some classes - because certain abilities have different effects when they hit the enemy from the side or behind. It makes melee damage dealers (DD) more interesting to play - or at least there's a bit more to do than just walk next to the enemy and start pushing buttons in a predetermined order. When playing solo, combat is still pretty damn static. Basically solo playing goes back to easy fun, a topic I brought up in my post about Amalur

The overall game concept is very familiar. The game progresses through a long series of plot-related quests, and of course includes an insane amount of sidequests. I'm not a big fan because the vast majority of these quests are not interesting in the least - another point I brought up when writing about Amalur (which just goes to show how accurate it is to describe Amalur as a single player MMO). Could we have an MMO with less sidequests? I'll write a separate section about the plot, so let's move on. Equipment is also very standard and for me the biggest disappointment - or would be if I had expected anything more. All you ever get is more numbers and typically the next piece of equipment is only very marginally better than the last. So although new stuff is gotten fairly often, it doesn't really seem to do anything. In a way the biggest win is when you get rid of an ugly piece of gear. 

As a game, the one thing FFXIV has going for it is its class system. Unlike most MMOs, there's no need for alts (alternative characters) because characters can freely change their class by changing their primary weapon (or tool) anytime outside of combat. Each class is leveled independently and any class lower than your highest gets an experience bonus (so they level up a bit faster). Not that remarkable in itself, but in true FF style classes can borrow skills from other classes. Honestly though it sounds cooler on paper because each class only has a few skills that others can borrow. Furthermore, advanced classes (jobs) are even more limited because they can only borrow from two predefined classes. The usefulness of this system depends on which job you're playing - playing paladin I found absolutely no reason to level up other classes for skills. 

Crafting is a bit different from what I've heard about other games. Crafts are full classes with their own skills and mechanics. They're divided into disciplines of the hand (DOH) and disciplines of the land (DOL). DOH mechanics are the most interesting and for them, it actually makes a lot of sense to level up other crafts to get more skills. Crafting rotations are a bit different from combat rotations, because they depend on several factors: primarily what is being crafted and how many crafting points (CP) the character has. Each skill costs either CP or durability (or both). Durability is basically an indicator for how many operations can be done to the item being crafted. Generally speaking operations raise either progress or quality. Progress defines whether the crafting succeeds (inability to fill the progress bar leads to failure) while quality defines the odds of getting a high quality item. DOL mechanics are mostly about playing around with odds of getting items and hq items from nodes. 

2. Fail

There are a couple of pretty big faults. One is more specific to FFXIV while the other feels like it applies more broadly. Let's talk about the main plot. As such the plot is pretty standard Final Fantasy (or any RPG), - nothing really special to it really. If plots are salvaged at all, it usually happens through interesting characters. Herein comes a bit of a problem because in MMOs, the player's character has no personality - and in FFXIV at least they don't even have any lines. This feels a bit off, because the player is supposed to control the central character in the story, it doesn't really feel like it at any point because the only slivers of personality have been granted to NPCs. I guess the intention is for the player to fill in the blanks inside their head but it just doesn't work at all (it works in Persona 3/4 though). The fact that story quests are almost indistinguishable from sidequests doesn't help. 

All in all, it feels like the player's role is to be a task-completing robot. A lot of these tasks also feel like they're there only to make the experience longer - which is understandable from the business point of view what with FFXIV being a subscription game and all. Every time you go to see someone to get a piece of equipment or information, you can bet they send you on an errand or ten before allowing you to proceed with the actual story. The story just drowns in a sea of errands. It also bothers me that MMOs basically just ask you to look away from the fact that there are thousands of characters doing the exactly same plot... which kind of retracts from the idea of being the "only hope" or whatever. There's a very half-assed attempt to explain all the other player characters but it doesn't really work. Could we get an MMO that actually takes this into account? 

It's painstakingly clear that the story is there just to give you something to do on your way to level 50 and the endgame. Leveling up is the other sore point in FFXIV, and here's why: quests aside, the hands down best way to get experience is to do Fates (well, FATEs really but I don't even remember what the acronym was for). These are events (read: fights) that pop on the map periodically, and they can involve any number of players. They give much higher experience rewards than killing enemies or doing dungeons. What this means is that the best way to level up other classes (and at some points your main too) is to go to an area that has a lot of fates for roughly your level, then just wait for one to appear, go do it and... rinse and repeat. The waiting part is already annoying, as is doing the same fates all over again but that's not the biggest problem. 

The biggest problem with fates is lazy-ass programming and lag. Because popular fate areas contain a lot of players, each fate has a ridiculous amount of players trying to get enough contribution for the highest rank. That causes a ton of lag, and at times makes the game entirely unplayable because for some reason the programmers decided to prioritize loading of other players above loading monsters. Because you cannot target unloaded objects and almost every attack in the game is unit target... good luck trying to do some damage. The contribution mechanics are also bonkers because whoever hits a monster first gets full credit for killing it even if that's the only attack they contribute while others have to do significant percentage of the total damage to get credit. Which means people are just spamming aoe attacks to "claim" enemies as fast as possible, then leave them for someone else to kill. 

I was actually quite happy I didn't need any high level skills from other classes because leveling up in this game sucks balls so hard. Even in the main quest there are moments where you are asked to grind a couple of levels before proceeding. Wow. Such design. Very grind. Leveling up crafts is actually a lot faster (or at least it was, they nerfed it a bit after I stopped playing). I actually found it quite fun to level up my crafts alongside my main class because it allowed me to create my own equipment, primarily because leveling up crafts wasn't nowhere near the insane grind that adventuring classes needed. The game also has a bunch of minor issues here and there like non-sortable inventory (dafuq?), but these two things are the major issues.  

3. Dungeons and... more dungeons

FFXIV uses the standard paradigm for its dungeons. A basic party consists of one tank, one healer and two damage dealers with each of these having its own distinctive role. It ain't broken so there's no real need to fix it. Guild Wars 2 tried to break the paradigm but it only resulted in dungeons being more boring than ever (they basically gave every class a heal etc. so anyone could do any role). I started the game with a DD, but when my friends stopped playing I switched to tank. The reason for the swap was simple enough: most players want to play DD which puts tanks and healers in higher demand. Each role has its own challenges so I think in general all should be interesting to play. In addition to keeping enemies agroed to themselves, tanks are also expected to lead - which includes choosing and prioritizing targets. I enjoyed that part, because it allowed me to be an active player in dungeons. 

Dungeons can be roughly divided into mob and boss phases. For tanks, mobs are often the more challenging part - keeping multiple enemies targeting you is harder than keeping just one. For damage dealers bosses are often more interesting because they usually need to take care of adds (reinforcements) and other smaller details, while the tank just sits there toe-to-toe with the boss. This varies from boss to boss, and some designs are clearly better than others. Worst designs are pretty much slugfests while best ones require active participation from everyone (e.g. tanks need to kite the boss around instead of tanking in one spot). Mostly these bosses are not that hard. Before the endgame there are only very few show-stoppers. There's nothing particularly hard about mobs in dungeons as long as the tank doesn't pull (engage) too many at once. Of course, later on, speedrun tactics involve pulling quite a bit more than standard runners are used to.  

Dungeons and other party instances feel like the essence of MMOs. Even with random people they are way more fun than solo gameplay - with friends they are of course even better. FFXIV is rare in one respect considering dungeons: the main story includes most of the game's dungeons as mandatory stops. I actually like this decision because it gets all players involved with dungeoneering way before the endgame - after all, playing in a party is the only thing in the entire game that is actually challenging. To make things easier for players, the game contains the dreaded Duty Finder (DF), which is the equivalent of matchmaking for multiplayer games. Instead of trying to get parties by shouting in area chat, players just register to DF alone or with friends, and DF forms complete parties and sends them off to the dungeon. Because DDs are rather abundant, it takes a while for them to find a party. I was usually DFing with one friend who played healer, so we basically got parties instantly. 

DF is honestly just fine until harder dungeons and instances start to appear. After that, well, you get to deal with the usual matchmaking problems: some people are undergeared while others don't seem to have any idea about how to play. Considering how easy and intuitive I found most of the things in this game, I can only wonder how people cannot grasp the basic concepts... oh well. I didn't experience many problems at all, probably because I was always queueing as a tank and usually had my own healer too. Most of the time poor DDs only make things slower, not impossible. Some bosses in the game do require a healthy pace from DDs at which point those with poor gear or rotations become a hindrance. One of the biggest show-stoppers in the game is especially obnoxious for DF because it always creates parties with the same 1:1:2 formula. For this particular boss, there is absolutely no use for a second tank, and there's a phase that is highly dependent on damage output where a fifth DD would really help. 

For the record I didn't make it through that one particular boss because - DF issues aside - it's fricking hard. Therefore I also haven't experienced any of the endgame raids but it's pretty safe to assume they are still mostly like any other dungeon. The endgame in general is mostly about speedrunning dungeons - the faster the better - and although it's pretty damn repetitive in the long run, I found it quite fun to try and shave off minutes from completion times. For the record, the difference between DF parties and premade parties is pretty staggering here. 

4. Reasons to play

I guess I covered the game itself to as much detail as I had planned. As a game, it really is not that great. Most single player RPGs - even ones that suffer from the MMO syndrome - are better as games. But playing an MMO is not like playing other games really. It's more like a project. A project where success is pretty much guaranteed if you put enough time into it. Likewise, it's much easier to pick up than any real project. It's easy to see how this makes these games highly attractive - and addictive. Like I said, I started off with a couple of friends but they didn't last very long. I had however already put significant amount of time into the game and felt like at least playing through the main story. At that time I had plenty of things to do besides progressing in the story: I enjoyed gathering, crafting and playing the market (i.e. capitalism). In short, the project was already well underway, and every day I reached a milestone or few. 

There's also the social aspect. It got me into the game in the first place. Although my friends quit, I discovered a linkshell (kind of a chat channel) for Finnish players which helped me actually stay in the game. Being able to chat (or follow one) while doing whatever seemingly boring task turns the game into a fine passtime. Occasionally, especially in the endgame, we would also form full parties to speedrun and tackle some of the hardest bosses, usually as a favor to newer players in the linkshell. I always enjoy helping people out in games, so although there wasn't anything for me to gain (other than good karma I guess) these were fun times. It's once again a bit like any actual project - being involved with people makes it so much easier to make it through one. Although dungeons were mostly fun from a pure gameplay perspective, I feel it's the project angle that really keeps players like myself in these games.

Come to think of it, I seem to like my games (even) more when they become projects. For RPGs this happens after beating the game, when I start to tackle all the post-game content (optional dungeons, bosses, achievements and such). After beating the game, I'm armed with much more knowledge about it not just because I have been playing it for 30+ hours, but also because I allow myself to look at guides at this point to see what I've missed. I never use any additional information while playing the game because I want to surprise me and I don't want to know about any possible overpowered skills, weapons and such beforehand. It is half the fun to tackle the game with what you manage to find. However after it is done, that's when the other kind of fun - the project fun - begins. 

5. Reasons to quit

I did stop playing FFXIV before completing the project largely because it no longer felt worth doing - at least considering the time investment it would have required. For the last four weeks I was more or less just doing one thing: speedrunning the same two dungeons over and over again to farm tomes (needed for endgame gear). What had happened was that I had leveled up all the crafts I wanted and I didn't feel like leveling up another adventuring class (for reasons mentioned earlier). There was literally nothing left except two things: the speedrun, and waiting for an opportunity to tackle hard mode Titan in order to proceed to the final endgame stage. The latter never happened because although I was interacting with a lot of people, getting a Titan party together was pretty rare.

I didn't really feel like getting into an FC that would focus the endgame content. I don't really feel like having social obligations in my games - especially not weekly. Still it seemed like the only real way of getting anywhere with the endgame. I was pretty much playing on my own, unable to schedule anything so I was just reliant on being in the game when someone started to put together a party for a speedrun or Titan. I only logged in to do my weekly speedruns anyway so I didn't spend too much time in the game for the last couple of weeks. Christmas holidays came around and it was then when I decided to take a break from the game and see if I would feel like getting back to it come new year. I started to play other games (Remember Me and Valkyrie Profile 2 at the time) and didn't feel like getting back into the time sink.

There was another thing that really bothered me about the endgame. Unless you have a full party of friends who want to tackle unknown challenges, it is pretty much mandatory to look up boss strategies etc. beforehand. For me figuring out strategies is the reason to play games in general so it felt really lame. I wasn't really looking forward to the final endgame phase for this reason. Even if I got there, I would still be just repeating someone else's strats more or less. MMOs like this one don't really have that much challenge in executing a strategy, at least not on individual level. It's really more like a communication effort. That's fine and all, but really only works with a group of people you know.


The big question considering the entire experience is: was it worth the three months I spent on it? From a pure gameplay perspective... probably not. Although I clearly enjoyed playing the game, something about it definitely rubbed me the wrong way in the long run. I don't think it was FFXIV specifically was the problem either - while the game had its flaws, I honestly don't think any other MMO would have made much of a difference. However as a game dev and as a researcher I think it was valuable to really get into an MMO to see what's it all about. It was also nice to notice that this genre works just fine with a pad. The only real difficulty is with typing - it's ridiculously slow. I did bear with it for like two months but I eventually got a bluetooth keyboard for my PS3 just to type.

The game was already remade once, and I think Square-Enix still has some work to do with it - mainly fix the braindead loading priority and lag issues. There's not much wrong in the game compared to the competition (based on hearsay). From a thematic perspective it definitely feels like a Final Fantasy game, but the gameplay is very standard MMO stuff - sure, the class system brings some FF spice into the mix, but it doesn't do quite as much as it could. The crafting system is probably the biggest distinguishing factor, but its impact is ultimately a bit too small. Whether the game is worth trying really depends on what you're looking for. There is one thing it does superbly though: it's the best MMO you can play on a PS3 (FYI: the PC version also supports pad, and some people seemed to prefer it to ye olde keyboard+mouse combo).

I'm glad I played it, I'm glad I quit it, and - unless a really game-changing MMO comes around - now I can safely say "never again". 

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