Time pass so fast.... It seems Final Fantasy XIV's one year anniversary is close by. Yet it doesn't feel like that. Of course, it doesn't help either that I barely played the game during that time period.
Anyway, giving the event it seems like a good time to finally write a bit about my experiences with the game as well as my thoughts about it. Unfortunately there isn't much of the first and too much of the second. So I will try to balance them as much as possible and try to aim at something coherent. Just in case though I am filling this under ramblings as well.
Alright. With all that said, on with the show!
It is not a Final Fantasy MMORPG. It is THE Final Fantasy MMORPG.
I will admit that during the game's development I tried to completely ignore any news related to it. After all, Final Fantasy XI had a reputation of being a very grindy, heavily group dependent game. I had my share of those in games before and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
Because of that reputation I was expecting Final Fantasy XIV to be more of the same just with better graphics. Plus they were even reusing the same races just with different names. Although I guess they have been trying to make those races part of what makes a Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance... Perhaps even before, not too sure since I haven't really played any Final Fantasy game since VIII but I digress.
Anyhoo, there were two things that made me start paying more attention to the news of Final Fantasy XIV development. The first was my ever growing boredom with Everquest 2. When I start to get really bored with a MMORPG I start to hunt down other games to switch to. If the boredom gets to extreme levels then I will even go so far as lower my standards and start considering games that I would otherwise snob.
The second reason was an interest by a friend of mine. It was something to talk about with her and I would skim over those news anyway while looking for news about other MMORPGs anyway. So might as well keep up with it.
As I read it I noticed there were some interesting game mechanics ideas plus some beautiful screenshots. Curiosity about how those ideas would work out as well as what a Final Fantasy MMORPG would be like won me over so I signed on to the beta.
Beta came and to say those first five minutes hooked me in would be an understatement. It grabbed me at an emotional level that no other MMORPG ever had and I doubt any other will any time soon. This was Final Fantasy at its best and I wanted to play more of it.
Keep going. It gets better later!
After those 5 minutes of pure emotional awe I was ready to get into the world itself and find out it suddenly turned into a massive road of killing X rats toward a mythical end game where the game supposedly started for real. It was pretty much like that with every other MMORPG. Why would Final Fantasy XIV be any different?
Much to my surprise it turned into a bit of that plus a bit of good ol'CRPG storytelling. Let me explain. The story parts didn't end just with the introduction. It continued in solo instances, with interesting characters, plots being slowly revealed and the feeling that you will be involved in something bigger than yourself. This is what Final Fantasy called quests.
This feeling wasn't just through quests either. The world itself felt big, beautiful and promised lots of interesting places to visit. The music was also very beautiful, very fitting with each setting, reminding me of the good ol'days of previous Final Fantasy games. Heck, they even had the victory music!
As I said before, this was Final Fantasy at its best.
Of course, they couldn't just chain one quest after another during your entire time playing the game. It would be consumed much faster than the developer could pump content of that quality. Plus, from what I experience so far, and it has been very little, most of those quests are in solo instances. I can understand that as a dramatic moment with a NPC could be very easily broken by a guy called "xXxDarkSoulShadow666xXx" entering naked into the room and start dancing. Or the feeling that your actions in the world matter when you see the evil big villain just be killed by another group of people then reappearing out of nowhere 5 seconds later like nothing happened.
So, to fill this gap between quests as well as to have something more social for players to do together there are the levequests. Levequests are closer to your "kill x rats" quests that you see in other MMORPGs. The difference is that here they are represented as a contract of sorts that people make with the local adventurer's guild and the guild then presents the contracts to anyone who would like to fulfill it.
Once you accept a levequest you go to one of the designated camps out in the world, choose if you want to do it solo, duo, trio, etc. and then the game will spawn the required mobs for you to kill (or just mark some to be yours, I am not entirely sure about this). There is a timer to do it too and depending on how fast you do it, you get a bonus. There is also a greater reward for doing it with other people. Of course, it also raises the difficulty of the levequest. Sadly, this last part seems to be going away with the next patch as it seems there hasn't been much use of any other option than doing it solo.
During beta this seemed the perfect design to me. Good story bits in the form of quests. Then leveling up solo or with friends through levequests. I would only find out the problems with this system much later on, after the game release. I didn't explore much of these during beta as I wanted to be as unspoiled as possible about the story until the Final Fantasy XIV was actually released. Even more so because it was confirmed the beta characters would be wiped out before the game's official release date.
The problem I found wasn't with the quests itself. Those were still as awesome as during beta. The problem was the levequests. The first problem is that you are limited to 8 levequests per day. That includes both combat and harvesting levequests. There are another... 8, I think levequests for the crafting professions. Did your allowed amount of levequests that day and want to still progress in some form? Well, sucks to be you then. You will have to go out and find some other way to grind those levels.
Why they put such a obnoxious restrictions on it? Well, your guess is as good as mine. According to Elliot Lefebrve at Massively a guy that plays Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, as well as write about both games to that site, it was a way to fix some long standing problems that plagued Final Fantasy XI. Except they tried to do it before it was even a problem to begin with in Final Fantasy XIV....
Another problem I found with the levequests, but this is a minor issue, is that you won't be just doing endless variants of kill X rats. You will be doing pretty much the same levequests until you are good enough to be able to get levequests of a a higher rank. This has been hard to me because I am not sure I am can make the right assessment if I can do a certain levequest of a certain rank. Just having the right rank in a class to do a levequest doesn't seem to be enough. You also need to have gear appropriate for that rank. And crafting the right gear for the rank has been tough for me so far. I will get to the issues with crafting in a bit.
These issues has made my progress in the game slow almost to a crawl. I don't mind progressing slowly in a game. But I do mind feeling like I am not progressing at all. This is a feeling I have been having with the game since some time. Though at least during my play session this weekend I did try to make a little more effort to play the game as well as to wrap my head around the way it was designed to be played, not the way I think it should be played. This helped a little as I felt I finally did some progress after a very long time.
Harvesting was something that I found to hate during beta. The harvesting mini-game seemed deceptively simple. Yet no matter what I tried I seemed to be at the mercy of the RNG gods. This made me frustrated as it seemed like I either would depend on pure lucky to get what I needed for my crafting. If I was lucky enough to get anything at all.
At first I thought it was me that was doing something wrong, that it was only a question of understanding how to play the mini-game. But there was no explanation about how it worked in the game. So I kept trying to learn by trial and error without any conclusive results. I looked for guides around the internet about the subject, hoping that with it all would be clear and I would finally understand the system. But there were few and what they would say wasn't much different than my guesses nor they would go into much details about the whole thing.
I decided then to ignore it for the time being. Perhaps after the game was launched, had been out for a while, then it would have better guides or maybe even some in-game tutorial somewhere. Well, the game was launched, no in-game tutorial and the guides didn't suddenly make me completely understand the harvesting mini-game. There are some fan sites that can tell where you to harvest certain things though, so at least that is already a big help. I think I also understand the harvesting mini-game better but it still feels like it is heavily dependent on the RNG and it still frustrates me when I need a specific harvest and the damned RNG won't give it to me. Still, doesn't feel nearly as bad as during the beta though.
The crafting mini-game, called Synthesis in Final Fantasy XIV, is also deceptively simple. This is another area I still don't understand completely but at least it is not nearly as frustrating as harvesting. What I liked about it however is that you had to balance an items durability and quality. Let the durability falls too much and it would certainly blow up in your face before you even finished it. Let the quality be too low and you wouldn't get as much money from the crafting levequests.
To me this was a cool system. It meant that I had to actually make some effort into crafting and that effort would affect the final outcome. I am just not sure yet if that final outcome also matters for items to be used by the players or just for the levequests. Either way, I like it.
What I do find annoying as hell though is the fact there is no recipe book. The closest thing there is to it right now is a list of the last 6 or so recipes you learned through a levequest and the last 6 items you crafted. This is a very tiny list of everything you can craft. So to find out a more comprehensive list of what I can actually craft as well as what are the necessary materials I need to look at fan sites.
Another annoyance, one I found out this weekend, is that some of the items I want to craft requires materials that require a class ranking higher than what I have. Heck, the rank for those materials is even higher than the gear it will be used to craft! Apparently it is also common for synthesis of higher rank gear to require some very low level rank material. Again, I can only guess why they did things this way. My guess is they were expecting people to make contacts to acquire those materials as well as to serve as basis for a player economy.
Yes, that means I can buy the materials that are out of reach for me. But it can also get expensive very fast considering the amount of materials an item can require.
Again it seems they will be changing things in the next patch. They will be revamping the the recipes so it is more sane as well as removing some materials that hasn't been circulating much. The current recipes and materials will stay for a while so people can still use them. But eventually they won't be available anymore. Still no word about a proper recipe book.
There are a few other things that I think could have been done better. But those either have been changed to make it more bearable or there will be additions to make them disappear completely.
Everybody makes mistakes. Not everybody tries to make amends though.
Shortly after release, there were news all over the place that that, to put it lightly, Final Fantasy XIV launch didn't succeed as well as it was hoped for. Square-Enix quickly went to try to make amends to player's disappointments by announcing it wouldn't charge for the game's first month of subscription as they worked on the games issues. Then later on they announced they would charged yet another month as the work was still going on. Finally they announced they wouldn't charge any subscription at all until the game was in a point they deemed it could offer a good game experience for its players. To this day, there hasn't yet been any subscription charged or announcement that this will be changing.
Just that would be enough to, if not make me like the game, at least earn my respect for the game company. A company of the port of Square-Enix doing something like that was something I would never expect. That they did it speaks a lot about the company for me.
They didn't stop just there though. At some point, the original game producer, Hiromichi Tanaka was substituted by a new one, a guy called Naoki Yoshida, aka Yoshi-P. This change came with the promise of a more communication with the players and a change in direction in the game's design to address game issues the players feel doesn't work or stuff they feel need to be implemented.
When this announcement arrived I was apprehensive. I feared they would gut the game and turn it into Yet Another MMORPG. I will admit I worry a lot, most of the time without any reason. It is hard to avoid, given that I Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Still I don't find that my worries were totally ungrounded, after all there is precedence of something like that happening in the case of the Star Wars Galaxies infamous New Game Experience, where the game was pretty much redesigned after launch, when it already had a decent player base, effectively alienating them.
Fortunately my worries have been so far unfounded. What Yoshi-P has done so far seems to be trying to remove layers of unecessary complexity that either detracts from the core of the game or just brings aggravation to the players. He also has adding more traditional MMORPG elements, like auto-attacks, quests in the traditional MMORPG sense (moving the story ones to the status of Main Quest Storylines, I guess) and so on. All the changes I mentioned before are due to the work he has been doing.
Everything is done with the most transparency as possible as he often makes a post of every issue that the team has been discussing, what is the work status on it and what is the final goal with it. Again, this is not something that I would expect from any big game developer and it is refreshing. It ensures there won't be any big change dropping out of nowhere, changing the game with only a week prior of notice to get feedback or giving the feel that someone on whim decided to do it. In other words, it feels a more respectful way to handle changes to the game.
I also can't say I envy his job. It is hard task to balance eliminating parts that actually go counter the game's core as well as adding things to, if not enhance it, at least not create more problems. So far Yoshi-P and his team has done a good job in my opinion.
In the Future
If they announced tomorrow that they would starting charging subscription for the game starting next month would I continue playing the game?
Well, despite my overall negative tone on this post, the truth is I don't know. I do believe the core of the game is good. And there were certain good points about it (switching classes at will, being able to craft anywhere, etc) that I didn't mention. Also, like I wrote above, I do believe Yoshi-P is going in the right direction, so the prospect for the future is good.
Would I recommend it to anyone? No, at is now, I wouldn't. Well, except maybe for a really die-hard Final Fantasy fan. But then again, a person like that would play the game without anyone recommending it to them anyway.
For now what I intent to do is play the game more than I did in the past year. Because, despite all the problems, I still think there is good stuff out there to be found and explored. Because there is still enough on it to make it feel not like a Final Fantasy MMORPG. But feel like it is the Final Fantasy MMORPG.