Final Fantasy XIV November Update (and what I really want in an MMORPG)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Square Enix released their first major patch for Final Fantasy XIV.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, FFXIV is a pretty broken game.  I keep playing it for various mysterious reasons…mostly, it remains a simple morsel of fun to log into every couple of days, and WoW won’t be taking too much of my attention until Cataclysm comes out.  On top of that, SE has yet to actually charge me a monthly fee, so it’s still essentially free to me, even if it’s clear that the game was rushed and the PC release has been a form of testing for the PS3 release.  Eh…things happen.  Anyway, given how broken FFXIV is, any patch is likely to improve things, and the November patch has brought the game up a few notches.  The UI is indeed less laggy.  They’ve improved the inventory/gear screens a bit.  Everything does feel a little bit tighter in general, and so on that front, it’s great.

The biggest improvement, though, has been the way that experience points and skill points are awarded.  XP are points that affect your base stats; SP affect your advancement in your current main job.  Recall that FFXIV lets you change classes (or “jobs,” as they call them) simply by equipping the appropriate weapon.  Your particular blend of skills available is a mix-and-match of everything you’ve learned to date, meaning you can use magic even if you’re currently wielding a Gladiator’s sword.  Anyway, before the patch, SP was awarded in a semi-random fashion each time you successfully damaged or debuffed an enemy.  This system had two very chilling effects on play.  The first is that it encouraged advancement-focused players to spam their weakest attacks since weak attacks mean more attacks performed and thus more chances for SP.  Play was absolutely mind-numbing.  Why should I do DoT attacks when it robs me of SP?  Why should I use a nuke spell or AoE multiple foes?  So, the old SP system encouraged a single tactical style that was pretty boring.  The other chilling effect is that it significantly slowed the job progression for Conjurers (and I suspect for Thaumaturges, too).  Conjurers are squishy by nature, but are supposed to make up for this with great DPS spells.  Well…those spells, one of which is a great DoT counterattack, robbed Conjurers of SP opportunities.  When you also consider that Conjurer is the base class for a pure-healer build and that healing and buffing were really bad ways to build SP, the game effectively punished leveling Conjurers and especially healing-focused ones.  This was a gaping hole in job balance, and I suspect that, had it gone on long enough, you’d have seen these classes wither on the vine at the upper levels.

But, SE changed that, giving a base SP award plus some random bonus on each mob killed.  While they were at it, they made the SP gains at levels up to 20 much more generous.  Running six guildleves (quests, for you non-FFXIV players), I was able to pull myself through nearly two job levels in one night.  More importantly, though, the play was now finally fun.  Understanding why I now found it fun was also a really great view into what I want out of an MMORPG, and it’s, sadly, not something any MMORPG is prepared to offer in the long run.  No, not even WoW.

The new SP mechanics meant I no longer had to lock myself into one set of tactics to maximize SP.  It used to be that I’d do this– cast Protect, cast Stoneskin, spam Spirit Dart, occasionally hit Radiance to bleed off TP, cast Cure as necessary.  I’d either die or win.  That’s it.   My attack rotation was beyond rote and deeply boring.  Suddenly, though, I had new choices.  I could start a fight against paired foes (Amateur Footpad and Amateur Raider, for example) by doing an AoE DoT focused on one mob, then directly assault the other.  I could close distance on everyone and AoE nuke.  Or if there was too much of a crowd, I could switch AoE off and use a different set of tactics to knock down one mob quickly while holding the other at bay.  Shock Spikes, which stun and DoT against melee attacks, was now my friend again.  In short, every spell and ability I equipped was now a tool I could use to bring down my enemies.  Now everything was a fun challenge and not just a grind to do so I could level.

This paired up against a conversation I had with Agnieszka, the resident WoW expert in my life.  I have always had this vague impression in WoW that I would eventually get geared up sufficiently that I could give raiding a try.  After a few drinks, she rather kindly and bluntly told me I needed to just let it go…I’m not going to raid.  It takes more investment than I’ll give.  It’s a bit disheartening to know, but I think it’s likely true.  The reason it’s disheartening, though, is because I keep looking for moments in WoW that parallel what I was just given in FFXIV, and I’ve imagined…incorrectly…that raiding will give me those moments.  I remember back when I was leveling in WoW, there was a time when every other level gave me a new shot to try out.  Basically, there were two carrots moving me forward–  increasingly badass looking armor and knowing that, soon, I’d have to rethink my tactics.  That new shot was going to be something completely different and I’d have new ways to think about things.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in an MMORPG– an environment where I’m constantly having to make new tactical decisions to be effective.  That’s my flow and my sense of engagement, and it’s also why I don’t find myself being all that drawn back to a lot of the games out there, and it’s why I go in and out of engagement with WoW.  WoW, particularly as a hunter, is all about getting your stats up, getting and working your rotation to maximize your output, and following an objective “best play” for the situation you’re in.  It’s not an unreasonable idea to follow in game design, but it also doesn’t do a lot for me.  It’s not far off from why I’m not a competitive runner or cyclist– I just don’t get a kick out of working hard to get a single stat up.  I play sports because I want to make quick and interesting decisions and get in a state of flow with others who do, too, and that’s also why I game.  Now, I know WoW raiding does involve quick decisions, but as Agnieszka would point out to me, there’s almost always a right thing to do for any scenario.  Compare this with a game like Eve Online, where your fleet can use a vast variety of different ships as long as the players and fleet know how to use them to their best tactical advantages.  Unfortunately, Eve has its own issues that keep me from getting fully immersed in it, but its concept of tactics is one of the best things going for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a game with super-flexible character building, an excellent focus on tactics and co-developing character and play style, a clean UI that’s easy on the eyes, and a variety of player activity.  FFXIV had all sorts of promise to be that, but SE has a broken game on their hands that they’re still fixing (and will be for a while, though I’ll keep playing).  I really wish WoW had a less objective play style, but that’s just what it is.  I guess I’ll just have to keep crossing my fingers on The Secret World.

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