I guess it’s confession time. I’m a gamer. Well, sorta. I should say that I like playing some kinds of games. I’m not a big fan of first-person shooters or real-time strategy games. I’m also not particularly interested in sports games, as the only sports I like that get video games made of them are soccer and hockey, and neither translates well to video games (in my opinion). I also tend to shy away from a lot of the major franchise games because I have no incentive to finish them…finishing them means I’m done with them, unless they contain some stupid “go back and collect stuff” element to them, which I surely won’t play anyway. So, this basically leaves me playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs or MMOs). I enjoy having a character which I can develop over time and grow with, getting to do cooler things as I learn to play. I don’t mind a monthly cost, because the truth is that, if things are going right, it’s a bit of a new game for me as time goes by, and I’m thus investing in an experience of ongoing entertainment. I’ve seriously played Final Fantasy XI Online (FFXI), City of Heroes (CoH), Eve Online, and World of Warcraft (WoW), out of which the only one to last in the long run has been WoW. It’s currently the 500-pound gorilla of MMOs, anyway, so I will likely end up using some comparisons as I go.
Anyway, I almost didn’t get started with Final Fantasy XIV because I did, at one point, play FFXI fairly seriously. You might ask why I wouldn’t play the sequel of something that I played seriously, and the answer is very simple– FFXI was terrible. Building a large, persistent world is a different exercise from building a stand-alone game, and it was clear that Square Enix (SE) hadn’t thought a few things through clearly. The world was too large to travel in an efficient manner on foot. Monsters could pursue a player across a long distance, attacking endlessly, meaning that there really was no running away from a fight gone bad. Dying cost experience points and levels, which was made worse by the focus on social play above a certain level, since you could lose experience points for the mistakes of other people. The quest tracking system was utterly useless at helping you complete quests. There were some nice things about it…not the least of which was that, as a poor grad student, playing FFXI on my Playstation 2 was cheaper than upgrading my computer. But that couldn’t make up for a game that was nothing but painful grind, running across endless terrain, and lacking the UI needed for its quest system. It pretty much looked like someone had taken a Final Fantasy and simply did the minimum necessary to make it an MMO without further thought.
It almost turned me off to the entire genre, in fact, though CoH ultimately kept me trying out MMOs.
You can tell I love long intros because I’m just now getting warmed up.
So, here we go. Executive summary: FFXIV is actually a pretty good MMO, provided that you already know how to play an MMO.
Okay. Now, let’s get down to the tale of the tape.
User Interface (UI): Most people would start with character creation. That’s bass-ackward. You’ll deal with the overall UI far more than you’ll deal with anything else. If it’s a crap UI, even a great game will be dragged down. That’s the problem with Eve Online, for example. To be frank, I’m ambivalent about the FFXIV UI. SE is trying very hard to produce one common UI that will be everything to everyone, regardless of what platform and controller set they use. It needs to play well on a gamepad but also work for the keyboard and mouse crowd. The result is a UI that doesn’t feel quite right at first. For example, it at first feels awkward to not have the camera follow your player from behind most of the time. Interacting with NPCs and interactive objects feels overly simplified and even clumsy. Eventually, once you accept that SE considers the keyboard to essentially be like a gamepad, you get used to the controls, at which point things seem easy and normal. This lasts until you try to change your gear (which you will do frequently) or change your action bar (which you will also do frequently), and find that everything takes four or five steps to do, that two of those steps are needless confirmations, and that you’ll have to wait a few seconds somewhere in there, likely due to incredibly pointless amounts of client-server interaction. I’m sorry, but it should not take several seconds to get the price list from an NPC vendor or for an equipped action to appear on my action bar. Those things should happen quickly and smoothly. The crafting UI is a great example of a pointless series of steps. First, you put the ingredients in the ingredient slots and pick the tool with which you’ll craft. This will give you a list of products you can make. You choose one from the list, and then you get a separate window showing you how many elemental crystals/shards that recipe will consume and asking you if you’re sure you want to make it. Jumping through that many hoops to make a batch of materials is uselessly wearing, especially given that you have no book of your recipes. Compare this with WoW, where you first look up the recipe you wish to make, check and see that you have enough raw materials, and then simply click “create” to get started. SE has done a lot of interesting things with crafting (more on that below), but I feel like they must have never actually stopped and though about what a real human being might want to know at any moment and whether or not having that information up front would be useful.
I have a lingering suspicion as to why more information isn’t available at a glance. Basically, since SE is planning on this game including consoles, and these consoles can display on standard definition televisions, SE has to design the UI to the lowest resolution. Less information per window; more windows. They really, really need a dedicated designer to consider this issue in light of the complexities of the game, though. If you’re going to fight with one hand tied behind your back, you should do yourself a favor and at least find a kung fu master wise in the ways of single arm tactics. Otherwise, you’re going to lose and you’re going to make a mess.
This brings me up to the in-game UI rather than just the windowing system. I promise I won’t make too many comparisons to WoW, but there are just some cases where it’s a really damned good idea to. You see, until you reach the endgame material, WoW is a quest-centric game. You spend a lot of time doing errands for the various NPCs…most of which break down to killing a certain number of monsters for them. Blizzard (WoW’s creators) recognized the quest-based nature of this and gave the player a hand– anyone who could issue you a quest has a visible question-mark over their heads, and anyone for whom you’ve completed a quest has a visible exclamation-point over their heads. FFXIV has tried to be vaguely helpful in this regard, as well. It’s easy to find “guildleves,” as they’re called, and you always start one at a clearly marked location, and your active one highlights an area on your map where you should go, and when you’re done…you get a free teleport back to the camp where you started the quest. Wonderful! This works quite well, except for the fact that…that’s only true of quests where you kill monsters. The ones where you make items and deliver them? With those, you’re completely on your own to find the NPC responsible for giving you the raw materials and you’re likewise on your own to find the NPC who takes the delivery. So much effort was put into streamlining one type of quest and none into the other. This smacks of rushed design.
Character Creation and First Use: There’s a saying that you’ve got 5 minutes to hook a player. I actually think that’s why most games have a somewhat limited character creation process. You want to get the player in game and having fun, not shopping through a million avatar options and navigating statistics they’re too green to understand. FFXIV, in this regard, is pretty bog standard– pick a race, pick a few physical features, pick a little biographical detail, and get in the game. That’s when SE completely fails on their job hooking players. If I wasn’t already a seasoned MMO player, I would have had no idea what to do with myself. FFXIV makes a vague attempt at running you through a small plot arc, but it does nothing to indicate that you’re in one or what you should do next. It turns out the plot is motivated by talking to the right NPC, but I certainly didn’t know that and spent several minutes figuring that out. If that was my experience, as someone who plays a lot of these games, what is a first-time player going to think? Things do get a bit easier, as you’re introduced to an initial quest-giver and directed to some hoops to jump through, but there are several irritating breaks in the process. At one point, I was supposed to meet an NPC at the city gate. I go to the gate…no NPC. Turns out you need to leave the city yourself and then the NPC appears. There was also a point in the plot arc where I had to go visit one of the guild halls without being prompted to. A “first use” plot arc needs to be explicit and clear at all points. It’s hard enough learning the new controls, let alone the game mechanics. On this front, I have to say that SE has delivered a failure.
Combat: I haven’t played a Final Fantasy since FFXI, but I’m suspecting SE had intended FFXIV’s combat to reflect FFXII and FFXIII, and so I’m almost willing to give it a slight waiver. That said, I am having a hard time calling the combat experience a good one. The first problem is the lack of an auto attack. That’s not so bad, since you can spam your primary attack to similar effect. Where this becomes a problem, though, is in more complex scenarios where you might need to switch targets. Doing so quickly and elegantly doesn’t seem to be in the design, and I can’t count the number of times that I switched targets only to be informed that I wasn’t facing my new target. Not only does my character turn to address new targets…THERE IS NO “TURN” BUTTON! Where the “turn the character buttons” of A and D should be, you get “strafe” motion…the same as on the Q and E buttons. Let’s not forget that targeting a new enemy is done with the TAB key, and it doesn’t always auto-select from the current group attacking you or from the closest group. If you press the Esc key and lose your target, pressing TAB will first target yourself, not an enemy. The result is you can lose a few “turns” of combat just trying to get your bearings again. This painfully, painfully requires work. There seem to be great options for “Battle Regimens,” or coordinated group attacks, and I hope to see more of them in the future. Finding a party is pretty ad hoc right now, though, and my focus is on healing, so I wouldn’t know.
Character Development: This is, honestly, the big place where FFXIV is getting it right, and it’s the major reason I’m ignoring every other problem for a while. This is the only character development system that’s close to what I really want. FFXIV does away with the usual system of locking yourself into a single class and into a single role in groups. Instead, it allows you to change your class by changing your primary weapon, and you can mix and match the skills you learn from all of your different classes. This, ultimately, gives me what I’m looking for in an MMO– a career I can manage at my whims. In WoW, I played a hunter for a year, and when I finished the process of reaching level 80, I felt a little bored with the hunter player style and I got tired of long waits for dungeon groups. I was curious about, say, being a healer. Well, to do that, I start a new character as a priest and I start again at the bottom, and when I finally do pull myself up, hopefully, I won’t be bored with that, too. In FFXIV, you still need the “tank,” “damage-dealer,” and “healer” roles, but there are various ways to achieve characters that do that, and growing into a new role means learning the skills, but you get the benefit of already having a good skill base to start with. On top of that, if you’re really into crafting, you’re given a major leg up in FFXIV– crafting objects grants crafting skill points AND experience points, which means you can “craft your way to the top,” if that’s what you like. For the rest of us, it’s an incentive to craft at all. A shortcoming of WoW is that I don’t really see the crafting skills as universally handy…I really couldn’t make gear for my hunter that was as good as I’d receive from running dungeons.
Crafting: The crafting system is pretty large and it’s pretty rich. It looks like SE had planned for a lot of important gear to be crafted gear. I really like that. I’m not predisposed to crafting, but WoW generally made me feel like crafting, for most crafting disciplines, was an afterthought. On top of that, I believe SE has tried to make a bit of a game out of crafting, because there are ways to influence the results of your crafting in-process and there is some element of strategy to succeeding at new recipes. I give them a lot of points for good effort there. Unfortunately, I am really disappointed at a number of other aspects related to crafting. I think the worst of these is that there is no recipe book for players. A number of crafting quests end with you learning a new recipe. How is this recipe delivered to you? Through the freaking chat log! I didn’t even realize it was happening until I saw it in the corner of my eye in a quest. The implication seems to be that players are going to write these down themselves. The same logic should be applied to the map, then. Wasn’t making maps part of the fun of playing an RPG? No? Right. That’s why games have maps now.
Commerce: Sadly, this is more fail. I have no idea what SE was even thinking here. NPC market stalls don’t generally have a good indication of what they sell. There is no auction house, either, and instead there’s a player-to-player market bazaar that, after playing for several days, I still don’t really understand. It takes a “retainer” to do, but I don’t really understand the first thing about what’s going on there. I, therefore, have no idea how to buy better gear for my character. You’d think that was something I’d have figured out within 10 levels, but this is absolutely not the case. SE has a lot to answer for in their utter failure to enable an easy economy among the players, and they need to fix this soon. I have heard some people suggest an auction house early on leads to bad price fluctuations. That’s an absolute lie, though, because SE can manipulate auction house prices by injecting objects in the auction house at the price points they want. There is no clear thought there.
Bugs and Uptime: The uptime seems pretty good. The bugs? They’re not so good right now. Nothing’s crashing or anything, but it’s the little things that kill. One of them is, again, something SE could have learned from Blizzard. They decided they needed doors that automatically open when you walk up to them. There’s a bug, and sometimes you can run up to a door and it won’t open. In fact, it’ll stay stuck until you log out. There was no meaningful need for those doors at all, and they could have simply done like WoW did and designed buildings without doors. Why go the hard route when there’s no benefit? SE has also been exploring various gameplay exploits that have already come up. This is going to be a critical time for them to show that they can stay on top of their game, especially when it’s clear that it has some serious design problems to overcome.
Online Community: The FFXIV online community is actually pretty well developed for such a young game. Wikis are cropping up rich in information germane to getting started, running quests, crafting, etc. Recipe databases are quite rich. Player engagement is pretty good, all things considered. The problem, however, is that many of the things players are engaged over are making up for shortcomings in the game. We need encyclopedias of NPC locations because SE has made the NPCs difficult to locate. We need encyclopedias of crafting recipes because there’s no in-game recipe book. These things are covering up failings of design, not enhancing play. SE would, therefore, be really wise to look at what the communities are doing and using it as a guide to see what to fix. I do wonder if they have anyone skimming communities for that.
In Conclusion: Like I said…all I can say is that I’m ambivalent. I’m currently having fun logging in and getting my skills up. It’s neat trying to mix and match from the Conjurer and Thaumaturge classes to build a strong healer. I’d love to try the in-party experience, where I can actually try supporting teams as a healer, but party formation seems to not be happening much. There’s a whole lot wrong– the economy is terrible, there are bugs that need clear and immediate fixes, and the first use system needs a complete overhaul. If you’re a veteran MMO player, you know the general things you need, so it’s easier to look for them. As such, an experienced player who enjoys the Final Fantasy “universe” will probably get a kick out of it. It’s a scrappy little game with promise, and I especially am enjoying being on in the first few weeks of play because I don’t feel like a latecomer in a world of endgame players. Being “out of the gate” means suffering bugs and game tuning/design issues. The real question is whether or not SE is going to step up and make FFXIV the game it could be rather than the game it is.