Costa del Sol at dawn
When Final Fantasy 14 came out in version 1, it was vilified by the majority of players because it worked so badly. There was no auction house, no bank, no end-game content – all pretty much standard fare on MMOs. And the servers simply could not cope with the demands of the game. You could wait for seconds for a menu to open, and lag was endemic on all but the most powerful computers.
Nevertheless, as someone who played it from start to finish, I have to say that version 1 did at least try to be innovative. One of the good things it did was to break with its predecessor’s mold when it came to solo play. In FF11 [the first Final Fantasy MMO], even ordinary mobs were so hard, only a competent group could take them down, hence a group was needed for all progress beyond level 10.
By contrast, Final Fantasy 14 Version 1 allowed casual players to progress by themselves! It also allowed players to progress via battling, crafting or gathering – i.e. if you liked crafting better than fighting, you could do your crafts and level up your character without ever having to fight.
For those who did like to fight, anything was possible. You could customize your character’s skillset by taking cross-class skills from other melee and casting classes – i.e. your warrior could use a ranged skill or cast a spell if that was how you wanted to play it. The choice was yours.
And finally, although Version 1 did have a very interesting storyline, it was an added ‘extra’, meaning you could spend time on it or not. There were a few things you ‘had’ to do, but mostly the choice was yours. In this sense, it was more like what we now call a ‘sandbox’ than a standard MMO.
For those who don’t know, the term ‘sandbox‘ refers to:
‘… a style of game in which minimal character limitations are placed on the gamer, allowing the gamer to roam and change a virtual world at will.’
Too much choice? Too much freedom? Or simply a case of throwing the good out with the bad?
I don’t know, but a very vocal segment of the Version 1 players hated the game and felt ‘cheated’. As a result, the version 1 team was dumped and a different team took over. They rebuilt FF14 from the ground up, and when version 2.0 finally launched, it was as bright and shiny as a newly minted gold coin. Everything worked [except the payment system], and everything was beautiful.
The world was graphically stunning and did not require bleeding edge computer hardware to run. There was no lag. Everything ran like clockwork and crafting was once again an exciting mini-game where ‘luck’ was balanced with skill.
But to counter all these goodies, some of the most desirable early features – ‘carrots’ – could only be unlocked via the main storyline, and the main storyline required that you complete a number of low level dungeons [the ‘stick’].So, for example, you could not unlock retainers [a kind of ‘bank’ mechanism] without completing the first three dungeons. To unlock the ability to ride a mount, you had to complete a 4th dungeon.
Now I know that 98% of gamers will not find the running of dungeons a hardship. In fact, I know that most would be devastated to find that a game did not have dungeons, so these gamers would not even see the carrot-and-stick mechanism at play. They are the norm, not old ladies like me. But even young gamers can resent the lack of choice.
The linear straitjacket of the main storyline came into sharp focus with the advent of version 3, Heavensward. Not only would gamers have to be at level cap – i.e. at level 50 – to play the new content, they would also have to complete every last bit of the main storyline from the previous version.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the main storyline comprises scores and scores of quests, dungeons and trials. Skip any part of the storyline and you can’t even see what the new Heavensward areas look like.
So let me recap. To play the Heavensward expansion, players need to:
- buy the expansion
- reach level 50
- AND complete the entire version 2.xx storyline
As someone who hates dungeons, it literally took me months to complete the storyline requirement, but even a ‘normal’ player would need at least a week. That is a lot of delayed gratification for someone who’s already at level cap.
Like me, a lot of returning players did slog through the storyline to get to the carrot, but I wonder whether they thought the effort was worth it?
I’m about half way through the expansion, and I have to say, I am disappointed. Heavensward was promoted as this new, shiny thing with lots of yummy toys, but the reality falls short of the hype, at least for me.
One of the pretties we all looked forward to was flying mounts, and sure enough, once I slogged through yet more of the storyline, I was given a rather elegant black choco – the first of the flying mounts on offer. But, of course, the damn chocobo wouldn’t fly, would it?
In Heavensward, you may get a flying mount, but the ability to make it actually fly requires that you unlock all the aether currents in an ‘area’ [or zone]. You are given a kind of aether current compass and told to go exploring…on foot. No problem. But then you discover that there are two kinds of aether currents:
- those you can discover via exploration and
- those you can only unlock by doing quests
I should point out that these are sidequests, not part of the main storyline. Yet, lo and behold, one of the aether current quests in the very first area sends you to…a dungeon. And you have to unlock ALL the currents before you can fly.
Did I mention I hate dungeons? Not only do they stress me out, they also eat into my life because on my server, the only time I can realistically expect to get a group is in the morning [timezone disparity between Australia and the rest of the world]. But I work. I have a life. Bah…
Suffice it to say that it’s taken me weeks to get around to running that stupid dungeon. I can now fly, but only in one area. This means that all the gathering I need to do in the next [higher level area] is on foot, again, because of course flying in that area is not yet unlocked.
And this brings me to more of the Heavensward straitjacket. The new map is huge, yet I can only access three areas of it:
- Cloud Top
- Western Coerthas
- Dravanian Forelands
Why? Because the higher areas can only be unlocked via the main storyline. And you guessed it, the next part of the main storyline requires that I do a dungeon, one that even experienced dungeon runners describe as ‘tricky’.
I can understand how connecting up all the content would make sense, from a game developer’s point of view. If you force gamers to complete the majority of the content in order to progress, you are getting the most bang for your buck from that content. But that does not necessarily make for a great gaming experience…for the gamer.
To me, a great gaming experience is one in which there are independent content streams that allow me to control how and when I play. If I want to do nothing but crafting, I should be able to do that. If I want to play solo, I should be able to do that. If I want to chat to people and develop in-game friendships, I should be allowed to do that without being forced into some artificial model of ‘community’.
In other words, I should be treated like an adult and given the right to choose. It can be done. In fact it has been done, very successfully, by MMOs like Guild Wars 2 [GW2].
I played GW2 for quite some time in between Final Fantasy 14 versions 1 and 2, and I really enjoyed it. Fun and innovative are two things that immediately spring to mind. It was also a free-to-play MMO. But there were things it lacked – like player housing, and mounts. And although much more attractive graphically than say, World of Warcraft, GW2 has never been as beautiful as Final Fantasy 14.
It may sound a bit twee to talk about beauty in an MMO, but there are times in Final Fantasy 14 when I literally catch my breath in wonder at how lovely a scene is. The game has weather, and a day/night cycle, and lighting that shifts subtly with the time of day and the weather pattern. It feels as real as a 2 dimensional world can get, and I love it…
But as an adult, I feel as if Final Fantasy 14 is squeezing me through one of those sausage making machines, and I don’t like it.
Will I leave? I don’t know. I’ve been subscribed to FF14 for over 720 days. That’s a long time, and I have a lot invested in the game, including my house. If I unsubscribe, my characters will probably remain in storage on some server somewhere, but I know that my house will be ‘repossessed’ to allow other gamers the privilege of owning a house. Because, of course, there is not enough housing to go around.
So there are consequences with leaving, even just for a few months.
For now I’m going to trudge my way through Heavensward, but with Christmas approaching, I may start hinting to the Daughter that I wouldn’t mind being given the new Guild Wars 2 expansion. She has been playing it and loves it. And many of the things she tells me about the game sound innovative and fresh and new…