Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Longstop Kicks The Bucket : FFXIV:ARR

Brayflox's Longstop is behind me at last. Getting there kicked up a good deal of debate and analysis in our linkshell, in various struggling groups and downstairs in our kitchen while making tea. The dungeon itself and its place in the overall narrative seem to me to exemplify a number of FFXIV's strengths and weaknesses, aspects of gameplay that I can only imagine will become more pronounced the further we progress both in levels and in the lifetime of the game.

The peculiar architectonics, wherein travel along a central narrative highway is both mandated yet perpetually interrupted, have already been covered here quite extensively. It's not an unfamiliar approach in MMO design but I can't recall any time I've ever seen it employed this zealously and intrusively.

Accepting, like it or not, that this is the framework within which we have no choice but to operate, we come to the flaws in the structure itself. Some of these appear to derive from the way the Duty Finder operates and some from the underlying rules about dungeon play.

Brace! Brace!
Dungeons in FFXIV are instanced and require a group of four to enter. Each dungeon has a level cap. It doesn't prevent higher level characters from entering but they will be down-leveled to the dungeon cap with any skills or abilities above that becoming unusable.

Entry to all dungeons is via the Duty Finder, at least as far as I can tell. Information in-game is non-existent and sources out-of-game are contradictory. You can pre-make your party but you still have to use the DF to gain access. I've seen it claimed that by pre-making a party you can avoid the DF's insistence on Tank/Healer/Two DPS. Even if that's the case, you still must have your full tally of four people.

Certain dungeons are added to your Duty Finder only when you reach a specific point in the main storyline. Whether there's another way to enter those I don't know. I somewhat doubt it. The intention seems to be that all dungeon access should be channeled through the Duty Finder, probably because FFXIV's server capacity for instances is limited. There are a lot of complaints about this at high level.

I am Dragon, hear me roar.
The Duty Finder, of course, is FFXIV's take on the Dungeon Finder first introduced to the genre by WoW and quickly adopted as standard by most MMOs. GW2, which took the brave decision of launching without one, is in the process of trialling its own version right now. They are notoriously awkward and unforgiving devices and this one is no exception.

Enough with the exposition already! On with the anecdotes.

Brayflox's Longstop is a beautifully designed hidden valley in which an adorable tribe of goblins has made its home. You arrive there in search of cheese (yes, really) only to find the poor goblins quivering in fear at the invasion of their peacefully valley by a bunch of scaly bullies. Oh, those pesky dragons!

There are four main battles, all with reptiles or amphibians: a Pelican (yes, I know. Trust me, it's a lizard), a Drake, an Eft and a Dragon. The first three are straightforward enough. The Dragon is a right old pain. IGN has a good, succinct rundown on the mechanics if anyone's interested.

Oh, you all look very determined now.
It took me several days and about a dozen attempts to get a party via the DF that was capable of killing that dragon. There's an option to join a party in progress, which I always check, and about 50% of the time I arrived with the whole dungeon bar the Dragon already cleared, as a replacement for someone who'd bailed as the party repeatedly wiped on the final battle. If only one DPS had bailed to let me in then on we'd go, inevitably to another failure because swapping in a new DPS is hardly likely to make much difference unless the new DPS is of the super-uber-awesome variety, which clearly I am not.

If, as occurred more than once, either the Healer or the Tank had left too, we'd all stand around twiddling our thumbs and whistling for a while just to appear sociable. Occasionally a Healer might pop in, take a look around, see there was no Tank and vanish. I never saw a Tank arrive to join a party in progress and the general feeling is, why would they bother? Soon enough someone would decide they'd counted off the requisite seconds to pass as adequately socialized, make a brief comment and leave. Anyone else left would follow, pronto. 

This pattern also occurred a couple of times at the start of the dungeon, where the original four members had been unable to defeat even the Pelican, who is the very first thing you have to get past even to get inside. When this happened I made my excuses very quickly and left, which turned embarrassing when the DF put me straight back into the same party after I re-queued. From that I learned to go and make a coffee between attempts.

Are you by any chance related to Tequatl? .
Only once did I join a party mid-dungeon, and it was one of the most enjoyable, if unproductive, runs I had. The Tank and one DPS had left. I didn't ask why but from what ensued I can only imagine whatever had happened had been their "fault", because the Scholar and Thaumaturge were both highly competent and pleasant company. They were also as aware as I was that we wouldn't be getting a Tank, but the Scholar suggested carrying on using my pet instead, not to finish the dungeon but at least to get some loot.

I dismissed Eggy the Ifrit and called up Carby the Squirrel-Bunny and off we went. We downed the Drake with Carby tanking like a good 'un. A nice upgrade belt dropped, on which I lost the roll. Then we cleared all the mobs on the way to two more chests in side rooms before moving on to the Hellbender fight. On the way the Thaumaturge managed to keep up to four mobs mezzed simultaneously in a bravura display of old-school crowd control. I complimented him on his mezzing and he replied "I don't know what that is, lol". I felt old.

We eventually wiped after a spirited attempt on the Hellbender. The timer was too far gone for another try (all dungeons have a 90 minute kick-out) so we thanked each other for a good group and went our seperate ways. It was the most fun I had in Brayflox and exemplifies two things that I most dislike about the dungeon system in FFXIV: you should be able to go in with any number or kind of classes from solo up to four and there should not be a timer. Other MMOs with instanced dungeons and automated finders still permit you to go your own way at your own pace if you wish and so should this one.

The Intrepid Three. Plus Carby. And a Faery. Alright, The Fearless Five!
In all my dozen or so attempts, only once did I see the entire dungeon from start to finish. It took about 45 passably entertaining minutes to get to the Dragon and another 45 distinctly unentertaining ones to fail to kill him. The sense of an hour and a half wasted was palpable. That's another problem. It's bad enough having the roadblocks in the narrative to begin with, but when each attempt requires first a queue that could last anything from a few seconds to the best part of an hour, followed by three-quarters of an hour clearing to get to the fight you couldn't do the last time, which you now get to attempt for another half an hour until someone cracks and quits, well that's not my idea of time well-spent.

It's true that some of this could be avoided, or at least mitigated, by joining a good Free Company, FFXIV's name for Guilds. Good FC's, like good guilds in any game, aren't as easy to find as all that, however, and the way the Duty Finder has been implemented suggests strongly that Square aren't expecting most of this content to be done in guild groups but in PUGs.

Eventually I did end up in a Party capable, just about, of downing the Dragon. I joined at the final fight and stood outside the purple line watching as the other three wiped. All boss fights in FFXIV dungeons put up a barrier fifteen seconds into the fight. I once managed to be on the inside with my pet locked outside. Presumably the intention is to prevent attritional bind-rushing tactics. GW2 added something similar to its dungeons a while back. Games developers tend to be intolerant of player workarounds for content that's "supposed" to be done in a certain way.

There's always time to explore.
The three of them did pretty well so I was optimistic of our chances with four and indeed we might have succeeded on the first full-party try had the Tank been able to speak, or read, English. He was a good tank. He knew the correct tactic (spin the dragon on its axis, interrupt its breath attack) and what's more he was capable of executing it efficiently. Unfortunately he also liked to use the Limit Break.

The Limit Break is an odd duck. As the Party fights a bar in the top left corner of the screen fills up. Two bars in fact. At any time any member of the party can trigger this "Limit Break" to devastating effect, an effect which differs depending on who unleashes it. For melee DPS it's single-target damage, ranged DPS sets off a large AE, Healers some kind of group heal and Tanks a big defence buff.

Since we were fine on the healing and not dying front, and there was just the one Dragon to kill, clearly use the Limit Break belonged to the cat kicking the lizard in the ribs. Only, the Tank would keep using it. We wiped, then wiped again. In both cases we would probably have won with a full direct-damage LB.

We asked the Tank nicely. We asked him with authority. He was doing a great job otherwise so we certainly didn't want to upset him. The only result was that next time he used it earlier. I'm guessing "Limit Break" and his name were the only words we were typing that he understood so he figured we must be telling him to use it and since he already was, well we must just mean use it faster.

We crossed the line. No going back now.
Finally the melee used it at half strength. before the Tank could get his hands on it and we got the job done. It was satisfying, but mostly in that "at least I never have to do that again" kind of way. Except, of course, I will, just with the scenery and the name of the mob changed. And the names of the countless players with whom I will try and fail and will never meet again.

Even now, with the game both new and highly populated, this particular dungeon is hardly fizzing with activity. Soon enough it will be difficult to find Parties through the DF willing to attempt it at all, let alone ones capable of succeeding. Apparently Yoshi-P has plans for dealing with that when it happens. That will be very welcome but I think some different design decisions could have made for a much more enjoyable experience right from the start.
  • Make the Storyline functionally optional
  • Add dungeons to the Duty Finder according to character level not Story.
  • Allow direct entry into dungeons without use of the Duty Finder.
  • Allow free composition of parties by class.
  • Allow solo, duo and trio access.
  • Allow the use of Companions
  • Remove the kick-out timer.
Those I would see as essential. I would personally also like to see the Level Cap become a Recommended Level. These are instances. If you want to farm a level 20 dungeon on your level 50, as you can in most other MMOs, that should be your choice. You're not getting in anyone's way.

Enough with the gratitude. Make with the cheese!
It would also allow for anti-social players to progress the storyline by overlevelling. It's not the business of game developers to socialize their customers, at least not beyond the basics covered by the EULA and its codes of behavior. If people want to keep themselves to themselves and it's possible to facilitate them without inconveniencing others that has to be a desirable outcome. After all, who wants to be grouped with people who don't want to group?

And finally, I would put a cap on failure for story quests. A Three Strikes Rule. Demonstrate your incompetence three times and you should get a pop-up asking you if you want to skip this stage. All games that purport to be telling a story as one of their primary attractions should have a "turn the page" mode that prevents roadblocks.

If that makes it less of a game and more of an Interactive Entertainment, well, I'm fine with that.





15 comments:

  1. Recently started FF14 and haven’t been to dungeon yet but your finding are bit worrying. Having said that many every games has its annoyances...

    “Make the Storyline functionally optional"
    I am in two minds about this. Lot of games have gated content and you have to do something in the game to unlock them. I am fine with this. However these games have independent gates but FF14 seems to have interlinked gates. I think they have taken this bit too far...

    "Add dungeons to the Duty Finder according to character level not Story."
    The story is sort of gated behind the level so dungeons are gated behind level and story. This doesn't bother me since I have used this in past MMO (EQ2, WoW).

    "Allow direct entry into dungeons without use of the Duty Finder."
    To me it doesn't matter how you enter dungeons but I guess your issue is that DF force you to have certain class make up?

    "Allow free composition of parties by class."
    "Remove the kick-out timer."
    This is really annoying. This is hand holding. If I want to take 4 tanks and wipe for the whole day then I should be allowed to...

    "Allow solo, duo and trio access."
    "Allow the use of Companions"
    I think dungeons should be for groups so I am against this but I see how this can be a "special" problem in FF14 with lot of things gated behind the main story.
    There is not lot of reason to group in FF14 so if you give solo, duo, companion access to dungeons then FF14 will turn into fest...

    “When this happened I made my excuses very quickly and left, which turned embarrassing when the DF put me straight back into the same party after I re-queued”

    Sorry but that was too funny and I had to laugh out! This happened to me once in another game lol.

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    1. Yoshi-P said eventually you will be able to bring Chocobo companions into dungeons. But not for a while, yet.

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    2. I remember that. I've told a few people and no-one believes it. He said it in the beta forums that we aren't ever allowed to discuss, didn't he? That's where I remember him saying they had planned for the drop-off in population in the lower levels and would adjust things accordingly when the time came. I just hope that doesn't mean, as I suspect it does, after the first expansion.

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  2. "It would also allow for anti-social players to progress the storyline by overlevelling. It's not the business of game developers to socialize their customers, at least not beyond the basics covered by the EULA and its codes of behavior. If people want to keep themselves to themselves and it's possible to facilitate them without inconveniencing others that has to be a desirable outcome. After all, who wants to be grouped with people who don't want to group? "

    Certain amount of forced grouping is good for the game. People need to play together in order to build bonds, friends and communities. This is what MMO are all about so if you let people solo they will solo and they won't play together and the MMO will die in the long run...

    "And finally, I would put a cap on failure for story quests. A Three Strikes Rule. Demonstrate your incompetence three times and you should get a pop-up asking you if you want to skip this stage. All games that purport to be telling a story as one of their primary attractions should have a "turn the page" mode that prevents roadblocks. "

    This will make the game a three mother or whatever they call it. Most people will take the path of least resistance so they will purposefully fail the quest 3 times to get the easy options. Once they take the easy option, beating the quest won't satisfy them (it might give them short term fun) and they will get bored of the game easily.

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  3. I'd say you will be fine in FFXIV. Yoshi-P, a self-confessed "hardcore gamer" says he's making it for people like him, with a whole lot of introductory training along the way to introduce people who aren't familiar with the mechanics or the culture of group-centric MMOs to the correct way of doing things.

    The problem with that approach is that the whole game feels very restrictive and controlling. I'm not suggesting making the dungeons easier so they can be soloed/duoed. I'm suggesting that they remain tuned for groups but if people want to attempt them with fewer people they should be allowed to find out for themselves whether or not they are up to the challenge.

    As for the narrative, I see it as a direct competitor with novels, comics, tv shows and movies, none of which require you to jump through hoops to watch or read a story. Despite all the longstanding efforts of the gaming industry to marry the two forms together, I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between the two concepts, most especially as it has been applied to MMOs. Maybe someone will get them to work in harmony one day, but so far they mostly seem to work in direct opposition.

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    1. @Bhagpuss

      "As for the narrative, I see it as a direct competitor with novels, comics, tv shows and movies, none of which require you to jump through hoops to watch or read a story."

      This isn't strictly true. Books and TV shows do make you "jump through hoops" to to get to story. There were lot of times I had to read and watch crap to get to good bits! In fact in good books and TV shows you have to re-read or watch multiple times to get at the good bit since they are well hidden. Sometimes you actually need other people to tell you the good bits since you yourself can’t figure them out. The point is other mediums do make you jump through hoops to get to the story as well but MMO requires you need other people’s helps to jump through these hoops....

      Book and TV shows are very bad at time gating than MMOs will ever be...

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    2. I don't think that's a fair analogy. No novel makes you go out of the house and shoot five pigeons with an air rifle before you can read the next chapter. No movie stops between scenes while the audience pair off to arm-wrestle, with only the winners being allowed back into the auditorium to watch the next scene. That's more like what happens in games.

      What you're describing is an issue with the quality of the content, not the delivery method. All narrative forms suffer from inconsistent quality.

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    3. @Bhagpuss

      I don't really understand you here. Are you saying that the requirement to clear a dungeon before you unlock part of the story in a MMO is same as "go out of the house and shoot five pigeons with an air rifle before you can read the next chapter" for a book? If yes then we have to agree to disagree on this point :)

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    4. Yes I am, although obviously that's an intentionally ridiculous example. Reading a book is just that: reading. You don't have to do anything other than turn the pages. Watching a movie, all you have to do is sit in the seat, face forward and keep your eyes open. When you look at most popular forms of narrative, what you're being required to do is watch, read or listen, sometimes in combination. It's intellectually and emotionally active but physically passive.

      What you're not usually required to do is act. You don't have to participate in the story in any way to make it continue.

      That's the extra element video games purport to bring to narrative. Gamers who like narrative (almost certainly a minority) are reasonably tolerant of being required to run around doing quests, solve puzzles, fight bad guys and so on because those are activities they already enjoy, so doing them in the service of a narrative adds value rather than takes it away.

      Gamers who don't like narrative tend to find the story, quest text and cut-scenes at best an irrelevance and more likely a damned nuisance. They click through as fast as possible to get back to the game part, or more likely they don't play games with a lot of narrative in the first place.

      Non-gamers utterly fail to see the point of having to do anything at all to get the next piece of the story to appear. They tend to see the whole process as laughable. Why would you want to sit at a computer clicking for 50 hours just to see a story that could be told in a movie in two hours, and it wouldn't be much of a movie at that?

      I fall into the camp of someone strongly interested in narrative who also games but is not a gamer. I'm sufficiently tolerant of gaming custom to tolerate being asked to act to push the story along, provided that that I'm being asked to do is both appropriate to the context (finding a clue, traveling to another location) and non-intrusive (doesn't take an unreasonably long time or an unreasonable amount of effort).

      Solo instances with combat push this envelope almost to breaking point for me. Once I start fighting things I am not really following a narrative any more. I can usually just about stomach them because they are tuned to be completed first time regardless of ability or skill. Take that to the next level and require parties and dungeons and difficulty levels that require repeated attempts and we are so far away from anything I recognize as a coherent narrative structure that my tolerance is stretched far beyond breaking point. I join the non-gamers who can't see the slightest point in even trying to tell a story by hitting things repeatedly in the head.

      I could go on (at some length!) but a comment thread probably isn't the place for my draft thesis on Video Games and Narrative Storytelling so yes, we probably had best agree to differ :P

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  4. I'm increasingly very, very happy about having a static group of friends to play with. The Longstop for us had two wipes, both at the part where Brayflox decides to "help" you in the manner of... well, your average "grab aggro and kite it straight to the healer" PUG-member. Unfortunately my antidotes decided to stop working in the end boss room (Things you never want to read: "You were hit by poison for 350 damage! Your "potion of antidote" had no effect!") and we nearly died there, but things came out okay in the end.

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    1. Yes, a static group or a pool of friends is the ideal for MMO play I think, even more so than a good guild. My personal Golden Age for grouping was largely based around a chat channel in Everquest, not a guild. Linkshells would work the same way.

      If the DF was server-based it would be the ideal way to get one started - I think ours in Everquest probably started out of LDoN groups where we met the same people often and got to know them without being guilded together. Unfortunately, the cross-server element makes that impossible in FFXIV, while the current queue times suggest it does need to be cross-server or no-one will get a party at all!

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  5. You do not have any points that I disagree. I think FF XIV right now is the perfect example of the developer/programmer ego or something. They formed this awesome story, and they are forcing players to play/watch/see the story unveil as they believe it was intended to be played/watched/seen.
    I agree with you (on your previous posts) that the story here is very good and the way they force the players works OK in consoles/single player games, I do not believe it fits well in MMO genre.

    Giving the option to use companions but taking away the ability to use DF or levy queues while you have a companion, giving you dungeons but forcing you to complete certain story steps before you gain access, giving you full freedom while picking your class and then forcing certain group formation before you can use dungeons, forcing a certain time limit (and inevitably promoting elitism in the long run) instead of letting you decide on your pace in dungeons are all examples of small but certain things that (I believe) will definitely alienate people. And don't let me start on the fact that FF XIV devs think it's OK to not have quest sharing in an MMO with a lot of old school quests.

    I hope Yoshi-P would change a lot more when they implement the ability to take companions in the dungeons (which I assume doesn't mean I can que solo to DF when I have my chocobo out).

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    1. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens to the population density when the first subscription month arrives. The quarterly cadence for major updates seems very cleverly paced to me. A lot of people will take three-month subs first time out and the update should arrive just as they are considering whether it's worth paying any more.

      There seems to be a good deal of discontent brewing at high level and the issues for new entrants and more casual players won't improve with the current mechanics. My guess is that a year or two from now FFXIV will be a looser, more casual experience during the leveling process than it is now and will be all the better for it, but I wouldn't expect any changes in the short term.

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  6. I would much rather FFXIV remain one man's vision and reconcile my differences to it then have it become a mediocre Every-MUD.

    Of course I agree with many of these things, anyone should be able to set foot in anything with anyone. I'm not a tyrant.

    The time limit does have one benefit. I discovered this in Aurum Vale. It's the first PUG I have had fail on me. It's a PUG-Breaker of the most brutal order and epic epic fun. We wiped, and wiped, and wiped, and wiped. Everyone was totally charming and totally determined to the bitter end. It would have been a terrible shame if one of us had to be the guy that called it. But Yoshi did it for us, and that was good.

    I really love this game, it's a meaty stew of things I love and things I hate in a rich charm gravy.

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    1. I do actually think Yoshi-P knows what he's doing. All the evidence so far suggests that he does. I reckon that in time he'll mold the game into something with a lot to offer all kinds of players and playstyles and many of the things I don't like about it will be mitigated or even removed.

      The problem from my end is that I expect he'll take a year or two to get there. That's fine, though. I can do something else while I wait and come back later.

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