Monday, July 6, 2015

Decisions, Decisions: FFXIV, Villagers and Heroes

If there's one thing I really don't like it's making decisions. I don't even much like making choices. In life there's not much you can do about that. As Syl said in a recent, eloquent and moving post, "This is life and it’s happening to everybody!"

MMORPGs, however, are not "life", even though they are places where we can, if we so choose, imagine that we live. For all that we try to deny it they are, ultimately, artificial constructs following arbitrary rules. As such many, although by no means all, of the choices within each game are mandated by their makers. Most require no more from the player than mere compliance.

That should make the whole process more palatable for a choice-denier. You'd think. The hard work has been done by someone else. The decisions have all been made. The only thing left to do is countersign the paperwork. And yet, somehow, it doesn't always feel that way.

Syp announced today, apparently as much to his own surprise as that of his readers, that he's taken out a subscription to FFXIV, a game he only managed to spend half an hour playing on his first attempt and of whose impulsive purchase two years ago the best he could say was "...that’s a $30 I really regret spending."

Unlike Syp I fell into FFXIV like a warm bath on a cold day but by the time the first thirty days were up the water had gone cold and I was more than ready to get out. Yet, If there was one thing I should have enjoyed about the game, it was the complete absence of any requirement whatsoever to make decisions. In that respect it ought to have been perfection. It was very far from being anything of the kind.

There were a number of reasons why I fell out of love with FFXIV but the extreme lack of
personal agency was high among them. When it comes to making choices in FFXIV nothing really matters. That might start out feeling liberating but the walls soon begin to close in.

You only need one character because everyone can be everything. A single character can level up all the classes through the Job system and max out all the gathering and crafting professions on top of that. A simple Fantasia potion available as a veteran reward or through the cash shop even lets you change your race. There's no chance of getting anything wrong, ever.

With no decisions needed on what or who to be rest assured you'll never be in any doubt where to go or what to do either. The entirety of the gameplay sometimes (often) feels like little more than an elaborate framing device for the true content, which is, of course, the Cut Scenes. As cut scenes go they're pretty good but Mercury of Light Falls Gracefully neatly sums up my own reaction: "I can’t say that I wouldn’t have rather watched it in the form of a movie".

The main storyline, which cannot be omitted, skipped or skimped unless you opt out of
character progression entirely, dictates the pace and direction of your journey from character creation until at least as far as where I parted company with the game in the mid-30s. From what I read nothing much changes thereafter.

My strongest objection was to the forced grouping but the entire tenor of the enterprise, MMO by diktat, felt increasingly objectionable. Every MMORPG nowadays seems to take authored narrative as a given but FFXIV really takes it to extremes.

The game is, without any doubt, the most paternalistic MMO I have ever played, filled with an all-pervading miasma of Daddy Knows Best. The imprimatur of its autocratic creator hangs over every sumptuous setting from staterooms to farmsteads. The decision to walk away and return to Tyria felt like being let out of a stifling, stuffy, shuttered room into glorious, open countryside stretching in all directions to a horizon far-distant under a vast, open sky.

So, choices, decisions: it seems they are good for something after all. I'll try and remember that when I next log into Villagers and Heroes. I've been following the core storyline there with interest and admiration.

Rather than the main line that passes through all stations common to most MMO central narratives it's more like a meandering path through a forest. Often it wanders off among the trees, splitting into lesser tracks, some of which eventually wind back around to rejoin the main pathway, others which peter out or come to a dead end leaving you to retrace your steps. It feels so much more organic that way, unpressured, almost anarchic. Enticing and inviting and somehow mine.

Which is why it was such a shock to come at last to a very definite decision point. I'd been so wrapped up in the investigation that I forgot there's always that final scene in a whodunnit, the one where the detective goes through all the suspects and dismisses each in turn before, finally, revealing that it could Only Have Been One Person All Along.

There are four possible candidates for the role of Malicious Miscreant and now I have to decide which of them it is. As I said at the beginning, if there's one thing I really don't like it's making decisions. Turns out the only thing that's worse is having someone else make them for you.

Eeny meeny miny moe....


  1. Is that not a good thing though? That rather than take a kitchen sink approach to their audience, it's focused and continually triages folks while leveling up. It's population would indicate that it's wide enough to be sustainable, yet the design is rigid enough to put a fair amount of people off.

    And the game at 50 (60 too from what I read) is the same as when leveling, meaning there's no jarring "end game" that makes no sense compared to what you saw before (ESO, WoW, WS, SWTOR). By the time you've reach max level, you've done 20 or so dungeons, and a dozen raids. You're used to it, and it keeps going.

    1. FFXIV has one of the tightest designs I've ever seen in an MMO. From what I saw it really does not support the kind of gameplay I prefer, namely wandering aimlessly about getting into to trouble and raising an army of characters few if any of whom ever reach the level cap let alone the "end game". I think it's an excellent MMO for people who thrive on very linear, directed content and there are lots of people on that bus. I'm definitely not one of them though.

      It interests me that the further I get from having played it the less fondly I think of it. I certainly loved it for a short while and it seems like I should have a much warmer, nostalgic feeling for it now than I do. Still working on why that might be...

  2. I can honestly say that I don't get the issue with forced grouping. Most blogs or reviews about it sound more of "I don't wanna because you are MAKING me do it!" Which just sounds spoiled or bratty to me. I mean, what's the big deal? You'd probably group up with people anyway if it was sufficiently hard enough.

    And, speaking honestly? You don't really have a right to talk about levelling all of the things considering you never made it past, what was it, 30? It's not that easy or simple. There's a limited amount of quests, limited bag space, high amount of experience needed to be earned, and attribute points. You think just anyone can level all of the things? No, there's a ton of grinding and patience that has to go into it.

    That's not even getting into speccing your relic weapon either.

    I don't mind people not liking FFXIV - everyone's entitled to their opinion - but you really shouldn't talk as if you made it past the levelling process for the story or have gotten all of the things. You honestly don't know enough to talk about it. You can talk about the problem for the first 30 levels...sort of (you played before patch 2.1 which introduced commendations and roulettes which did wonders for the community), but please don't make a post as if you know the whole game.

    1. I certainly didn't mean to suggest "leveling all the things" was simple. Or quick. If it was I'd be a lot more inclined to accept it since it would be feasible then to make one of every race/gender combo that appeals and work all of them up in a manageable period. I don't think that's a goer though although maybe someone can tell me I'm wrong.

      I just like to have a lot of characters in any MMO I stick with and the mechanics of FFXIV don't appear to encourage it. Other people love that. Doesn't mean it's good or bad per se but it does mean it suits some people and not others and it doesn't suit me.

      The issue with "forced grouping" is psychological. If you don't have the type of personality that finds it stressful then of course you won't get it. It's a form of social anxiety. As it happens it doesn't particularly affect me although it does irritate me in terms of game design because I think it's inelegant and outmoded. Mrs Bhagpuss found it more difficult than I did and the fact that she didn't enjoy was a problem in itself as far as making the game a long-term choice went.

      I quite like doing dungeons, instanced or open, but I don't like doing them over and over and I especially don't like doing them over and over as a form of progression. I think that can be a lot of fun if you do it with friends but then so can most things. I'd actually like to get back to doing dungeons with the same group of people some day. I haven't done it at all for over three years and not as my main gameplay for a decade and more. I don't think FFXIV is going to be the game where that happens but who knows?

      As for not being allowed an opinion, well, it's my blog and I'll say what I like on it. It may be ignorant, uninformed and inaccurate - it often is - but that's blogs for you! I don't think I posted as if I claimed to know the whole game in terms of content but the tenor, which is what I was describing, is something that permeates every game from top to bottom and a few hours in any of them tends to give you the feel for how the whole thing will go.

      The thing is, I did like FFXIV a lot - go back and read the slew of effusively positive posts I wrote about it while I was playing if you want to see how much I enjoyed my time there. I'm just trying to work out why, given my good feelings about it then, I feel so disinclined to go back. There are a lot of MMOs I've enjoyed less but would return to more willingly and that's a puzzle.

    2. I wasn't saying you aren't allowed an opinion, I asked you to please not make it sound as if you know the game inside and out (a tone that comes through in this post).

      As for forced grouping, I am extremely shy and get quite nervous when working with others. However, I also think that the point of an MMORPG - at least a themepark - is to be grouped with others. If you play with friends, so much the better, but there's nothing wrong with the game getting you to work with others. At least a third of my friend's list comes from people I met in these instances. So, I can't really see the perspective - maybe I'm just more laidback? I tend to take things as they come rather than fret over it. While I get nervous when I'm doing it because of my perfectionist streak and severe dislike of being seen as the "problem" in the group, I tend to just roll with it. Condractary a bit maybe?

      And, the only reason people say FFXIV isn't alt friendly is, well, because the game doesn't give you bonuses for alts. What you unlock on one doesn't unlock on the other, have to do the story for each one, and can't trade between them without a Guild Chest. It's faster to level through the story and alts if you want to do all of the classes because of limited quests and the story providing a lot of experience. Plus lock outs are between characters rather than accounts.

      Anyway, the reason you didn't enjoy seemed obvious to me: you wanted something without a central focus. Not quite a sandbox but not exactly a themepark. I personally call it a Mall-type MMO.

      Sandbox throws you to the wolves - sending you out with no help and no guidance.

      Themeparks have you go from attraction to attraction and what you see of the ride is what you know what you are getting with little attractions to enjoy along the way to the main point - the rides.

      A Mall however puts you in the center of many stores - you wander from location to location but unlike a sandbox, stores are flashy and indicate what they are. You know where to go because there are signs and advertisments. However, unlike a themepark, a mall also treats every store with equal importance but they are skippable - there's no "if you haven't been to this store you've really missed out" in the same way a themepark ride is. You enjoy the side quest store more than the main quest store, so you walk past the main quest store and experience the mall through the side quest store with no forced incentive to go through the main quest store. Each store is a main attraction while themepark attraction are one kind of attraction done differently.

      It would be like a themepark commercializing their hotdog stand and ring toss with the same level of care, money, and love as their new rollercoaster. That you can experience your whole time at ring toss and say you legitimately experienced the main point of the themepark. That's not how themeparks are.

      The main point of a mall is to experience stores, but every store is different and has the same care. It's all equal.

      Sandbox - free range, no direction
      Themepark - on rails, strong direction
      Mall - free range, strong directions (yes plural)

    3. I think that's spot on and a very good description of what I'm generally looking for from any MMORPG, not just this one. Another analogy would be the difference between a formal banquet, where you have no choice in what order the courses arrive and a stand-up buffet, where you can wander around around and fill your plate with whatever you fancy.

      Mrs Bhagpuss and I both said at the time we decided not to carry on with FFXIV that we'd come back if and when the restrictions, as we saw them, were relaxed. My guess is that since FFXIV will probably last at least a decade and probably a lot longer than that the time will come when the leash will come off a lot of the earlier content. I think Yoshi P actually said something along those lines in an interview a good while back. We'd probably both want to have another go if that does happen because there was a lot we liked about the game and especially the world. We'd just have liked to be able to take it more at our own pace.

    4. Well, if nothing else, right now you and Mrs. Bhagpuss could enjoy the old content for the story from 2.0 to 2.55 since they doubled experience to remove MOST of the grind and a preformed party can go in undersized so you can duo all of the dungeons and primals. No buying Heavensward necessary for it either.

  3. I agree with your view on the prescriptiveness of FFXIV when you start but I fail to see how this is any different from most MMOs. If anything, the game does a far better job than most themeparks in branching out as you go along. When I log in, sometimes I craft, run dungeons, farm mats from nodes or mobs. Whatever i feel like doing. There is an initial narrowness in the design that they have chosen by funneling you through the main scenario. However, I understand and respect the choice they made. You would be surprised as to how many players are new to the genre or dont get simple concepts and ideas in the game. I think in the end the design choice was the right one. For MMO vets though, I can see it wearing thin.

    As for GW2 being some open countryside vs FFXIV: you must be joking. What can you get wrong in GW2 exactly and make mistakes on? Choosing your race? Trait allocation? The game is structured to be as painless as possible. The same as FFXIV except that FFXIV does incorporate more challenge in some of its content which could put off some casual players. ICosmetics are mostly locked behind the cash shop (unless you want to do an insane gil and RNG grind for shiny gear), crafting is largely useless, WvW is the same shallow game it has been at launch, you cannot reasonably move around high level zones as a newbie unless you wish to get one shotted. You must go through the levelling zone pattern prescribed, the same as FFXIV.

    What I think your main issue boils down to is the content you are compelled to do versus GW2. You do not seem to be a fan of instanced dungeon content and there is a lot of that in FFXIV. Completely understandable but GW2 is no less paternalistic than FFXIV, they simply pat you on the head in a different way. And GW2 will only get worse as gliding sounds mandatory to experience some of the new zone content.

    1. I haven't really been much of a fan of the direction GW2 has taken since the Karka Invasion three months after launch. It rapidly became very focused on grind, as you say, and that's now so ingrained in the entire structure that people don't even seem to realize it's there any more.

      The saving grace, though, is that you can ignore virtually all of it and just womble around doing any old thing, which is my preferred gameplay. I don't think you get locked out of anything much if you just go your own sweet way although the second season of Living Story did go down that road to a degree, which I didn't like very much. I preferred the focus on large open world events in Season One although those were by no means perfect either.

      On the "open countryside" thing I kind of meant that almost literally. I did find the zones in FFXIV claustrophobic after a while although at first they seemed very much the opposite. Can't put my finger on why but after a couple of weeks I began to feel slightly trapped. GW2's maps always seem very open - you can usually see a long way and the skies are huge. I spend a lot of time just running around in them enjoying the feeling of light and air or sitting and staring at the view.

      On "getting it wrong" I meant picking the wrong class or race and finding out you don't enjoy it. Although that's becoming a fairly hopeless task in most MMOs, GW2 included and I'm not sure we really want to be able to "get it wrong" anyway. I'm kind of waxing nostalgic for the days when it really mattered which race you chose let alone which class but as we all know if any race is perceived to have even a slight gameplay advantage no-one but hardcore roleplayers will play anything else so it probably was never sustainable.

      As for where GW2 is going in the expansion I dread to think. Nowhere good is the safe bet.

  4. I see your point on the original zones in FFXIV and claustrophobia. I got it now and again and compared to some of the new zones, I see why that is. It is a question of vertical scale. The mountains for example feel more like hills and overall they made structures man sized. The worlds feel smaller even though I believe the zones are the same or larger than GW2s. You can feel the difference in the Heavensward zones. They are far greater in scale and size. The world feels bigger. Even flying you feel the sheer scale and size.

    As for GW2, I will log in after over 18 months to see the new skill trees. Those should have been the ones released at launch or fixed thereafter. The originals ones were awful. As for the rest, they have lost their way. They had a solid foundation and did not improve upon it since launch really. They seem to be in a dangerous place hovering between freeform and implementing some grinding to enforce replayability. Somehow internally they seemed to have decided to take the easy road rather than try to figure out how to build upon what they had (although I would have thought they had an idea before launch lol). There are some weird gameplay concepts they are hinting at and the content looks light. The fact that they are enforcing progression for gliding says volumes about their view on the depth of content. If GW2 was still freeform, they would have given you the glider. Sort yourself out.
    The concept so far seems MOBA mixed with MMO grinding and some misguided attempt at PVP. Beautiful art though so maybe I will check it out on sale some time.

  5. My reservations regarding FFXIV mimic yours. If that means I like 'Mallparks'...sign me up.

    Too bad my rare spare time is nowadays mostly spent falling asleep, as V&H looks great, though I do miss non-human races. Speaking of which, I for one would be down with playing a Womble.

    1. I'd play a Womble but it might get a little repetitive - the gameplay would have to consist entirely of gathering.


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