Monday, July 8, 2019

Trust And Hope: FFXIV

This morning I succumbed to peer group pressure and logged in to Final Fantasy XIV. Everyone's been talking about the latest expansion, Shadowbringers, for weeks now. It's having a similar effect on my willpower as water has on stone.

Oh, wait, no it isn't! It takes water centuries, millennia, to wear away stone. This is more like water dripping on a wedding cake someone left out in the rain.

Hang on, I'll go out and come in again.

So, obviously I haven't bought the new expansion because why would I? I didn't buy the last one or the one before that. I have a dark and troubled history with FFXIV.

I was entranced by the original trailer for the first version, way back in 2009. I applied for and was accepted into an early phase of what was to prove a rushed and hurried closed beta. There I found a game that, while appealing in many ways, was very clearly nowhere near ready.

The mood on the beta forums was volatile. Many, many testers pointed out, at length and in detail, all the things that were wrong, all which desperately needed fixing before launch. Others claimed everything was fine or if it wasn't it soon would be. Square Enix responded enigmatically or not at all.

In September 2010, after a brief open beta, Square Enix launched the game, virtually unchanged from the dry, slow, dull and, crucially, incomplete build we'd been telling them wouldn't fly. The critical response was savage. Players liked it even less.

I knew how bad it was because I'd been playing it all through beta, albeit not often and less and less as it became apparent nothing was going to change. And yet I still bought it. At least I think I did. I guess I must have, because the original CD is here on my desk as I type. Perhaps there was something magical about the world I didn't want to let go.

The same absolutely could not be said of the gameplay, which was stultifying. Square must have agreed because they extended the "free month" that came with the purchase of this subscription MMORPG, first by one more month, then two. 

By December 2010 the game, which continued to receive a mauling every time it was mentioned, (infrequently by then) seemed little improved. The subscription fee was waived indefinitely and the game effectively ran as a Free to Play title for the next two years.

While it was free, I dipped in and out. It became one of those games where I enjoyed sightseeing and hanging out but didn't feel the need to level up or really do anything beyond wander around taking screenshots. At least, I assume I took screenshots. I always take screenshots. Where they are now, though, I have no idea.

By January 2012 the game, which had finally received enough work to bring it up to minimum standard, was deemed good enough to charge money for. You needed a subscription to play, so I stopped.

As everyone knows, that wasn't the end. New director, Naoki Yoshida, had already deemed the game unsalvageable in its current form. He was deep in the process of rebuilding it from scratch, a project which took another year and a half.

In November 2012, FFXIV closed with a typically impressive trailer and an even more typical shambles in the game itself. A much lengthier alpha and beta schedule than the rushed version I'd been in followed but I chose not to subject myself to it. In retrospect that was probably a mistake since, as Giant Bomb puts it, "Unlike the original release's beta test, where nearly no feedback was taken into account, the game underwent a great many changes while in beta testing due to player feedback."

But once bitten... Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you? Apparently not. When the open beta arrived I played it and persuaded Mrs Bhagpuss to try it as well. And then we bought two copies when the game went live in August 2013.

FFXIV: A Realm Reborn, as it was now called, was a huge improvement in many ways, not least in the gameplay itself, which had evolved from what critics once derided as "dull, tedious, and outdated" (Giant Bomb op cit) to something that might, charitably, be described as "traditional".

In fact, combat still felt quite slow by modern MMO standards but it was undeniably an improvement. The world itself was much better. Gone were the peculiar invisible walls and the extremely obvious repeated tiles and textures. In came a wealth of quirky, characterful detail.

We were on sabbatical from  Guild Wars 2, which we'd been playing for a year. GW2 was a great MMORPG but we'd maybe kinda burned out a little. There was a non-trivial chance we might have chosen Eorzea over Tyria.

We didn't. There were a number of reasons but chief among them were two hardwired requirements: a) to progress through the main questline and b) to do it by grouping in instanced dungeons. Contrast that with GW2, where even now, after seven years, three accounts and seventeen Level 80 characters, I have never finished the original Personal Story, nor felt I needed to. As for five-player dungeons, far from being required, they're all but forgotten.

In FFXIV, as far as I know, you still have to go through the same progression via the Main Story Quest unless you choose to skip it entirely. You can begin in the expansion of your choice if you prefer: that's an option.. What you can't do is play through only the parts that interest you. Neither can you play through the dungeons on your own, using some kind of "story mode", as is common in other MMORPGs.

Or, I should say, you can't yet. One of the less-heralded features of the new Shadowbringers expansion is the "Trust" system. I paid very little attention in the lead-up to the expansion, so the first I heard of it was in this post at Blessing of Kings.

It reminds me strongly of the original Guild Wars, where you could choose to play group content with a team of AI-controled NPCs rather than rely on the vagaries of pick-up groups. The mechanic is being promoted on the basis that it helps players, especially those with DPS characters, to avoid long LFG queues, something you'd imagine wouldn't be a major problem in brand-new, required content in the latest expansion for a popular game like FFXIV.

It seems like an excellent solution to a problem much more likely to exist lower down the game, that of getting new or returning players through existing content rather than encouraging them to skip it altogether. It also seems like a good way to encourage a demographic that has, until now, very probably looked at FFXIV with some suspicion to take another look.

As yet there's no word on whether the Trust system will be retro-fitted to the rest of the game but I would lay odds it will. Eventually. I have some issues with Naoki Yoshida's hyper-paternalistic approach but one thing I will give him credit for is this: he knows how to manage an MMORPG for maximum effect over its anticipated lifetime.

FFXIV is being run in the way ArenaNet claimed they would run GW2 but never have: in the expectation that it will last for many years, both holding an audience and attracting new players. Yoshida often alludes to certain changes not being appropriate or necessary yet. He seems to have a sound understanding of what existing players will put up with and for how long and what needs to be done to bring in new blood. So far it seems to be working very well.

Unfortunately from my own point of view, that means I'll haveto wait a long time before I get what I want, which is a Final Fantasy XIV largely free of top-down controls over what I do, when I do it and who I do it with. But we're getting there, slowly.

I just have to hope I live long enough to enjoy it when it comes.


  1. I bounced off FFXIV a bunch of times for the reasons you mention. Well actually I didn't mind playing through the main questline but I did mind being forced to group. This time, for whatever reason, it seems to have stuck. I think it is because at this point the challenge level of the dungeons you have to do is so low. You're usually the only person doing it for a first time and other party members are level-capped and well-geared, and even though the game "scales" you to a set level y'know how that goes. Scaled down characters are stronger than characters that are actually that level. So you sit in a queue for 5-10 minutes, then spend 5-10 following 3 other silent characters through a dungeon, hitting things, and then you're out the other side and can go back to doing what you WANT to be doing.

    So it's better than it used to be, but I also look forward to them retro-fitting this "Trust" system into the required dungeons.

    (Option 2, if you have a high-level friend playing, is to group with them and do the dungeon "un-synced" where it was be even more of a cake-walk, but you want get exp from fighting in it. You will get credit in terms of the storyline, though.)

    1. I'm playing my Free Trial account so I'm capped at Level 35, meaning the MSQ isn't a partiular problem at the moment. I dinged 31 today but the trial allows me to get all the jobs to 35, which would most likely keep me occupied for far longer than I'm ever likely to play.

      If Square do retrofit the Trust system, though, there's a good chance I would sub my original account and I would guess there's a fair-to-middling chance Mrs Bhagpuss might give the game another go too. She liked it more than most MMOs other than the forced grouping.

      The ironic thing is I actually *like* pick-up groups. I just can't stand being told when to do them and where to go when I do. I don't like having my time managed for me in any game.

  2. It's unlikely they'll ever retrofit it, roulettes already keep queue times fairly low and there are squadrons for running low level dungeons. Not even mentioning that you need to level your trust at level 80, which makes it even less likely. You won't miss much though, dungeons are also the only efficient way of leveling past your first job and open world is barren and low in detail, so there's nothing interesting to explore.

    1. Yoshida certainly hasn't said the Trust system will be retro-fitted but Square have been asked and have chosen not to confirm it won't. Even if it isn't, though, it will almost surely be included in all content going forward, which means that in a few years it will be possible to skip to Shadowbringers, start there and have the system for everything you need to do.

      As for the open world being barren, low in detail and having nothing interesting to explore, I would have to say that's the polar opposite of my experience and impression. The fascinating, beautiful, weird and mysterious open world has always been by far the biggest draw in a game whose storyline is portentous and ponderous (in the base game at least) and whose combat is slow and unexciting (ditto).

    2. It's just that ARR maps are smaller and have more settlements. Expansion maps are bigger, but much more sparse in terms of vistas and actual content because of flying and the fact that they are meant only as decorations for MSQ. Maps like Azim Steppe or Dravanian Hinterlands feel like they came straight from 1.0 with flat green terrain and just random mobs scattered around zone.

    3. Ah, ok, that makes sense. I haven't seen any of the expansion maps - I was basing my opinion on the maps maps from the base game, where we don't have flying (or I don't, anyway).

    4. Squadrons is the trust system for low level dungeons. But you will have to do some work on your grand company to access them. With squadrons there, I doubt they will retrofit the trust system.

    5. Now that's interesting. Thanks for mentioning it. I'd never heard of Squadrons but I just read the extremely long wiki entry and it does indeed provide a means of doing lower-level dungeons with NPCs. It's very clearly a system designed for veteran and well-established players, though, since you'd have to be a) subscribed b) a regular and dedicated player specifically concentrating on both your Grand Company Standing and recruitment of your Squadron and c) have a charcter of at least Level 47.

      This is clearly useless for the target demographic I'm talking about, which is people who jibe at having to PUG dungeons to get through the MSQ in the first place. It may very well be that Square doesn't care at all about courting that demographic and I could link to interviews with Yoshida that appear to say as much, so it may wel be that the Trust system won't be retrofitted. He seems very opposed to players even visiting the older maps at all - I think he sees FFXIV as being only the current expansion.

      If you look at how Square have handled FFXI, though, I definitely wouldn't rule it, or something very similar, out for the long term. Maybe we'll have to wait until FFXIV goes into "maintenance mode", which might well be too long for me, and they could use the Squadron system instead by relaxing its requirements.

    6. I wouldn't say that Yoshi-P is opposed to visiting lower level maps, even newer quests often take you through them. It's more like there's nothing to do there, most FATEs are pointless (several give you unique mounts or minions) as even experience rewards are pretty pathetic, tribal quests aren't worth doing past max reputation ranks, hunts are boring and pretty pointless too. This isn't limited to older zones, I can safely say that even Shadowbringers will be a ghost town in a month except Crystarium and Eulmore (market board and tomestone vendors).

      Also if you despise doing forced dungeons while leveling, it's even funnier when you reach current level cap, since patch dungeons also have minimal ilvl restrictions. It means that not only you stop doing MSQ to do dungeon, you start grinding other dungeons for tomestones to buy gear for MSQ dungeon.

  3. The irony here is that FFXIV technically doesn't need something like the trust system at all. I've never had a problem getting a full group for dungeons I had to or wanted to run. The roulette system ensures that even high level players still run the low level dungeons regularly.

    That being said, I, too, would only ever return to this game if they loosen MSQ content-gating quite a bit AND give us the trust system for all group content.

    Why? Because in my experience the roulette system has grown a large part of this game's playerbase into the most impatient and toxic lot I've ever encountered in all of the MMOs I've played. Why this community is often lauded as one of the most friendly and welcoming is beyond me.

    I mean, I get it, doing the old dungeons for the hundredth time is boring. Even more so when the game makes the big mistake of taking many of your skills away when you're downleveled. This is no excuse for some of the behaviour I've had to endure during my time with the game though.

    So yeah, in my opinion get rid of roulettes so players only need to run content they enjoy doing, and give us the trust system for all group content so you're not stuck if you can't find a group for your particular piece of content.

    1. There's a reason, in my opinion, why FFXIV is probably the most successful MMORPG in the West after WoW and that's because in many ways it's the perfect WoW clone. After all those failed attempts at bottling lightning, Square seem to have managed it almost by accident.

      The whole instaporting to instances without needing to travel through the open world, combined with automated groupmaking, combined with strong incentives for people to keep doing content they were bored with months or even years ago... No wonder WoW players find FFXIV such an easy transition.

      It's not so much whether it's practical to get the groups you need to complete the MSQ as whether you'd want them when you got them. And as you say, that's questionable at best.


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