Friday, September 21, 2012

What The Hell Happened?

So after yet another unexpected hiatus (which I apologize for by the way), I'm back again, and I bring generous tidings of exasperation and decay within the gaming community.

In all honestly I much prefer XIV to XI, but that's another post for another time...
This time, my targets are Vana'diel and Eorzea.

We'll get to FFXIV in a minute, but I should provide some relevant personal backstory on Final Fantasy XI before we get into that.

Now, I've waved my hand across most mainstream MMOs both present and past and have typically never found anything that kept me committed to the concept(s) for more than a month. Even some of the more out of the way setups that I admired (e.g. EVE Online) failed to sway me long term. This is due to a myriad of talking points, the most namely being that MMOs are designed for persistent supervision and iteration upgrades, some of which infringe upon the games' own core concepts. This becomes problematic in the long term because things that are individual or creative about these games becomes eroded over time due to many factors in these titles' development cycles.  The only one to date that has held my attention for more than a year was Final Fantasy XI. I got into it not too long after it was released in North America and played it consistently for about 2 years (with a couple of on and off months after that).

The appeal of XI came long before a conscious realization that the things it did as an experience wouldn't be acknowledged by me personally until I played Demon's Souls almost 10 years later [1]. Put succinctly, it wasn't a happy experience for the most part. Most of the time I spent in the game was fraught with fear, frustration, and exasperation. The world of Vana'diel was large, alive, and it didn't give a fuck about you or what you like.
"One of the things I like about FFXI is that it doesn't care about you. It's a big place with big threats, and you are not a special and magical snowflake. The fact that the world is this spread out is just a little way of reminding you of that, meaning that every time you successfully navigate through the wilds, it genuinely matters. The wild feels wild."[2]
I went back to XI recently and leveled a Ranger to 95 in less
than a month. Abyssea really has had an effect on this game.
So yeah, I spent the better part of a year just trying to make it to level 30 and when I was just getting going---more of my friends at the time started joining in. This is where the Final Fantasy online games really start to shine, as its content is a sort of 'forced grouping' in which you can't really go anywhere or get anything relevant done unless you have a buddy willing to suffer along with you. This creates a barrier of entry that not too many people get past as I've noticed a large trend of people who like to solo their content more and more in MMOs these days (and the irony of that has never been lost me by the way). At the time, it was the perfect mixture of disciplined play (albeit somewhat obtuse and brutal to a detriment) thrown in with a style of comradery in suffering that actually made the whole massive multiplayer online thing finally work for me. Unfortunately, playing Final Fantasy XI at some point actually will become a job and anybody with actual life events going on will immediately learn the definition of priority if they're still trying to play. I learned that lesson with those little off and on sessions I mentioned above, be it a relationship, school, or a national disaster, there was just no time for XI after 2005.

Five years later Final Fantasy XIV suffers a disastrous launch which haunts it to this day. To be fair, most of that haunting has to do with bad video-game reporting that didn't bother to keep up with the game over the next two years as it endured a rather interesting growth period. So interesting in fact that what's currently happening to it hasn't been seen in any other MMO I'm familiar with---well ever. Apocalyptic events certainly aren't new to MMOs but ones that are intertwined within a drastic software and concept change is. After Naoki Yoshida and his team came on board, they basically reworked the 'bad version' of the game while considering the fan's input and admitting their own initial failure along the way. As of patch 1.23b, the game is what I've frequently described as a sort of 'diet' FFXI, which is both good and bad in a lot of ways (none of which are worth getting into here). What was given to us in 2010 wasn't the same game, in fact even calling it a game then is almost too generous. Half the content and mechanics were unfinished and the game's already high barrier to entry was riddled with questionable design choices all over.

Now the game is an above-adequate successor to Final Fantasy XI, save one major factor.

The community.

With each patch the game world's moon edges closer to crashing
 into the planet (a key storyline path). It will eventually and wipe out everything,
which the developers are tying into the client change, revamp, PS3 launch, etc.
It's such an ugly creature now that the game has almost turned me away multiple times. A lot of this is endemic of any modern MMO because of the saturation of the Internet and general access to knowledge concerning these types of games. Pre-2004, it wasn't nearly as easy to even navigate the games Everquest and Final Fantasy XI, and this is partly what made them such vicious games to play. This was so troublesome to the point where people actually bonded together to surmount these challenges and they formed lasting relationships, some of which persist to this day.

However, the gaming populous has changed and with knowledge (and age) comes bitterness, elitism, and just a general sense of cynicism that takes over these games at a much earlier phase now. Both Final Fantasy XI and XIV have suffered this in spades. I even went back for a month to XI to test this theory and I was right for the most part. If one doesn't have a dedicated group of at least three to constantly engage content with, chances are that they will not stick with either game for more than a month, and I wouldn't blame them. The communities do not make up for it anymore. And the design paths that some of the more accessible online RPGs have taken affect this perspective too.

It's not everybody and there's certainly some servers where this is better than others, but generally speaking---the bad far outweighs the good. Players aren't welcoming, humble, or modest about this engagement with these worlds. They're asocial, selfish, and myopic in a way that ruins playtime for others around them. Personally, I've become numb to this effect, which is why I've built multiple linkshells (a guild of friendly players) in XIV and rejoined another group of old friends in XI. I've stopped playing the latter though simply because I don't have the time for two MMOs now, especially two like Final Fantasy XI and it's little brother.

Final Fantasy XIV has become an interesting entity here for multiple reasons, the biggest of which is that it's a mainstream Japanese MMO that's being overhauled entirely rather than given up on, no doubt out of some sense of namebrand pride (or 'legacy[3]' if you want a nicer term for it)

Interestingly though, XIV's diet effect kicks in to the extent of outdated and moderately maintained knowledge via wikis and guides. Gamescape for example isn't bad, but it isn't exactly the bastion of knowledge that Final Fantasy XI's wiki is and as far as I know, there is no way to keep track of XIV's economy either (starkly contrasted with XI, which has a few sites that allow access to the game's auction house on the web). Thanks to this slight lag effect of ignorance, the community is a little more tolerable to me. However, even that reprieve is cut short from the simple fact that a nice chunk of Final Fantasy XIV players are XI converts who become unrealistically unhinged at any change that further differentiates the game from Final Fantasy XI as opposed to making the game more similar to it.

We'll see what I have to say about the game at the end of this year/early 2013 when it has it's new launch.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is interesting to me because of these reasons. Excluding the lore tie-in to destroying the game's world to being reborn with a brand new client more suited for an MMO with cross platform play between both PS3 users and PC players, it's Final Fantasy's first online attempt at doing something modern and evolving rather than appeasing its usual belligerent and worthless user base that isn't worth pandering to anyway. While I do earnestly fear Yoshi-P and company will try to fuse modern concepts that more accessible games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 utilize, this might at the end of the day do more good than bad for this game and I'm willing to keep myself open to it as long as they don't go overboard with it. It's interesting for that fact alone. In such a weird genre market, Final Fantasy Online has been backed into a corner. I'm intrigued to what actions it will take now.

[1] My post detailing my 'first love jitters' with Demon's Souls a few years ago.

[2] Eliot Lefebvre, 'The zone design of Final Fantasy XI

[3] Final Fantasy XIV's official lodestone post concerning it's Legacy benefits program. Even the game sticking to the subscription fee model has been ridiculously challenged rather than considered by its own fan base. I forget which podcast I heard it on (I'd guess Gamers with Jobs), but I've always liked the statement that the models themselves aren't the problem---far from it, its simply the low number of options people have when it comes to paying.