Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Standards, Time, and Variety | Final Fantasy XIV

So yeah, I've been heavily invested in Final Fantasy XIV's development. The online Final Fantasies intrigue me for a bunch of admittedly finely tuned personal points, but I'm starting to notice some things about what it means to even play one of these things now.

It's become rather odd that someone like me could loyally stand behind something so contingent on aspects of the gaming community that I deplore, but I do and pragmatically speaking it's one of the few games doing interesting things outside systems and mechanics as well. An MMO (at least in how the genre standard has become set for the past ten years) has become a big melting pot of madness.

A lot of this is due to World of Warcraft and people's fealty to its qualities.  There have been others to shave player-bases off to some degree (e.g. Guild Wars 2), but for the most part WoW has been this arena's juggernaut for the better part of a decade and it shows in how these multiplayer games are not only designed, but also how they're played now. It's a pretty simple (and more importantly, old) concept to grasp yet the nail still hasn't truly been driven home, as there are many mitigating factors at work here. 

For one, MMO's can't be analyzed conclusively in detail. For players this does present a problem because hype passes, impulses to be a part of water-cooler talk fades, the next big thing to occupy people's limited capacities for engagement present themselves. That's not exclusive to video-games or anything in particular. It's just how the social dynamics usually play out (with media in particular).  The REAL kicker however for games like these comes from gaming's media and how things get too distorted for us to discern anything meaningful from the bigger picture.

Example? Look no further than the kicking post that is the original Final Fantasy XIV. Most outlets won't explain to you HOW it was bad, just that it was. No details (and if given, not very detailed or valuable), no basis in reason, just going with the flow of information (a conversation I'd love to get into by the way, but this isn't the place for it). It was a topical word of mouth that had a domino effect into how the game would be seen for years determining not only why we have A Realm Reborn in the first place, but why MMOs at large may be worse off for it in the longer run.

Did "1.0" have significant issues? Definitely. It was a day one disaster by any measure of what any MMO launch entails these days. As the development team shifted around however, the current team responsible for the "2.0's" recent release came in, not only bearing the baggage, but making amends for it in dozens of ways. They spent about a year and a half not only fixing the old game on what they themselves admitted was a broken foundation to build an MMO on technically, but they continued to support and implement changes to tie into the background of the lore in-game as well. Personally I can't separate just the sheer novelty of that from the final product and I'm not sure I even want to in this particular case. Everyone else seems hellbent on it though, so float your boats wherever you want with that. 

I will however, gladly pay and continue to pay for the context around this game even if I'm not actively playing it for stretches at a time. Admittedly, the permanently reduced sub fee they gave me and all other Legacy players sure as hell doesn't hurt either, but even that speaks more to the point of this context. It's just one of the more interesting things I've seen a game of this magnitude and reach do, and I'm interested in seeing how far it makes it with this approach.

The true subscription fee in the end requires a payment of time. That's the biggest issue in any modern MMO for me, as money is ultimately irrelevant. Whether or not it's to the same degree of relevance with others is up for debate, but what isn't is time. The problem between time and money is thick and nasty, but with time in particular---you just simply get people who have no idea what to do with one of the few precious luxuries they're inherently provided, hence you get them whining in excess about money instead (classic difference between intangibility and tangibility in relation to personal responsibility).  With or without a steady flow of income, investing the money into a monthly subscription fee is something I have no problem with addressing. Although I can't ask others to stringently follow the same route, I can expect them to assess this dichotomy and how it affects them personally.

Most however, won't. End of discussion.

System commodification is also certainly not new to video games, but watching how it affects something like an MMO is uselessly complex at best and outright dangerous at worst. People who game the games and obsessively min-max is more defined in the space of multiplayer because it's designed fundamentally into most multiplayer games to some extent to begin with. Whether it's a stat, skill, or sheer experience, it's what defines the general relationships people have in something like an online multiplayer game.

This has manifested at some point in any game I've ever played with anybody else, ever. No exceptions, no caveats. The only difference is when I'll get to a point in which I'm more likely to encounter it (and sometimes I just don't care to stick around long enough to see it happen). In Final Fantasy XIV's case, this presents in the general MMO drive to obsess over end-game content. The ludicrousness of pursuing a wealth of this in a two-week old MMO should be obvious, but gamers never disappoint. Players have powered through to level 50 of their characters, taken in a very narrow range of playtime and direction and have judged the entire experience accordingly (sometimes negatively, sometimes positively---always questionably). 

This in turn draws them to supplement their experience with some disingenuously empirical reason on why or why not the experience was worthwhile, why that is or isn't worth a subscription fee, and most famously---why they may or may not be convinced as a longtime WoW/GW2/insertyoupoisonhere to stick with the game. How a single person's idea diffuses through social circles highlights the danger I mentioned above. The original FFXIV is about as close as this entire generation has gotten to something genuinely breaking away from the World of Warcraft formula (I'm not counting stuff like EVE Online because I don't consider it the same family of game despite the same genre) and although it seriously tumbled over in doing so, the punishment it suffered was also disproportionate. In a world where everybody is singing the tired "meh, another WoW clone" tune, they sure as hell have responded to the very concept of that in the most insincere manner imaginable. A Realm Reborn further highlights this in people's counterpoints to the game's quality hinging significantly on the standards that WoW set. Any time you hear something written off as too "Eastern" or "Japanese" or "Console-peasanty" to consider in any real manner, this is usually what I'm referring to.

Now transparency typically involves a rather fragile material at the end of the day, so people knowing what goes on behind the veil is rarely something I argue for.  Naoki Yoshida is one of the few people throwing a wrench in my theory here though. Ever since 2010's FF14 was scrapped and he was brought on board to fix it, he's been up-front and informative on the entire methodology on most of A Realm Reborn's development. He's interacted with his player base more than most well-known developers I've seen and he's suffered because of it (and will continue to do so). Perhaps the grand bulk of what I refer to as 'suffering' is felt on his end indirectly, but it will occur in spades even if the three month content-addition schedule they've announced sticks, even if the game sees enough growth in the next year to match what other MMOs of its caliber have spend triple that time doing, hell---even if they went free-to-play whilst delivered on the other two as well.

And we're forgetting a very important point! Probably the most important!

People simply have no idea what to do with one another. 

Why people come to MMOs primarily to solo is beyond my comprehension,  but it's certainly become a more popular trend throughout the years. One can say it's related to the time and age equation I spoke of above and I wouldn't argue, but I'd also take it further and state that the problem is more fundamental than that. When you facilitate something like solitude, people engage with it in different ways and most of them them don't involve healthy development of individuality in tandem (despite what all your hot lootz may suggest). One just ends up with a lot of people faced with the harsh reality of actually needing one another but denying it and bouncing around and against each other like some weird hydrogen/sodium tryst. 

The catalyst for this post is Giant Bomb's recently posted Quick Look[1] of the game in which three people talk over the game about all manner of topics concerning it. Vinny Caravella specifically got me to open this editor up and start typing with one simple phrase:

"I don't know if that's a good or bad thing."

Go watch it if you want the context for that, but just using them as an example though, the three participants in that Quick Look personify much of what I described at work here all in less than an hour. I should note that I don't mean that in an accusatory term either, just that the video represents a very poignant microcosm in relation to what I'm speaking towards here.

If nothing else, it's certainly worth a watch if for no other reason than seeing Vinny's response to the Lalafell race.

1. Quick Look: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Posted by Drew Scanlon | Sep. 10, 2013 9:00am [Link]