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9:56pm on Monday, 1st April, 2019:



I've been playing Final Fantasy XIV in my spare time, such as it is, for the past two months months. I reached the end of the main story arc for the latest (Stormblood) expansion on Sunday, but as my subscription runs out in two weeks I don't think I'll be hanging around for the Shadowbringers expansion in July. The game is down today and tomorrow to add more European servers, so rather than play it this evening I'm writing up some of my thoughts on the subject.

Firstly, they need more servers because the game is growing in popularity. There's very often a login queue when I want to play. However, this queue is meaningless. I try to connect; a window pops up saying there are 35 people in the queue; if I leave the window open then it counts down, but I don't leave it open; I close the window and immediately try to connect again; I immediately connect; sorry, 35 people who were ahead of me. They really ought to do something about this queue-jumping facility (once I've stopped playing, obviously).

So, the game started out with level 50 as the cap. The Heavensward expansion took it to level 60 and the Stormblood one took it to level 70. You can really see the joins. All the elder game content built for level 50 is breezed past now, and the same applies for the content put in for people at level 60. The current elder game content (using gear obtained using a tiresomely different combat mechanic) will probably be irrelevant come the next expansion. Trying to keep old content relevant by adding hard, difficult, extreme or other versions of it doesn't really work. It wasn't made for that level and it feels as artificial as it is.

OK, so this is a problem seen in most MMOs when they add new expansions, and there's no real solution if you're going with an expansion-reliant revenue model. FFXIV is no different to WoW or any other traditional MMO in this respect, so I'm not criticising it for this.

I do wish they hadn't accelerated the levelling game, though. It's one thing to pass by the content that was formerly there to keep people playing while the next expansion was being made, but another thing entirely to speed up levelling. Even without the Road to 60 buff, there's very little need to do anything other than follow the main story arc and the periodic one you get for your character class. Much of the content specifically made for levelling is as a consequence wasted. Why have beast quests and guild leves (for reputation-based gear and experience points) if no sooner have you started on them than you're 10 levels too high to gain any benefit? Why do the daily duty roulette (which is a system to help players who are waiting for a story quest instance) when all it means is that your own next story quest instance is going to be synced (scaled) to a lower level? By having players zoom through levels, they're missing out on content they might actually have enjoyed, had they been given the chance.

Again FFXIV isn't alone in doing this, but whereas in WoW the excuse is there that you might want to level alts, in FFXIV you can level the same character in multiple classes. You don't have to repeat the same old content at the same speed that you did the first time, because there's an experience point bonus specifically included to help you. You whiz through it! For a first-timer, though, you also go through it fast, like it or not. I'm actually quite miffed that I didn't get to do much more than the main story quest with my main character.

Another point about accelerated levelling is that although experience points are acquired quickly, money and spirit bonding (a mechanic for turning gear into buffs for later gear) are not scaled up accordingly. My main character, a healer, was in penury most of the time from trying to level up crafting. If I'd been levelling more slowly and doing more quests, I'd have had more money and no not have been close to bankrupt most of the time. I did learn my lesson, though: my two primary alts, who are both tanks, have no appreciable crafting skills and no need to spend any money except on transport; they're rolling in cash from quest rewards as a result.

Earlier, I mentioned syncing. This is brought into play when you're a higher level than some piece of level-dependent content you're attempting. If you're level 20 and walk past a level 10 FATE (a Full Active Time Event — basically a dynamic, impromptu time-limited combat-heavy quest like the rifts in Rift) then you can join in doing it but your level will be scaled down to 10. Now for FATEs that's not so bad, because if syncing is necessary then you have a choice whether to engage with them or not. Syncing happens in other circumstances, too, however, not all of which are welcome. In particular, there's too much level syncing in the main story quest. I quite often found myself having obtained so many experience points from simply doing the main quest line that I was too high a level for the instanced content the main quest line then asked me to undertake. I was then synced down to the level for which the content was designed. This doesn't sound so bad, but level syncing in general is a pain: suddenly, the newer abilities on your skills bar no longer work and you end up wondering why no-one is being healed or why you're losing threat.

This all comes from having an accelerated level of experience gain. It's entirely possible to out-level quest rewards simply by doing the quests. On one occasion, I started a quest with a level 17 gear reward and was level 21 when I finished the quest chain and got the reward. It's like watching the first two series of a boxed set at double speed so you can enjoy the third series: you might actually want to enjoy the first two series as well as the third one.

Crafting is broken because of this, too. It's pointless at higher levels, because you get better gear raining on you as rewards just from following the main story quests. At lower levels, the crafting quests that you get every five crafting levels can become so involved that you might go up six levels just completing them.

Quest rewards don't make a lot of sense in general. Minor quest steps will routinely give rewards of gear that the person giving them shouldn't have. If the NPC is saying we're short of money, why are they nevertheless offering me a pile of money to speak to another NPC standing four metres away? Towards the end, I was getting item buffs (materia) faster than I could buff items with them. I think the idea is I combine them to make better buffs, but that's pointless if I'm replacing the item soon anyway.

Speaking of quests, FFXIV quests tend to have many inconsequential steps. The granularity of some of them is extremely fine. The main story lines are made of hundreds of steps. A lot of the time, they involve much unnecessary distant travel. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is to take up your time. Go to a person a 3-minute run away; they tell you to kill 10 rats, twice, then send you back; you're given something to take to them; they accept it and send you back; you're then sent back to ask them something; they tell you it then send you on a kill-one-big-rat quest, after which they send you back; then, to blessed relief, the quest chain ends.

The second reason is to act as a money sink. The game's fiction supports ranged communication using "link shells". It makes no sense for me to have to go to an NPC to be told something in person when that very NPCS used a link shell to tell me to do so. I have to pay to teleport to a nearby location then spend two minutes running to the meeting. It's like my getting a phone call from someone at the university to tell me they want a meeting, then when I get there they tell me something they could have told me over the phone, whereupon they send me back to where I was to do something there that I could have done much quicker if they hadn't asked for the face-to-face meeting.

One thing that separates FFXIV from other MMOs I've played is its heavy reliance on group content. You have to do 4-person (and sometimes 8-person) instanced duty dungeons every few levels from 16 or so onwards. I can see some people loving this, but in practice it's a pain. The instances aren't usually particularly hard (although later ones do involve some dancing), but tanks and healers can't just wing them, they have to read up on them first. DPS can probably play most of them by ear, but have to wait for ages in queues because they outnumber tanks and healers many to one. The random duty finder is supposed to fix this, but as I mentioned earlier there's no incentive for tanks and healers to take part in them except for fun, because the rewards on offer are going to come from the main story quests anyway.

This reliance on basically randomly-selected group members when you want to advance the story means that social connections aren't particularly strong. There are guilds in FFXIV (they're called "free companies"), but there's little opportunity to get to know someone enough to ask if they want to be a member. I must have had 30 or 40 invitations to join a guild sent to my main, but these were basically scattershot approaches. Only on three occasions did anyone actually ask me in a direct communication if I wanted to join their guild: I turned two down because I didn't like the guild's name, and the other one was in German.

I do like the look of the game, which has held up quite well. The clothing options aren't as over-the-top as in some MMOs, which makes them much easier to combine to get a distinctive but not bonkers look. There are some of the usual oddities (animal heads and so on) but they don't tend to be used except in social situations. That said, some of the creatures in the game are so unlike the rest in look and context as to be almost non sequiturs. Character animation is very nice for individual moves, but the way they start, stop and stitch together into sequences is often quite jarring. It would be a great improvement if they could do something about that.

Some further one-off comments:

Overall, I enjoyed FFXIV a lot more than I was expecting, and will probably play out the last two weeks of my subscription taking my main character's botany skill to level 70 (it's currently level 63) and playing my two tanks.

If I wanted to play WoW, I'd play WoW, though.

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Copyright © 2019 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).