Three years ago I wrote an article about Final Fantasy XIV, a game that should have changed the MMORPG scene. And it somehow did, but not in a way that anyone could have foreseen. The initial release of the game got some pretty bad reviews, both from the gamers and the critics, being considered a failure. It was rejected even by most of the Final Fantasy fans, which I guess it was a sign of a bigger problem here.
About the Final Fantasy franchise
The Final Fantasy franchise is an interesting case when it comes to MMORPGs, because fans of the single player games (FF I-X, FF XII-XIII) do not exactly overlap with the fans of the online ones (FF XI). Of course, back in 2003 most of the people who started to play FF XI were probably fans of the series, but I think in time that game attracted a more “MMO hardcore” audience, which kept growing and which usually would do some activities more specific to games of the genre (Everquest), like raiding. There is a large FF fanbase population who never even touched the MMO or they tried it and never liked it, or simply just moved out along after a few weeks/months. Some of them also probably never liked the idea of paying a monthly subscription anyway.
The genesis of FF XIV
Interestingly enough, FF XI was also the most profitable title of the series (monthly income from almost half a million players for about a decade), so naturally the studio behind the franchise (Square Enix) started to work on another MMO title. It took them about seven years and a lot of money invested in it to come up with the next iteration, but unfortunately at this point the market had already changed. The team that worked on FF XIV was the same one that had worked on FF XI, and while this proved to be an asset from a technical standpoint (experience, fewer bugs), it came up also with some unwanted baggage: some old ideas or out of touch decisions regarding gameplay, story, progression etc. They were doing a graphical update for a game from 2002, and that was not enough for 2011.
It also did not help that its main developers were playing it mostly on consoles (PS3), the PC client being an afterthought. What is worst is that they launched only on PC, postponing the console versions. The disaster was inevitable: the PC crowd is not very forgiving and complaints started to come up quite early, back in the public beta.
Unfortunately the FFXI devs were never very open to public feedback (apparently this was a well known politic for the older game). But as I have mentioned before, this did not stand up as well in the present times. The backlash was so massive that even the president of the company had to apologize for the poor release. The main game designer was forced to resign and things were looking very grim for Final Fantasy XIV.
A look at FF XIV version 1.0
There was a small “core” of fans even for this title, and the reason is quite simple: the game itself was not that bad, it just felt unfinished and too clunky for the PC. The menu system was very unintuitive, and as I said before it seemed to go back in time to the PS1 days. The battle system also seemed a bit out of place for a MMO, although the story was rather interesting (at least from what I have played). In the end the game would have found a niche, however I suspect that was not the intention of Square Enix for a Final Fantasy game, and certainly not after seven years of development time and huge investments.
Winds of change
After the main producer stepped down, Naoki Yoshida (or Yoshi-P) took his place and things changed fundamentally. One of the first things he has done (rather unheard of from Square Enix till then) was the fact that he actually… communicated with the audience. He gave information on what he was planning and he wanted feedback from the players. He was also working hard on trying to turn things around and to revive what many called at that point “the corpse” of the Final Fantasy franchise. He started to modify the current game for the better, himself being a gamer and avid MMO fan. People started to notice, and in time to appreciate his work. He even developed a rather large group of fans, his approach for the development being rather unusual in this business.
On to FF XIV version 2.0
At some point in development Yoshi P realized that many of the things he would have liked to improve or change were not possible due to the restrictions of the current engine, therefore he took a very risky decision: to change the actual engine. This decision is unprecedented because of the context in which it was taken: the game was considered a failure, the pressures to make it work were huge and the timeline for it was… tiny by any measure.
And yet, they have somehow done it. The amount of work behind the scene must have been unbelievable. (I am looking at easily 10-14 hours of work a day in order to get a MMO running in a new engine and polish that in less than two years.) They improved the graphics (which were superb anyway), they added customization options, they changed the battle system, the story, about anything related to the mechanics. The new engine even runs better on older machines than the old one, which is a miracle in itself (I am looking at some rather old laptops that have no problem running it). An all this new package comes… polished. I am going to repeat myself: when did they had the time to do all this? Did they ever sleep at all?
FF XIV — A Realm Reborn
The old version of the game (1.0) was shutdown in glory last year, ending in some kind of apocalyptic way, but the players got to keep their characters, along with whatever they accomplished until then. The re-released game went live on the 27 of August, the veterans receiving some perks for their wait. The game was released on both PC and PS3.
The game itself feels completely different, much closer to what we can see today in MMOs like Rift or Guild Wars 2, but in a good way. The familiarity of the controls and the way things “flow” make the players to feel like home and to enjoy the bizarre world of Eorzea. The interesting thing is that they somehow managed to have a good PC interface, while not “gimping” the console players. The Playstation and PC gamers can play together on the same servers, which are global. This in itself is quite a feat, since other “multiplatform” games did not deliver on this particular topic (DC Universe Online for example has different servers for console players).
The unexpected success and the server problem
The early reception of the game was a very warm one, everyone praising the game and saying that it really captured the Final Fantasy feeling they were all waiting for. Even the FF XI veterans liked it a lot, and that is a tough crowd to be won.
But the word of mouth, plus the fact that many console gamers wanted to see a MMORPG on the PS3, led to an unexpectedly large number of players. Why unexpectedly — someone may ask. I guess Square Enix did not have such high hopes on this re-release and just wanted to move along with the franchise. This reception however might make them reconsider. Some players even said that this is the best Final Fantasy game from the last years (and if you take into account the rather shallow FF XIII, they may actually be right).
Of course, this popularity came up with various technical problems, as the FF XIV servers were flooded with people who wanted to log in and play. In order to accommodate all those players Square Enix had to supplement the servers and to temporary close the digital sales. Many people were angry at this, and many pointless threads appeared on different forums, however at this point one thing is certain: when people are arguing because they want to play your game, you have hit jackpot.
What I can say from a personal point of view is that the game looks very solid, and for people who like the “classical” MMORPG type of game, with “holy trinity”-based combat, painful raiding/dungeons and heavy story — this is the place for you to be. Of course, you would have to accept the rather Asian kind of artwork and/or story philosophy, with bizarre creatures and some silly human cats, however we are in an era where people are playing frogs (Everquest 2), cow-men (Guild Wars 2) or pandas (WOW), so I don’t find this to be such a “burden” anymore.
I will probably play it for a while, at least to see where the story goes. I do not see myself doing any “end-game content” or raiding, because it’s too time consuming nowadays, however I will enjoy leveling, and taking into account that I am a rather casual (read “slow”) player, I am pursuing this the way I would in a normal RPG, but interacting with other people. The nice thing is that PVP (although not implemented) will not be forced upon the players, so I will not have to fear ganking or any other type of griefing, and Yoshi P did promise some exciting features in the next patches, like housing. So, I have an interesting adventure ahead of me, and perhaps some of you may decide to join it after reading this article. If this may happen, see you in-game!