I used to be trained for this. I used to know exactly what to expect, what systems to track down, what steps to take when embarking on my journey. Unfortunately my muscles had atrophied and I was completely caught flat footed. Starting a new MMO is exhausting.
I have been eyeing Final Fantasy XIV for a while. It’s been proclaimed as the best Final Fantasy story ever with the caveat that it doesn’t really get good until the second expansion. Having a somewhat dated familiarity with MMOs, I knew this meant possibly hundred of hours to get through before I even hit the stuff that people praised. That hour number is extremely daunting, I could play dozens of games within that hour count, which meant that I passed on investing. I also didn’t have a group of friends invested so my interest was more around general internet chatter. I was itching to play an MMO again though, something with a world to explore and something with dungeons to crawl with other players. Once I heard the news about Final Fantasy XIV reducing the amount of quests required to get through the base game, aka “A Realm Reborn” or ARR, I knew it was finally time to jump in. And o boy what an overwhelming experience that was. There’s nothing quite like large quantities of tool tips and numbers jumping out at you coupled with decision making anxiety around the large time investment.
I used to be a much more dedicated MMO player. I started WOW in 2005 (when I was in 8th grade) which was right in the sweet spot between the initial rush and the first expansion “Burning Crusade.” I had initially faced an uphill battle with my parents over whether I could play it until I realized that I could purchase prepaid game time cards with the money I’d earned (sorry mom and dad). By the time my scheme worked and I was able to log on, my friends had already become experts. The long wind up period between my start time and theirs allowed me to pester them for information so I knew what decisions to make when I started. They also guided me along as I leveled; they told me where to go, how to spec my hunter, and how to be the DPS as part of a dungeon group. The base game for World of Warcraft was inscrutable in a lot of ways. Outside help was essential; this was before a lot of the quality of life improvements were in the base game and things like quest markers had to be added through mods. The more you leveled the more WOW demanded that you looked outside the game for help. The community propped up wikis and how to’s to unlock the ability to join raids and then even more wikis on to complete said raid. Keeping up with WOW meant a lot of time dedicated to researching the game itself.
This problem hasn’t entirely gone away, but the on-ramp for MMOs has become easier in that time. The bar is incredibly low though; there were still a ton of inscrutable systems that I interacted with upon starting FFXIV. Even though I hadn’t started a new MMO in over a decade I felt confident that I could pick it up pretty easily. Imagine my surprise that after completing ARR & it’s associated patches and I still don’t completely understand everything. It’s not exactly that the systems themselves are overly complicated, rather that years of iteration and expansions have rendered many of them meaningless. There’s a lot of cruft left over in the base game that players are no longer required to participate in. I felt actively discouraged from engaging with this old and sometimes optional content because it seemed to only hinder the hundred of hours of mainline story content that I had to still get through.
The problem starts with the quest designation. Quests are marked with specific indicators depending on their specific category. Story quests refreshingly have a very distinct marker and are even tracked in the upper left of the screen. Other “important quests are marked with a blue exclamation point with a key. These quests unlock gated content, for example your class abilities. Class abilities are also tracked in the upper left under your next story quest. Again, super helpful. Unfortunately the blue exclamation point gets used all over the place, ranging from unlocking dungeons to gaining access to update your characters hair. I understand locking content behind a quest; performing the quest objectives allow for a teachable moment. The fact that a variety of quests are all marked the same led me to completing content that wasn’t important and in many cases was old and no longer required for the game. Many of the dungeons that I unlocked through performing these quests were optional and dead; they had long served their purpose about three expansions ago. This led me to completely ignoring any blue checkmark quest that wasn’t tied to my class. That strategy worked until the game stopped me in my tracks and had me complete blue quests to progress. This happens multiple times throughout the story with quests that I had previously assumed were optional. The confusion around these are endemic to ARR’s problem; namely old content and structures that are clunky that I can only assume have been refined in later expansions.
Player choice is what causes this friction and is especially exacerbated when the game forces you to make important decisions. Around story quest level 20, you’re introduced to the Grand Companies which govern the three city states. When I say introduced, I mean you’re involved with a lengthy story quest where you visit each city state and have Alphinoe (important story NPC) explain each of their deals. Final Fantasy XIV is setting you up to make an important decision; select which Grand Company you would like to join. You can only join one so it takes its time introducing their ideology and background. Apart from the pacing I enjoyed learning more about the world and what the Grand Companies stood for. What the game doesn’t do is really explain how this decision will impact your play. I was worried that by joining one I would be locked out of quests at other city states and that I would be stuck playing through the story in a locale that I didn’t care for. After taking to wikis and asking around in Discords, the decision is relatively meaningless? At least that’s what I gathered since I never interfaced with my Grand Company after acquiring my mount. My best guess is that it’s designed for late game content or helped level your character in ARR before the accelerated leveling curve that I was participating in. Either way, the story seemed to ignore my association once I had made it.
Those systems are rendered useless by the game itself; new content replacing old and leveling speed ramps that make it easy for players to keep up with the story quests. It’s in the dungeons and raids that the experienced player base itself removes any learning opportunities. Final Fantasy XIV encourages higher level players to rerun old dungeons and raids to earn special rewards. This is great in keeping the queues populated with players and the level scaling keeps all of the party members at the correct level for the instance (ex: scaling down a level 80 to 20). This also means that the more experienced party members run absolutely roughshod. All of the instances I participated in were essentially me just trying to keep up with them. We were constantly moving forward, blowing past parts of the instances that used to require some sort of skill or solution to bypass. The 24 player raids are even worse. Large party raids are already confusing since there are so many abilities constantly going off on screen. It’s already hard to feel like you’re making an impact if you’re DPS (me) but when the leaders are dragging everyone through it it feels even more weightless. I don’t think I learned any deeper knowledge on how to play my role which is a shame; my favorite parts of an MMO is incorporating class strategies when participating in group instances. The instances felt largely devoid of that.
I still had a decent enough time playing Final Fantasy XIV but the old content really drags it down. There’s no easy solution as seen with Destiny 2’s overly prescriptive strategy of just removing large amounts of content. I think there’s a good middle ground, incorporating some of the more esoteric and older unlocks into standard systems players have access to from the jump. Final Fantasy XIV has already made steps toward that, but it definitely needs more refinement as the game shows no signs of slowing down.