Labor of Love, Likely Lost

Thing is, the game almost looks like this...

Apparently I got lucky sometime over the Labor Day weekend last week; I managed to get a key for the Final Fantasy XIV Open Beta pretty early in. However, that luck was severely offset by the fact that patching the game caused something in my machine to go horribly wrong, resulting in a cyclical round of blue screens and reboots. After troubleshooting countless possible issues, I finally bit the bullet and rolled it back a week, apparently solving the problem.

Needless to say, I did not head into the beta with warm feelings towards the game.

Having spent several hours reading, and a few hours actually wandering around the world and playing, I can honestly say that I’m torn over Final Fantasy XIV. There’s a few very significant things to like about the game; but at the same time there are some issues that make me seriously doubt both the long-term viability of the game, and its value to me as a player with limited time to spend gaming.

At the top of my “Yes List”, the game is unbelievably gorgeous and has a depth to its lore that is apparent from the beginning, even if one is unfamiliar with the Final Fantasy franchise. As an MMO Sightseer, these are huge for me; the game’s visuals are incredible, and even on my upper-mid level computer, everything ran fairly well. FFXIV is about as close as I’ve seen to a game running at CG quality visuals. It’s not a perfect match, but it comes much closer than anything else I’ve seen.

The extensive use of cutscenes to set and tell the story has so far been pretty good. And I do mean extensive; I spent more of my first two hour session watching and reading than I did actually playing. The transition from cutscene back into the game is fairly smooth, as they appear to use the game engine instead of full CG. And why shouldn’t they, considering the level of detail they can get out of it?

And the game has the appearance of accessibility. The levequest system seems to work really well for achieving something in a short play session. Using the crystals (I don’t remember what they’re called at the moment) to bind and travel looks good, and the system can even be used to “warp” back to your bound location upon completing a levequest. At least, this is as far as I understand things to work, as after a certain point, I stopped reading. Which leads me to the other side of the coin.

See, those three things – visuals, lore, and accessibility – work for me. They gave me a reason to keep logging on (at least for the time being) despite the obvious flaws and the fact that the game did horrible things to my computer. But they’re clearly not going to work for everyone, especially not a “typical” gamer. Many just don’t have the attention spans (no offense, but we all know this is true), the patience, or the desire to put in that much effort.

There were plenty of things the game has in place that definitely fall onto the “No, Thanks, List”. Because the game is technically still in beta, I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on these, as there is still time for Square to address these issues. And considering that they have a patch for the Open Beta client nearly every day, there’s even a chance that some of these may be addressed before launch. So here’s the (not-so-brief) short list:

  • I have serious doubts as to Square’s ability to complete a smooth launch. If the Open Beta is any indication, we’re looking at several months before their infrastructure can handle the load. This is unacceptable at this stage of MMO development.
  • It remains to be seen how the game will run on “lower-end” machines. And by “lower-end”, I don’t mean the average, WoW-lower-end. I mean the lower end of the game’s ridiculous system requirements. This is not how to attract a large audience, and stinks of Sony’s poorly-conceived, last generation mindset of “people should want this product so badly, they will save up and sacrifice for it and pay whatever we ask of them”. We all saw how well that worked out for Sony.
  • Square has made some…interesting…design decisions for the game’s interface and keymappings. Gone are so many of the conventions (good conventions) we’ve come to expect. Yes, it’s very clean and minimal, but it’s obtuse in the worst way. And it’s fairly obvious that it’s intentionally designed this way, because its consistent in it’s confusing, punishing design. It almost feels like Square wants you to suffer to play their game.
  • The new player experience is Abysmal. Capital ‘A’. It’s atrocious. It reeks of old-school thinking, where it was okay to drop a new player into the game with little to no instruction or acclimation. And considering the issues with the interface, they’re going to lose a lot of customers in the first month from frustration alone. I’ve been gaming for over two decades, and playing MMOs for nearly half that, and I was still looking up keymappings after a dozen-plus hours.
  • I get the feeling there is a higher-than-normal grind hidden behind all of the supposed effort Square has put into addressing probably the largest concern most players had with Final Fantasy XI. Sure, the fatigue system might help even out the field for the time it takes to get to the level cap, and the levequests are nicely engineered to keep you busy, but…still. This is just a gut feeling, and I don’t have anything solid to back it up, but the feeling is still there.

All of the above only leads me to one conclusion – whether Square admits it or not, whether they themselves believe it or not, they are building a niche game. Possibly a very large niche, but a niche nonetheless. Their technical issues with Open Beta point to an overwhelming response they were not equipped to handle, and the complex, convoluted interface is clearly in favor of the “hardcore” Power Gamer. As much as they’ve touted that this Final Fantasy will be more friendly to a wide audience, what I’ve seen so far blatantly refutes those statements. This is not a game for the casual or inexperienced MMO-er. This is a game designed for Final Fantasy XI players.

Not that this is a bad thing; it just doesn’t quite fit with what I’ve heard and read Square Enix state about the game so far.

Still, despite the frustrations I’ve had with the issues above, there is something about the game that keeps me coming back. There’s a definite draw there, and it has me seriously considering picking it up and subscribing (after I see how the launch plays out). It was truly nice to have some of the old-school MMO experience back; of walking into an area and not seeing a half-dozen exclamation points to point me on my merry way, of having to interact with all of the NPCs, and actually explore. The game has a distinct “sandbox” feel to it. Not so much in that the players have complete freedom to go everywhere and do as they please (because you really, really can’t and don’t), but in the fact that I had to find my own way, and I could choose to try going anywhere, be punished for bad decisions, and not be led by the hand.

So this became something of a review without my intending it. Clearly, Square has put a lot of work, energy, and love into Final Fantasy XIV. But also just as clear is their expectation that players return a near-equal amount of work and energy (and maybe love). I’m hopeful that this won’t be lost on me, as I’d really like to experience the world they’ve built. I couldn’t say whether or not the game will make its launch target of late September. For all I’ve experienced, there could be more than enough content to justify the game as “Ready”. But I still have my doubts. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

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