FFXIV: Playing different roles on one character is brilliant

March 18, 2015

Quick note to start with: Playing the relaunch of The Elder Scrolls Online just reinforced how much better FFXIV is at being a thempark MMO. I might still try to get back into ESO at some point, but after spending 15 minutes with it, I’m more than fine waiting a bit longer.

Anyway, FFXIV. Having finally hit level 30, I’ve dug more seriously into leveling other roles using other (non-questing) systems, and man oh man is it fun. As I keep saying about FFXIV, what makes the game great isn’t the addition of some new magical feature, but rather taking the existing themepark formula and significantly refining it towards perfection. Rift certainly wasn’t themepark 3.0 (thanks Trion!), but FFXIV is. The order of significant themepark evolution now goes EQ1->WoW->FFXIV.

When I play MMOs I want to play my avatar, which is why I’ve always hated alts. I don’t want to be a bunch of characters in a game; I want to be ONE character in a world experiencing things. I don’t have multiple people playing my account, so I shouldn’t need multiple characters to play the game.

FFXIV nails this by letting you switch from role to role, and also by making the gathering and crafting roles a real thing rather than just a single skill bar to max out. Finally I can ‘play an alt’ in an MMO while still being my one character. That sounds so simple, but at least for me goes such a long way.

But that feature alone wouldn’t be nearly as great if FFXIV did what most other themeparks do and force you into the normal questing grind until you can do other stuff. FFXIV has that option mind you, there are three separate leveling chains from 1-cap (I believe), but that is but one choice among many (how sandboxy huh?), and you can mix and match all of the options as you go, which is also brilliant. Whether you decide to chase Fates, run dungeons, do guildhests, or just farm mobs for xp and crafting resources, how often and in what order you do all of this is up to you.

What turns a lot of MMO players off from a sandbox is the lack of direction, while what annoys others in a themepark is the on-rails experience. FFXIV has plenty of guided content (and also plenty of not-so-guided content), but at almost any point you can stop the ride and do something else, potentially never returning to that ride again (the main quest chain aside). I love that, because I can play an MMO ‘my way’, but it’s not as investment-heavy as a sandbox often requires.


FFXIV: Sub model isn’t just about higher quality, its also about safety

March 10, 2015

Full interview can be found here.

So, just because ESO moved into a free-to-play subscription model, it doesn’t necessarily mean for us to move into that direction as well. Also, for use we have taken player surveys and took a look at what our customer satisfaction level is and we actually garnered data that shows that over 80% of our players are satisfied with the subscription model and they feel very assured that it is a constant. You are safe to be in that environment, and you know that you can expect a decent amount of updates and content. So, we don’t believe that FFXIV needs to shift in that direction and not everything that other competitors or titles do will necessarily apply to our title.

Bold section for emphasis as its something I’ve always felt is true about the sub model vs other models, and it’s nice to have a senior dev from the most recent successful MMO state it as well.

As I’ve written before, each update from a sub MMO is usually a celebration of getting something new or improved, while each update under non-subs is a potential “give us more money” cash-shop power update or ‘addition’. In short, you cheer sub updates, and grow to fear non-sub updates, which itself has a pretty significant impact on overall enjoyment.

PS: If/when they add the snowboarding game from FFVII, that’s going to be a massive time sink for me. God I loved that game back in the day.

 


FFXIV: Gold Saucer is golden side content

March 9, 2015

I was finally able to check out the Gold Saucer in FFXIV, and its a rather great piece of content IMO.

The area looks great, and has plenty of nostalgia bits from previous FF games (FFVII sticks out in my mind mainly because I spent an ungodly amount of time in it). The music is also fantastic and keeps the mood up. Finally the place feels more alive than in non-MMO FF games, not just because you have a ton of players running around, but also the wandering NPCs are a nice touch.

The mini-games are fine; you will likely play them a few times and move on, and I’d say that bit of content, as well as the initial tour quest, will take an hour at most. The juicy bits are the Triple Triad card game (returning from FFVIII) and chocobo racing (FFVII, maybe others?).

Triple Triad is as good as I remember it. Its a surprisingly fun card game on its own, and then you mix in the MMO aspect of playing against other players, as well as scattering NPCs you can play against across the different zones, and its near-perfect MMO content. Building up a great deck and refining strategy was already fun in FFVIII, but now you also have the ultimate ‘pay day’ in tournaments against other players for unique and ever-changing rewards. Funny how entertaining this stuff can be when a dev actually takes something and enhances it due to playing it inside an MMO, rather than just going down the lazy route and tacking it on.

Chocobo racing, based on a dozen or so races, is awesome. The fact that you race against other players rather than bots alone increases the fun-factor big time compared to the single-player FF games. You also have the more familiar systems, like your chocobo gaining levels, being able to train it (pay casino currency to buy stat increasing items), and the biggest time-drain of them all, breeding. This bit of content has a LONG road to travel to reach the upper end, which again is perfect IMO for sorta side fluff that can also get you ‘main game’ upgrades (you can buy a bit of gear with casino currency, though how strong it is I’m not sure since its lvl50 gear and I’m still just 29 on my main class).

The racing itself is also interesting. Your chocobo runs along the track automatically, but you can move side to side to grab power ups, run over speed boosts, or to avoid other players using abilities. Your chocobo also has stamina, which is drained when you sprint. The basic strategy for the race is to finish with zero stamina, using every bit of power to finish as fast as possible, but the various abilities you and others can use tends to mix this up for you. At higher levels, different abilities can be trained to further add some depth/complexity, but I’m not there yet.

What FFXIV does better than most, if not all MMOs is add content rather than replace it. When new stuff is released it rarely if ever makes something else obsolete, which is why, even now, there is so much ‘stuff’ to do in the game. The Gold Saucer follows this design, adding a fun bit of ‘side’ content that fits in perfectly with everything else already in place.


FFXIV: 4 million ‘registered accounts’

February 27, 2015

Square Enix, in announcing 4m players, continues to troll all of us with their use of the term ‘registered accounts‘ in a world where F2P exists and the Turbines of the world announce number of characters created as an example of success.

As stated before, for whatever reason Square uses ‘registered accounts’ instead of subscribers, but they mean subscribers. So 4 million before the release of the game’s first paid expansion is rather historic; only WoW ever hit that mark, and if we are tracking growth since release, the chart for FFXIV looks very similar to WoW in 2004-2006.

With the expected sub dip for WoW coming ‘soon’, the question comes up once again; when will FFXIV have more subs than WoW? I think the safe money is just after the launch of the expansion, especially if it launches during one of the many and very long content lulls that WoW is infamous for, that FFXIV continues to show is more Blizzard being lazy than any real constraint in terms of content delivery pace/quality.

The other interesting question is at what number will WoW officially be dethroned? It dropped to 7m or so subs before, but perhaps it drops further this time around? Will the number be 6.5, 6, 5.5? What will FFXIV be at after the expansion? I’d put my money on the number being around 5.5-7 million. I think WoW will drop rather sharply, and I think a lot of those players, if they haven’t already, will head to FFXIV.

Either way, interesting times. FFXIV in many ways is a modern vanilla WoW; fitting that the ‘WoW-killer’ will be a game that is, in many ways, WoW’s best version that it itself has moved away from that their own expense. There is a very solid lesson in that for the genre, so I’m all for it.


FFXIV: People are nice due to design

February 19, 2015

I haven’t done an update post about FFXIV since our return, in part because I wasn’t sure what to write beyond “Playing FFXIV again, still the best themepark out, still has that WoW-vanilla-but-in-2015 feel”, but this post from Loire is a good jump-off point. Go give it a read, including the comments section.

The answer to why FFXIV has such a great community (and it absolutely does) is a large mix of factors, but I do believe the most important or dominant factor is the slower combat; WoW-kiddies and others with that mentality get turned off by it, which helps to filter them out of the game. Related to the slower combat is the need to spend mana or other such resources carefully (ala vanilla WoW) rather than just having basically an unlimited pool like in current-day WoW (so I’ve heard), so having to actually think (not being ‘accessible’) during combat is too much of a barrier for some.

Another large factor is the focus that FFXIV has. It’s not a ‘be all to everyone’ MMO. It owns the fact that it’s a PvE themepark. That’s what the game does, and each update is focused on making that aspect better rather than ‘expanding’ the game in random directions (PvP, unrelated mini-games, side-show mobile-like stuff). This again is important because it not only filters out everyone not interested in being part of a PvE themepark, but it also retains those who do want that, which is just as important. Having a solid core of veteran players is critical for an MMO, and you can’t achieve that core if your MMO only lasts for a month or two per content cycle.

In addition to those two, there are a large number of smaller but also important design decisions to keep the game worldly and active. In FFXIV you don’t progress through zones as much as in other games; you often have a lot of reasons to return to a zone, which in turn means lots of zones feel ‘alive’ with activity, rather than being consumed by a locust swarm of players before being abandoned and forgotten.

Having one character that can switch quickly into an ‘alt’ class is huge as well for all of this, in addition to keeping you online with your one identifiable character that draws you into more social opportunities. That both crafting and gathering is done as a class with its own level and gear, rather than just a skill bar that goes up, further drives this design angle home.

FFXIV being a massive success is also great news for the genre, because the game is yet another example that if you make a quality MMO that has a focus and sticks to that focus, you can attract and retain a large audience. You don’t need to dumb down or make things ‘accessibly’ to draw in millions, and if you continue to deliver quality updates, you continue to justify charging a sub for that content. In many ways, FFXIV is a reminder of how the genre works when you are able to make a quality product, rather than an average-or-worst product that then relies on its business model to separate fools from their money for as long as the smoke show can be maintained.


The not-so-short “what I’m playing” update

February 9, 2015

First, thanks to most who commented in last weeks little checkup on the MMO genre, good times. I’d say lets hope when we revisit in 2016 we finally have a F2P champion to make things a little more interesting, but lets not kid ourselves, I’ll most likely just be able to copy/paste that post over and it will remain 100% accurate.

Games roundup time!

Clash of Clans: First I can’t believe I’ve been actively (every day, and often an hour+) playing this game for over a year now. The really crazy part is I’ve spent a total of $5, and I honestly feel like I should spend more, but I have zero need. Also the fact that the game just prints money (likely now above WoW-levels) means they really don’t need my wallet-vote.

Our clan is at 50 members right now, although with a group that size its fairly common for someone to go inactive. However due to our core moving up in town hall levels, at this point we really need players who are TH7+ with lvl2+ dragons, otherwise you will have a really tough time doing much of anything in a war. That said the above requirements are fairly easy (a month or two?) to achieve, and considering how awesome the game is overall, the ‘grind’ (get it) is worth it.

Boom Beach: It’s CoC with guns! Only different enough to be very interesting on its own. In a lot of ways CoC/BB are like UO/EQ1. Sure, one is better, true to what it should be, and came first, but the other still has some things going for it. Much like the lesser MMO EQ1, BB is more PvE focused, easier, and more casual than CoC. Which isn’t to say it’s ‘bleeding customers accessible’ ala WoW during the intern years, don’t worry. There is a good deal of depth, especially when it comes to force composition and executing attacks. Base design, other than lacking CoC’s base layout tool, is something that can keep you busy for a while as you tweak placement and watch replays to see the results.

The clan in BB is currently at 25/25 members. The next increase would be to 50, but I’m hesitant to pull the trigger since its a permanent increase and I don’t know that I have another 25 people looking to join. This might change in time, but unless there are a good number of requests in the comment section here or via chat in CoC, we will remain at 25 for now.

We run Operations almost daily (24hr timer on those), which are really fun “clan vs NPC super base” events. We can clear the level 4 Op, but the level 5 has yet to be conquered. This will shortly change as our members gain power and access to more and better troops, and we collectively learn how best not to run out troops into insta-death traps.

Age of Decadence: I downloaded the demo of this game, and it’s interesting. The game bills itself as an RPG, but the more I play the more I feel its a rogue-like graphic-novel style title, with heavy RPG elements. Allow me to explain. You die a lot in AoD. A lot. You could very well die after the first decision you make, or the second, less than five minutes into the game. After you die you ‘reroll’ a new character and try again. Then you die some more.

The dying often thing is very rogue-like, as is the fact that you have so little control over death. You pick a text option, the game tells you the action you selected failed (lie to someone, try to attack someone, move to a certain location, etc), and you see the ‘you are dead’ screen (which often has very comical ‘why you died’ text). Even combat is pretty simple, with you just trading blows with someone, and it just doesn’t feel like you have a lot of control over the outcome.

The game is in early access so I’m not buying it just yet, but I will say that despite the somewhat random ‘gotcha’ aspect, the demo was highly enjoyable, and the game is something different and entertaining. You can get a feel for a the game overall in just a few hours, so I’d recommend grabbing it. Just power through the initial 10-30 minutes of ‘wtf am I doing’ learning curve in terms of UI and game basics.

FFXIV: I think I mentioned the wife and I are back playing this gem of an MMO. I need to write a longer post about it, but haven’t done so yet. It’s all the great stuff of vanilla WoW, presented in a better-looking package, with (IMO of course) a better IP behind it. Not hard to understand why it’s so successful, and still growing.

LoL: Oh LoL, how I love to hate you. The seasonal ranking reset happened, and as luck would have it during my placement matches I got the derpy derps on my teams, resulting in a silver 3 initial placement (I was Plat IV last season). S3 is I believe the ELO where the average player does in fact have two hands to play with but still hasn’t fully grasped how to use them (lower silver is the dominion of the one-handed cripples, while bronze league play is mostly just animals running across the keyboard hitting keys, or so I’ve heard). Think of a newborn discovering their hands for the first time; that’s basically the skill level in S3. Mental development for the average player also aligns with said newborn.

Now the ‘fun’ part of this is that during laning, I absolutely crush whoever I face unless they also happen to be a lost soul like myself playing with the mutants. The problem is that even with one lane dominated, the fate of the game still mostly sits on the shoulders of the team as a whole. You can’t really hyper-carry in LoL by design, which while generally a good MOBA design decision, somewhat hurts in this particular situation. Long story short, the climb back to Plat isn’t as swift as it should be, especially when the promo series to just get back into gold is a best-of-five. Lots of derp chances in a longer series.

Avernum: I finished the first game, and can happily report the ending is as awesome as the rest of the game. Total playtime came in at just over 50 hours, though I did almost all of the side quests. If you skim on those, I believe you could wrap things up in under 40 hours. Either way a great way to spend some time with a great RPG.

Age of Wonders 3: Currently playing some multiplayer with a friend, and having a great time. This is another game that needs a full post, which is coming ‘soon’, but I’ll just write here that I’m pleasantly surprised by the depth, and so far its basically everything one could ask from a TBS title of this sort.

Whelp, that post got long, you’re welcome. Also if it could stop snowing that would be neat, because as fun as snow-throwing a landing strip-worth of driveway is, doing it every other day is getting a bit old. Give me a different daily quest life, the ‘grind’ of this one is too much!


State of the MMO genre, 2015 edition

February 4, 2015

First things first, it’s now 2015, and just like in 2014, 2013, and really since the beginning of time, we still haven’t seen an as-successful F2P MMO as we have sub MMOs (WoW/FFXIV/EVE). Until we do, this isn’t a debate. It’s a simple yes/no situation: Is your MMO really good? It’s using the sub model. Is your MMO not that good? It’s F2P, sub, ‘B2P’, or… who cares your MMO isn’t really good. Maybe by 2016 we will have a single example of a really good, as-successful-as-sub F2P MMO. I wouldn’t hold your breath on it though.

Now, moving past that still-dead horse, let’s take a broader view of the MMO genre as we head deeper into 2015. In my view the MMO genre has gone through four major phases. Note that these phases don’t have a definitive “it started on this day” date, but rather are more of a general ‘around this time’ deal.

Phase one (1997-2002ish) was UO/EQ1/AC; the birth of the genre, when we weren’t sure if this whole ‘virtual worlds’ thing could even work, and being online with thousands of others in one world was something new and awesome. Amazingly all three of the original MMOs (sorry M59, but you weren’t big enough to really count here) were solid and brought something really unique and special to the table. UO had an amazing virtual world and sandbox gameplay, EQ1 was the original themepark (I thought I had written a post about what the genre would be if EQ1 had never been made, but can’t find it now, so maybe I never wrote it…), and AC had weird, interesting systems and character growth, along with the awesome patron ‘guild’ system.

Phase two is WoW and EVE (2003-2007ish). WoW blew up what everyone thought a successful MMO could be, and refined the clunky themepark that was EQ1 into a game a lot of people could actually get into, while (in vanilla/TBC anyway) still retaining the core qualities of an MMO to keep people playing/paying. EVE started very small and very rough, but would go on to show that despite aiming to be super-niche, super-niche done better than anyone else can eventually, and naturally, grow into a mini-monster in the genre. It also showed that, if you do it right, there is no timetable on when your MMO should fade or go into maintenance mode. A good MMO really should be able to go on ‘forever’. This is also the time when a great many MMOs failed for countless reasons; the main one being ‘Making an MMO is really, really f’n hard’.

Phase three is the WoW-clone era, or the dark ages (2007-2011?). Post-WoW blowing up, everyone and their dog started cranking out WoW-clones, each thinking they could either be a ‘WoW killer’ or just casually pick up a few million players because ‘hey, WoW did it so it must not be that hard!’. LotRO, AoC, WAR, Aion, Rift, etc. In addition to getting a bunch of ‘bad’ games, the real crime here is that developers who might have been able to give us something interesting instead wasted time trying to be WoW. The genre (EVE-related stuff aside) didn’t advance forward much, and in terms of new offering things mostly sucked.

Phase four is the ‘F2P, ALL THE WAY’ era (2011-2014, hopefully). After failing to clone WoW, ‘bad’ devs all jumped aboard the good-ship F2P. MMOs that were struggling/dying as sub MMOs (because they were bad games made by bad devs) converted and saw ‘amazing’ revenue immediately after the conversion. We got a lot of press releases stating it, so it must be truth forever and ever! We also saw a bunch of F2P-based MMOs released, because the sub model was outdated and ‘everyone’ was going with the ‘new standard’ of F2P. Then the too-predictable reality kicked in, the one-time boost that was a F2P conversion not only faded, but in many cases faded below even what sub was bringing in, and F2P after F2P MMO was shut down or skeleton crewed. SOE being sent to the slaughter house is, one can only hope, the crowning jewel and definitive statement on just how much of a failure the standard F2P model is for MMOs.

Which brings us to today and the original question; where is the MMO genre? It’s not at the high it was in 2005/6, where everyone was making an MMO because it was perceived as a gold mine. At the same time, we are out of the dark age of cloning WoW blindly. We are also hopefully beyond the state of believing that F2P works, but I suspect there are still more Smeds out there who will put junk out and wonder why it’s not working financially after getting a billion accounts or whatever foolish metric they get mislead by.

In some ways we are in a spot similar to 1999/2000ish times, with three big successful MMOs (WoW, FFXIV, EVE), and a new crop of MMOs on the horizon that has our interest (Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Life is Feudal, Pathfinder, to just name a few). But that interest isn’t tainted in believing any of those titles will be ‘WoW Killers’ or dominate the market, nor are the people behind those titles setting such expectations. For perhaps the first time in far too long, devs have a plan to make a game work with 50k subs, which sounds so stupidly simple yet really is a giant leap forward for the genre.

Will some if any of those games work out? Hopefully. They at least have a much better (more than zero) chance than ‘WoW killers’ and F2P MMOs, so that’s a plus. But as always, making an MMO is hard, and even if you get 80% of it right, that 20% wrong can sink you.

Personally I feel better about the genre today than I have in a long, long time, perhaps even as far back as the early 2000s, in large part because I think more than enough devs have finally figured out that the MMO genre is a niche market, and not the mass-market illusion that WoW’s success tricked people into believing. I also don’t think ‘AAA’ levels of spending are needed to make a great MMO. I’m more than fine with playing something that I expect to grow over time, so long as that initial baseline is solid, and again I think at least some devs are finally catching on to this as well. Not only is gameplay king, but sub-AAA production values don’t mean crude sprites and homemade sound effects anymore, it just means I won’t have to hear someone ‘famous’ during a cutscene, or have a CGI intro movie that’s 20 minutes long that I skip every time after the first.

So while the future of the genre isn’t all rainbows, it’s also not as hopeless as it looked in years past. Baby steps are good, and hopefully at least a few of the upcoming games deliver, while the success’ we have today continue to get better (or in WoW’s case, don’t go full ‘accessibility’ on us again and shed almost half the population).


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