FFXIV: The good kind of difficult

July 6, 2015

One of the aspects that soured me on WoW post TBC (although even prior to WotLK this was already somewhat of a trend in the game, just much slower) was the decrease in challenge in the ‘normal’ game, with only special ‘hard mode’ versions of the same content being tuned to really push you. Especially in vanilla, there was plenty of content that would test you, even during the leveling game (elite quests, certain dungeons). This removal never made sense to me, because WoW never forced you to beat that content, and outside of max-level stuff, you always had the option to go back later if you wanted to see something.

FFXIV is a lot of fun in part because the content challenge doesn’t insult you with how trivial it is in spots. Yes, most random quests you pick up ARE very easy kill five of this or collect five of that tasks, but the dungeons you run as you level require some level of competence, and the main quest line (that isn’t optional) and class quests have some fairly challenging fights you must solo due to the Duty system (basically a private instance).

It’s these Duties that my wife struggles with at times (and sometimes I do as well), mainly because we always do them right as soon as they become available, and because our gear is limited to what we get from questing and running the dungeons once (no AH or crafting), and I think this challenge is a great thing overall. The smart thing about this design is you CAN come back to the Duty later when you are a bit stronger, but even then you can’t completely overpower it as the Duty will level-sync you should you be more than four levels above it (though four levels is a fairly significant amount of power).

The only consistent complain I’ve seen about FFXIV is that the main story is required to progress in the game, but I think the real complain is the challenge, because WoW has trained newer MMO players to not expect any. And again, this isn’t even older WoW, where if you wanted to see the main villain of the expansion (Illidan) you had to be a top-tier raider; this is simply required content you can’t completely faceroll to progress past, and yet a minority still complain.

As Rohan wrote, this overall helps FFXIV, as it weeds out the worst of the ‘WoW-kiddies’, meaning you don’t get randomly grouped with them during a dungeon, or have them running around spamming local chat, tagging mobs, and generally being WoW players. I’m glad SquareEnix ‘doubled down’ on this design by making the expansion content gated behind completing the original content, and hopefully they don’t make the mistake Blizzard made with WoW starting with WotLK.


Fun vs Reward

June 23, 2015

Designing MMO content is, IMO, far different than designing gaming content, primarily because MMO content has to last, while other gaming content has to be as fun as possible. It may sound odd, but I don’t think you should try and make all of your MMO content as fun as possible. Allow me to explain.

We generally play MMOs far longer than we do other games. If you get 30 hours out of a ‘normal’ game, that’s considered pretty good. If you only get 30 hours out of an MMO, you likely quit long before hitting the level cap or seeing the majority of the game, which in turn means you didn’t really like it. The business is built around this as well, especially the sub model. A happy customer who only played your sub MMO for 30 hours is not a good customer.

As MMO players, we are odd beasts. We will do things we don’t really like/love (dailies, farming, travel, etc) to allow us to do the stuff we do like/love (main quests, PvP, beating raid bosses, etc). Not only that, but we will continue to do this for far, far longer than we would tolerate in a normal game. Imagine if you had to hit rocks in an sRPG for 50 hours before you could craft a half-decent weapon? You would quit that game in short order, and it would get ridiculed in reviews. In MMOs though? 50 hours to level up a crafting skill/profession is considered rather short, and in many games that timeframe is orders of magnitude longer, with thousands and thousands of players participating and accomplishing that goal.

To return to not making your content fun, I believe MMO content should be designed on a scale. On one end you have rewards, and on the other end you have fun. The more fun said content, the less rewarding it should be, while the less fun something is, the more rewarding it needs to be to stay viable/relevant.

Some MMOs already do this well. PvP in EVE is considered the fun stuff, and not only is it not directly rewarding, it’s in fact neg-sum. Sticking with EVE, mining is perhaps one of the least fun things you can do in any game, let alone an MMO, but it’s highly rewarding (not just for the ISK earned, but also because the reward comes with so little effort). Travel in an MMO is generally not fun gameplay, but it’s again easy to do and the reward is easy to see (you arrive where you want to be). Raiding is hard work with little reward initially (but learning encounters and seeing new content is fun), while farming a raid isn’t all that fun, but it’s highly rewarding.

“Syn, why not just make content rewarding AND fun?”

Content has to be balanced, in that it all should be viable to the average player. If one bit of content is ‘the best’, it not only ruins the other stuff but also gets your players into bad patterns and ultimately sees them out the door quicker. As a designer it’s important to remember that one of the worst enemies of your game are the players themselves, and it’s your job to protect them, even if that means being the adult and telling the child that he can’t have yet another candybar.

Take FATES in FFXIV for example. Many players will form groups and grind nothing but FATES. This is because fundamentally, FATES aren’t well balanced. They are a bit too rewarding for what they are; decently fun group content. It would be hard to tone down the fun of FATES (I guess you could make them longer/more grindy), but lowering the rewards would be easy. But why would SquareEnix want to do this? Because you have a lot of other great content, and the more you can spread people out, the longer it will take for someone to get bored of your game, and keeping people around is what the model is all about.

Note that this only applies to content which is expected to last. A one-off piece of content, like a story quest or special event, should be as fun as possible, and so long as the rewards don’t spoil the rest of the game (like giving you the best weapon or a massive amount of gold), all good. Those little bits of content should be highlights for the player, something to look forward to and further motivate you; a bit of long-term ‘reward’ let’s say.

Far too many MMOs get this all wrong IMO, where a lot of developer resources are spend on imbalanced content, and one or two pieces are left unchecked that everyone rushes to, consumes, looks around, and leaves because everything else seems to lacking in comparison.


Bringing games to prison

June 9, 2015

Via Az, what PC game would you pick if you were in prison for 10 years with no internet, and what three games would you pick if you were locked up for life but had Internet to play games but no web?

For me this is simple.

Mount and Blade: Warband + all DLC/mods is such an easy choice for scenario one, I’m more concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time in that ten years to finish doing everything. Civ V was also in the running, but really it’s a landslide toward M&B.

Scenario two is also pretty easy IMO.

First choice is EVE. You know its going to last, it has infinite content, you realistically COULD play it 23/7, and being awesome/addicted to EVE would mean you are critically involved in so much of the very best stuff.

Game two would be LoL, mostly as a break from EVE, but also because you know its going to last, get updated, and is a gaming formula that is proven to hold up.

Third option was more difficult for me only because I would be perfectly fine with just EVE and LoL, but I think at this point I’d go with FFXIV simply because of the content depth and pace of updates. At least in prison with EVE and LoL, I wouldn’t burn through FFXIV all that quickly, and the more relaxed pace would be a good break from the other two.


What really makes a themepark tick, and why FFXIV is a rolex

June 9, 2015

Where a good sandbox is like a mountain climb with incredible peaks along with plenty of valleys, playing a good themepark is like taking a nice walk on a familiar path; at no point are you overly thrilled, but the activity as a whole is enjoyable and ultimately you feel good about the time spent.

Most themeparks ‘fail’ because that steady drip of entertainment drops below an acceptable level, and people drift away (or you do something really dumb to instantly piss them off, like Allods with its cash shop). This is especially true if the themepark tries to use the sub model, because now there is further pressure to justify not just your time, but also your monthly cost (trivially low as it may be). At least under F2P, it only takes a tiny subset of all players to whale it out and keep things going (short-term anyway; long-term the need to keep those whales spending inevitably dooms the game), rather than a majority vote of happiness that is the sub model.

For years WoW held a choke-hold on themeparks because of how good+popular it was (not the post for that breakdown/discussion, but hopefully you understand that WoW wasn’t successful just because it was well-designed). The fabled coming of a WoW-killer was announced often, and each failed. If you were going to play a fantasy themepark (or ‘Sci-Fi’ that was fantasy reskinned), you might as well play the one with good content that all your friends are playing, right?

Realistically the only entity capable of ‘killing’ WoW was Blizzard itself, and thanks to New Blizzard making one mistake after another with the game since WotLK, that process has been underway for a few years now. WoD was able to lift WoW as much as it did because the hype was “a return to Vanilla”, but clearly New Blizzard wasn’t able to produce what really made Vanilla WoW, and sub are once again dropping.

While New Blizzard was working hard on stopping what should be an unstoppable juggernaut, SquareEnix re-released FFXIV, a themepark that is, in a way, Vanilla WoW in 2015. Not in terms of content, systems, or any specific design (all those are evolved and better), but Vanilla WoW in terms of keeping you on that nice, steady, enjoyable walk along that familiar path. Much like in 2004 WoW didn’t do any one thing amazingly well, in 2015 FFXIV doesn’t have a ‘killer feature’; it just has basically everything you could want, all co-existing beautifully in a world you want to spend time in and with a character you want to progress further, with plenty of ways for that progression to happen.

Themeparks don’t need a Burn Jita event. They don’t need to push the envelope in terms of battle sizes, or economic complexity, or to build and sustain the history of large player groups and rivalries for a decade. You don’t play a themepark expecting the peak of something like BR5 to happen, because you also don’t play it for the hours and hours of valley that makes something like BR5 possible and matter as much as it did. And you most certainly shouldn’t attempt to design your themepark to achieve this, because you will fail, horribly.

At least so far, SquareEnix seems to understand this with FFXIV. While the pace of content updates is very high, few if any of the updates are highly controversial or change/remove something you previously enjoyed. They add stuff, and generally the new stuff is good so you will experience it, but it if doesn’t happen to click with you, you aren’t disrupted or upset.

The other very important thing for any MMO, themepark or sandbox, is that updates should add content, not replace it. EVE is amazing in this regard, and FFXIV is good as well. WoW hasn’t been for some time. Most of the time a major addition to WoW effectively replaces something else, which can not only cause disruption, but also doesn’t create the massive content juggernaut that the game should be.

Take something as simple as leveling; in WoW every level increase should extent that part of the game (the best part of the game for many), but with every increase the leveling rate is also increased, so while you have more levels, they come quicker, and can be accomplished with less content consumed and time spent. That makes sense if you are dead-set on everyone sitting at the level cap, but for those that wish to experience an older zone as it was meant to be played, they either can’t (outlevel it) or can but only though additional hoops (stopping xp gain, limiting what items you use, etc).

Right now I’m ‘behind’ in FFXIV, with my main class at 38, my highest crafter at 25, and my miner at 21. If I was playing WoW, at lvl 38 I’d quickly outpace my current zone, everything would be a cakewalk due to item inflation, and it all wouldn’t feel like it did for those who hit 38 originally. Forget experiencing dungeon or group content ‘as intended’. In FFXIV none of this is the case. Every dungeon run has felt appropriate, every zone feels alive, and group content (fates) are still very popular (imagine playing WAR a year after release, being in a mid-level zone, and being able to complete every PQ with a group; that’s FFXIV today).

Other related little bits:

I recently opened up ventures for my retainers, as well as the dye and materia systems. All three open up once you complete some quick and easy, but totally optional quests. We talk often about exploration in MMOs, but way too many games have exploration limited to going to a pre-set and easy-to-spot landmark and getting an achievement, which is more achiever content than explorer. In FFXIV ‘exploring’ is, in part, finding these optional quests that open up more content for you, which is awesome.

Ventures for your retainers also tie nicely into the economy, crafting, and the roles system. Since you have to equip your retainer, and how well you equip them impacts the rewards you get, crafting lower level gear is viable/valuable, and your retainer can only level up as high as you have that role, be it combat or gathering (no crafting). Since you can have multiple retainers, this further encourages (though doesn’t force) you to switch and level different roles to open them up for your retainers as an option. The ability to switch roles on your character is already a great feature, and retainers add just one more reason why.

The dye system is fluff, of course, but is one of those “every game should have this” system, and again feeds into crafting nicely. The materia system is, as far as I see it right now, mostly an end-game thing, although you can use it earlier to give your gear a little boost. Creating materia by first getting gear to 100% bind, and then breaking it down, is another nice system that again ties other systems together. Since you can equip retainers, maybe you don’t automatically break down all your older gear? It’s not a major decision point (you can always craft or buy gear), but it exists, it adds depth to the game, and it’s a tiny little piece of a much larger, yet all inter-related puzzle that keeps you playing/paying.

FFXIV rightly deserves its spot as the top themepark MMO out, and hopefully current Square-Enix doesn’t become Old Square-Enix ala Blizzard in the years to come. If they continue down the path they have traveled so far, we’ll wonder if any MMO will ever topple it, much like we did with WoW back in 2007ish.


2015 midyear check-in: Still not a single great F2P MMO

June 4, 2015

Wildstar announcing it is moving to the minor leagues of the MMO world (F2P) is… something? Personally I have zero investment/interest in Wildstar, as I never saw the point of creating a ‘hardcore’ raiding MMO and then picking a hyper-cartoon artstyle and thinking more than a tiny population would remain interested. Those seem a bit contradictory, and anything bigger than “tiny niche product” for Wildstar was never going to happen anyway.

The only real surprise I guess is that Wildstar is going F2P later than ESO did, though I highly suspect the delay for Wildstar had more to do with resource limits, and console-release deadlines for ESO pushing it towards F2P faster-than-needed (and I’m not sure ESO wouldn’t have stayed sub if it was a PC-only title anyway).

But all of this does further reinforce my point about business models in the MMO genre; if you have a good game, it can be great if its sub, and no F2P MMO can be great. That Wildstar wasn’t great and is now moving down to F2P doesn’t change that. Nor does ESO, as ESO wasn’t great.

What was of interest when both games were announced with the sub model is that it gave both games a chance, at least in terms of the business model, to be great. No MMO that is under the F2P weight can ever be great. If an MMO tomorrow is announced, and part of that announcement is that it’s F2P, we know that, at best, it will be mediocre, with very good odds that it will be hotbar-selling garbage.

That’s just the upper limit of F2P. Always has been, and midway through 2015, nothing has changed. In 2015 the best and most successful MMOs are still sub MMOs (FFXIV, WoW, EVE). Saying the sub model is dead or outdated makes you sound like an ignorant fool at best, if not an outright idiot. What is almost-dead is the MMO genre itself, at least compared to days of old, with only a few studios still making MMOs that are anything above mediocre. But make no mistake; if you are one of those studios, the sub model is the one model that will allow you to truly create something great. That hasn’t changed in 2015. As always, lets revisit (repeat) in 2016, shall we?


FFXIV: Might need to move up that “bigger than WoW now” timetable

May 11, 2015

FFXIV isn’t out in South Korea? That was news to me, and has a huge impact on when FFXIV will eventually overtake WoW as the biggest real MMO out. Serious one-two punch coming up, with the expansion and now hitting a major market like South Korea. Suggesting that FFXIV will be bigger than WoW by 2016 is actually looking really conservative now, damn.

Also you gotta love Square keeping the sub model even in F2P mega-land huh? Not only do they not have to waste effort on the usual F2P garbage like flooding the shop with the One Ring and coming up with new and creative ways to spam you about it, but unlike somebody (WoW) every account globally for FFXIV will be a real account, not 5m people dying in some internet cafe and paying two cents an hour to do so.


FFXIV: Should I be worried about the expansion?

April 29, 2015

Quick concern here; currently I’m lvl 35 in FFXIV, and odds aren’t great that I’ll have time to hit 50 and do most of the end-game stuff in the game before the expansion hits. From those who are 50 and have been following the expansion news, is this something to worry about?

My main concern is that once the expansion hits, finding groups for the older content will become impossible or require super-long queues, and that any progress or systems at the current level cap will become obsolete due to the level increase (basically what happens in most other themeparks when they soft reset via cap increase). Again, based on current info available, is this going to be the case or does SquareEnix have something in place to not repeat this common mistake of the themepark model?


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