Final Fantasy XIV: Initial impressions

August 6, 2014

My wife and I recently started playing Final Fantasy XIV, in part because it’s been a long while since we played an MMO together, and also because her chain-playing LoL ranked games isn’t healthy for anyone. Currently we are level 13, and the game overall has been enjoyable.

In terms of graphics the game is pretty fantastic IMO, even better than ESO. FF avoids a lot of the uncanny-valley problems ESO ran into with character models, and in terms of landscape I’d say they are about even. Effects and such seem more impressive or appropriate in FF, and I think it blows ESO out of the water in terms of animations, story presentation, and just the overall impact the graphics have on the enjoyment of the game.

We both play at 1900×1200, and on my current machine (i7 Sandbridge overclocked to 4ghz, ) I can easily run the game fully maxed out at a stable 60fps, while the now 6 year old Alienware runs the game near the default “standard desktop” settings well-enough. The only notable issue is that sometimes, quest NPCs don’t instantly load on the older PC, which is a bit annoying as my wife sometimes has to wait a few seconds for them to appear. After some settings tweaks this happens less often however (maybe once or twice per hour).

Sound isn’t always a huge factor in MMOs, but in FF it most certainly is. From the awesome nostalgia of the classic FF theme used on the home page, to mixing in the battle theme after a fight, FF14 is an MMO that uses its rich and storied IP and puts it to good use, rather than feeling weighed down by it ala ESO.

On the gameplay front so far everything feels solid. It’s most certainly a themepark MMO, but rather than trying to mix in a thousand things to try to be something else, FF14 embraces that model and refines it down to the best parts.

It has a central storyline quest chain, but unlike in say GW2, here you actually are the central hero actually doing stuff, rather than a silent and nameless sidekick. At the same time, it’s presented in better fashion than the “you are a god slayer on day one” that was the ESO main chain. It’s also build into the zones, so you aren’t returning to the ‘main chain’ instanced hole in the ground. It’s a bit early to definitively say if the story and progression fully pay off, but so far it’s interesting and something we look forward to rather than just being in item on a checklist.

Speaking of checklist items, I do like the fact that FF14 doesn’t flood you with 10 quests the moment you step into a quest hub, but rather seems to always have 2-4 quests at a time, with more opening up as you finish the first batch, often with logical references or reasons as to why someone now wants you to do something. It might seem like a small thing, but IMO it really does help you focus on each item rather than just looking on the map and seeing where the concentration of ‘stuff to do’ is highest. To me this is a perfect example of refining the themepark model to make it better. Sure ultimately most of these quests are pretty standard “kill 5 of this”, “collect 3 of that”, “go talk to that guy” tasks, but how they are presented and their pacing goes a long away.

This ‘less is more’ design also extends to items. Rather than being flooded with random junk or ‘white’ items, so far it seems like questing is the main source of upgrades (haven’t gotten into crafting), and they are paced well. The game auto-loots mobs for you, but since most times you just get a bit of money, you aren’t really focused on killing something for what it drops, but rather because it’s a quest objective. I very much appreciate not having to play the “dump 90% of your inventory at a vendor” game after every questing session. The lack of gear flooding also means it’s easier to focus on questing and actually playing rather than on constantly fiddling to gain +1 to whatever stat.

Finally but perhaps most importantly, I’m really enjoying the combat. This is again another example of refining themepark combat rather than trying to do too much. FF14 is pretty standard tab-target combat, but I think it’s slower than games like GW2 or ESO in terms of global cooldowns and how often you mash skills, which IMO is a plus (I can actually watch the animations rather than focusing on a hotbar!). If I want FPS-like combat, I can play Darkfall or, you know, a FPS. I don’t really need or want my MMO with target locking to half-ass ‘action’ combat just to say it has ‘action’ combat. You don’t; you just have more annoying/spammy tab-target combat.

Currently the only stuff we haven’t been thrilled with have been the public quests, called Fates in FF14. So far almost all have been ‘kill a bunch of stuff until the bar fills’, and then they just end. I think what really made WAR’s PQs great is they had stages, and each PQ felt like it escalated during those stages. Stage one was normal mobs, stage two was tougher mobs or larger waves, and stage three you got a boss. That felt like an event; and at the end you left feeling you actually accomplished something. With Fates you just feel like you killed a few mobs for a bit of XP. I think the lack of a more meaningful reward, combined with the lack of a visual leaderboard and ‘end of PQ summery’ screen, also diminish the experience. WAR’s PQs felt like they belonged to the zone they were in, Fates feel like someone put a spawn circle at random spots in the zone and called it a day.

The nice thing about playing the game at a casual pace is that we now just skip over Fates and continue on with the stuff we enjoy, and the game doesn’t punish us for it. If anything, it seems we are a bit ahead of the XP curve just from questing.

Couple of quick questions for FF14 vets:

I think the group size is 4, is that correct? And I’ve heard that if you duo, you can fill the other two spots with combat pets? Details here would be cool. I’m playing a tank and Aria is playing a dps mage, can we get/hire a healer and another dps NPC? So far we haven’t come across any such option.

When does dungeon content start, and how does that work? Group finder?

I’m pretty sure at end-game you have raiding, but is there anything else? Something that would work well for our duo? How is the raiding overall, if we decide to go down that path?


What happened to all those WoW-babies?

August 4, 2014

TAGN, in a post about the closing of Vanguard, brings back a theory that was pretty popular around the 2006(ish) timeframe; mainly that those who played WoW would ‘grow up’ to eventually play a ‘real MMO’. Let’s revisit that theory today.

As I mentioned in the comments section over there, I think a good number of WoW players did ‘grow up’ and went looking for something better/deeper. How many is the impossible question, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that if WoW never happened, the MMO genre wouldn’t be the size it is today, supporting all of the different MMOs we have out. To that extend, WoW did bring in a lot of new players, and those players did ‘grow up’ to look for something else.

The problem today is ‘something else’ is either EVE, meh at best, or minor-league garbage. Now let’s be very clear here; no MMO was ever or will ever be a ‘WoW-killer’, but that is mostly due to the fact that WoW was a pop-culture phenomenon. Yes, prior to WotLK it was also a very good MMO, but it wasn’t 12m+ players good.

The same can be said today about League of Legends, the ‘real’ WoW killer; it’s a very good game, yes, but it’s not 40-60m or however many active accounts Riot has. LoL right now is benefitting from similar pop-culture status that WoW did, though arguable to a lesser extent because ‘vidyagames’ are more common and accepted today than even in 2006, so playing something popular isn’t front-page news-worthy.

I think a similar story can be written about the current massive success of Clash of Clans (the #1 grossing app still). Farmville laid the groundwork, and without doubt some of those players ‘graduated’ to a ‘real game’ in CoC. Because much like WoW and LoL, CoC is a great game, but is its design really “highest-grossing app out for over a year” great? Or did the pop-culture snowball effect kick in at some point and millions upon millions of people started playing because everyone else was, or because TV told them to?

Let’s get back to MMOs, or more accurately, the lack of either a great one or few with proper aspirations. I think the market size for a great MMO ala EVE is around the 500k-2m range. EVE is the king for virtual world design, but even by its own admission is somewhat niche. It might be the perfect version of Excel in Space, but at the end of the day it’s still Excel in Space. But I think a more mass-market, well-done MMO can get and retain around 2m players. Problem is every title that has tried has been horribly flawed and failed. LotRO, WAR, Rift, SW:TOR, ESO (I miss anyone?); all aimed at millions and fell well short, as each just isn’t great (or even good).

Then we had the problem of niche titles not defining their niche correctly. I think (hope) we are somewhat past this as indicated by titles like Pathfinder Online, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained. None of those titles have promised to be a WoW killer, or to be the next big thing. All, from what I have seen, are embracing their niche, and I hope that embracing extends to the business plan and surviving on 50k players or so. The only big whale I see crashing is Star Citizen, and even that has already kinda made its money (which is insane, but a totally different topic).

So yes, the WoW babies grew up. Not all 12m however, which confused not just readers but also the industry as a whole for a number of years. Seems like people are finally figuring it out, and now we just have to wait for the results when the next wave is released.


Sandbox end-game: Why keep playing long-term?

July 21, 2014

Let’s talk PvP sandbox MMO end-game today.

One of my outstanding questions from the whole Warhammer Online saga is in a perfect world, what was the end-game for that MMO? I mean we know it was to raid the other faction’s capital city and sack it, but was that it? If it was, in that perfect world, how many times could the players repeat that activity before getting bored? And if there was something greater, did Mark Jacobs or anyone from Mythic ever talk about it?

Darkfall has a similar problem, where the end-game is territory control, but due to a broken economy and the overall trivial nature of acquiring gear, no one really needs or desperately wants holdings, and the fights that result over them are thinly disguised “fights for the sake of fighting”. The criticism that the game is an awkward oversized arena stems from this general lack of greater purpose.

Finally EVE, as usual, is the best example in the genre in terms of end-game, as null-sec has value and giant organizations via to control it. The current ‘crisis’ is that 2-3 groups control it too well, and the barrier of entry for anyone outside of those 2-3 groups is practically impossible to overcome (short of those established groups imploding and creating a vacuum of power). EVE also benefits here because it has other end-games, though most revolve around the acquisition and use of money.

End-game is one of the issues I thought about when writing up my PvE Sandbox posts, and my solution is rather than relying on the players to create ‘content’ by fighting each other, the game world itself would drive players into action by having mobs attacking their holdings, and for the world overall to be in flux based on player actions and success. This would be further sustainable with AI tweaks or mob changes; whenever the players would get too comfortable with the challenges facing them, whenever they got too good at fighting back the mobs, the devs could step in and alter things to keep it interesting.

Looking forward to some future MMOs like Camelot Unchained and Pathfinder, what are the true end-games for those titles? Both have territory control mechanics, but will they have the depth and detail of EVE to avoid the problems currently facing Darkfall’s end-game? Will either bring something new, interesting, and sustainable to the table to keep players happily playing/paying?


Re-confirmed: I’m kind of a big deal

July 9, 2014

Knowing how many ‘real people’ readers a blog has, much less how much influence a writer has on his readers, is almost impossible to tell. WordPress provides view/visitor statistics of course, but based on personal experience those numbers aren’t 100% accurate (or even close, really). Not only that, but at this point I’m not even sure if they are inaccurately inflated or under-reported for this blog, as a few recent events have hinted at.

Let’s take a step back; as anyone who reads this blog has noticed, post volume is down, mostly because the MMO genre is in the toilet right now and this being an MMO blog, that has an impact. And it goes deeper than just the current crop of MMOs being meh-to-terrible; they also bring nothing new to the table, which further makes it difficult to break things down and write a blog post. For all its failings, at least Warhammer Online brought new ideas, and had a dev team behind it giving us plenty of fodder. It ultimately didn’t work out for Mythic, but it was blogging gold.

In addition to needing a good MMO to play, I’d also like another WAR in terms of blog fodder please.

From a pure “looking at my numbers” perspective, the shutting down of Google reader was noticeable, and my WordPress stats page reflects this. To a lesser extent, VirginWorlds no longer picking up my blog (along with no longer really working overall) hurt. Jester not blogging has an impact as well. But again, while the raw numbers are down, how many ‘real people’ readers have stopped coming here is tough to tell. I’d like to think that if you are a real person, and you enjoy reading this blog, the shutting down of a reader, or another blog no longer updating, isn’t going to instantly stop you from figuring out how to keep reading this blog, right?

Number of comments is another indicator, but again it gets tricky. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could write a comment-bait post tomorrow (spoiler-alert) and get north of 30 comments. If the comment-bait is really good, and gets picked up by some larger sites, 50+ comments would happen. Get a good comment-section flame-war going, and 100+ is ‘achieved’. But what does 30, 50, or even 100 comments mean, especially when they were somewhat baited or 80% of them are off-topic flames? Does a post getting one person to comment mean that post sucked and this blog is dead/dying, or did thousands of people read it, enjoy it, and just have nothing to add so they didn’t comment? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night (not really).

Let’s return to those recent events I mentioned in the first paragraph. The first is my Clash of Clans… clan. Those posts didn’t get a lot of comments, and traffic was normal, so it would be easy to assume not many found them all that interesting or were ‘influenced’ by them. Yet today, I think I’ve had 10+ people join the clan (“Supreme Cream!”, still time to join and we are building something pretty solid), many of them new players to the game who picked it up due to this blog. How many others at least tried the game due to those posts and just didn’t enjoy it? How many are playing, just slowly, so they haven’t joined the clan yet (or joined someone else because they are jerks like that)?

The second example is Risen, another post with very few comments, and Steam. On Steam my friends list has grown tremendously due to mentioning my screen name (Syncaine) on this blog and asking people for Steam cards (feel free to send some), which has resulted in getting a better feel for what “the people” are doing on Steam thanks to the “Activity” section.

As mentioned Risen was on sale recently due to the pre-order coming up for Risen 3, and thanks to the “Activity” tab I noticed a bunch of people picked the Risen 1+2 bundle up. Now I don’t know how many of those buys are due to this blog and how many of them would have happened anyway, but I’d bet at least SOME are blog-based, which is pretty cool and says something about influence.

Lastly, and the example with by far the most data, was my time blogging about Darkfall 1 and including the Community Publishing Program link/mention in every post. The CPP was basically a referral system that paid me 20% (I think?) of the initial purchase made using my link, so when AV was running a promo for the game+6months for $100, I got $20 per person who bought that bundle. I wish I had gotten 20% of all future sub fees, if only to track how long people stuck with the game, but sadly it didn’t work that way.

Through the CPP I got credited with hundreds of purchases (and I know for a fact I didn’t get credit with all purchases made due to technical issues sometimes), and AV would later confirm that I was by far the most successful CPP user. This blog, literally, made AV thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars, and unlike Clash of Clans that rakes in millions daily, for AV my contribution was actually very noticeable to the company overall. More importantly to me however was seeing confirmation that this blog was influencing people to the point of spending real money on something they would have otherwise passed on.

Examples like the above making writing the blog easier, because it confirms ‘real people’ are reading and not every view is some spam-bot finding its way here thanks to Google. This blog’s main purpose is to entertain #1 (me), but that can’t happen without all of the little people (you) showing up, so thank you dear reader, and keep dancing on those strings (and sending Steam cards).


EVE: CCP you are the worst, besides everyone else

February 7, 2014

Jester has, as always, a great post up about the reaction to the real life EVE monument CCP recently unveiled, which as his post shows, has largely been negative. EVE is famous for having lots of bitter vets, and as the only MMO to still be growing after more than a decade, many of those players truly are vets, and truly are bitter.

His post however reminded me how good EVE players have it compared to everyone else. For example take this complaint:

I think this boring and featureless statue symbolize EVE expansions.

EVE receives two free expansions every year, plus point releases between those expansions that do more for the game than what some MMOs call expansions they charge you for. Oh how I wish DF:UW got such ‘boring and featureless’ expansions. Hell, I’d take just one, or even half.

Doom and gloom fills every MMO forum. It’s what players do. The happy ones are playing, the unhappy are posting, regardless if your game is a dumpster like SW:TOR or the blueprint like EVE. That said, EVE players should take a step back once in a while and look around the genre. You really wouldn’t trade CCP for anyone else. Not the interns who gave us space goats and pandas. Not the wing factory of monthly embarrassments and flip-flopping. Not someone who burns $300m on a pillar of trash and sells you hotbars. Not the authors of the manifesto of lies. Not the ad-spam One-Ring sellers. Not the fools in white shades, or the ones to put a bullet in the head of an MMO shortly after release.

Be glad CCP runs EVE. It could be a lot, lot worse.


Pathfinder Online: What 1.9m gets you

February 6, 2014

The latest dev blog from Goblinworks, makers of the upcoming Pathfinder Online (currently holder of the very distinguished “Next sandbox MMO least likely to suck” award) talks money, specifically that they spent 1.9m in 2013.

Numbers are fun, especially once this game is released and we see just what 1.9m in a year really gets you. We know what 300m+ from EA gets us (Tortanic), we know 38 Studios wasn’t able to create much of anything with a giant pile of (Rhode Island’s) money, we know the relative cost of WAR, and now we will see what happens here and with the slew of other Kickstarter MMOs.

Side note: The screenshots in the dev blog look refreshing, in that the world won’t be a neon crapland of ‘magic’. The closer someone comes to making a game that looks and feels like a Mount and Blade Online game, the better.

 


MMO Future: Understanding old memories

October 31, 2013

Almost all of the original MMOs worked. UO, EQ1, AC1, DAoC; all of those games had solid populations and growth in their prime. In contrast, most of the recent MMOs (AoC, WAR, LotR, SW:TOR, Aion, Rift, etc) have not. Either they are getting shut down, closing servers, or in the F2P minor leagues. Based on this, it’s easy to see why many players are interesting in returning to ‘the good old days’, while others are dismissing those feelings as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that can’t be reproduced and only happened because of the time, not so much the games themselves.

As with most topics the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I do want to address why those older games worked as MMOs, and dispel a few misconceptions about ‘the good old days’.

First and foremost, all four of the games listed above worked because they had content for months if not years, rather than weeks. You can say it was a long character grind, or punishing mechanics, or archaic systems, but at the end of the day the fact remains that to ‘max out’ in those games it simply took far longer than in a game like SW:TOR or WAR, and when your business model is based on keeping people subscribed and playing, that’s pretty damn important.

Another factor to consider here is that we are not talking a few months or even the first year when talking about the original four peaking; they all did it later (And of course, we are still seeing EVE ‘peak’ yearly). This is important because it dispels a myth that leads to the often-repeated mistake of cutting your current game short to allow everyone to catch up and ‘get to the good stuff’, which is usually the latest expansion or added end-game content. Today we are so worried about a new player getting stuck in the old stuff, that we completely forget the fact that if the content is good, having more of it is a bonus, not a penalty.

WoW today has a stupidly-fast leveling curve, so fast in fact that you simply can’t complete all of a zone before out-leveling it. Is that really a strength of the game; zipping you to the end-game? Or would WoW today fare better with a much longer/slower leveling curve, one that allowed players to finish a zone without have to trick the XP system? Was WoW ‘broken’ in 2004 with its slower pace? Was everyone dying to get to the ‘good stuff’ of raiding Molten Core? The numbers most certainly don’t support that theory.

Player burnout is happening faster today than before. Is it because many of us are MMO vets now and are just not entertained as long by the same stuff, or is it also a factor that many of the games we play force burnout by zipping us along at a breakneck pace? It’s hard to state “man, I wish I was gaining XP slower!”, but at the same time, are you really dying to get passed the leveling and progression aspects of early life in an MMO? To put it another way, when you recall the more fun moments of a typical MMO (especially a themepark), are those memories all at the end-game, or did you enjoy the ride as much if not more than the destination (spoiler: in most MMOs the destination sucks, which is why you quit).

A related item I want to address is the memories older MMO players have of the early days, such as camping a spawn for hours or running the same content an insane amount of time for a single item. It’s common to see someone state they would never do that again, and hence the older approach to making an MMO simply wouldn’t work today.

First, when players talk about those times, it’s important to understand that such extremes are memorable because they were and are extremes; the average day for an EQ1 players was NOT spent sitting at one spawn waiting for a specific iem, just like the average day for a DAoC player was not a 5 hour relic raid. A UO player’s average day was not breaking into a house, or getting ganked with half your items at the Brit bank. Today massive battles in EVE are news-worth because they don’t happen daily, record breaking thefts make the front pages because, well, they just broke a record in a game with 10+ years of history.

That said, let’s make no mistakes about it, the above are very important to those games; many are the catalysts that inspire others to start playing or to play more/differently. When they go well, they are the highs that make the day-to-day stuff worthwhile, and even when they go wrong, they leave an impression. Keeping everything vanilla is safe, but safe doesn’t inspire year after year of loyalty and excitement; it gets you a 3 week run that is entirely forgettable.

That’s not to suggest you can simply copy/paste 1997 UO, release it with updated graphics, and profit. Changes to the formula are needed, but outright abandoning the core is clearly not working. So when MMO fans talk about bringing back the ‘good old days’, it’s not because they want everyone to sit around a mob spawn for 12 hours daily, or because they would love to play a game where they lose everything at the bank all the time. In addition to a lot of basic concepts I’ll cover in a future post, they want the possibility of something memorable happening, because without those standout moments, your MMO is just another game to check out for a brief period of time, and that is NOT what an MMO is all about.


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