I grew up playing Final Fantasy games. There isn’t a game series in existence that has had more profound impact on me as a gamer, yet I’ve never been remotely interested in playing the MMO entries in the series. When Final Fantasy XI came out, it didn’t really scream “Final Fantasy” at me. It just looked like another EverQuest. As for Final Fantasy XIV, we’d seen it at a number of shows on the run-up to launch and it just looked like a confusing hot mess, so I’d pretty much written it off. Sure enough, it was a right disaster at launch and players voted with their wallets and let Square Enix know.
Square Enix’s reaction to the disaster that was Final Fantasy XIV, however, was really unlike anything I’d seen in the genre up to this point. Failures in the MMO genre are a dime a dozen; heck, most don’t even make it to launch. The MMOs that do launch and fail rarely experience a second wind, though. Most of these games are put into a sort of maintenance mode, never to realize their full potential. Teams are cut down, patches and content are scaled back, that sort of thing. If you’re a veteran MMO player, you can often spot this shift immediately. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the game often does worse as a result. Who wants to invest their time and money in a sinking ship? I know I don’t. I like to feel that the game I’m playing has a chance at fulfilling its potential to grow and improve over time.
Square Enix decided, for one reason or another, that Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t going to be relegated to the same fate. The original team was replaced and Naoki Yoshida was assigned the seemingly insurmountable task of remaking the original game into something worthy of claiming a numbered entry in the long-running RPG series. Square Enix refused to collect subscription fees for a number of months for those who remained and the team continued to develop the existing game all the while laying out some fairly ambitious goals for the remake. The novelty of all this was enough for me to at least sit up in my chair and pay attention. I haven’t enjoyed a Final Fantasy game since FFX and so at this point I had no faith in Square Enix to create a solid FF RPG, much less an MMO, but I did look into what the team was doing now and then.
My outlook changed significantly after I met Mr. Yoshida at E3 last year. The passion and energy the man had for this seemingly impossible task and the Final Fantasy series as a whole was immediately palpable. We carried on a 40 minute conversation about the game and what his goals were for the project. I even had a chance to see a pre-alpha version of the game running on its brand new engine in realtime. The game was running on a laptop and was clearly not optimized yet, but it showed promise. I came away from that conversation cautiously optimistic about FFXIV's future.
I paid closer and closer attention to development from that point on, but I didn’t want to get myself hyped up. We’ve all been on the MMO hype train before and it doesn’t often end well, but this would be a double-whammy for me. After looking forward to enjoying an amazing Final Fantasy game every few years as a child and later a teenager, it was pretty rough watching the series fall from grace, but I eventually got over it and just stopped caring about new Final Fantasy games. If I were to hype myself up for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and it turned out to blow just like the original, well that would be opening up old wounds in addition to the crappy feeling one has when they are let down by an MMO.
Once beta rolled around, I messed around in a couple of the phases and tempered my expectations, but enjoyed what I did get to play. It wasn’t until Phase 4 that I found myself completely excited like I hadn’t been for quite some time now.
And then, just like that, it all went to hell.
Final Fantasy XIV is a great game plagued with poor service. Let’s break both sides of the game down separately, getting the elephant in the room out of the way first.
Square Enix is notorious, going all the way back to the days of PlayOnline, for giving their customers a service experience that could be considered dubious at best. I don’t know what the deal is exactly, but I often wonder if the folks designing their frontend account systems and customer support protocols make the experience as confusing and arduous as possible out of some deep-seated hatred for humanity. There really isn’t any other explanation. I didn’t have firsthand experience with Square Enix’s service issues until recently, but a couple of close friends lost more hours of their life than they’d care to admit in Final Fantasy XI and I’ve heard all the stories. One friend of mine couldn't for the life of him figure out how to actually cancel his subscription to FFXI, so he actually canceled his credit card to deal with it.
Me? My misfortune began when I couldn’t figure out my password to my original Square Enix account (which had no games on it) and after corresponding with support, I was basically told I was SOL since I couldn’t provide them with enough details to fill out a dossier on me to verify I was the owner of said account.
I was still determined to play, though. So I threw up my hands, made a new account and pre-ordered the game. I also purchased a security keyfob, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to rely on Square Enix to sort me out if my account ever got hacked.
Phase 4 of the beta, where data would carry over until Early Access, and then live, was a disaster from a service point-of-view. Players would soon become familiar with the game’s various error codes. There were errors for worlds being full, lobby servers being down, and probably worst of all, the dreaded error 3102. This had the game thinking that characters were still logged in when they weren’t, locking players out until Square Enix could sort it out. For people looking to get a headstart on things, Phase 4 didn’t really work out for most. I was fortunate enough to dodge most of the issues and accomplished what I wanted, but the terror was just beginning.
Square Enix then decided to launch a convoluted pre-order website, where, get this, players were expected to input their pre-order code in order to get another pre-order code. It was as if they had modeled their pre-order redemption process after a Matroyshka doll. Naturally, the site couldn’t handle the load and even generated its own confusing and vague error codes. As part of the process, gamers had to make sure they got to the appropriate version of the site for their region and then ensure that they claimed a code for the specific platform (PC or PS3) that they were intending to play on. Between the site collapsing on itself and apparently running out of codes to distribute (yep) the pre-order redemption experience devolved into pure chaos. It was apparently too much to just have retailers send customers their codes and then have them plug them into the main Square Enix account system somewhere.
The pre-order situation was eventually resolved, but players were already pissed off with the Phase 4 situation, and this certainly didn’t help. Again, I dodged this bullet, too. Lucky me.
Similarly to Phase 4, Early Access began with most of the same issues, only things were arguably worse overall. Players who didn’t participate in Phase 4 of the beta (or couldn’t participate, due to the aforementioned errors) had a short window at the beginning of Early Access to create a character on their desired server before most servers became crowded to capacity, leading Square Enix to begin locking down character creation on most of the servers in the NA/EU group.
For many players, this meant they were stranded from their friends who had already made characters on these servers in beta or were lucky enough to have created characters before the lockout. This is still the case for many players, including a handful of personal friends. Numerous servers are still locked for new character creation even now after the game has launched. I have friends that have quit trying and are seeking a refund at this point, while others are playing on another server and hoping for paid character transfers sometime in mid-September or for next week's planned datacenter expansion to ease the limitations.
Those of us who actually did manage to create characters and play the game have had to deal with the ‘1017’ error, in which servers are locked to new logins until space opens up. Normally, an MMO will utilize a queue system here, and FFXIV has one, but it seems the queue is limited to a certain number of players before it just hard locks players from attempting to log in. This has resulted in having to sit there and spam the log in process (Pro Tip: press 0 on your Numpad to make your life easier) just about any time one wants to log in to the game. This spamming can go on for anywhere from 5 minutes to possibly an hour or more, depending on the time of day and how bad your luck is. Some players are resorting to automated macros and others are even creating physical contraptions to automate the process for them. It’d be comical if it weren’t so sad.
And yet, it doesn’t end there!
Square Enix then launched yet another site called the MogStation. This site was set up for players to register their game, manage game subscriptions and handle other account services. Once players received their actual game codes, they had to log in to this, unsurprisingly confusing new website and apply the code. Due to said confusing site design, many players ended up using their codes to add a second FFXIV account (separate from the existing pre-order/beta account) to their Square Enix account. Why is this even an option? Who knows? But these unfortunate players are now unable to access their existing characters if they have them (on the account with the full-game code) or pre-order rewards if they don’t. To make matters worse, those who have managed to get Square Enix support to move their registration over to their main account are speculating that they may be out on their free 30 days of game time due to the explanations offered by Square Enix’s customer support representatives. I’m not sure this is actually the case, but if true, it’s easy to see how this whole experience could be frustrating, to say the least.
I would refer back to the old adage that MMO launches are always terrible, which is mostly true, but they are rarely this terrible. The entire series of events from Phase 4 up until now has been a straight-up disaster. Some of this sort of thing can be expected, though I don’t want to say that it should be expected. Just because it continues to happen with almost every MMO launch doesn’t mean we should give this sort of thing a free pass. It’s become monumentally clear over the past few years that multiplayer online games, particularly MMOs, are more than just games now, they are services, and as a service Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has been a terrible failure thus far.
Like most MMO launch issues, I do expect that things will be OK within a week, maybe two, and many who stick around will likely chalk this up as a bump in the road months from now, but Yoshida and his team worked incredibly hard to give this game a second chance and it’s incredibly unfortunate that this self-inflicted wound may kill a lot of that momentum. I really hope this isn’t the case, but it’s definitely given me cause for concern.
I wanted to separate the service from the game because despite the massive shellacking I’ve just given FFXIV for all its service issues, I can say that, at least from what I’ve experienced thus far, Yoshida and his team definitely met their goals in creating an amazing game. I can barely put this damn thing down (when I can actually log in). But this article has gone on long enough already, so you’ll have to wait until next week to hear more of my take on that!
Mr. Yoshida (aka Yoshi-P) tearfully reflecting on the launch of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and offering an apology for the service issues thus far. Rough translation available here.
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Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB