The trumpets sounded. Four horsemen thundered from the depths of hell. The rivers turned to blood, locusts filled the sky with a strange loud hum that deafened the masses. Outrage, pandemic, and panic spread through the community this week, as a great revelation occurred: Final Fantasy XIV would be using a fatigue system.
Actually, the headlines this week began along the lines of “Final Fantasy XIV limits you to one hour of gameplay per day!!!1!”. It's a headline that would enrage any MMO player. It was also one that was blatantly false. The word began on Sankaku Complex, an NSFW site (in other words, click at your own risk for the original article), who based their report on a Famitsu interview combined with information from Esuteru. The information that Sankaku posted indicated that the fatigue system would gradually reduce the amount of experience earned by a character to zero the longer a person played. The “leaked” information about the system then indicated that the fatigue would limit experience by 50% within the first two hours of play, meaning that within four hours, a person would be completely out of experience gains for another two days while waiting for the timer to reset. Rumors also explained that this limit was account-wide, meaning you couldn't switch to another character (assuming you'd paid for another character slot in the first place) to wait it out.
There's no denying that a system like Sankaku described would be incredibly steep, and a huge drive away from the glittery world of Final Fantasy XIV that everyone's been gawking at and pre-ordering in droves. While there are undoubtedly players who would fit well within the playtime limits described, the majority of MMO subscribers play more than eight hours a week in total. If Realtime Worlds would have us believe that APB subscribers play on average four hours a day, imagine where that puts the average World of Warcraft, EVE Online, or EverQuest 2 playtime.
But, to put it as politely as a poster on Gamespot did, “You have been trolled by a sankakutard” is the best way to explain that Sankaku did a great job at trolling any person even remotely interested in Final Fantasy XIV. There could be a lesson learned here on evaluating your sources before believing what you hear on the Internet, but let's move on for now and simply brush it off as the wild-spreading of rumors across the limitless global lines of communication that the Internet offers.
The concern over the “fatigue” system, and why it drew attention so suddenly and furiously, began with FFXIV's Beta 3. Although the system had always been in place, this particular phase of beta had two significant issues causing people to see the efforts of the system at work. The first issue was that weak enemies attacking in groups incorrectly awarded a higher amount of experience than they should have, a bug that has been fixed. The second issue is that guildleves had their experience and skill rewards significantly increased in order to encourage testing of that system (a normal experience in non-marketing betas). In short, Beta 3 brought a lot more experience over time than players had seen in previous beta phases.
There is no denial that the fatigue system does exist, but not in the method described by Sankaku. To begin with, the system is not based on the hours of gameplay a person spends; that is, a person can, indeed, spend infinite time online if they so choose. Instead, the fatigue kicks in after meeting a certain threshold, a point number which calculates the maximum theoretical earnings of experience and other gains per play hour – say, for instance, the maximum amount of experience a person could earn while grinding non-stop per hour.
There are eight of these threshold caps per week, and so long as a player doesn't reach the total threshold maximum, they will not see diminishing returns. Afterward, players will see returns slowly fade off to zero for the next seven thresholds. The system as described might be compared to an invisible, weekly, fifteen-bubble experience bar: for the first eight bubbles, players earn their maximum; after the eighth bubble is reached, each following bubble offers diminishing returns. When all the bubbles are filled, the player meets their “zero cap” for the week and must wait until the week's reset (which starts when the player first earns experience or skills for the week).
It gets more complicated, however. Like Final Fantasy XI, FFXIV offers each character the ability to level multiple jobs and combine their skills. This fatigue level only applies per each job; that is, by changing to another class, you begin a brand new threshold value for that particular class. Not only that, non-active classes begin recovering fatigue as soon as they aren't being leveled. This means that even for a hardcore player, it is likely possible to never encounter diminishing returns so long as play sessions are thoughtfully balanced. If you're confused, the short of it is to alternate between classes when playing and fatigue should not become an issue.
Why the complicated system? MMO developers have been attempting to balance out the difference between casual and hardcore players – that is, those players who play only a few hours a week between those who play a few hours a day. Typically, the approach has been to offer rested experience, in which players gain a bonus to their experience rate while logged off. To utilize a common example, World of Warcraft players who log off in an inn gain one bar of rested bonus for every eight hours offline (less if logged off in a wilderness area), to a maximum of 30 bars of rested experience. Rested bonus then grants double the experience on killing enemies until it is used up.
What many forget – or were not around to know – is that Blizzard used a similar system to Final Fantasy XIV when World of Warcraft was in beta. Players began at a well-rested state (200% experience) but gradually moved into more fatigued states the longer a character was played without rest, down to a 25% experience rate – yes, a fourth of normal experience earned. The system had the same philosophy that other MMO designers, including Square Enix, had in mind: offer a narrowing experience path so that casual players and hardcore players would be equalized to approximately equal levels of play. However, players were confused and upset by it, feeling penalized for playing long hours, even though after the change Blizzard recounted that it was essentially the same thing, in reverse.
Ultimately, the difference between fatigue and rested experience mimics the difference between punishment and reward in psychology – or, more accurately, positive versus negative reinforcement. While both methods of reinforcement are effective, it is our perception of how we are being treated that skews our views on the matter. Fatigue is a method of diminishing returns which gives the appearance of punishment: that is, you've done an action too much and are therefore being penalized. In reality, the system seeks not to punish the player, but rather to cease behavior that it sees as harmful and inappropriate (playing a game too much). Its goal isn't to stop the player from playing entirely; rather, it is designed to encourage the player to take a break.
Consider this: few players wait the full 10 days to earn their level and a half of rested experience bars in World of Warcraft, or even save up a few days of rested experience per play session, even though the bonus is relatively high, because 100% is viewed as “normal” and therefore acceptable. Players under the old fatigue system would immediately stop at 100%, however, because any lower was viewed as “punishment” even though they also had the ability to keep a full 200%, or even above 150%, experience level with the proper time management. Oddly, in the first case, 200% experience has to be earned, but is treated with less value than 200%, which was the “normal” (unearned) rate of experience, in which less experience had to be earned (hence, a punishment).
Final Fantasy XIV's fatigue system is more complex than either the old or current system employed by World of Warcraft, particularly in that it is not based on gameplay time but rather the reward earned over time. It's also similar in that class switching is essentially equal to switching to an alt, except the main character continues to earn rewards. Because job balancing is viewed as essential in the Final Fantasy MMO universe, the system ultimately benefits even the hardcore players by reminding and encouraging them to level other classes, which in turn will make their character stronger than it would be with a single class. In a roundabout way, the system not only rewards casual players, but hardcore players as well.
Should developers be pushing for this kind of imposed balance in the first place? Besides offering a sort of justice scale between the casual and hardcore, the fatigue/rested system has two other benefits. The first is that it helps gate the experience of players in such a way that developers can predict and pace development of end-game content, as well as watch for spikes in rewards caused by bugs and exploits. Secondly, the systems curb the efforts of bots and other methods of “unnatural” powerleveling, providing an easier method of not only catching “the bad guys,” but curbing their behavior in the first place via a leveling speedtrap.
Whether Square Enix will stick with the system – which they've already promised to review as the beta goes on – is beyond our guess at this point. Final Fantasy XIV is already a fairly unique offering in the MMO world, and has shrugged off the pressure to conform to the typical MMORPG formula seen in most titles. A great deal of the determination will be in the numbers, and whether or not Square Enix is afraid of losing more after the apocalypse this week.