As my habits demand, I check on older MMOs periodically to see what’s new and to possibly download a new trial or even restart an old account. I do it with EVE Online, Ultima Online and other games that just scream nostaglia. Normally I find that the games have aged well but do not change so dramatically that I feel like I am playing a brand new game.
Things were different with this visit to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
A quick history of my dealings with the Final Fantasy franchise.
My first memories with the IP come from the PlayStation console and playing -- if I remember correctly -- Final Fantasy 7. I dug some of the graphics and the turn-based combat was OK, but the characters and stories were so convoluted and strange that I just never got into it. I don’t remember having much to do with the IP for years after (I was heavily into playing drums and making art at that time) until I came across Final Fantasy XI, the first MMO version. All I remember about the game (including recent run-ins with it) is that it can literally take all day to install and patch and that it is grindy, overly complicated and so, so strange. I remember being yelled at, even while in lower levels, for not playing correctly. The IP, up to that point in my life, felt like a surrealistic day-job, one that you worked your tail off but didn’t get paid for.
When FFXIV came out, I was happy that the developers might have learned the lessons of the market and made a game that was actually fun to play, while being relatively easy for newbies to start in. I don’t care how immersive, hardcore or tough a developer thinks their game should be; making it no fun for newbies is a mistake, plain and simple. Unfortunately, FFXIV initially felt just like a better looking, harder-to-run-even-on-a-gaming-pc version of FFXI.
I enjoyed some of the initial newbie stages in first version of XIV but my enjoyment was pounded out of me after I came across even basic quests -- like getting a group of children to perform emotes -- that could only be resolved after looking them up online. After all, the community seemed to be in no mood to help a newb. I came into that version with much hope and left disappointed. If you look at the relaunch’s many issues since initial liftoff, it’s obvious that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
This week I decided to give this new, relaunched version of the old relaunched version a trial test run. I clicked on a trial pop-up that came across my Facebook page and downloaded the game. The instructions on the page were simple enough but led to disappointment; the game wouldn’t load. It turns out that if you have ever had a previous version of FFXIV on your PC, the trial will not let you have another go at it for free. Ancient thinking, but OK. I deleted everything and re-downloaded and there I was in-game not so much later. I was shocked at how easy I got into the game (that is, after discovering the fact that I couldn’t have previous versions on my hard drive.) Normally, installing and playing Final Fantasy is, well, a joke.
This led me to lesson number 1 of this journey: make your initial game download and account creation easy as pie.
At some point, the game asked me if I wanted to use a controller. Why, yes, yes I would! It’s much easier on my old man gamer wrists and arms, so thanks for asking! The control scheme, probably due to its popularity on the console, worked like butter. The old version menus were silly in their complicated nature, but now everything seemed to work perfectly. Yes, using a controller means pushing a few extra buttons here and there, but holy moly does it feel natural in this game.
That brought me to lesson 2: always have a controller option for those who need it!
I watched the amazing trailer, made a character with the beautiful character creation screen and was soon in game. One of the complaints that I have heard from many older gamers is that this new version is too hand-holdy. Sure, I can see that… but I am new to this world. Immersing me in the game by explaining not only mechanics but also the lore is a brilliant move. Somewhat ironically, this new (to me, at least) intro to FFXIV reminded me of the fantastic EVE Online trial intro; you get plenty of lore and can walk through mechanics without feeling like you are being asked to go to work in a cold, barely-lit office or being pushed through with no hope of taking a breath.
Next game lesson, number 3: Make sure your trial is actually fun and immersive. If you are a developer and make your game a mess or a complicated grind, at least make your trial interesting.
Shockingly, I found myself gaining levels. If my old gamer memory serves me correctly, gaining a level in Final Fantasy was a miracle before. Only a few days after I started I was in my teens, based on a few hours of play. Am I finding the content a bit too easy and theme-parkish? I definitely recognize those feelings, but one of the glories of a themepark is that it allows you to simply escape into a world. The wonderful control scheme in FFXIV means that I can go into a walking and first-person mode (something that Guild Wars 2 didn’t seem to want me to do) more naturally. I found myself walking from spot to spot, simply enjoying the scenery, especially at night. This game is beautiful.
So, game development lesson number 4: Don’t be afraid to make your players feel as though they are moving forward, but let them go at their pace.
The game runs wonderfully. The last time I played FFXIV I found myself constantly tweaking with the settings. Now, I can choose from preset settings and they all look great and the world feels wonderfully unique, as an IP like Final Fantasy always should.
Gaming lesson number 5: Your trial does not have to have the best effects or require the biggest PC to run it, but make it look unique. A developer can do that even with low requirements, but bells and whistles are nice.
Sure, much of this love can easily be chalked up to the fact that the game is still fresh to me, someone who has not followed it nearly as closely as other players. To be fair, however, when I have played it, it was almost always a rough or even bad experience. It is also possible that I was just in the mood for a game that is paced exactly like this new version of FFXIV.
The game isn’t perfect. The characters mostly look like they belong in boy bands. It’s distracting and feels a bit silly. I even came across an “old” character who was basically just a younger character with a mustache and beard. The combat is a bit too noisy and button-mashy, and the “FATE” system is really just instant-on, open-world combat that you’ll already find in games like RIFT. (Not that it’s a bad thing.)
Will I enjoy this game six months from now? A year from now?
Who knows, and I don’t care. I’m not getting married; I’m enjoying an escape into a virtual world of adventure.