My time playing MMOs goes way back. My first experience with anything close to a massively multiplayer game - we won’t count 4-player Gauntlet at the local arcade - was AberMUD in the late ‘80s. I followed that up with several other online games before finding my first true MMORPG - Everquest.
Don’t worry. This isn’t some nostalgia fueled rant about how Everquest was the greatest invention since the mana pot. In fact, I only played EQ for a few months. My first multi-year MMO romance was with Dungeons & Dragons Online. DDO wasn’t the best game ever made. It wasn’t even the best MMORPG available at the time but I spent hour after hour, year after year logging in and running the same dungeons over and over.
When I look back and try to figure out what kept me playing for so long it’s easy to come up with two simple reasons. The first reason was my history with pen and paper D&D and how well, although not perfectly, DDO recreated the many dungeon crawls I had been through. That familiarity made the game easy to pick up and play right from the start, and the enjoyable gameplay kept me interested for the first couple of months, something many MMOs since have failed to do.
Beyond that, the reason I stuck with DDO for so long was the community. As I played, I quickly started seeing some familiar names popping up over and over. The players I enjoyed grouping with were added to my friends list and from one of those friendships came my first guild invite. It was all of those friendships that really kept me coming back well after the actual game had lost its luster.
Since those years with DDO I have played so many other MMOs I would be hard pressed to name them all. Tera, Rift, Wildstar, Warframe, Black Desert Online...the list goes on and on. Some gobbled up months, and I stuck with a couple for a year or two. Over the last couple of years, though, there hasn’t been a single MMO that has kept my attention for more than a few weeks at best. I have wandered from game to game looking for that magic I had found with Dungeons & Dragons Online.
I know I’m not alone in my quest to find a new MMO home; you see cries in forums everywhere from people looking for that next game to fill their free time (thanks to COVID we all have more of that then we used to). There aren’t any new MMORPGs set to release any time soon that have piqued my interest, so I have decided to take a second look at some of the long standing MMORPGs out there and see what they have to offer.
It’s always a daunting proposition to jump into an established MMO. What have the developers done to help me find my footing in a strange land? Am I too far behind the curve to ever catch up? Are there any new players to group up with or are the lower levels a barren wasteland? Are the elitist jerks the only people left playing, spewing toxicity into chat with every word they type or is there a community that’s willing to lend a helping hand? These are the questions I plan to answer as I chronicle my hunt for a new MMO to call home. It only seems fitting to begin my MMO reroll with Final Fantasy XIV, seeing as how it too is on its second round.
Final fantasy XIV is a bit of a rarity in the MMO space these days. It somehow survived a failed launch, shutting down after just two years and coming back as FFXIV: A Realm Reborn a year later. Final Fantasy XIV further distinguishes itself from the crowd by grasping tightly to the monthly subscription model it had at launch.
Although Final Fantasy XIV has always had a subscription, Square Enix has offered free trials for years. The typical MMO 14-day trial was updated in 2017 to an unlimited time trial but the character level and accessible content were limited. With the release of update 5.3 in August the Final Fantasy XIV trial was again reborn, this time raising the level cap to 60 and expanding the content available to include everything through the Heavensward expansion.
This new enhanced trial is what made me decide to begin my new journey with Final Fantasy XIV. In an attempt to experience FFXIV in the same way a new player would (and because I am locked out of my old account due to 2FA and not wanting to deal with customer support to open it back up) I created a new account and downloaded the free trial.
My first stint with Final Fantasy XIV was when it first launched. Back then, it was quite the grind to just make it to level 50, the cap at the time. The main story quests and your job specific quests didn’t reward enough experience to keep up with the level requirements for the content you were trying to complete. There were a ton of mundane side quests, dungeons, and FATEs on tap to fill in the XP gap. The variety of ways to level your character was even considered a positive feature of FFXIV, and to some degree this was true. The side quests were the typical fetch and kill quests all MMOers are all too familiar with but, unlike other games, they were lengthened by unnecessary trips to additional NPCs to complete. In contrast, FATEs were quickly identified as the “optimal” way to level up and you would often see huge hordes of players running from FATE to FATE, mindlessly spamming skills to get the XP bar to fill up. Regardless of the way you chose to level up your character the grind was undeniable.
Square Enix has made several changes since launch that focus on getting new players up to speed quicker. Their first priority seems to be keeping the player population spread evenly across all of the available servers. To do so Square Enix often locks character creation on overpopulated servers and assigns Preferred Status to worlds which they want to attract more players. Creating a character on one of these worlds, which are identified by a star next to their name, will grant you the Road To 70 buff, giving you double experience for many activities on any class that you haven’t attained level 70.
I was amazed at how much this has changed the leveling experience in FFXIV. Instead of having to grind to stay level appropriate for the content I found myself with surplus experience points. The lowest character levels were completed with just one or two quests and I gained two or more levels in each of the first two dungeons I ran. I wasn’t able to completely suppress my urge to play through some of the side quests but, when I hit level 24 and was already double the level of my current quest, I realized I needed to change up my approach. From that point on I only played through the MSQ and job specific quests. Even then I was still gaining XP too fast. Long story short, I started leveling up a second class to absorb some of the extra experience and stay closer to the level of the main story line.
By doing so I completed the original story with two characters at level 50+. Considering the grind required when FFXIV first launched to just get through the main story with a single class at level 50, I found this a much better pace. Even if you don’t jump on a Preferred World for the XP boost you should still be able to push through the first story without a problem.
Speaking of the easy leveling, Square Enix has also streamlined the main story quest progression. Several changes, such as reducing the number of back and forth trips while completing a quest and eliminating some quests entirely, have reduced the total amount of time needed to finish the artificially extended (and arguably uninspired) ARR storyline. Final Fantasy XIV’s third expansion, Shadowbringers, came out a little over a year ago, so it only makes sense that Square Enix has done their best to expedite the player's time in the early bits of the game.
All of these changes haven’t killed player activity in the lower level areas, though. There were times while leveling up that I didn’t see many players in a given zone but that was the exception, not the rule. I often found myself alongside fellow levelers and even had a couple opportunities to join up as a duo or trio to blitz through a couple of quests. The little groups didn’t last for long and there wasn’t a lot of chatting going on, but having another player by my side still helped to pass the time. There were also quite a few times I saw groups completing FATES and I would join up for a couple kills. This is a welcome change from the other MMOs I have visited lately, where the low levels are a virtual wasteland.
The amount of low level characters running around also meant I never felt playing as a lone wolf through the early levels hindered my ability to advance the storyline. FFXIV does force you into group dungeons throughout the main storyline, so one of my biggest concerns of jumping back into the game was the lack of being in a Free Company (FFXIV’s equivalent to a guild) to help me fill out a party for what I expected to be empty queues. My fears turned out to be unfounded. Even as a DPS class I never had to wait more than 5 or 6 minutes for a party to form up, and when I started leveling up my second class as a Warrior (tank) any dungeon queue I entered with him filled up instantly.
Let’s Be Friends
One thing I noticed in my first couple hours of play was the eerie silence in my chat global. Other than the occasional system announcement and combat log there weren't any players communicating (or shouting) in chat. There aren't even any gold sellers spamming the airwaves. How was this silence possible when I saw so many characters running around? Well, it turns out that over the years FFXIV has made local chat virtually unnecessary with a host of its own social tools.
Most MMO players are familiar with guilds, and Final Fantasy XIV's Free Company fits this role. Your character can only belong to a single FC at a time but being in one has its benefits. At the minimum, Free Companies provide a communal armory chest, the ability to purchase a shared housing plot, and leaders can activate Actions, buffs that affect the entire company. Past the basic friends with benefits relationship, the size and activities of the FC are controlled by its members.
When I decided to go hunting for a Free Company I found a wide range of offerings. Some FCs were quite small and were looking for a couple of players to fill out a static group to attack their content of choice whereas others were large groups created just to share the company buffs. I was looking for something somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and finally went with The Seireitei, an FC with just over 100 members that is community focused. The group gave me a warm greeting, with a few members putting their...let’s call it unique...personalities front and center.
There is a little in-game chat going on but the FC Discord channel is the main forum for communication. There is friendly banter in the general channel at any given time with other channels available for in depth game discussions. There are discussions centered around things like skill rotations or crafting, with members freely offering their knowledge on the subjects. Members are frequently coordinating groups. These range from setting up teaching groups so players can learn fight mechanics to ad hoc farming groups attacking things like treasure maps or other high level content . There are even giveaways where members show their gratitude to the FC by putting mounts and other glam items up for grabs.
I’ve been in many guilds over the years and have seen everything from the ultra friendly to downright toxic groups. I’ve only been in the FC for a short time, but it is easy to tell The Seireitei is a group of gamers that are offering everything a guild has to offer. I doubt that even this group is a perfect fit for everyone but you should be able to find an FC in Final Fantasy XIV that suits your needs and playstyle.
If the commitment or structure of Free Companies don’t fit your needs, FFXIV also offers less structured social groups in the form of Linkshells. These private chat groups don’t offer any of the special bonuses that come with joining an FC but do give the same chat functionality, generally revolving around a specific game activity such as world boss hunts or finding parties for a particular raid. Players can belong to eight separate Linkshells, allowing them to focus on multiple objectives at once. Each Linkshell can have up to 128 members so players can quickly fill a party even when their FC would be unable to.
The newest addition to the social tools of FFXIV are Fellowships. The community board posting style that Fellowships use isn’t conducive to long term communication like Linkshells or FCs, though they do have wider reach with a maximum of 1000 players per Fellowship. This makes them perfect for getting the word out to like minded players about role play events, contests, or anything that just needs a quick announcement blast.
Along with the base Party Finder and Duty Finder, the above social tools made finding a party to tackle group content quick and painless. Just because you can find a group doesn’t mean that your time spent with other players will be enjoyable. Fortunately, every group I was in got along well. Not once did I have any veteran players complain when a first timer wanted to watch the cutscenes. And when a new tank was unfamiliar with the content others were willing to take the lead. I have been in other games where party members acted in a contrary manner and nothing sours me on a multiplayer game faster than players not being accommodating to new arrivals. Being able to make it through the 20+ hours I’ve played so far without any confrontation is a good sign.
Out Of Body Experience
Of course the social network of MMOs isn’t just in-game any more. The Lodestone has been Square Enix’s one stop site for all things Final Fantasy XIV since its launch. Along with FFXIV news and patch notes, players will find game guides, the official forums, and tools for finding FCs and Linkshells among other player resources. Square Enix has made sure to keep up with the times and also has a Final Fantasy XIV presence on Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram.
To get a gauge of the general atmosphere of the FFXIV community I perused the new player forums before I started my first character. To my surprise the conversations were generally civil and genuinely focused on helping other players. That isn’t to say that there weren’t any “If you don’t like it don’t play it” responses but it was refreshing to see how these were widely ignored by other posters. The easiest way to get rid of trolls is to stop feeding them after all, and this helped to keep message threads on topic.
There is also a Final Fantasy XIV subreddit that’s been around since the beginning. I don’t know why but Reddit has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Be prepared to sift through the usual muck and mire if you go searching for answers to your questions there. I did find their Discord to be more useful. Its moderators do a great job of keeping the new user channel on topic and the recruitment channel is where I found my current FC.
After a few weeks of casual play I have finally finished the main story from A Realm Reborn and am now ready to plunge headfirst into the Heavensward expansion. Short of a total rewrite nothing can fix the blah feeling I get from the original story. It’s a good thing Square Enix has done as much as they have to get you through the first 50 levels as quickly as possible. Extending the free trial to include the Heavensward expansion is a good call on the part of Square Enix and should go a long way in motivating new players to get through the ho hum portion of the story.
I have nothing but good things to say about the community members I have encountered during my playtime. Solo players seemed willing to group up out in the wild, and dungeon groups were friendly and supportive of new players. I have hit paydirt in my search for a good Free Company and even though I don’t plan on playing hardcore any time soon I still feel like I have a permanent home.
So if you haven’t guessed yet, the answers to my original questions are pretty obvious. I’ve put in less than 30 hours at this point so it’s possible this first impression could be tarnished in the coming months. But at this point I can confidently give two thumbs up to any player wondering if they should give Final Fantasy XIV a try right now. A strong playerbase, thriving lower level zones, and a healthy community atmosphere all make for a great start in a game with a wealth of additional content to experience beyond its generous free trial.
I must admit that I could easily claim victory in my search for a new MMO home. That would be the easy out, though. I do plan on playing FFXIV casually going forward but now I am really wondering what other existing MMOs didn’t get a fair shake my first time through.
So where should I head to next? Do I play it safe with another AAA title, or do I take a chance with a lesser known MMO. Even riskier, what about something free to play with a cash shop? Be sure to let me know what game you’ve been considering and maybe I will make it my next MMO Reroll.