There’s absolutely no ignoring anymore the massive exodus of gamers into Final Fantasy 14. And put bluntly, it’s unprecedented for any game that’s run as long as FFXIV has. Players are noting that servers are getting clogged up, and even the Square Enix store is having issues getting codes out fast enough.
Some call it a “World of Warcraft” exodus, as many are coming from the long-standing “King” of MMORPGs. Frankly, though, it’s not that simple.
A perfect storm of factors from all over the gaming space has led to these last few weeks. Yes, this includes backlash against the game’s inspiration, World of Warcraft, which even the game’s director has praised. But players could go to any other MMORPG, including Guild Wars 2, which has a similar free account system to FFXIV, and a perfectly decent story.
So what powered the hype train for FFXIV? It’s been chugging for quite a while, actually, and plenty of factors over the past few years have given it fuel.
It’s Gotten Better For Years
One of the first things you’ll hear about FFXIV is that it only gets better after A Realm Reborn, the base game. In fact, despite being “the base game,” A Realm Reborn is actually the game’s 2.0 edition, so it's already "better," per se.
The tale of FFXIV’s titular rebirth is an integral part of the game’s fame. Director Naoki Yoshida, who previously helped keep the Dragon Quest series afloat for Square Enix, was brought on board during FFXIV’s 1.0 game, which, despite many quirks that are still praised to this day, was considered a complete and utter disaster. The game made a canonical reset by unleashing Bahamut, one of the franchise’s most powerful creatures to date, upon the world in real time -- and killing the client and servers at that exact moment.
Since then, the game’s quality has only looked up, especially in regards to its writing, a core necessity in the Final Fantasy franchise. Heavensward, the MMO’s first expansion, was considered a phenomenal work of art; a grandiose high fantasy tale that subverts and critiques common tropes of the genre. And while Stormblood isn’t considered quite as good - common complaints include it feeling rushed, with it obvious that two expansions of story and exploration were squeezed into one - it’s still a perfectly fine expansion to most players.
On top of the prior expansions being repeated hits, over the years, Final Fantasy 14 introduced and revamped its combat systems and endgame content to make it more approachable to new players.
Released in July 2019, Shadowbringers is where most players say the game, and even the Final Fantasy franchise, has peaked so far. It pulled a higher Metacritic score than nearly every other game in the franchise. Arguably, this is where one can say the increase of players trying out FFXIV began, but game quality alone isn’t enough to bring in hundreds of thousands of new players.
Expanded Home Time, Expanded Trial
Already, FFXIV had a free trial for a while with plenty of the standard anti-bot restrictions: no marketplace, no sending social requests nor private messages, a currency limit. Notably, it only ran up to level 35, which only gets players up to a major character revelation before leaving them on an awkward cliffhanger. It also, of course, doesn’t allow a fuller kit of combat class abilities, as the first major “landmark” for class execution is level 50 (and continues every 10 levels).
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, even the limited trial was more than enough for many players to hop on and give Final Fantasy 14 a shot before committing fully to the game and subscription. There was an obvious bump in players, as many “quiet” worlds began having queues during peak times.
However, around the same time, the FFXIV team announced that the 5.3 patch, Reflections in Crystal, would expand the trial. Firstly, bookmark this patch in your mind, if you’re keeping track of the timeline, that the expanded trial was also among a slew of other quality-of-life updates and the end of the Shadowbringers arc.
If you’ve been in the gaming community the past few months and seen the “free trial” meme, this is pretty much where it comes from. Patch 5.3 expanded the free trial to include Heavensward and raised the level cap for all classes, combat and non-combat, to 60. And as previously discussed, Heavensward is goddamned good; many, many players prefer it over Shadowbringers by mere personal opinion (not that one’s drastically inferior to the other).
But the hype wasn’t powered by the trial alone. Reflections in Crystal is still praised as one of the best story content drops to date. It’s even considered by some to be better than the rest of Shadowbringers. It also implemented flying to the base game’s areas, implemented this expansion’s obligatory level-grinding content, introduced a fan favorite daily “tribe” quest (which has a literal tank as a reward), and more.
In other words, the free trial’s release during a golden era of FFXIV content, right smack in the middle of a global stay-at-home pandemic, sent the hype train flying. And yes, the trial did make a difference, and director Naoki Yoshida told us as much in a recent interview. Again, introducing the free trial to friends became a meme, and bunny girls now wreak havoc across the gaming community.
World of Warcraft’s Worst Enemy (Is Not FFXIV)
Now for the elephant in the room: the World of Warcraft exodus.
WoW players converting to FFXIV has been a phenomenon for quite a bit. “WoW refugees” is a common term for such players, who often contrast their former home with FFXIV’s relatively accepting user base, approachable combat, transparent development team, and consistent story.
These were fairly neutral and even relaxed assessments by such “refugees” until lately, as vitriol towards World of Warcraft and its development team has been bubbling for a few months now. Players waited for WoW’s first expansion patch, 9.1, for about nine months, hoping at least the story would improve. All the while, complaints of a toxic player base, time-gated story content, and grinding that felt practically like a forced job of its own continued to bubble up and wear players down.
In the meantime, there’s been a slow conversion of curious WoW and other gaming content creators to FFXIV. While many that pull numbers on YouTube and Twitch made the jump, including Jesse Cox and Rich Campbell, the largest yet has been WoW-centric YouTuber and streamer Asmongold. While he previously panned FFXIV and even turned down a sponsorship from Square Enix (to keep his perspective on the game honest, he claims), it seems pressure from his fellow creators caused him to also give the game a shot. His first stream drew in over 200,000 viewers, and he continues to play to this day as he progresses.
And then WoW’s 9.1 patch dropped last week. Unfortunately for Activision-Blizzard, it did not give a fresh breath of air as many WoW players hoped. In fact, the story contained what’s been nearly universally panned as an awful, shallow twist for a character that’s been, to say the least, troubled. This seemed to be the nail in the coffin for many players, as memes and threads came out calling WoW its own worst enemy.
FFXIV’s Good Problems
Here we are now, with what’s essentially one of the, if not the, biggest exoduses into any non-new game in gaming history. The closest player upticks I can think of would be No Man’s Sky or Warframe, but neither comes nearly close to what’s happened here with Final Fantasy 14.
The first obvious sign that things were getting packed is that, even now, it’s become nigh-impossible to create a character on an experience gain-boosted server in North America. Or any server, for that matter - my friend’s wife had to create a character on Balmung, which, in the past, was about the only server I had to actively camp to get onto due to its massive roleplaying scene. Many have noticed that every city-state in the game is packed with “sprouts” - new players who have a sprout icon on their heads.
And now, at times, the Square Enix online store isn’t even letting players buy the game because it’s seemingly out of keys to distribute. Most new games don’t even achieve this, let alone a nine-year-old version of an MMORPG.
It does sound like servers are getting an infrastructure upgrade, especially as the next expansion, Endwalker, will have another new region of servers as well as Data Center Travel. That’s in November, though, which is about four months away.
For now, it sounds like Final Fantasy 14 and its players will have to stick with these good problems among others that come with a wave of new, curious players.