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Final Fantasy XIV: Letter from FanFest Paris

By Gareth Harmer on February 14, 2019 | Columns | Comments

Final Fantasy XIV: Letter from FanFest Paris

FanFest is a big deal. Roughly 4,500 Final Fantasy XIV players headed to Paris in early February, filling the lofty Grande Halle de la Villette to capacity with friendly cheer. Almost all were desperately seeking more news on Shadowbringers, the upcoming expansion due out on July 2. But behind these headline announcements, it was also the epicentre of a community celebration unlike any other.

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This European leg of Fanfest isn’t the biggest show Square Enix hosts (Tokyo’s event in March is nearly three times as big), but that doesn’t make it any less important. As director-producer Naoki Yoshida himself admitted (Japanese), players have many different ways with which they enjoy FFXIV, and the assembled masses were a perfect demonstration of that diversity. Whether it’s the phenomenal cosplay, breathtaking fan art display, or the numerous FanFest challenges, the overwhelmingly universal camaraderie was impossible to ignore.

Yes, there were some huge cheers for the new Gunbreaker class and Viera race, the collaboration with luminaries from Nier: Automata, and the Final Fantasy FV crossover that will introduce XIV’s first 4-person mount. But for me, some of the highlights happened away from the main stage and in the throng of other players. Geeking out at the giant Aetherlyte model, taking on in-game battles, packing out some of the late-night bars, or even witnessing a wedding proposal: these aren’t moments I’ll forget anytime soon.

Off-Road Rally

It might be surprising to hear it, but fan festivals like these are nothing like Germany’s Gamescom or Vegas’ E3. Everyone’s under the same roof to celebrate the same game, the same shared world, and the same studio’s achievements. They’re here to meet old friends and make new ones, trade stories, and pick up merch. And above all, they’re here for the experience of being part of it all, to take it home with them and share it all over again.

That can sound like fluff, but it’s true. After playing FFXIV for over a year I’d made a few friends in the community, but meeting people in real-life is always unique. I’d started out by challenging Elloa to a duel in Attack on Ozma, a Batak-style reaction game, which ended in the crowd cheering incredulously as we hit a draw. Then there’s the Bucking Behemoth, a giant bronco machine that solely exists to destroy egos and leave participants baby-crawling off the inflatable mat. I also found I had a knack for skeeball, beating all-comers in the frantic Chocobo races.

Every event I took part in earned a stamp, but some events earned more stamps than others, and those stamps could be exchanged for some sweet bonus merch. But it wasn’t just about the rewards - every time I joined a queue for a game, I found myself surrounded by players eager to help out, share stories, or even just help pass the time. I’ve got no idea how long I spent waiting in lines because it always felt like moments.

The big-scoring event was the Yojimbo Special Battle, an 8-person in-game encounter made especially for the Fan Festival. Our impromptu team would earn five stamps each for simply taking part, but victory would also snag us a sticker of victory. But it was also tough; focus and coordination were required to overcome some surprising attacks that would destroy unprepared groups in the blink of an eye. With shouts going up and down the bank of PCs, our team slowly chipped away at the Gilgamesh-style boss, before ultimately releasing a whooping cheer of victory. It might not have been a world first, but it was our moment.

Take-out Geek-out

FanFests various games and challenges helped to nudge players together, but the community felt welcoming and tight-knit regardless. During a break from the stamp madness, I got thrown an invite to a streamer meetup and huddle on the far side of the hall. There, I met Vari, Zepla, and a huge group of content creators, but there wasn’t an ounce of competition amongst them. Instead, this was a group that works together, collaborates, and helps each other rise up.

When I asked about the toxicity that seems endemic to online cultures, one of them offered this tidbit: the community is self-selecting. It seemed almost like tissue rejection - someone enters the scene and starts dragging it down, and the others rally around to show them the door. Join in good faith and the support network is there and ready to help you start.

It all sounded incredible. A community of players, ready to cheer each other on no matter how they enjoyed the game. As a cynical MMO veteran myself, I found it hard to believe. And then this happened.

With help from Square Enix, Sander Put of fansite Aetherflow Media chose FanFest Paris to propose to his now-fiancee Tony Cao, in the company of a crowd of cheering friends. Later, Sander told me that FFXIV was a huge part of both their lives, and it felt like the right place and time , “surrounded by the people we love.” From the unbridled joy I saw on both their faces, I’d definitely agree.

Later that evening, I met up with the group in a back-alley Bavarian-themed  bar near the venue, and found them chewing over the day’s announcements. The collaboration announcements were still generating excitement, but the new Rival Wings PVP map was also getting some curious interest. The ‘Feast’ regional finals had just finished earlier that day and bloody combat still felt fresh in the minds.

Rock On, Scion

Even though I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV for over a year, I still consider myself a newbie (there was a time in the original game’s beta that we don’t talk about). That counts for both the game itself and my knowledge of the community, some of whom (like Ethys) have been grappling with the story and lore for years.

Some of the characters and lore resonated so strongly that players built shrines in memory of them. FanFest Vegas saw a tribute to the young Ishgardian noble Hauchefant, but some attendees in Paris chose to recognise Moenbryda’s self-sacrifice instead, building a small memorial to the Scion at the signing wall. As one finalist cried out during the on-stage cosplay competition, “we need more bad-ass bitches.” I’d played through both heart-wrenching scenes myself last year, but I was still surprised to see such a manifest outpouring.

And yet, in some respects, it felt like the team at Square Enix helps set the tone for gatherings like FanFest Paris. Yoshida-san walked on-stage in costume, but then joined fans on the show floor to embrace and encourage the cosplay scene. Ayame-san presented some of her own work, but fan-art was presented in a gallery and voted on by attendees as part of a competition. The friendship and partnership between studio and playerbase was tangibly thick and close.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for The Primals. I’d been warned that these folks were great entertainment, but my expectations for an in-house metal band were pretty low. After all, what would you expect when the lead singer is a late-40s chap who’s been doing translation work for Yoshida-san all weekend? It turns out I owe lore and world developer Michael-Christopher Koji Fox a huge apology, as he and his troupe were absolutely astounding, managing to whip the crowd into a frenzy. As I said to a friend afterwards, I get it now.

The Beat Goes On

In the end, parting from Paris was painful in several ways. There was the nail-biting battle with the suitcase as I realised I’d bought far more merchandise than was sensible. But it was also difficult to say goodbye to friends both old and new, with promises that we’d meet up in-game and help each other out.

As for the wider community, eyes are now shifting to Tokyo next month with the promise of even more announcements. A third iteration of the Shadowbringers trailer, the final answer on male Viera, further new jobs, and even more rumors and whispers circulating the event. Yoshida-san and his team almost certainly have a few surprises to share on the final leg of this world tour.

Even so, the pace hasn’t slowed down. Patch 4.55 just hit servers, bringing in the final instalment of the Eureka story and adding that new PvP map. Further patches are on the way, ramping up the main scenario and unleashing further content as Shadowbringers edges closer. And to cap it all, a new group of players is flooding in thanks to a Twitch Prime offer on the base game.

For me, reality has come flooding back with a bump. I’ve got all the post-Stormblood content to catch up on, raids to unlock, Eureka to play through, and secondary jobs to level through. I’ve got a Free Company to support, airships and submarines to plan, and housing to plan. The end of June is looming.

And you know what? Right now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.
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