In my first column for MMORPG.com, I wrote about Palace of the Dead, FFXIV’s diablo-style randomly generated dungeon. In it, I praised its revolutionary mechanics and how it gave almost everybody something to do. Now, over half a year later, I’m returning to the Palace, despite there being no real updates or movement to the content.
What gives? Well, I finally hit floor 200, the Palace’s final floor. It’s not something many people have done; only 13.1% of people who’ve made it past floor 101 have made it that far, and I suspect there aren’t that many people who’ve made it past 101 in the first place.
To understand why so few have even made it that far, you have to look at the mechanics. To progress past floor 100, you have to go in with a premade group — and a single wipe will reset your save and make it impossible to progress. This rule carries on all the way to floor 200. Content that unforgiving doesn’t lend itself to pick-up groups, and a full run to the deepest floors doesn’t take hours, but days. (You can leave and come back whenever you like, of course, but how many pick up groups stay together between sessions?)
To make matters worse, those later floors are grim. We’re talking brutal mechanics like instant-kill AoEs that aren’t marked on the ground, and a boss that drops unavoidable meteors that do 80% of your HP in damage every few seconds. I hope you have a good healer, because you’ll need them. In fact, you need a good everything. PoTD isn’t for the faint of heart or the low-skilled.
The rewards aren’t set either; RNG-dependant loot bags can offer a great deal I probably made somewhere between 60-75million gil from my PoTD runs, which is a huge amount, yet Palace is nowhere near the most efficient way of making gil) but also offer a great deal of absolute trash. What rewards don’t change with RNG aren’t particularly life-changing. The best thing you can earn is a trophy to put in your garden, so few people have houses that it’s not that much of a draw by itself. (Saying that, I have a central house in the ward I live in, and put my trophy in a place where everyone can see it. Hell yes.)
So you could be forgiven for thinking that on the face of it that there isn’t much to spur people on the journey in the first place. But in games like this, people do things for an endless list of reasons. Maybe it’s gear; maybe it’s to progress; maybe it’s simply to accrue bragging rights. Palace of the Dead is a little different. Plenty of people make the pilgrimage despite it offering comparatively little. The road to floor 200 really is a case of being more about the journey than the destination — and floor 200 is one hell of a destination.
I did it because it seemed like fun and I’m not a hardcore raider. I’ll never beat A11S unless my free company’s resident static carries me, and now I’m not needed as a substitute, I’ll probably never do A9S or A10S again either. So it seemed like a good idea because it was the greatest challenge available to me, and we could take it at our own pace and not worry about farming gear or running an absolutely optimized setup. Could we respond to random environments well, or manage resources over hours of sessions? These were the questions we were looking at answering, rather than ‘can you nail a four-to-12-minute-long fight’. Of course, clearing Savage fights is an achievement, but PoTD is a different kind of achievement.
And that’s part of the magic. In this game, when you get to max level, there aren’t that many challenges. There’s a hell of a lot to do, but beyond Savage raids and EX primals (which aren’t really that difficult anyway), there’s little that can really push people outside of self-made challenges. I saw someone asking mid-2015 for Savage ‘dungeons’ for normal players who couldn’t get a team together or didn’t want to play that kind of content for whatever reason. This is the closest we’ll ever get to it, and that’s why you owe it to yourself to try it out.
It’s difficult to design content for small groups that’s this challenging, and frankly astonishing that Square Enix managed it here while including semi-random elements. Indeed, the Palace is some of the best content in any MMO I’ve played, and it’s not like every single aspect of it was tailored towards a specific experience the way, say, WoW’s Karazhan was back in the day.
Every journey was a surprise, and it was a great bonding experience that emphasised the game’s social aspects which are often so-easily ignored; anything with traps in the floor and awful AoEs is going to bring people together or split them apart, and PoTD forced us to actually talk about challenges rather than watching a clear video and learning the steps to a dance.
That’s not to say that every journey was a pleasant surprise. Indeed, we wiped on floor 199, one floor away from the finish line (and remember, that meant we had to start again), after a string of bad luck. I’m not proud of how I responded to that — shouting off-mic before burying my head in a pillow — but nothing worth doing is painless. The difficulty of Palace really is just right, and that’s coming from someone who got the short end of the floor generator more than one time.
I know it’s tempting to pass over Palace given that the early floors are used by people to level alts, and the fact that there’s no easy way to matchmake into it, and it’s no secret that the first iteration (the fifty floors that led to nothing else) was pretty uninteresting. But trust me — shooting for 200 might well be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made in a video game. It was for me.
It showed me a whole different side of FFXIV that is a world away from Expert Roulettes. Every run felt like I was going in with bonus. As a result, I learned how to play my class way better and not just go on autopilot the way running the same dungeons and over had let me to do so. More to the point, it’s content unlike anything else in the game, so it’s worth seeing just for that. Even the landscape itself is a far cry from everything on Eorzea’s surface.
I’m not rushing to subject myself to a return journey to the Palace’s deepest depths now I’ve hit the lowest floor. When we were celebrating, one of the people I ran with said: “Just be glad it’s not Savage,” he said. “If it was, we’d start doing this every week to farm it.” The idea of doing it regularly filled me with dread. But there’s a part of me - however small - that wants to do it again and snag a place on the scoreboard now I know that the momentous feat is possible. There’s just nothing like it, and the news that another Deep Dungeon is coming in Stormblood is absolutely ace. I can’t wait.