I’ll be the first to admit my skepticism about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. First impressions can be everything in the subscription MMORPG space—almost fatally so for some. Embed the idea that a title has no future and it’s game-over. The original FFXIV was such a disaster with a plethora of well-documented and extensive faults that many predicted that even a free-to-play conversion wouldn’t save it.
A MMORPG earning a second chance with a subscription model was just unheard of, but Square-Enix refused to leave the Final Fantasy brand damaged. Thanks to the efforts of Naoki Yoshida and a new team, like a phoenix from the ashes, they launched A Realm Reborn, which triumphantly defied naysayers everywhere.
Now FFXIV is on the cusp of its first expansion release with a growing subscriber base of almost 2.5 million—a thought that was almost unthinkable a year ago; even with all of the accolades it received on its re-release. The circumstances are almost comparable to the conditions of World of Warcraft’s explosive growth from 2007 to 2011… except Blizzard seemed to have forgotten the lessons that led to their success, whereas FFXIV has embraced them.
Whether you consider WoW’s subscriber numbers dropping from 10 million to 7 million in 3 months were due to natural market forces or player dissatisfaction, it’s worth examining why FFXIV is flourishing and what Blizzard can do to get WoW back on its feet.
Small Group Content that Matters
I would like to submit a “gone missing” poster for WoW’s small group content and their relevancy. Ever since Cataclysm, there’s been a steady decline on the emphasis of dungeons as a form of character progression and content—the Looking for Raid (LFR) feature has largely supplanted those roles. The paradigm shift was most noticeable in Mists of Pandaria, where the expansion had 9 dungeons with the same gear drops from start to finish. Compare that to Wrath of the Lich King with its whopping 16 dungeons and competitive drops, there exists an undeniable sense that 5-mans weren’t the place for progression anymore.
Aside from the quantity, the dungeons in Wrath and Cataclysm remained highly relevant throughout their respective expansions, whereas in Mists and Warlords of Draenor, dungeons quickly fell by the wayside in light of newer tiers of LFR raiding. There’s just no incentive to go dungeon-running when LFR raiding contains better gear and legendary quest progression. LFR does not provide the same intimate experience that 5-man or even the 3-man Mists scenarios provided. It’s a gameplay niche that’s been sorely wanting in WoW of late.
Then there’s FFXIV’s approach to dungeons. FFXIV want players to run dungeons; FFXIV want players to garner rewards for running dungeons, and most importantly, FFXIV continue to give players reasons to return to dungeons. FFXIV’s dungeons are weaved into quests, the relic weapon saga, and even the main scenario stories in some cases. And dungeons matter: they reward currency for raid-equivalent gear, cards for the Triple Triad, glamour gear and more.
That’s not to say that Blizzard hasn’t taken steps to address dungeon relevancy issues. The upcoming 6.2 patch includes Timewalking dungeons and a Mythic-level difficulty; both with the chance to drop raid-level gear as an alternate form of progression. But none of the two include any new content. Mythic-difficulty is aimed at current Warlords 8 dungeons and Timewalking, as the name implies, is centered on previous expansion content.
Here’s where FFXIV has accomplished the extraordinary and WoW should take note—3-4 month content patch releases that included new dungeons and solo content that isn’t just about the grind to a new pet or mount.
Soloing for More than Loot
Despite all the design problems that Mists had with solo content (i.e. dailies and reputations), there was an undoubtable sense of agency given to the player. Content like Operation Shieldwall/Dominance Offensive and the Isle of Thunder propagated a feeling of impact by not only centralizing the player’s role in the narrative, but by rewarding them with narrative. And not just throwaway story bits either; the drama was meaty and the revelations were juicy. For whatever reason though, this design was ditched wholesale in Warlords.
Sure, Warlords had its weekly Garrison Campaign quests as a form of solo content, but a bulk of them are randomized and disconnected from the primary narrative; the quests don’t even feel like vignettes. There’s no sense of impact or progression to them, they just exist in a vacuum. The same can be said of Warlords’ reputation factions: some of them are just there with very little context and lacks in providing agency to players. It was like the restaurant that you frequent telling you they replaced their filet mignon with overcooked flank steak… it’s just not a very appetizing exchange.
If Warlords solo-content is like flank steak, then FFXIV’s offering ribeye in the form of Beast Tribe dailies and Hildebrand side-questing: super beefy and flavorful. The Beast Tribe dailies particularly expand the role of the Beast Tribes to be more than just superficial antagonists—they’re a diverse group of people with their own wonts, motivations and stories to tell.
Unlike most of the factions in Warlords, FFXIV’s Beast Tribes are given context and reasons for players to emotionally invest. What’s not to like about a lazy group of kobolds trying to get by in the uber-meritocracy of kobold society? Or the efforts of one Ixali splinter group striving to build an airship to fly above the clouds? There’s a lot of character with these factions, and they don’t exist sorely to hand out mounts or pets. And nothing exemplifies this in FFXIV more than a series of side-quests centered on one agent of enquiry, Hildibrand Manderville.
It is with little exaggeration when I say that the Hildibrand side-quests are worth subscribing to FFXIV for alone. This is what solo content should be at its core: interesting characters, an engaging plot, and most importantly, fun. There’s no big carrot at the end of these quests, just you the hero, accompanying the inspector and his trusty assistant in solving cases and helping the people of Eorzea. WoW can take more than just a few cues from the Manderville-man by developing solo-content where the players are more than just a spectator or chasing after the latest novelty item.
I have no doubt that Blizzard constantly evaluates and re-evaluates how their content is being digested and what players like or dislike about them. Rather than riding the pendulum of feedback to one extreme to another, however, Blizzard only needs to take a few steps back. The answers are there in the very content they used to develop back in Wrath, and even an expansion ago, in Mists. Square-Enix has learned from WoW, so it may be time for WoW to learn from FFXIV. You can only be fed stringy meat for so long before moving to something more satisfying.