Final Fantasy Online: How Game Design Influences Community
Examining the social impact of design choices in Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI
Teleport into the bustling plaza of Limsa Lominsa, and you can never quite be sure what you’ll see. As Eorzea’s busiest city, Limsa is a living showcase for the diverse, thriving community of Final Fantasy XIV.
In one corner, a hulking Hrothgar dressed as a chicken, playing Metallica on the harp. In another, twenty Lalafell in Santa hats, looping a perfectly synchronised Manderville Dance. Probably a cat boy or two, in nothing but thigh-high boots, strutting through the crowded Hawker’s Alley.
There have been massive in-game parades in celebration of pride and marriage equality. Brothels cater to all manner of proclivities. Even a touching funeral procession to honour a beloved player lost to COVID-19.
The countless enthusiastic, expressive individuals populating its community bring vibrancy and life to Final Fantasy XIV. Without them, the realms of Eorzea and beyond would feel a sad, empty place.
Yet for how little I actually interact with them, they may as well all be NPCs.
Final Fantasy XIV often asks players to team up, but rarely requires them to communicate. This is in stark contrast to (and perhaps defiance of) its older MMO sister Final Fantasy XI, in which collaboration was all but essential to get even the most trivial of things done.
Though they have much in common, each of these games is centered around a drastically different design philosophy, tightly woven into gameplay mechanics, which in turn shapes their respective communities and the player experience.
So let’s take a look at how game design influenced the contrasting social experiences I’ve had in Square Enix’s two Final Fantasy MMORPGs, starting with where it all began: Final Fantasy XI.
Social by design
Final Fantasy XI released in Japan in 2002, but my time in its world of Vana’diel lasted from the 2004 Australian launch, to shortly after the Wings of the Goddess expansion released in 2007. As Square’s first MMO, it was a curious mixture of growing pains, innovative ideas and simply being a product of its time.
It was also built entirely around systems and mechanics — big and small — designed to encourage collaboration, communication, and dependence on others.
Very little in the way of direction was offered to the new player. Quest-giving NPCs lacked identifying icons. On-screen objective markers were nowhere to be seen. When a quest was accepted, instructions were more like vague hints than clear directives. Naturally, this meant wide-eyed adventurers like myself had no choice but to turn to the community.
Even moving about the world required a lot of time and was often easier with others, whether by enlisting their help directly, or simply engaging in the exchange of emotes and idle chit-chat to pass time on an airship.
Airship and ferry routes connected major cities, but they ran on a set schedule. Arriving at the docks a fraction too late would mean watching the ferry depart without you. A companionable /sigh would start a conversation with anyone else (not) in the same boat, as the reality of the fifteen-minute (real-time) wait for the next arrival settled in. Once you succeeded in catching the ferry, transit would unfold in real-time too.
In addition to these more scheduled methods, Chocobos were available to all but teleportation spells were limited to the White Mage class. Those spells could reach but a few select locations, making them more of a head start than a direct route. It was common to see players in towns, shouting offers of gil in exchange for teleports. Idle White Mages would happily oblige to earn a bit of extra coin.
<Hello!> <Party> <Do you need it?>
Perhaps the biggest factor driving the necessity of communication was a complete lack of automated party formation or player matchmaking. Adventurers had little option but to mobilise and get things done by reaching out directly to ask for help, often via an awkward yet functional phrase-translation system.
Through this necessity, the denizens of Vana’diel had another built-in conversation starter. An easy way to break the ice and make new friends. As a result, tight bonds were quickly forged and reputations built around reliable, helpful players.
Unlike the focus on instanced content in Final Fantasy XIV, experience points in Final Fantasy XI were typically farmed by camping in groups, somewhere out in the open world. Party leaders would browse from a list of available players, contact each directly, and wait for them to gather. The party would then convoy, mostly via Chocobo, to whichever far-off zone had monsters appropriate for your job level.
With so much downtime created by lengthy periods of travel, it was a great opportunity to spark idle conversation and get to know your party members.
The effort required to assemble a party created a culture of etiquette around being respectful for the time of others. A player needing to leave a party, understanding the inconvenience, would often find their own replacement and even politely wait for them to arrive.
It was all about that kind of communication. Triumphs were shared and hard-earned. Gratitude for time spent in service of others became an unspoken, honoured social currency, essential in networking.
For those with the time and patience to stick with it, make the connections, and clear the content, it was special. A game of the highest highs, rich in opportunities for collaborative, social satisfaction right from the start.
<I’m sorry.> <Have stuff to do, gotta go!>
With those highs, came frustrating lows. The significant effort required to recruit help and wrangle a team was often time-consuming, easily leading to frustration. It was not uncommon to spend an hour reaching out to people, or waiting for replacement players to reach your camp, only to have it take so long someone else had to leave anyway. For new and returning players, the ways in which this design forced such a deep reliance on others could often be intimidating and feel impenetrable. It was a hard sell to any of my friends with even a mild curiosity about the game. It was unforgiving to the introverted and inconsiderate of the time-poor. Those with only small windows of time in which to play could find it difficult to progress or make lasting connections.
With the new hotness of World of Warcraft releasing in 2004 and offering a more modern, accessible experience, the Final Fantasy XI player-base naturally began to shrink. Though still pulling respectable numbers, a reduced population further exacerbated the frustrations of a system so heavily skewed against solo play. Conversely, it did also strengthen the value and bonds of those remaining.
Square Enix would later patch Final Fantasy XI with several effective new mechanics to allow flexibility for playing alone. A compromise to their original vision, but one necessary to survive in a changing, competitive market.
When it came to Final Fantasy XIV, specifically its relaunch as A Realm Reborn, Square would steer away from that vision almost entirely.
Final Fantasy XIV is by definition, massively multiplayer. However, those starting out will find content like new dungeons, trials, and world areas are unlocked almost exclusively by progression through the single-player quests that unfold the main story, dubbed the Main Scenario.
It’s also entirely possible to reach the level cap by progressing through the Main Scenario, supplemented as necessary by the numerous side quests. Quest design is very straightforward, with clear instructions and objective markers, making it easy to tackle alone.
When the story does require players to form groups to clear dungeons or boss fights, an efficient yet impersonal matchmaking system called the Duty Finder pulls players from every server in your region to automatically populate your party with the required roles — tank, healer, and damage dealers.
Each role has an isolated function to perform, and outside a few skills that offer slight buffs, battle mechanics don’t typically require or reward the coordinated use of skills between classes. For example, there’s no damage bonus if a Samurai and Ninja team up to unleash particular attacks in sequence, like the Skillchain system in Final Fantasy XI.
Once the Duty Finder has filled the party, players are teleported straight to the instance. Upon completion the party is disbanded, each member transported right back to where they came from.
This is indicative of the wider approach to world traversal. Each major zone has at least one Aetheryte, which acts as a fast travel point, accessible for all players at any time, provided they’ve reached it by foot once and have the coin to pay a small fee.
With all these systems allowing such freedom and independence, fans of traditionally offline, single-player Final Fantasy will be right at home. It’s incredibly easy for new players to join in at any time and experience the excellent story, traverse the beautiful world, and get to grips with the satisfying combat alone.
It is player autonomy by design, and to that end, is very successful. After filling the chat log in Final Fantasy XI with enough text to make War and Peace blush, I kept waiting for Final Fantasy XIV to give me reasons to connect a keyboard to my PlayStation. Those reasons never really came.
My own longevity in Eorzea can be attributed to that accessibility. As someone who’s never felt drawn to the Savage/Extreme difficulty raids and trials of endgame, there’s still a dizzying amount of content on offer that’s easy enough to clear for a group of randoms, assembled via matchmaking, that don’t have to talk to each other. I can log on at any moment and do my own thing without having to depend on, or inconvenience, others.
As such, Final Fantasy XIV Online is among my favourite single-player Final Fantasy titles.
However, for new players with their eyes on the more collaborative gameplay of endgame content, the significant stretch of time required to reach it can be a lonely experience.
World of wallflowers
Though the world of Final Fantasy XIV is shared by many, the design focus on progression through single-player quests can also make it seem like a world populated by thousands of people with few game-driven reasons to talk to each other. Each player traipses about Eorzea, isolated in their own quests, mere set-dressing to the quests of others.
It’s the sheer volume of those quests that can really prolong a feeling of isolation.
Square Enix has now released three expansion packs for Final Fantasy XIV. Each typically adds between forty to sixty hours worth of Main Scenario quests, if cutscenes aren’t skipped. That’s not even including the generous amount of quests patched in to bridge the gap between expansions.
Because the story of each expansion follows on from the last, Main Scenario quests for the base game and all expansions must be completed in sequence to reach current endgame content.
That means, for a player starting in 2021, well over two hundred hours of questing, mostly alone, to reach the endgame. The release of the upcoming expansion Endwalker will stretch that even further.
It can be a grueling gauntlet, one which may easily overwhelm and frustrate, particularly for those not interested in the story, or anyone itching to join friends already at endgame.
Thanks to its generous Free Trial, I’ve managed to convince many of my own friends to try Final Fantasy XIV, but it always goes down the same way. The immediate novelty of our characters meeting in-world to jump and emote at each other provides a strong start. I dangle the carrot of actual content we can run together if they keep pushing through the story to unlock it. But despite zealous encouragement along the way, there are only so many hours they can spend churning through quests alone before that carrot inevitably starts to rot. I’m yet to have any friends make it past the opening hours of the first expansion, Heavensward.
In acknowledgment of the challenges inherent to their own design, Square Enix has made available various paid boosters, offering shortcuts to story and job progression, though these come at a fee almost on par with the cost of the game itself.
Much like how slow world traversal in Final Fantasy XI created a culture of respect for the time of others, players of Final Fantasy XIV understand the grind of unlocking content alone and are generally enthusiastic in offering guidance and support to keep new adventurers motivated. To aid this, a vast array of community features are available to provide vital social succor to the lonely adventurer.
A mentor system connects helpful veterans with new and returning players via the Novice Network, a dedicated chat channel. Player-formed Free Companies (FC’s) act as guilds, complete with robust customisable housing options. Finding the right FC can be challenging, and many players will hop between a few before settling into their fit. Mercifully, the Community Finder makes it easy to browse options.
Players looking to run specific content can use the Party Finder to join and recruit others. This is how those without a static party will typically find teammates for the Savage/Extreme difficulty instances of endgame, with the time and communication needed to learn mechanics proving a great facilitator in the forging of new friendships.
These social systems all offer great ways to connect players, though due to the ease of matchmaking most content via the Duty Finder, they’re largely separate from the mechanics of battle and story progression.
As such, social connections are arguably less likely to happen organically by simply progressing through the game, at least, until players reach endgame and choose to tackle high-end raids.
This makes interacting with fellow adventurers somewhat optional, leaving inclined players to seek friends for the sake of their company rather than as a means to progress. Without the shared ice-breaker of that mutual necessity, shy players may find connections more intimidating to make.
With their two successful Final Fantasy MMOs, both Square Enix as developers and myself as a player, have explored game design with ramifications at drastically different ends of the social spectrum.
The high intensity on each side of Final Fantasy XI’s investment/reward coin provided the kind of unique experiences (social and otherwise) that we Final Fantasy XI veterans love to wax nostalgic for. However, the reality is, at least in my case, that the time required to reap those rewards is no longer something I could justify.
Now that I’m entangled in more adult responsibilities and myriad other games and streaming services vie to entertain, the flexibility offered by Final Fantasy XIV’s autonomy-centric design is a far more complementary fit with modern life.
Final Fantasy XIV makes room for the social butterflies and the wallflowers, and anybody who wants to bounce between.
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