Something interesting happens to MMOs as they age and grow older.
The roots of the game, the original level 1 content, those things that players first see, begins to become more of a liability and less of a point of pride. The graphics are about 6 years out of date, the gameplay design is crude and unrefined compared to what you’d make today, and as a player levels, the content on that road tends to be a mix of newer assets with a higher standard of quality and the older, less refined ones.
One of the things that MMO stalwarts struggle with is bringing in new friends to their chosen games, given the ever-growing path of content between them and the endgame. It is difficult for me to recommend World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV to a new player, given that the amount of content between where they are and where I am is huge. Sure, I can level one of my underlevelled jobs in FFXIV, and sure, I can roll and alt or level an Allied Race with my friends in WoW if I so desire, but this often takes some of the thrill of discovery out of the game.
It is no surprise, then, that two of the longest-lived MMOs with mainstream appeal, in both WoW and FFXIV, are looking at changes to their legacy content. WoW, we’ve seen this cycle over the last decade, as Cataclysm saw the entire 1-60 experience effectively uprooted and replaced with a new experience modeled after the development team’s 2010-era design sensibilities, and further in preparation for Battle for Azeroth early last year, as Legion’s final patch 7.3.5 introduced the pre-order bonus Allied Races and a leveling overhaul that saw the scaling technology used in Legion introduced to the full world, with the ability to go anywhere within your current level bracket and quest, alongside an increase to the net experience required and the lengthening of combat with world mobs while leveling, so that you could get a grasp of the full rotation available to you (conspiratorially-minded readers might also point to this as MAU inflation as well!). We also have rumblings of a level squish coming next expansion, and with that would likely come a further collapsing and consolidation of the leveling experience into a more compact journey.
However, FFXIV is somewhat new to this list, but yesterday’s Producer Letter Live confirmed it – the team is actively working on condensing the main scenario quests of the base A Realm Reborn content.
For those who haven’t had the…”pleasure”…of playing the base 2.0 and 2.x quests of FFXIV, let me paint a word picture. The game is fun and charming, and has a clear sense of Final Fantasy about it, but questing in FFXIV is not really a gameplay exercise as much as it is a story one. Quests are often simply relaying a message from NPC A to NPC B, or killing no more than 4 enemies, or going to a spot in the world, clicking the interact-able spot, and watching the cutscene that unfolds. That’s not to say they are bad – I like FFXIV’s storytelling overall – but it is definitely not the gameplay-driven questing you might be used to from WoW and the like, where the game simply uses quests as connective tissue to make the gameplay have some degree of reason to it. You’re not aimlessly initiating a kobold genocide in Northshire Abbey, but you’re trying to protect the supply line from the mines that the Abbey depends on. Do most players read that quest text? I don’t know for sure, but anecdotally, I’d say no. FFXIV offers cinematics and cutscenes as the primary content for these quests, and the gameplay is secondary. I know this sounds like it could be bad, but it generally works for the game.
Now, the weakness of the 2.x experience is that in order to setup Heavensward (and pieces of Stormblood and Shadowbringers), there is a lot of running around to do. On top of that, the 2.x quests, taken after hitting level 50 and completing the launch MSQ, was designed at the time for an actively-engaged audience. 20 quests a patch isn’t really that bad, but when you join the game a few years later and are chomping at the bit to get into Ishgard (and also unlock the Dark Knight, Machinist, or Astrologian jobs), having to run a full list of post-release content is a bit daunting.
This run consists of 100 quests in total, described quite aptly by Naithin at Time to Loot as the “Horrible Hundred.” It is a pretty apt description of this stretch of the game too, and is the chief cause of player apathy preventing folks from getting deeper into the game. No matter how much momentum you have, no matter how happy you are with the gameplay, these quests will pull you down because they largely consist of running back and forth across the same few zones, talking to a variety of NPCs but primarily Aymeric, in order to set up the Heavensward story by bringing Ishgard back into the Eorzean Alliance. By the time you reach the end, the quests do get better – the dungeon and trial interventions are more frequent and the quests are denser with interesting story content and less aimless teleporting back and forth.
The challenge with them is this – they are actually good for the game as a whole, in that they offer a lot of plot development that is paid off later and is actually kind of important. However, in gameplay terms, they, frankly, suck. This is the point during my first tenure with the game where I dropped out – I just wanted to level through so I could play Astrologian and when I realized there was no end in sight, I gave up for two years (!). I didn’t return to the game until Stormblood early access, where I begrudgingly trudged through them, unlocked Astrologian, and then played through the Heavensward content on to the new stuff of that era. I’m glad that I did – but having to describe anything you do in a game as “enduring” is not great!
So the news that the development team for FFXIV is streamlining this questing is great, because it means that I may be able to recommend playing all the way through to new players. It will be less burdensome to a newbie, and that is a very good thing. Hopefully the promise of this streamlining is delivered without losing the vital connective plot elements that make it worthwhile in retrospect.
Likewise, Blizzard has confirmed yet another improvement to WoW’s lowbie experience, by introducing party sync and Replay Quests, allowing a veteran player to play whatever character they want – even their main! – and to help bring up a friend through the levels without having to worry about reducing their XP gains, trivializing content, or mismatched leveling pacing. Even if the rumors around a level squish don’t come to pass, this is a good step forward for the game.
It is interesting, however, in that the legacy content problem is one that I don’t think you can really solve from the get-go. Usually, an MMO team is going to design the best content they can at that point in time, and it is only really as the game moves forward that the flaws become apparent within the framework of the gameplay. WoW’s classic content was largely moving around the world (not unlike the ARR 2.x quests in FFXIV, actually), and as the game moved to a zone-focused model, it began to feel inconvenient and incongruous with the newer content. Likewise, as FFXIV has streamlined the post-launch story content in Heavensward and Stormblood, the ARR 2.x quests feel anomalous next to these examples, where the 3.x and 4.x quests deliver a similar amount of total content in fewer quests, making the grind through them in sequence feel much easier.
Now, the real question for both is this: how much value does focusing on new player experience really provide? That is our topic for next time!