My Games of the Decade – Part 5 – Final Fantasy XIV

A game that was out for nearly the full decade, Final Fantasy XIV is a fascinating tale of a game in crisis, a company eager to redeem its reputation, and an unlikely relaunch that succeeded in the face of the failure of the initial launch.

The original 1.0 launch of Final Fantasy XIV literally started the decade, in 2010, and was a massive failure in a lot of ways. The game did a poor job of finding a niche in the market, trying to be different in bad ways from both Final Fantasy XI (the prior MMO in the franchise) and other games on the market, and coupled with a missing console version and incredibly inefficient performance on PC, the game absolutely flopped.

At the same time, Square Enix was dealing with a perception of lost luster for the Final Fantasy franchise, due to the poor critical and fan reception of Final Fantasy XIII (even though the game was indeed commercially successful), the failure to launch globally (Type-0) or at all (Versus XIII) for the remainder of the Fabula Nova Crystallis titles, and then, piled on top, the failure of the launch of FFXIV. Subscriptions were suspended, and the game’s future seemed in doubt.

However, this story doesn’t end there. Square Enix had identified the poor launch and commercial performance of Final Fantasy XIV as the biggest opportunity to improve upon, given the need to further develop the Fabula Nova Crystallis titles and the relative commercial success of Final Fantasy XIII. Given that, there was something of an unexpected twist – Naoki Yoshida was given stewardship of the game and a bold directive: to push out new content for v1.0 of FFXIV while also developing a new version of the game – what went on to become A Realm Reborn.

The story is fascinating, but ultimately slightly out of scope for discussion today. What I will touch on is how this game and process of revamping it brought us something great and taught a fantastic object lesson in the ways that a live game can be leveraged.

Firstly, FFXIV and the switch from v1.0 to ARR shows us that in the MMORPG (or whatever you choose to call it) genre, all it takes is a good revamp and launch to bring a game back to prominence. FFXIV was a large-scale launch, and ARR brought back interest in the game in a very real way, which paved the way to the success the game enjoys today.

It also reveals a bit of power in the brand name of Final Fantasy. While today, it would be difficult to say that Final Fantasy is at the peak of mainstream relevance or appeal, FF still means something to many, and the effort of relaunching XIV gave Square Enix a lot of free publicity. A lot of people were more than willing to write off the game after the failure of 1.0 and it took a lot of convincing to bring people back on board.

So, given that, it is on to my story.

I played v1.0, and there were elements of that game that I liked. The world felt built out and full, even as the map plainly revealed that it was not – the lack of loading screens between zones made the game feel huge in a way that even A Realm Reborn doesn’t. This was, of course, a core reason that the game would not work on the PS3 – the large amount of data that even the rat maze map model of 1.0 took wouldn’t work with the small amount of memory present in that console generation. The soundtrack from Nobuo Uematsu was excellent, a bright spot as the other holes in the game became apparent – Twilight Over Thanalan is a track I still enjoy to this day. The game’s visuals were gorgeous, although bad in more hidden ways (the anecdote of flowerpots having as many polygons as a player character is well-known), and the landscapes and vistas the game allowed for made a great, enveloping world.

However, while the game had a clear sense of world and an audiovisual direction that was overall well-done, the gameplay had a lack of direction in a post-World of Warcraft world. A lack of quests, the use of the leve system as a primary driver of progression, confusing and strange gameplay mechanisms all led to a game that felt awful to actually play. One of the key improvements made to 1.0 by Yoshi-P was tweaked gameplay – changes to experience curve and gain, updated gameplay systems, and jobs implemented as upgrades to the classes introduced in 1.0.

ARR implements these in drastically different shape from the get-go, with the game feeling very much like a modern MMO. The gameplay isn’t different in a notable way from WoW in-combat outside of pacing, the structure of progression is built in a more familiar way with a core story quest chain and sidequests, and dungeon content becomes an integral part of the gameplay. It would be easy to write-off these changes as copying the industry leader, but they also made the end product much more interesting to play, and allowed minor variations in that gameplay (crafting and gathering gameplay, the MSQ, etc) to stand out more.

The biggest thing Naoki Yoshida brought to the game was his connection to MMOs. The original team was well-known for being insulated inside of Square Enix, with leadership reacting to fan feedback from FFXI and trying to cut much closer to that game, while Yoshi-P was instead someone with MMO experience – an Everquest and WoW player who had a deeper connection to the genre at large. While the home Japanese audience had slightly different tastes in the genre, the core gameplay of ARR did a good job of balancing those with a broader global audience.

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The end result was a resurgence the likes of which the genre hasn’t really seen. FFXIV v1.0 was one of the worst received FF games and near the bottom of the MMO genre, and as the decade closed out this week, FFXIV is now one of the best MMOs, coming off of one of its strongest years with the launch of the Shadowbringers expansion, player growth that has seen the game push higher and higher player counts, which, if Square Enix’s numbers are to be believed, are higher than those of any other MMO.

The game has, in recent years, even gotten closer to the thematic idea of what a Final Fantasy story can be. ARR was a decent plot, but given that it relied on the v1.0 story as well as needing to be stretched over a much longer course of leveling. Since that relaunch however, the game has had great plots and stories that are enjoyable, with the excellent Heavensward, the great but split-attention story of Stormblood, and the fantastic Shadowbringers, one I would argue is the best yet (at least, for as far as we are into it).

Final Fantasy XIV is an interesting tale of failure out of even one of the most prestigious AAA developers. It is a story of a business decision that went awry, but was salvaged in a way that wasn’t predictable when the game failed in 2010. It was hard, if not impossible, to imagine that the game would be worth discussing at the end of the decade. Yet, here we are, the first day of 2020, and the game has been a light in the genre for a while – benefitting from the relative lack of success of the expansions WoW had in the decade – particularly growing in the twilight of Warlords of Draenor and Shadowbringers capitalizing on the flawed execution of the current Battle for Azeroth.

If you are an MMO player and haven’t yet tried FFXIV, I’d certainly recommend at least trying the free trial. Depending on what you want from such a game, it may not really fit, but at the same time, it is a strong cultural touchstone for the genre and will be something we’ll look back on with even more interest in another decade.

Well, at least if you ask me.

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