(A Quick Heads-Up: there are some story spoilers that include content through the end of Shadowbringers in this post.)
In a better world, today would be the day that we’d be getting the liveread of patch notes as a Live Letter, that everyone in the FFXIV community would be an uncontrollable ball of hype – because today would have been all-day maintenance in preparation for Endwalker early access, which was originally scheduled to launch tomorrow.
That wait stretches in front of us for another two weeks still. It’s understandable and feels like it will be worth it, and arguably the timing works out better for those of us in the US about to have a holiday week that involves a lot of travelling family members and shared meals followed by trampling your fellow human for a discounted electronic item, so there is no burning desire to rush back and play Endwalker after your eating and/or trampling festivities.
In all my time playing and reading about MMOs, from the first articles I read about Everquest in the nineties to the hourlong sprint for my last Mogtomes last night to get that sweet Inferno Jacket in FFXIV, something about Endwalker feels…special. A huge part of that specialness is the market at this moment – WoW is fizzling before our very eyes both because of the game itself and the issues surrounding the company it is made and published by, New World feels very much like it has come and gone and is already server merging just barely two months in, and while the rest of the genre is plugging along well enough, the genre has this space for something new and defining to step in to the leadership role that WoW has hogged to itself for so long.
In some ways, I expect that Endwalker will be a standard FFXIV expansion. We have expectations about the number of dungeons that will come our way (likely 1 on each odd-numbered level in the new cap increase, 1 story level 90 dungeon and then two expert roulette dungeons for padding at 90), and we have a loose expectation around the questing content to come in structure, at least for the role quests and the tradeskill questlines that will define the gameplay early on. We know the early content schedule, the minor patch that will add in our raid content, which will consist of 8-player raids with 4 instanced arenas each with a single boss and likely nothing else (unless we start getting trash in non-Alliance raids again!). The team is back on a content cadence which likely means a first major patch in March with subsequent major releases next July and October/November, keeping a regular spout of content on a reliable 4-month delivery schedule to keep players invested but also to allow that hallowed “dip-in, dip-out” that FFXIV is built for. We know that first major update, likely in March, will have a single new dungeon and the first part of three in the 24-player Alliance Raid saga for the expansion.
Yet, in many ways we’ve discussed previously, Endwalker is different. A big part of why that difference matters so much to players is because the team at Square Enix has built FFXIV as a reliable-if-predictable engine of new content, where we are so used to things being in this rigid container structure they’ve made such that any deviation outside of it, however minor, is seen and observed as a major change. The main expansion story ending at launch, with patches promising new story, is a huge change and it means a lot of the hype for the story is placed at launch – not that prior launch stories were lacking impact, mind you (Shadowbringers launch is still one of the best narrative-driven experiences I have ever played in my life and so if it even sniffs being half as good, I’ll still love it) – but it means that hype for the patch cycle of Endwalker is higher right out of the gate, because we’ve been told to expect huge shifts.
The game itself as a franchise is riding a wave of positivity too. In the summer, we all watched as a wave of content creators from WoW moved to FFXIV, and they did so both before and after the allegations of the lawsuit that Activision-Blizzard now faces, which paints a picture about the reasons why many moved over. With that has come increased player counts, such that even now, in the twilight of an expansion, FFXIV has login queues daily – I’ve had login queues at 1 PM on a weekday and 1 AM on weekdays, longer queues on weekends, and rarely a moment where there is no one waiting to get in. The game’s digital version “sold out” over the summer while the team worked on ways to decongest servers and alleviate queue times. The game’s free trial is successful and the expansion of that mode of play over Shadowbringers has made it an incredible offer, although one that I see most people take up only to quickly buy the full game anyways! The stark contrast between how YoshiP and team address their community and how the WoW team addresses theirs has been a point of contention, such that there are meme channels solely devoted to chopping up examples of communication from both and presenting them, which makes it obvious how callous and uncaring the WoW team can often publicly seem about their game.
And on top of that all, in just the game’s own context, the last two years have been an incredibly good time in FFXIV. Shadowbringers was a new high watermark for FFXIV specifically and for MMO expansions as a whole, and while the game is not everyone’s favorite flavor, the balance of expertly-crafted storytelling and repeatable, engaging MMO content was well-done in Shadowbringers, such that the game has given rise to a lot of thinkpieces about what MMOs can be, should be, and are best at.
But most of that is looking backwards, at the events that have led to this juncture, this moment in gaming/MMO history, and Endwalker itself has little to do with that reflection. What is there to look forward to in the coming weeks, especially once December 3rd is here and early access for the expansion begins?
The biggest success of FFXIV as a product in the MMO genre is storytelling, elevating the perception of what is possible in an MMO story from “eh, good enough to get me into a dungeon or raid” to create moving, human tales full of emotion and real depth that is on-par with or better than even a strong single-player narrative. Many MMOs have taken lessons from FFXIV without understanding the full process – creating never-ending narratives that just trudge on and on, or creating larger and longer cutscenes and narrative moments without understanding what makes those work in FFXIV. Endwalker will be one of the best examples the MMO genre needs – showing when to end a story.
FFXIV has been building story beats around its world and characters since 1.0, the version few people played. The early days of the game, from 1.0 to ARR to as far as Stormblood has building up multiple elements in parallel – the world around us, the characters with us, all of them have benefitted from literal years of sweat equity in building up their stories, and Endwalker promises a payoff to one of the major stories of that early period of the game, with the end of Hydaelyn and Zodiark, the literal almost-mythological beings that are a big part of the creation mythos of Eorzea. We’ve seen them expertly built up as cosmic forces over the early game, only for Shadowbringers to bring nuance and intrigue to their presentations – they are indeed creations of prayer and faith just like a Primal, and that changes our outlook on them tremendously, removing a lot of their massive, overwhelming scale and bringing them down to a level of comprehensibility that makes them interesting threats. Because while they started as cosmic forces, we know now they aren’t, and that creates an even greater sense of intrigue and curiosity around them. They are not gods, and they are not undefeatable, unknowable creatures of tremendous power. A part of what makes that story so fascinating is that there is every chance we kill them – both of them. That isn’t being presented as some unchecked player power growth either, that we have grown so powerful and mighty as to bring them low, but rather that we understand the nature of them and the conflicts of the story will bring us to them and to their ultimate conclusion.
The foundation of the FFXIV story is built and braced on the back of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, all of whom are having their own moments and coming into interesting story arcs of their own as we enter Endwalker. The Leveillieur twins, Alphinaud and Alisaie, have grown tremendously since the story began and now have to deal with being in direct opposition to the ideals and methods of their own father, who has disowned them and left them to their devices. Y’shtola is continuing to lose her sight after her multiple blinks into and out of the lifestream, and the constant use of aether as visual aid is draining her life force too. Thancred must settle into a world where Minfilia is well and truly gone, and her spirit, which lives on in Ryne, is on a world he cannot return to (at least for now, as far as we know). Urianger has…I don’t know, some books to read or something, I guess (although I would guess that his penchant for deceiving his comrades over multiple expansion stories might come back into play here). Krile will be returning with us, presumably, to Old Sharlayan, her home, and that is likely to shift the dynamic and keep her in focus throughout the expansion story.
To top it off, we have a likely conclusion or inflection point in the now-three-expansion long story of Zenos, who lost to us in Stormblood, regained his body from Elidibus in the early chapters of Shadowbringers, and now will likely bring chaos through the re-enactment of the Final Days, which is being done in concert with Fandaniel. Speaking of, Fandaniel’s motivations are a bit weird and hard to parse, as he has been built up as a suicidal crazy-man who wants to bring an end to all, himself included, but the launch trailer also seems to hint at him being more deeply motivated by Zodiark’s return, and his fire and brimstone approach to things may serve as a vessel for the plans that Emet-Selch also had, more than just a nihilistic apocalyptic death drive.
All of these plot threads and pieces weave through and around the central conflict of the expansion and create a vast tapestry of things for us to unravel as the expansion launches.
What’s especially funny is that most of this has focused on the story, but alongside it will come some interesting gameplay, as FFXIV gets its first new healer job in 6 years, a new melee DPS job that has some unique wrinkles, and a mix of gameplay changes that compliment those made in Shadowbringers and its patches to make the game experience of FFXIV one with fewer rough edges for new players.
All in all, I’m very, very excited for Endwalker and what it could be. A part of that is the acknowledgement that the expansion could end up underdelivering, although the team has earned my faith that their efforts will not be in vain and that the expansion will be quite exceptional. The delay is an understandable byproduct of a two year cycle that has been rough on the world and has led to probably hundreds of delays, not just in games but in all of media, as schedules have adjusted for production in a new normal. In fact, the delay of Endwalker in this way has actually built up more hype, because I feel like if they felt it so important to delay just a smidge to deliver a better product, then the end result is going to benefit from that.
Plus, there’s that recent Famitsu interview where YoshiP hinted that the patch stories are going to be exceptionally crazy, and well, now I can’t wait. I couldn’t wait before, but now I really cannot wait.