It's a strange time in the Final Fantasy online world right now. For the first time in what seems to be a very long while, we don't know exactly what's coming next. Final Fantasy XIV has Naoki Yoshida's letter and poll, and Final Fantasy XI has the vague promise of another nine levels, but neither game has a future with any sort of clear-cut milestones right now. The next update on what to expect could come in a week, or it could come tomorrow. (Tomorrow for me, anyway. I'm writing this on Thursday; it's unlikely that much will happen on Sunday.)

While I made my predictions last week, and we'll see over the next year how accurate they are, I don't really know how many of those things will come to pass. And I have to wonder whether we're not the only ones who don't know what's waiting around the bend -- I think Square-Enix isn't totally sure what its next move is, because I think the past year has really forced a re-evaluation of some beliefs. I don't think it's a matter of cluelessness so much as not developing a plan B when plan A had worked up to this point, but I think plan A had only worked due to unique circumstances.

See, Final Fantasy XI is a popular game. There's no doubt of that. It's made a huge amount of money for Square over the years, and there's a good reason why it's always boasted solid subscriber numbers. But there's a strange idiosyncrasy about the game that seems to crop up even when you know this fact, one that doesn't get any easier to account for as you look into it.

FFXI might be a popular game, but no one in the MMO community seems to play it.

Of all the people I've worked with since starting here, I've known one other person who played regularly and one other person who tried it for a little while. That's not just counting staff members, either -- and it's not as if the people I work with don't like trying different games. It's kind of encouraged. For some reason, FFXI is always the game that the larger MMO community seems to be unfamiliar with, despite the fact that it clearly is not hurting for subscribers. Heck, pre-World of Warcraft, it was the second-biggest game in town, if memory serves.

So how can a game be that popular in a vacuum? Some of it comes from servicing markets that aren't traditionally offered an MMO -- the console market belonged to FFXI for quite some time, as did the Japanese market in large part. But part of it just seems to be that for one reason or another, the game has wound up being some sort of ouroboros of a community, wherein people who play generally keep playing and never forget playing either. Certainly anyone I run into from FFXI in another game seems to treat it like we both came from the same hometown.


"Of course, the problem when you're in a bottle is that everything starts to look familiar and you start to lose touch with simple issues."

In short, FFXI was a perfect ship in a bottle. Players in the game weren't, by and large, MMO players -- they were FFXI players, with no particular attachment to the genre and expectations formed largely by the game itself.

Of course, in the eight years since the game launched, the face of online games has changed a lot. But I think having such a self-contained community meant that the game didn't feel many of those changes, not in the same way. Since the environment was contained, players judged the feedback from the development team as being normal, the treatment of players as normal, the way the entire thing was balanced as normal. Heck, I remember people flipping out with disbelief at the Abyssea gear because it was filled with relevant, useful stats.

It's not like we didn't know that Monks have never needed Charisma or Intelligence. We just sort of got used to seeing those stats on equipment. The idea of pants that made sense was a complete reversal of the expected trend.

Of course, as I said, the rest of the world changed even if FFXI didn't need to do so. Final Fantasy XIV launched into the teeth of that world, and FFXI pushed itself into the territory covered by other games over the course of this past year. And while the team might like to be able to roll back the clock, the metaphorical damage has been done. The bottle is broken and the ships are out on the ocean.

FusionX's post on the negative effects of Abyssea just covers the tip of the iceberg; the comments delve into it further. Personally, yes, I think it's a wonderful thing to find the HNMLS model getting broken and scattered to the winds, but it means that the game as we knew it is starting to fracture and crack. And there's no reversing the trend. As one of the commenters in the aforementioned article asks, is Square going to make another Absolute Virtue now? The seal is broken, and the last game in the world that could get away with that can't get away with it any longer.

Of course, the problem when you're in a bottle is that everything starts to look familiar and you start to lose touch with simple issues. I mentioned back when FFXIV launched that there were some just plain unnecessary oversights, the sort of thing you expect to crop up when you don't actually think about external critique. Several of these have been fixed, and several more are on the plate, but it shows the sort of bottle attitude that Square has had for a long time.

Can the studio step up and deal? The devs have done it before, I've no doubt that they're capable of doing so. Yoshida seems to be a pretty good guy insofar as understanding what is expected from a development studio these days. But I think a lot of the company is still just staring in confusion. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens once things start moving again.

As always, I can be reached via email at eliot@massively.com or via comments in the obvious comment field. As an aside, we're going to be hitting our one-year anniversary in the near future -- any topics you'd like to see revisited are worth throwing my way, as the annual mark seems a good place to start going all nostalgic.

From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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