These sentiments are not new. This is not something that I have never said before or a thought that had remained unexpressed for ages until just this moment. I've long talked about the fact that there's a huge barrier to entry for the game, one that essentially locks the game in for the people who are playing right now and no one else. But for all that talk, I can also see some very good reasons to keep those barriers in place because they're providing some useful functions -- or at the very least, they're not actively harmful.
The game's whole flow relies on barriers
When FFXI was first released, the idea of directed gameplay was not exactly a happening thing. Directing MMO players to Zone A instead of Zone B was accomplished via having a gigantic unkillable monster blocking off Zone B, and as EverQuest's invention of raiding proved, players would generally just assume that you had to become really awesome to get into Zone B. More modern design gives you a carrot in the proper direction, while older design was a carrot or two surrounded by an ocean of men holding sticks.
The fact of the matter is that the few carrots FFXI has are the things that force you to go out and see the broader world. Want to get a chocobo? Well, then, you're going to have to get to Jeuno, and you're going to have to learn how to dodge various critters on the way. Want an airship pass? Get used to leveling and navigating Delkfutt's Tower, or go explore the three nations to find your keys so you can head down to the jungle. By contrast, eliminating these barriers undermines the main motivation people have for branching out beyond the starting cities, and making them complicated also gives you good reason to start looking at community resources and opinions.
The upper-end barriers aren't going away
I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again: The biggest problem with the structure of World of Warcraft is that it essentially pulls a bait and switch at the top level. You can spend most of the game playing any class or spec you want, running solo as often as you like, just enjoying the environment, and then you get to the top and you will raid or PvP. It's as if the last 20 minutes of The Lion King were replaced with the ending of The Godfather.
The main thing that makes the low-level barriers in FFXI so obnoxious is the simple fact that they're inconvenient for any higher-level player and impossible when you're new to the game. They aren't, as a whole, asking you to do things that you'd otherwise not be asked to do. Yes, going to pick up your tower key and getting your airship pass does require some extended sneaking, a fight with a notorious monster, and a fair amount of work. But that's not uncommon for the game in general. Learning right up front that the game expects you to make your way through certain chunks of content via stealth rather than brute force is a good thing.
You lose part of the game when you lose the obstructions
FFXI does not love you. WoW loves you; WoW goes out of its way to love you, to the point that it feels almost as if you're being smothered by an over-enthusiastic girlfriend trying to celebrate your two-week anniversary. City of Heroes also loves you, but in a more vague and noncommittal fashion: It encourages you to express yourself, but it doesn't always give you a lot to do with that expression.
FFXI (and Final Fantasy XIV as well, although that's another topic) does not love you out of the gate. You have to earn that love, and you have to earn it through blood, sweat, and tears. Before you get the right to pick up a big yellow bird, you have to prove that you want that bird really badly. And for better or worse, some of these barriers to entry are part of the flavor of the game as a whole. I remember late-night runs to Qufim and dodging Dancing Weapons with a lot of fondness, even though I found it annoying at the time.
These things create experiences and stories, the sort of things that hang with you even when other elements fade into memory. I couldn't tell you the names of the people I ran with to unlock Dragoon, but I could tell you the whole process that I went through to get there and the excitement I felt to finally have the class unlocked. It felt like I was taking part in something special, like being a Dragoon mattered as more than just a collection of stats. This was a thing, it had a place in the world, and it wasn't just unlocked because I really wanted it.
Not many people are playing the game fresh anyhow
I'm not saying that not many people are playing the game; that would be a lie. I'm saying that the percentage of the population starting on the game from level 1 is fairly small, and the percentage of the population starting from level 1 without any existing connections in the game world is even smaller. For the most part, if you're playing the game right now, you are playing a game that you've played for a long time and with a lot of good memories.
The game is currently built around a lot of these low-level barriers. Removing them requires updating a lot of game elements, elements that only need to be updated if the starting experience is overhauled. And overhauling that experience wouldn't result in a huge influx of new players. If you're interested in the game, by this point you've had eight years to take a look and decide whether it's for you (assuming you live in North America). Odds are low that you'll just suddenly decide that it's worth trying after you didn't care for so long.
Removing them would make life a lot easier for people who are starting fresh. But that's the corner case, not the majority. And you don't design to corner cases.
Like I say every week, feedback is welcome in the comments section or via mail to email@example.com. Next week, I'm going back to Final Fantasy XIV to look at the game a year after its launch -- but not in the usual "year in review" style. You'll see where I'm going with this one
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.