So let's not kid ourselves. There's another game coming out that offers to do the exact same thing, and it's doing so with a real set of chops. Star Wars: The Old Republic is on its way, and it's staking claim to the same territory with a very different presentation.
Both Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV are niche games that are never going to have the same sort of mass-market appeal as BioWare's behemoth; that much is a given. But the real question is what happens when one of the big selling points of these niche games is co-opted. Is the story in Star Wars: The Old Republic better? Will it even matter? What happens when someone else decides that story is a good place to hang a design philosophy?
All three games, of course, share the end goal of creating an epic story with your character at the heart of events. In FFXI and FFXIV, of course, this is achieved via the Chrono Effect, in which your character says nothing and mostly just gets continually swept up in bigger events before beating something senseless. (This is perhaps most pointedly invoked with one of the final cutscenes in the current FFXIV story, which is a very neat scene but doesn't really highlight any skills or participation you bring to the table.) By contrast, SWTOR takes pains to place your character as the prime mover and shaker, breaking up the linear flow of a story by giving you choices to make along the way. Of course, not every choice changes the overall path of things, but I'm painting in broad strokes here.
In its own way, this type of design addresses the same problem that the series has always had since Final Fantasy. There are a lot of different ways to tell a story in a game, and the series has always worked around having a single plot to follow, with any player choices being flavor at best. You don't create your own character; you get to take on the role of a character as he or she (usually he) goes on an adventure.
Really, Final Fantasy XIII didn't do anything different. You've always been pointed down a straight line and told to head that way. It's just usually not stated in so many words.
Is this a bad thing? To some people, yes. Some players really prefer to have the freedom to do whatever they want, and the idea of being shackled to a particular archetype rankles. On the other hand, some players (including me) would argue that every game shackles you to some extent, no matter how open and free-form it tries to be, so the real question is whether or not the ride you're taken on is any good.
And SWTOR's story, in many ways, does the exact same thing that the story does in FFXIV. Oh, sure, you're making more choices and being less of a passive observer before there's a boss to fight, but you're still going to wind up in the same place each time you start a new character. Each new Sith Warrior is going to have the same basic path to apprenticeship and the same overarching task laid out before him, even if the player gets to choose how she goes about that task.
So if you don't like having something tying you down, neither game is going to make you happy. You're still tied into a story either way. But does this still really wind up being one of the strengths of the game in the wake of competition?
I'd argue that it doesn't. Certainly it doesn't help that your character will spend most of his or her time as a mute observer in the story, but the core of it is that the story proceeds in fits and starts. In SWTOR, you're constantly in the middle of the story. In FFXIV or FFXI, you advance the story, and then you go meander off to do other things. Points for verismilitude, certainly, but you aren't really knee-deep in an ongoing story so much as you're periodically dipping back in for another installment. You can stop at many points, and barring story-related unlocks, you're not forced to continue.
I said in my columns about Chains of Promathia that the developers were using story as a reward, and I think that's largely accurate. The games have always used story sparingly, as a reward, something nice that you occasionally get to brush up against. It's like cheesecake, if you will.
SWTOR does not use story as a reward; it uses story as the whole freaking game. It's like having an entire seven-course meal based around cheesecake and in which the utensils are also made out of cheesecake, and while the analogy sort of breaks down, you get the idea. You can't keep selling the idea that story is its own reward when another game is selling the idea that story is everywhere.
FFXI and FFXIV were groundbreaking for their emphasis on story, but I'm not going to say that they're equivalent to an MMO doing even more with the medium. But as always, there's a caveat, and that caveat is the whole promised storyline of the Seventh Umbral Era.
See, the story in SWTOR is always going to be there. Sure, it's meant to be epic, but it's also meant to be constant. But the promised updates for FFXIV... that's a story that's only meant to be there for a little while, one on which you will have a permanent impact. That's the sort of thing that's going to grow and change with time, and not everyone will necessarily be able to look back and say he took part in it. A single, ongoing, changing story?
So perhaps there's more life in the old warhorses than we thought. And there's definitely space for both games to coexist, even neglecting the fact that we're talking about niche games compared to a more mass-market game. But both games are definitely going to need to work their storytelling chops because just having a big emphasis on story isn't enough any longer.
As always, comments or screaming objections are welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (I may not always respond, but I do always read them.) Next week, I'm continuing to look at classes, this time moving on to FFXI's casters.
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.