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The Mog Log: Weakness is strength

Eliot Lefebvre

If you think about characters in the online Final Fantasy games compared to the console-based equivalents, you have to come to a kind of demoralizing conclusion: Your character online is pretty weak. In Final Fantasy XI, you can cap out your Black Mage and you'll still never learn Ultima. In Final Fantasy X, by the time you have your Black Mage using Ultima, you've still got most of the endgame ahead of you. Final Fantasy XIV might move the power scale upward, but at this point your character hasn't even actually mastered being a Paladin, much less summoning anything. Final Fantasy VII, by contrast, gave us three different versions of Bahamut to summon just to keep him relevant, and he was still nowhere near the best.

And you know what? It makes the games much more fun to have these barriers in place.

Players have been clamoring for high-end summons in Final Fantasy XI since forever ago, and the fact that it's not even on the visible horizon for Final Fantasy XIV is disheartening to some. But there's something to be said for a play environment where these touchstones of power remain out of reach, certainly for now and possibly forever.

You can summon Alexander and Odin, which is pretty neat.At face value, this seems kind of ridiculous. Being less powerful is something less than empowering. But think for a moment about what it means to grow in power in most of the offline games. You start out with a handful of spells, then you get a breadth of spells... and by the endgame you're just hammering on the most powerful ones over and over. Sure, you get Ultima, but by the time you get it, you're essentially using no other abilities. It's basically a one-shot kill for most everything, and either your non-caster characters are given similarly absurd abilities or they wind up just feeding Ether to the casters.

Obviously, this wouldn't work in an MMO. Either the power level would need to be toned down, or the ability would just destroy any semblance of game balance. But even if you disregard that, take a closer look at that middle step -- that part between "a handful of starter spells" and "one spell that you use over and over."

There's a point in every game where you have a surfeit of different abilities tailored to different situations. Debuffs. Buffs. Attack spells with strange properties. Defensive tactics. All manner of tricks, and all of them eroded by the point that you no longer need them because with a big enough hammer you can treat every problem like a nail and still come out ahead. One of the reasons there's so much depth and variety to the various classes in both games is the simple reality that there is no apex of power where more basic skills become obsolete.

Giving abilities more space to breathe gives more space for them to be useful. It means that you still have to choose between weapon skills for most of the game rather than just spamming the most powerful one each time your gauge is full. (The fact that the higher-end skills have become a bit overbalanced in FFXI is kind of disappointing for just this reason, but that's another discussion altogether.)

Even beyond the simple matter of utility, though, there's another advantage: It gives these conceptual elements common to the series space to develop.

Ifrit in FFXIV pretty much exemplifies this. In most games, he's... well, he's That Fire Guy. You learn to summon him early and then you sort of forget about him. Out of all the early summons he's the most likely to earn boss status, but he's still the chump you forget about as soon as you get all of the "cool" summons.

Yeah, I'll worship that as a god.  It seems healthier.Meanwhile, in FFXIV, Ifrit is something alien and dangerous. Forget the idea of summoning him around as your personal fire demon on a leash; just withstanding his aggression is a major accomplishment. The summon itself is portrayed as a difficult and dangerous ritual, the sort of thing that really lends meaning to all this talk about summoned creatures being powerful. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder if the beastmen might be right to worship these beings, that you're not just fighting a beast but the personification of flame and destruction itself -- which is a lot cooler than being the summon you get right after the training wheels summon spell, quite honestly.

We'll likely get the ability to summon eventually, since it's sort of hanging there as an obvious addition. But there's a lot to be said for the fact that we aren't getting it right away, and even more said by the fact that we the players are being told in no uncertain terms just how powerful these creatures really are. If we finally do get the option to summon anything, it'll be made much more powerful by the fact that these summons have already been built up.

By moving the overall player power level down, the designers ensure that power levels become much more interesting. Having something that stays out of reach means that it has a more meaningful impact when you approach that level, compared to just automatically gaining several dozen levels in awesome. And while I can't blame players for wanting to summon the king of dragons, it's kind of cool that he remains so powerful that mere summoners are unable to bind him to their will.

And if someone wanted to release an expansion where you could do that? Well, I'm sold.

Feedback, like usual, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to Next week is just a little bit after the two-year anniversary for the column, so I'm going to take a little time to look back on the past year -- what worked, what didn't, and what I'm hoping to accomplish with the next set of days.

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.

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