When I started playing MMOs back when Final Fantasy XI launched, I wound up being soured by the game's insistence on grouping for a long while. These days, I can take a much more objective view of both sides because for all the hiccups that the system brings, Final Fantasy XIV's much more open environment has its own pitfalls -- some a result of basic game design, some a result of the less demanding approach. But why just look at this from the top down?
Dragoon looking for group, please
FFXI initially allowed soloing in the same fashion that it allowed players to play on the same world -- that is, with great reluctance. These days, it's less brutal. You can make good time chaining Fields of Valor pages against Easy and Decent enemies, and having Refesh/Regen on cuts downtime significantly. But these are bandages added in long after the fact, and they don't really apply to most experiences in the game.
No, when I think of FFXI, I don't think of finding a decent Fields page and chaining it until it no longer works for me. I think of sitting in a safe region, putting up my flag, and waiting. Back in those days, if you really wanted anything approaching a tolerable leveling rate, you needed those experience chains to start lighting up your screen. The fact that the experience to next level increased each time but the experience gained from enemies remained fixed meant that you were locked into a slow, plodding march without hefty chain bonuses and fast pulls.
This worked its way into every aspect of gameplay. Players grew accustomed to the various camps that would actually work, and those were the things you killed for leveling. As a result, things that said leveling enemies dropped tended to be less valuable than other random garbage; goobbue drops were rarer and thus more valuable, even if said drops didn't have many extra uses. The whole art of navigating to camp and back was one of the biggest skills you could learn in the game. I remember distinctly my proudest moment in terms of power came not because I had hit max level but because I had learned to navigate to and from pretty much every camp without needing Sneak or Invisible.
The bright side: Enforced competence
One of the complaints about the current solo-friendly model of games is that players hit max level without ever really learning how to play. It's all too easy to not understand things like tanking and threat generation until people are at the point that this knowledge is expected. Not so in FFXI. If you had reached a certain point of leveling, you would know how to play -- or your party would kick you. This was seen not as draconian or cruel but as downright necessary.
There's also the fact that stomping crabs for hours becomes much more bearable when you're in the company of five other people all telling jokes. Really helps take the edge off.
The down side: See title
You know what's more fun than anything else? Logging in, putting up your flag, and sitting in Jeuno for an entire night without a single group. At least World of Warcraft would let me go kill something or quest or whatever when I couldn't find a group for stuff.
Joking aside, the problem that forced grouping creates is that it is a stick rather than a carrot. You're not grouping because you want to; you're grouping because you have to, and that makes things less fun. Instead of doing what you want, you're logging in and hoping you'll get the chance to do what you want. Sometimes you'd lose out. Sometimes it'd be bad.
Let me just set Provoke, I guess...
Grouping in FFXIV, by contrast, has suffered many of the same identity crises as the main game has. The initial design, however, has largely remained intact. You can perform most parts of the game solo without a problem, but you're going to need a group for certain things ratcheted up to higher difficulty levels. Behests, raids, and high-end boss fights are all going to require more than one person at a time. Quests, leves, and simply farming can all be handled completely on your own.
The game also sold itself strongly on the merit of anyone being able to do anything. Playing a Dragoon solo? Keep your abilities broad and useful. Group up with a Conjuror? Slap on some taunt abilities and move off your buffs and heals. Get another caster? Focus even more on taunts and defensive talents. While some classes could handle tanking or damage-dealing better than others, roles were fluid. This hasn't changed on the whole; while large groups will soon benefit much more from the Jobs, smaller ad hoc parties will get more out of a hodgepodge.
In further development, leves have moved over to being primarily solo content, which means that every player has stuff that can consistently be done while he's alone. There's plenty of questing and story content to be enjoyed without your ever needing to group up with anyone, and smaller groups can tackle a lot of lower-end stuff for reasonable rewards all the way along.
The bright side: Beautiful, beautiful freedom
There's a certain level of vibrancy in the Final Fantasy online games that you just don't find in other MMOs. I can't tell you what it is, nor can I point to a single element in FFXIV that makes it feel like FFXI, but there's something in the world that just draws me in. For my money, the ability to just log into the game and play is a welcome change from the old design.
The down side: Horrible, horrible group mechanics
Being a tank is usually one of my favorite things to do in an MMO, but at least before the most recent patch, tanking in FFXIV made me hate both my job and games. (I haven't really tanked much since, and it does seem to have been developed better in the interim.) Things were muddled and confused, and competent tanking required leveling several classes just to get your baseline abilities.
Groups in FFXIV are, by and large, a mess. It's worse than it is in games that allow you to solo to the level cap because players can have such strange cocktails of abilities at any given point. It wasn't just that you didn't need a group much of the time; often, having one felt like an impediment rather than a benefit.
Is that an improvement? I can't say it is or isn't. You can certainly sound off on your opinion, either about that design shift or the column as a whole, in the comments below. You can also send mail along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm dipping into lore again with a look at the greatest city in Eorzea, the shining jewel of the desert, and probably the most unfriendly place you could care to visit.
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.