The Mog Log: A decade of Final Fantasy XI

The Mog Log header by A. Fienemann
Generally speaking, when I celebrate anniversaries, I celebrate the point when the game actually came out in a language that I could play it. This is relevant in the case of Final Fantasy XI, since the game took a year and a half to reach the shores of America (also known as "the place I live"). I learned my lesson about trying to learn a language just to muddle through a game back with Final Fantasy III.

However, when one of our eagle-eyed readers pointed out to me the milestone that the game had hit, that made an impact because even if I couldn't understand any of the game's text back when it launched, a decade is a long time for continuous operation of anything. So rather than talking about the Legacy campaign as I'd planned, I think I'd rather talk about the legacy of Final Fantasy XI this week, including where the game has gone from its state at launch. You know, when a Black Mage could make the entire world bow and you still got attacked when riding a chocobo.

For ten years, have a bliaud.  Apparently.For starters, I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at the early part of the FFXI Japanese update history, since that's our real touchstone for early updates. It's not comprehensive, certainly -- it's based on memories and loose patch notes from old updates that have been through the translation stew -- but it's as good a glance as you can get of the state of the game back when it was still something new and unknown.

There's some truly interesting stuff in here, like the fact that it was at least six months before the game started to settle into the party structure that we're all familiar with. Leveling with melee characters all taking hits at intervals is something you do when you're stuck for parties in Valkurm, but that used to be the way of things. Heck, soloing used to be the way of things, until the designers relentlessly attacked every single angle that people used for solo play. Two-handed swords used to be the default for Paladins, helped along no doubt by the lack of a "main tank" role. And leveling used to be even more of a mess. It took that year and a half for the game to get into a state that anyone would recognize... and even then, half the recognition is limited to the lower areas of the game.

Of course, that was also where one of the game's major problems cropped up, in that you had the old guard suddenly assailed by new players who knew, well, nothing. The game had been a mess for a year and a half, and suddenly a fresh crop of players came in, expecting to have a fair portion of the game handled by an existing community. So that went wonderfully.

And looking back at the old updates, I remember that it really was a mess. It was a whole lot of patches layered on top of other patches with no real evidence that the developers knew or thoroughly considered what they were doing. Gaining levels was a mess, soloing had been gutted, and the developers essentially demurred on the entire issue. There was something very messy about the game in those early days, and had the game launched now, only a handful of players would have tolerated the game past the first two months.

But even with all of those issues, the game persisted. There wasn't a surfeit of alternatives at the time, and there's nothing quite like FFXI despite its flaws.

I do love concept art.I freely admit I'm biased toward the game, since it was the first one I ever played, but there's a certain richness to it that hasn't been dulled over the past 10 years. Part of it is that the game looked and still looks gorgeous, and part of it is no doubt a rich and interlocking lore, but the core of it is that the team managed to design something that was meant to survive a slow update cycle.

That might not seem like a good thing, but in its own way it is. Instead of a design aimed at getting the Next Big Endgame Event out the door, the game is centered around infrequent updates that each dump a ton of new content into the mix -- content that generally doesn't obviate or replace other options but just expands. The new things you can do are meant to be pieces in a large and elaborate whole, and the game offers you paths from a single starting point to any number of different endings.

Looking back, I think a lot of the backlash against Abyssea came about simply because it's a limiting set of endgame content. You don't have any alternatives. In a game that's long allowed you to do all sorts of things, that's really a bad change.

For all that I've complained about the game's stupid strangleholds on progression, it always allows you a lot of different options on the side if you can't get a party together. Every 10 levels or so, you find another opening of things that you couldn't do before. Half the time, the things you couldn't do solo when they first became available are eminently doable later on -- and they still reward you in relevant ways.

There are some bad choices made in FFXI's design, some that have been firmly ensconced for years. For better or worse, the game also shows how limited your game can be when you're desiging based on console limitations (since the PlayStation 2 is now very much an outdated machine). But a decade later, people are still playing the game, and even if I'm not fond of all the design choices that have been made, that's an admirable legacy.

Feel free to not bother with feedback this week if you'd rather just use the comments section to woolgather about Final Fantasy XI. Or you can leave feedback there. Or send it along to eliot@massively.com, like most weeks. Next week, I'm doing the Legacy discussion I'd originally planned for now. Unless something else comes along and blindsides me.

[Thanks to Michael for the tip!]

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.