The Mog Log: The zone design of Final Fantasy XI

The Mog Log header by A. Fienemann
Gustaberg is one of the ugliest zones in Final Fantasy XI. For better or worse, it's a bunch of bland plateaus swarming with vultures, worms, and bees. It wasn't a visual treat when I first saw it, and the years have certainly not been kind. But the fact of the matter is that even after several years, I still get a little smile on my lips when I walk into that dessicated husk of a land. From the waterfall near the Wadi to the narrow pass to the Highlands, Gustaberg is painfully nostalgic.

Final Fantasy XI created a lot of magnificent regions for players to explore right from the moment it launched, and every subsequent expansion has added new areas without making them feel redundant. Considering that the game's next expansion is on the way, I thought it was apropos to look at what makes the zones so wonderful as well as what mistakes the designers might try to avoid when making the new areas in the west.

Okay, La Theine always struck me as kind of boring, but it's still a pretty sort of boring.Always there

One of the things that bothers me about a lot of MMOs is that zones are treated essentially like levels. You finish up in Zone A and there's never any reason to return again because you cleared everything. Star Wars: The Old Republic gets a lot of flak for this, but it actually gives players a lot of reasons to go back to earlier areas via companion quests and bonus missions. World of Warcraft is far worse about this, especially after the most recent expansion.

I think part of why this bothers me is the fact that Final Fantasy XI's zones are like any other part of the map. You'll be going back to each of them over and over, and not just when you change jobs. There are parts of the Dangruf Wadi that you can safely explore without hitting level 10, parts that are safe when you're between 25-30, and parts that go even higher than that. King Ranperre's Tomb has some much higher-level monsters lurking deep within to catch the unwary explorer. And that's not counting quests and missions that bring you throughout the world, making travel from point A to point B a constantly relevant consideration.

What's awesome about this: The world is never trivialized. There are entire questlines that are justified by the fact that this is a big world and not everyone can grab an airship and then teleport halfway to a necessary destination. You see high-level characters scattered throughout the game rather than grouped in the same handful of high-level areas. This creates a strong sense of setting.

What could be improved: It would be nice if occasionally two things were located next to one another. Look, the travel and attention to detail is nice, but there comes a point when it gets to be overwhelming because you can never do two things with one trip. If you want to keep the zones distributed, that's super awesome, and I hope that zones forever have relevance to many levels rather than just one level band. But let's make it a little less of a chore to get one mission done and then go traipsing off to someplace completely different for the second part.

Unique visuals

There are no two identical zones in FFXI, barring zones that are different versions of existing areas (such as Abyssea and the timeshifted zones from Wings of the Goddess). More to the point, there are no two zones that even approach identical status. The game rarely resorts to creating completely off-the-wall areas, and almost every zone can be recognized as having a very real anchoring concept, but all of them are distinct landscapes.

What's awesome about this: I shouldn't need to elaborate on why it's awesome that one game can have several different forests that look completely different. This is one of the game's big strengths, in my opinion.

What could be improved: In the quest for unique vistas, you sometimes wind up with connected zones that don't really flow together nicely. The Dunes, for instance, don't look like they should be adjacent to Konstacht and La Theine. A bit more of a gradual transition between themes would be nice.

Qufim is ugly as heck, but it's supposed to be.  Which makes it pretty.  Things are weird.Big and lonely

The variety of quest objectives is nice, but the fact that every zone is rather isolated help create a sense of travel distance. You aren't roaming in an area with human habitation just a bit off the road; you're exploring the dark and secret places where people are not necessarily welcome. Several of the game's missions really drive home the reality of risk by putting you into spots that are several zones removed from even basic amenities.

The result is that rather than a more traditional hub model, the game's habitations are few and far between, and quests from central locations can send you all over the globe. Not to mention searching for ingredients or even just a good farming location. The heavier lifting always requires appropriately removed zones, which is part of why questgivers don't just solve their own stupid problems.

What's awesome about this: One of the things I like about FFXI is that it doesn't care about you. It's a big place with big threats, and you are not a special and magical snowflake. The fact that the world is this spread out is just a little way of reminding you of that, meaning that every time you successfully navigate through the wilds, it genuinely matters. The wild feels wild.

What could be improved: Of course, it's also super fun to be stuck in the middle of an area with no easy way to get back out and no nearby port in the storm. There's something to be said for really being out in the wild, but having some way to get back to some form of habitation isn't entirely a failing. Make some concessions to accessibility.

Zoning out

Areas in FFXI are remarkably well-designed, moreso than entries in some other MMOs or even in some single-player titles in the franchise. There are just a couple of tweaks that could be made with the expansion that would really make them sing.

If you've got some favorite zones or even some elements to add, feel free to do so in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week, second verse, same as the first -- but I'll be talking about Final Fantasy XIV this time.

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.