An expansion of meat
I can't be the only person who sees Abyssea as a very meaty block of content. Not in the sense that it's got a lot to do, but in the sense that it wastes very little time with any fripperies beyond getting you into combat and on your way through the gear climb. Abyssea adds no epic storylines with several dozen NPCs to keep track of, no comic relief, nothing but the most efficient possible setup to get you into an alliance and slaughtering enemies en masse.
This is fine, and winds up being something that Final Fantasy XI hasn't done in the past. Chains of Promathia veered almost completely in the other direction, with any sort of gameplay mechanics buried in favor of a moving and engaging storyline. Of course, the result was very little of substance for players who wanted more jobs or gameplay or whatever. (This, as I stated in the past, is not a bad thing, but it is still a thing.)
While the straightforward approach of Abyssea means that players can enjoy maximum content with minimum downtime, it also means that there's very little to keep players engaged beyond running around accumulating cruor and seeking out their new armor pieces. I've seen more than a few complaints that Abyssea basically shows off the worst parts of FFXI grouping and leveling in stark relief by making the new level caps almost trivially easy to achieve within the region. Let's face it -- even though the development team has made it possible to reach 90 without setting foot in Abyssea, you're clearly meant to do so.
Of course, as Abyssea has been dropping, we've been seeing progression in the Wings of the Goddess storyline, so it's not as if Square isn't doing anything divorced from the mechanical components. But that storyline is ending now, just as Abyssea is ending and just as we run out of opportunities for new leveling content. The question becomes, then, what happens next?
Suppose, for a moment, that the problem of no new leveling areas and nine more levels slated for addition are solved in the same fashion. Suppose that we find out before the end of the year or early next year that the game is getting its fifth boxed expansion, one that adds content for the next several levels and adds new areas with different enemy distribution. (And revamps lower-level advancement and content for greater accessibility. As long as I'm dreaming, I get to include whatever I want.) What is it going to look like?
The first assumption is that the new areas will look similar to the game's current zones, but that's wrong. It has to be wrong, in fact. Any and all new regions for leveling would be set up akin to Abyssea virtually by definition, because I daresay no one is going to voluntarily go back to slower and riskier leveling if there's an alternative available.
Abyssea has skewed player expectations about what endgame regions ought to look like, how they ought to play, etc. Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate -- I think that the calls were pretty good ones with some occasional less-good consequences, but that's sort of an external look. The point is that in this hypothetical new expansion, regions would be set to hurl you through the levels and into the business of more big rewards. The precedent has been set.
The next nine
An interesting evolution is taking place at the moment. We have nine more levels that we absolutely will need new content for, as I can only imagine the player reaction if the new leveling areas are sub-Abyssean. A new expansion would be perfect for this, but it runs up against two important roadblocks, the first being Final Fantasy XIV. Even though the games have two entirely separate teams, I wonder whether Square is willing to put another FFXI expansion on the shelf and potentially nip a few players away from Final Fantasy XIV.
Even if Square is willing -- and I'd like to think so, as the games are clearly parallels of one another rather than an issue of the newer game supplanting its predecessor -- there's the simple matter of the Playstation 2 hardware being phased out steadily. This, coupled with the fact that the hard drives can only hold so much more, may very well be the true bane of any further big expansions, which means that the next addons (sure bets, especially in lieu of boxed addons) will be far more like Abyssea than anything else.
That's good for players who like battles, definitely. But the end of Wings of the Goddess may have unintentionally heralded an end to an era as well, and that's a bit sad to think about.
As usual, you can let me know what you think in the comments field or via mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I've got a few different ideas, but I'm always receptive to what you'd like to see in this space. (Heck, I'll even share the story and reasoning of why I'm not up in the higher levels, if you really want to know.) And maybe if we're lucky there'll be a brand-new Final Fantasy XIV patch to discuss by next week, although I'm not holding my breath.
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.