Let's make no bones about two points. One, giving players something interesting to do is really freaking hard. Two, the guildleve system is definitely a good stab at doing so, even if it arguably misses the mark.
The former barely even needs to be expanded on. Pretty much every game hinges upon what interesting things players can do, whether it's shooting other people while driving a stolen car or just rolling up assorted objects into huge balls. The problem is that these activities require some sort of challenge to be enjoyable, as well as a learning curve and a reward. Rather than turn this entire column into a diatribe about how complicated the psychological levers involved with games actually are, let's just accept this statement at face value.
Guildleves' being a decent stab at giving players something interesting is a bit more contentious. But I'd argue that they fill one of the two big niches that any MMO needs. And for the purposes of this discussion (and to start making the reason behind the title clear), I'm going to just refer to the two types as repeated content and directed content. I'm sure Richard Bartle has come up with some much better terminology for this, but you're reading someone who invented a term for a game's genre essentially because he could, so you've probably come to expect this.
Think for a second about Super Mario Bros. 3. (You know the game; don't try to act coy.) Which parts stick out in your memory? The boss fights, quite possibly, and the last castle. The level with the boot. Warp whistles. Most of the giant world, probably, and the sun swooping down to nail you. Some of the trickier jumps. The hammer suit. And the first half-dozen levels or so, because you played through them every time you fired up the game.
All of the stuff you don't remember is the repeated content. It fills the space. You probably don't remember most of World 7-3, because it largely consisted of jumping on things, avoiding other things, and running toward a clearly defined goal while racking up lives. The parts you do remember, on the other hand, are directed content, parts designed to be memorable and unique, and in many cases, to show you how the game works and what you're expected to do.
MMOs get dinged by many people for their reliance on killing 10 rats, but the reason for having players do that is pretty obvious -- it gives a sense of combat and a sense of accomplishment, and it fills up the space. World of Warcraft does this fairly well, usually mixing a few different quests together in the same area, so that the slaughter of rats feels like a natural progression. You're already slaughtering rats to get something else done; might as well get a little extra credit for it.
Guildleves are wonderful repeated content. They're renewable, persistent, and they're not onerous to complete. You can tweak the difficulty as you want, and they promise better rewards than just arbitrary killing. But they don't take the place of directed content, and that's what Final Fantasy XIV is currently sorely lacking. That, more than anything, is what the game needs -- content that isn't designed to be done over, but content that unlocks one-time rewards, that moves you forward, that makes players feel that they're climbing in levels toward something.
You could argue that repeat content is fundamentally unnecessary, that we should have a game with just the cool parts, but it's not actually as great an idea as you think. Picture a car. The directed content is the engine, yes, but an engine without wheels and a seat and a steering mechanism just hums and eats fuel. And similarly, all those other parts don't do much but roll downhill without the engine in place. FFXIV is currently strong on the repeat content, but that only goes so far.
Missions, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are cool. They're directed, they're immersive, and they're way too sparse. We need more missions and quests, even if they don't involve the same degree of lavish cutscenes and large-scale story revelations. We need something to make us feel as if we as players are moving forward. As it stands, players can easily level from 1 to 50 without ever leaving the starting city as a base of operations and with no real need to travel to other cities except for a wider range of guildleves to choose from.
There are outposts already in the game world, and those need to be used. Make them hubs, give them access to a retainer bell and some quests and some distinct objectives. Give me some guildleves and some things to do that tie into those leves. That merchant wants seven yarzon legs? Great, I can do that quest while I'm doing my repeated guildleves, and it'll feel more satisfying because I'm doing something both repeated (levequests) and directed (a merchant wants something). Give me crafting quests in which I don't get the materials, just a recipe and a promise that I can get the needed materials in the area.
Yes, the game is never going to beat out games like Star Wars: The Old Republic or World of Warcraft in terms of sheer popularity. It was never going to. It's a crafting-heavy environment with a very baroque feel, an odd mixture of gameplay types. And there are some people who just don't want that from a game. That's fine. But the players who are here and love the game need more things to do, more of a sense of forward motion and progress and accomplishment. The ground work is there for the game to be great, but we need more directed content to keep everyone engaged.
It's going to be hard. But like I said in the beginning, the easy part was the functional side, and we're on to the difficult part. It's a challenge I do believe Square is up to, however.
As always, feel free to agree, disagree, or wage a one-man Sisyphean crusade against my evil machinations in the comments. (Or mail firstname.lastname@example.org, but that's ill-suited to the third option.) Next week, it's time for a look back over the past year for Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI -- and it's been a pretty big year for both.
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.