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The Mog Log: Time to relax

The Mog Log: Time to relax
Eliot Lefebvre
Eliot Lefebvre|July 9, 2011 6:00 PM
Time is strange. It's everywhere and yet invisible, and all we can do is represent it through measurements of time. Time flies, but time drags, and sometimes you're not sure where the time goes. Time keeps on slipping into the future, but you'll never get your time back, and you wait for the right time for what seems like an endless stretch of time. Time pushes us forward, holds us back; we put in hours of time at our jobs in order to get more time for play and relaxation, trading time for time.

Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV both love time and timing. We have no shortage of timed events in both games, with the latter having almost gone overboard with the amount of time that matters. You're timed on your guildleves, which have a reset timer to contend with. The upcoming dungeons will be timed. You're even on a short clock of time when it comes to crafting. Why all the fascination with time? Do we need this much time? What would it matter if we stripped out all of the timing?

Final Fantasy XI used a lot of timing, of course. We were timed in battlefields and timed on major events such as Garrison; we had to judge what time was right for synthesis and how much time it would take for plants to blossom. Time was even the main resource that most classes had to deal with -- job abilities are restricted more or less solely by time, and the ones with no limitation on time (such as most spells with a two-second recast) are the only ones that actually use a different resource.

Heck, each class has a signature ability referred to as the two-hour ability. It's defined by the recharge time. And it highlights the dual role of time within the game's engine.

Timed abilities encourage you to avoid using them, more often than not, because every use of those abilities is essentially saying, "I do not expect to need this again within the recharge timer." In some cases, this works just fine -- using Jump or Provoke as soon as it comes up isn't a detriment, and the recast timers are short. But use an ability with a half-hour recast and you're essentially betting that using that ability right now is vital to the next half-hour of play. Summoning Alexander is essentially betting on one spell making a significant difference for the next two hours of playtime.

On the flip side, timed events force you to not be conservative. Final Fantasy XIII's constantly timed battles encourage you to throw caution to the wind and attack with everything you've got because your goal is to reach the finish line at top speed rather than to try to hold on to resources. A timed battlefield encourages you to do everything needed to win right now and ignore all of the possibilities that might come later.

For a long while, the strategy to fight Diabolos was essentially on a timer, and so the trick became a Red Mage using Chainspell with a subbed Dark Knight so she could just hammer Stun over and over. And if you failed at your attempt, you couldn't try it again for another two hours, unless you had a whole team of available red mages that could give it another shot. It's interesting from a design perspective, but it's kind of annoying to only get one shot at a boss every two hours before you just run out of steam. Functional, but maybe not optimal.

Final Fantasy XIV has largely abandoned the idea of having big abilities mitigated by huge recast timers. Abilities, at most, take five minutes or so to recharge. (Yes, there are rare exceptions.) All of the game's timing is focused entirely upon pushing players forward, to spur players into working faster or complete objectives faster than before.

The problem is that there's frequently either no need for the pressure or an active counterforce at work. Guildleves long lacked any incentive for a speedy finish, making the timer feel like an unnecessary impediment most of the time. Crafting timers made sense, forcing you to keep an active hand in crafting, but it was a fairly unnecessary encouragement, which brings us back to the question of why the new dungeons are timed when the game so frequently doesn't make much use of the timers.

Yoshida is certainly changing that with his promise of better leve rewards for speedy completion, but we don't know if there will be any rewards for completing a dungeon more quickly compared to a slower clear. As near as I can tell, the penalty is mostly there to prevent degenerate strategies because the dungeons are aimed at being at least moderately difficult. It's supposed to take some effort to clear through the dungeon, and part of that is probably that you have a timer breathing down your neck, encouraging players to keep moving instead of camping and pulling gradual groups of enemies.

At this point, most of what we know about the dungeons is based on the occasional preview and a whole lot of speculation. The biggest thing that's been stated about them is that they're meant to be difficult, which is the sort of thing that encourages players to take it slow and steady rather than move forward. Giving you a timer forces your back to the wall a little bit, in much the same way that a decent Mario level will often throw in an auto-scroll just to keep you moving forward. But is that pressure actually needed?

I don't know. I haven't had a chance to see it with or without the timer, but I'm hoping Yoshida has given it ample time to consider.

That's it for this week's installment of the column, with feedback welcome as always in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week, I think it's time to talk a little bit about something that's less of a hot-button issue, rounding out an almost accidental series of columns that I've wound up doing. So wing on back next week and you'll see what I mean.

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.
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