Final Fantasy XI has launched its fifth expansion, and yet I can't bring myself to be as excited as I should be. Longtime readers will recall that the account I've been playing on is younger and lacking in many of the higher-level conveniences such as airship passes and a white mage leveled enough to handle Sneak and Invisible. Put simply, I'm not in a place to just jump right into all of the content that Seekers of Adoulin has to offer right out of the gate.
On the plus side, I do have several conveniences that completely new players wouldn't have, not the least of which is an extensive knowledge of the game as a whole. A new player coming in straight would look at the game and just wind up baffled, and I can't blame him in the least. If you're starting fresh, the game is not welcoming you.
Longtime readers will also know that I've long been a proponent of making the game easier to get into. But is this even worth bothering with? Is the game for players starting at lower levels any more? Is there even a point to easing up the lower-level restrictions any longer?
I've most often seen this question phrased as a musing on whether or not the team even wants new players. The answer is of course it does; every development team wants more players. That's like asking if you'd want to make more money for less work. One of the major goals in game design is hooking in new players and keeping them in the game until they've become fully invested.
At the same time, it's possible to design for new players in such a way that you abandon your existing playerbase. If EVE Online redesigned itself into a clone of Star Trek Online, it would doubtlessly attract some new players, but it would be losing existing players in droves. So while any game wants new players, it wants to grab those new players in a way that doesn't deprive existing players of what they enjoy. Final Fantasy XI wants new players, yes, but it also wants to make the existing players as happy as they can be.
For new players, the game already has a pretty high barrier to entry. While I mentioned last week that the game looks absolutely gorgeous despite its age, you can still tell that it is not a new title. It also has archaic rules about running the game alongside anything else, it requres use of the staggeringly inconvenient PlayOnline client, and it's held on to a lot of mechanics that even the original EverQuest has long since abandoned as bad ideas. That's without getting into stuff like the hassle of unlocking advanced jobs or the crazy hoops needed for limit breaks or the reagents for basic class skills.
In fairness, the tutorial when starting the game at first has improved significantly. But you still aren't jumping into a game with a remotely modern environment. There's stuff coated in metaphorical dust from 2001, and there's the simple fact that the game is going to turn off a lot of new players simply because it's a group-based game where the groups no longer exist. Walking through Bastok is like searching through a mistless Silent Hill, at times. Matt's column about the game from yesterday is entirely accurate, no matter how much I still like the game.
But let's not belabor the point. What would need to be changed for the game to actually be friendly for new players?
For starters, players need to be introduced to the game's central mechanics pretty much right away. I'm not suggesting that the game move away from its group-happy nature, but players need to actually have groups. Since attempting to force high-level players to go back through the Dunes is fairly high on the list of terrible ideas no one should implement, that means we'll need some form of NPC partying.
We also need something to fix the fact that the game has 22 classes but you can only pick six at the beginning. I'm all for leaving something in the wings for later, and I love how the advanced jobs give you a sense of place via their intro quests alone, but the result is that you can't start playing what you want when you start the game. The subjob quest is similarly restrictive but no longer adds anything to the game except a barrier for anyone trying to play the freaking game from the bottom.
Neither of these changes gives players a good idea of what they're doing in the game, though, and both are doing nothing good for the existing playerbase. Admittedly, having an NPC party option might help if you're leveling Bard by your lonesome long after everyone else, but it also creates an incentive to fill out parties with NPCs rather than unreliable humans. Plus, unlocking the subjobs from the start is going to provoke plenty of backlash no matter how you do it, and it removes a major sense of accomplishment from the game.
Part of the problem is that the game doesn't push you in the directions you need to go, but it's also true that catering to existing players generally requires working with the higher end of the game. The endgame in FFXI was incredibly broad for a very long time, with lots of different activities and goals to pursue, but the path there has always been challenging and frustrating at the best of times. Adding in a lot for lower-level players to do takes time and resources to draw in new players for a decade-old game and does nothing to improve the lot of the veterans.
So does FFXI want new players? Yes. But what needs to be done to attract those players might not be very appealing to the development staff.
Your own viewpoints are welcome via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below. Next week, I want to talk about another element that's now shared across Final Fantasy games that has a bit more nuance than you might think: Magitek.
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.
The Mog Log: Don't you want me, FFXI?
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