The dark heart of Final Fantasy XI

I certainly can't.

You know it doesn’t want you there, but you can’t help but feel a stirring of nostalgia.

When Final Fantasy XI launched in America, it received a pretty shining reception, which should say a lot about MMOs at the time.  This release was a port of a game programmed for a very specific Playstation 2 peripheral, released long enough after its initial launch that a significant portion of the existing Japanese playerbase viewed the incoming American players in much the same way that you would view an army of roaches assembling just outside of your front door.  The resultant culture clash and sheer ambiguity of the way the game functioned led to problems that Square-Enix is still pretending to clean up, not to mention that it included PlayOnline, a service so magnificently useless that it makes Games for Windows LIVE seem almost fashionable.

It was problematic, is my point.  And that isn’t even getting to the actual game, which I’ve previously said is sort of like some bizarre outgrowth of Stockholm Syndrome, constantly assaulting you for the crime of trying to play it even while you find yourself aware of its deep-seated loathing and contempt for players.  And yet the game did well.  It was a success.  It’s still relatively successful now, more than a decade out from its launch, warts and all.

Like any game, there are lessons to be learned here.

It should be refined further on down the line, but we're talking about the initial question.

“How am I supposed to use this?” is a perfectly valid question, and it doesn’t always need an immediate answer.

I recently went back to Final Fantasy XI with my wife and our mutual best friend, exploring the now very changed world of Vana’diel in some detail.  Experience rewards have been scaled up, more bonuses can be earned, there are more things to do at a variety of levels, and yet the heart of the game is still coated in metaphorical dust from 1999.  Yes, there are NPCs you can summon to supplement your efforts in the world, but you are still expected to form a party if you want to seriously get anywhere.  The skill system remains brutally uncompromising and rewards repetition over all.  You have to take part in an ornate and roundabout quest at level 18 to get one of the core game features unlocked, then a series of quests with wildly varying challenge levels once you hit 30 just to start experimenting with all of those cool jobs that draw you to the game.

The population has dropped off significantly in recent years, not that anyone needs to be told that.  How could it not?  The game is old, and it still bears the design marks of that age as well as a screaming disdain for its players.  Something that even the active players of the game will agree.

Yes, no one plays Final Fantasy XI with the notion that it’s fair or balanced or even just neutral.  The game is malicious.  Everyone goes in playing with the explicit idea that the game hates you and wants you to suffer.  It’s like playing in a real-life version of Warhammer, when you start to get suspicious if things start not turning bad enough after a while.  You will not see players contradict this or assert that the game is really great, just play it a little more; no, that’s how it is.  Everyone keeps playing despite the mess and the general throat-punching nature of the beast.

All of this begs the question of why.  Why would anyone keep playing a game that doesn’t seem to want them around?

It’s not the challenge, per se.  The game is challenging, but only in the sense that it’s challenging to play the violin with one hand whilst it’s lying on a table.  The game sports Absolute Virtue, a boss that was largely considered impossible, due in no small part to the development team patching out methods of trying to take the boss out.  That’s less a challenge and more a game of spite-based chicken, almost daring the players to keep playing despite that fact.  Add some almost random stat allocations and available gear for some classes, and you start to think that players would love the most recent expansion offering a clear progression path, stats balanced for what classes actually do, a much more balanced path with open communication.

But they don’t.  And I think that speaks to the heart of why people have kept playing the game.  Because part of the love, then and now, comes from the fact that when the game isn’t being actively inimical toward players it’s being obtuse, throwing out elements without logical connections.  It puts stats that don’t make sense on equipment, it lets classes wear things that seemingly have no purpose, and it provides no guides.

So players put them together.

Preferrably in a way that makes sense, but you work with what you get.

Figure out what makes it work and then do it.

Ninja were never intended to take on a tanking role in the game.  I’ve opined elsewhere that I’m pretty sure what Ninja wound up doing was meant for Samurai.  Samurai can dodge a number of attacks, have a high parry rate, and generally seem as if they were set up to be pretty good at being an evasion-based tank.  But players figured out how to keep Ninja going against heavy damage, using that constant whiff against Utsusemi shadows to convert the class from a damage-dealing class into a tank that could take down physical enemies with nary a scratch.  And the designers recognized this fact and started designing to the class as a tank, putting on enmity modifiers, offering encounters that make Ninja less overpowered, and so on.

By contrast, the discussion took less than a minute in Final Fantasy XIV.  “Ninja is a damage-dealing class,” said the developers, and that’s exactly what it is.  It is a tool with a clear purpose.  You start playing it and you see how it all flows together elegantly, creating a very specialized tool with a definite role.

Final Fantasy XI is inelegant.  It is a box of tools without clear or obvious purpose.  None of what it does suggests a natural flow or progression between various abilities.  From a design standpoint, it does an awful job.  Nor does it do a good job or even an adequate job pointing players toward what they’re supposed to do.  I know a fair bit of what was expected back when I was playing the game actively as my main diversion, but that was a long time ago; a lot has changed since then.  More jobs have been added.  Party dynamics have changed.  Things aren’t the same as they used to be.

But even when I was playing with vigor, the “accepted” patterns were just that.  Accepted.  Not absolutes, not rules, not laws.  They were commonly accepted practices and ways of playing the game that were, in fact, variable.  It was all due to custom, to the ways that players found to smooth off the rough edges of a game that didn’t seem to want anyone around.  Players bashed their head against the game and found what worked.

And therein lies the answer to my rhetorical question.  Why do people keep playing?  Because sometimes it’s more fun to take pieces that don’t fit together and try to make sense out of them.  It’s an experience you can’t have any other way.

Also, it grows back, I think.

Balance is a multi-headed monster; fight one head too long and you lose sight of the others.

In some ways, it wouldn’t work if the game were less hostile.  If you didn’t feel as if everything were designed to kill you and be unfair, you’d be less inclined to step off of the beaten path and find a way to exploit everything.  Sneak and Invisible were considered the easiest methods of clearing a lot of content, simply because you could bypass most fights and just engage in the battles you actually needed.  Was that intentional?  Almost certainly not; if you had to reach the top of Delkfutt’s Tower, you were supposed to do it by fighting your way through.  But it was doable.  Some players would avoid buying maps because you could remember a set routine of steps that would bring you to your destination, and that meant some precious gil saved; in a game where income was hard to have, it could be lifesaving.

The established rules of the game were that there were no rules.  Do whatever it takes to make it through, to survive, to thrive.  It created a sense of hostility that was wholly unseen even in games filled with open PvP.  There, you could say the world was dangerous, but it was really other players.  In Vana’diel, the world itself is dangerous and doesn’t love you, and you have to forever be on your guard.

This, then, is the lesson at the heart of Final Fantasy XI – despite all of its design flaws, because of some of them, the game managed to find its own niche that produced an affection much greater than the sum of its parts would suggest.  People were drawn in by those broken features, trying to hammer them into shape, trying to make it all fit together in a sensible way.  It was unsustainable, it could never last forever, people would eventually get tired of trying to deal with all of the broken parts of the game, and they did – but somehow the spite of the game inspired people to try new things, look in new angles, and approach the fundamental problems differently.

I mean the game as a whole, mind you.  Not Abyssea.  That was a regular mess.

A controlled mess is still a mess, but in part it’s a desirable one.

All of the crap of the game doesn’t deserve emulation, no.  There are so many fundamental flaws with the game’s overall design, so many better ways to make the game in a modern environment.  I’d never make it my main game again.  But beyond the obvious lessons of why all of these design choices are bad one, there lies a simple truth – players will find a way in spite of them.  And that should be celebrated.

Designers should give us the strange, the bizarre, the unusual methods that the game was never designed to support.  If one game features a particular player trick that wasn’t intended but was beloved, well, make it official for the next installment.  Support it.  Show players how to use those tricks.  Don’t shy away from things just because they’re unbalanced.  Better to be unbalanced and engaging and strange than perfectly balanced and boring.  Have strange characters, odd classes, weird techniques, configurations born out of half-indicated directions and no small slice of randomness.

Yes, strive for balance.  If something is broken, fix it.  But there are degrees of unbalanced, fine details regarding stuff that doesn’t work.  I won’t argue that limiting Death Knights in World of Warcraft to a single tanking option didn’t make the class more balanced as a whole, but it did remove one of the main draws of playing the class.  Balanced or not, it removed some of the pure fun.  It fixed a problem, but it did so in such a way to make the game less fun to play.

By all means, design a game that isn’t full of broken parts.  But try to celebrate the broken parts when they do emerge; players find ways to use them.

This article is a Patron-funded piece, outside of the usual schedule.  If you like what you see, take a look at the Patreon page; you can fund an article yourself and get access to bonus articles.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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