Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Final Fantasy XIV - A Server Rebooted

It's been a rough couple of days for the Final Fantasy franchise.  What was originally intended to be a couple of days of early access turned into a couple of days of no access, as the North American and European data centers were plagued by problem after problem.

Things started off well enough on Saturday, but quickly went downhill as the duty servers melted under the onslaught of players.  Final Fantasy's character progression is extremely linear, and it requires you to go through a number of story instances, all of which use the same instance server guildhests and dungeons.  When people found themselves completely unable to enter their story instances, their progress in the game was completely halted.  To address the problem servers were brought down, worked on, brought back up, and then brought back down again.

On Sunday, the servers again were up, but people quickly found themselves subject to severe login restrictions, resulting in repeatedly getting an error that told them no information beyond "You can't play right now."  If you peeked in on the forums (I only did so once) there were pretty much on fire with people complaining vociferously about their inability to play, and littered with apologies from Square Enix.

Can the Reborn Realm Survive?
If you were to take the forum posters at their word, come launch day there will be absolutely no server problems because every single person has already canceled their preorder and left the game in disgust. But we all know that isn't going to happen.  However, there's no doubt that all of the negative publicity generated over the past few days is having repercussions.  Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn is already fighting some uphill battles.  In an era where pretty much every current successful MMO running has adopted some sort of free to play, or initial purchase plus in-game store type of business model, Square Enix is going the route of both an upfront purchase plus a monthly subscription - a business model most believed to be pretty strongly a thing of the past.  So they've already upped the investment required for people to even try out the game, and this in a time when there are plenty of MMO alternatives out there that require no up front investment.

And this comes all on top of Final Fantasy XIV's already beleaguered past, which is pretty much the current impression the average gamer already has of the game: Oh, that game that tanked for a year before they decided to rebuild it?  Yeah that game..

As a result of all this, I'm seeing plenty of fence-sitters, and heck even people that were committed to the game, changing their course, and thinking about moving on to the many, many other greener pastures that are available in the MMO landscape.  It's hard to overstate just how important the next few weeks are for this game.  If this game is to have any hope to survive to see a second year, it absolutely has to turn around the technical problems it's currently enduring, and smooth out the experience immediately.  And yes, there have been plenty of MMO's that had rough and rocky launches and went on to achieve some modicum of success, but this isn't 2004 anymore, and with so many choices available out there for less up front money, people are even less likely to stay with your game if these days if everything isn't picture perfect.

The Good Stuff
And speaking of 2004, that is, in a nutshell, the Final Fantasy XIV MMO experience.  The entire gameplay is built around all of the most classic pillars of traditional, old school MMO's.  But it's a highly refined, incredibly polished version of that experience, bringing together some of the best of that game model, while fixing some of the most egregious problems typically associated with that design.

Yes, FFXIV embraces the traditional holy trinity of class roles in MMO's, and yes, their progression is absolutely bound by group-required content.  There will be no soloing your way to end game in this game. But when it's working, their LFG tool is very smooth and seamless.  And they have done an amazingly good job of providing a ton of content, early on in the game, geared specifically towards teaching people how to group, and what their roles will be, and how the mechanics of group experiences will work.  Remember all those games where we complained about how people would solo their way to the end-game, and then suddenly learn that they had to group to continue to play the game, only no one knew how to actually play in groups?  Well S-E has taken that to heart, and makes a valiant (and mostly successful, in my opinion) of teaching that experience early on.

So even if you aren't the guild-minded person, and don't play these games within large social circles, you should theoretically be able to easily find the groups you need, and to complete the content that is necessary for you to progress.  Provided of course - the server populations don't completely dry up a month after launch.

One to Watch
I personally don't see myself staying in Final Fantasy for very long.  While I'm currently quite enjoying myself when I can play, and am enjoying this trip down nostalgia lane of tank-healer-dps, I have become too fond of Guild Wars 2's modified roles Support-Control-Dps, and the advanced versatlity found within each class in that game.  Additionally, I have become spoiled by the more modern evolution of combat mechanics found in Guild Wars 2 and other contemporary MMO's, where combat mechanics are fluid and active, and don't require the strict monitoring of a toolbar to see if your 3 second global cooldown is up yet.

But that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying myself right now, and I quite am, when the game lets me play it.  It's a beautiful game, and full of story and lore and most of the good bits from these kinds of games that I love. And it's certainly an interesting, and varied place to explore.  Who knows, I may even surprise myself and end up staying much longer - I've already become quite fond of my marauder/conjurer/whatever.

But my decision may be made for me by Square-Enix itself.  There has clearly been an extraordinary amount of work put into the game since its initial launch.  And it shows.  But if the company doesn't take immediate steps to improve its communication, and isn't able to straighten out their data centers and start providing their customers the reasonable assumption that they can log in and play whenever they wish, and expect to be able to actually play - it may all be for naught.

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