How to Make Sure Final Fanyasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 4: Character Growth

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Welcome again to Somnambulant Gamer's seven-part series, "How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck". If you haven't read Part One: Combat, or Part Two: Story, or even Part Three: Jobs by now, well...

It's okay. We can still be friends. Anyway, this is, (as you may have guessed), Part Four.


That is a shitty picture of two people simultaneously hitting level 75 in Final Fantasy XI, and that is mostly what I'm here to talk about. Not those two people per se, nor just the idea of hitting the maximum level of a game--just the myriad (or not-so myriad) ways in which characters of future MMOs should progress, compared with how they progress now.

Final Fantasy XI has a very specific formula for getting stronger: Old-school, in your face, hard-knock motherfucking grinding. You want to get stronger? You have to kill enemies. The stronger the enemy, the more experience points (hereafter referred to as EXP) you receive. The more enemies you kill, the stronger you get. Get it? It's simple! Very simple...


Okay! Okay. The truth is this: It's fucking mind-numbingly simple. It bores me to tears. Even that Tonberry is bored. That's why he's playing peek-a-boo.

I digress. The point is this: Everything you do in an MMO should reward you enough to compel you to keep playing. Final Fantasy XI does the opposite of this. The joy of leveling up, after grinding for hours, is almost instantly eclipsed by the realization that you have to do it all again, and then some, to get that glimmer of light back. You are crushed by an unholy weight.

This can leave the player feeling hopeless, doomed to hours chained to their keyboard, repeating the same action over and over again. Some of the gameplay tweaks we touched on in Part One would alleviate this--after all, choice is the natural predator of monotony.

But that's not enough. Final Fantasy XIV needs to keep a little of what FFXI did, toss the rest, and then give us something we've never seen before.

What to toss:

Character customization--or the lack thereof. FFXI's creation screen was cool in 2002. Sort of. Okay, no, it wasn't. Choosing from a handful of faces and hairstyles for your characters is horse shi--no, it's worse than that. It's like...vomit. Putrid, stinking horse vomit. I can tell you that I have seen myself walking around as an NPC more times than I care to count. My friend is, apparently, an adventurer, a high-ranking Jeunoan official NPC , and a flamboyant actor NPC in a completely different storyline.

Apparently he is a very busy guy.

This is not to mention all the times you see other players who've chosen your character model for their own. Maybe they did it to spite you, because they hate you and everything you've ever loved. Or maybe it was just because they had so few other fucking options.

Beyond looks, you get zero customization for your character. Not even your basic, starting clothes. That needs some serious revision.

In terms of growth, Final Fantasy XI can't really toss killing monsters to gain EXP. It's the fact that almost nothing else you do gets you experience that needs to go in the bin.

For example, earlier, I touched on FFXI's combat facet that the harder the monster is, the more experience you gain. Monsters are rated against your level from easiest, "Too Weak", to most difficult, "Impossible to Gauge". 'Too Weak' monsters don't give exp, since they are so far below your own level. This makes sense. "Impossible to Gauge" monsters are rare game that are incredibly powerful. They can take up to 18 people to kill, and some of them drop valuable items. Because they give such valuable drops, they don't give EXP.

Wait. What?

Yeah. They're fucking stronger than their normal monster brethren, yet they don't count towards making you stronger.

That's stupid.
You can fight Bahamut, the Wyrmking, herald of the gods, vanguard of Vana'diel, as the culmination of a major storyline, and you don't get experience points from it?!

Yes, you get to complete the storyline. Yes, you potentially get some cool items. Yes, you get a sweet-ass cutscene; but goddamn it, you just fought and defeated the King of Dragons. And that doesn't count as "experience"?! That makes about as much sense as being hungry after eating an Orca whale.

This is in line with a virulence that seems to run through FFXI's many facets, and which FFXIV needs to fix in spades. Things need to make sense.

What is "Experience"? An experience is anything that, simply put, makes you grow as a person. It is not a difficult operation to translate that to an MMO. What makes our characters grow?

It is with that sentence in mind that something needs to be tossed--not a gameplay mechanic, but an ideology which dictates that players should be rewarded rarely and punished severely for their mistakes.

One reason World of Warcraft is so successful is because Blizzard was one of the first developers to hang up that thorny hat. WoW players are given experience points for every quest they complete. In Final Fantasy XI, when you die, you can lose three hours' worth of EXP. In WoW, you just have to go find your body and climb back into it. Death in WoW is a deterrent against shoddy playing, but it isn't a punishment.

While in many cases I do think a game can be too casual-friendly, the fact is that a modern MMO need not deter players from playing it. Square Enix needs to toss the idea that they can't reward players with EXP for things like simple quests, storyline missions, finding treasure, raising a chocobo, even crafting an item. They don't have to be large amounts of experience points--but giving the player gameplay options is never a bad thing. As it stands, doing anything but grinding is a moral dilemma, since most other things don't net exp. For a level 10 player, they find themselves thinking, "Well, yeah, I'd like to try out synthesis...but I should probably level up first."

I ask: Why can't they do both?

What to Keep:
Experience points. Knowing the distance to your goal is the ultimate carrot-on-a-stick.

FFXI has begun to understand that we need options for experience. Keep exp-giving activities like Campaign, Besieged, and Fields of Valor.
Also, the fanfare music when we level up! Everyone likes the fanfare.

How to Revolutionize it

Creating your character is the first impression most players get from an MMO. Ask any sixteen-year old wearing a suit to their McDonald's job interview they'll say they're doing it because first impressions are important. This is true in MMOs and is true everywhere else.

As such, this experience--this initial connection--needs to be amazing, and leave a lasting impression. To do this, it needs to be customizable on two levels--inward and outward.

Outward customization: How does my character look?

There is nothing wrong with choosing from a list; I'd rather choose from a list and come out with something decent-looking, something with a sense of unity, than customize my own cheekbones and end up looking like one of those atrocious character models in Oblivion. The trick is, give us enough options so that we don't see ourselves running through the cities--or worse, mirrored by important NPCs. Give us fifty faces, a hundred hairstyles, twenty colors, tattoos, scars, eye patches, jewelery--there are literally dozens of character-appearance choices players could make that don't have to infringe on gameplay.

But take it a step further--make our choices matter, if only in a passive way. If we have a tail, let us decide how long it is--and whether or not character plays with it when idle. If we have a beard, give us an emote with which to stroke it.

It would be plain fun to choose appearance on that sort of level. But Square-Enix doesn't just want fun. They want to blow you away. That's where 'inward' customization comes in.

Inward customization: How does my character act?

When creating a character, let the player pick personality traits. Things they love. Things they hate. Weather they find pleasant. Whether they're outgoing or reserved, clumsy or precise, curious or content. Fears. This could be done via questionnaire, sliders bars, or random select for the impatient.

Players' answers might dictate everything from starting city, scenario, and job to which NPCs approach them for quests, and what sorts of quests those NPC give them. It might affect how a character walks and talks.

If you have a boisterous, aggressive Elf-type character, he might walk with confident strides and head head high when going through a crowded market. A demure character of the same race might walk with his head bowed, and his dialogue-tree choices might be more stunted. These two characters' "clap" emote would be entirely different from one another, even though they might be the same race and class.

But don't let it be static--as your character completes quests and grows, they, like anyone, might undergo changes. This would be most easily implemented with 'character points', separate from EXP and available through the in-game menu. Spending character points to change your attributes throughout the game would change how your character reacts and acts--if you want them to become more confident, to mirror your own pride, they can become thus over time. If you want them to become more introverted (say they are taking up the path of the Black Mage and you want their personality to sync with their job), you could. If you wanted to leave it the same as it was at the beginning of the game, you could do that too. This is simply a way to make each character unique, and thus, create a connection between player and character.

Now we're going to change gears--creating a character is one thing, but making him stronger and leveling up is another.

Let me just lay this out there:

I think nearly everything you do in Final Fantasy XIV should give you EXP.

Begin on day one. Give the player a choice of objectives (in line with some of the things discussed in part two of this series). If you started your quest as a magic shop apprentice, your first task could be any of a number of beginning quests--with a narrative hook, of course. For example--why should your first mission be a 'delivery' quest, or 'kill x number of enemies'? We, as players, want to be thrust into an experience. Your first day on the job, a huge rat might break into the basement. Your boss hands you a big kitchen knife and tells you to go kill it. If you do, you get some exp for killing it--and then a few more for completing your duties.

if your boss has to come rescue your sorry ass, maybe he just thanks you for fighting--no experience for the battle, but a few for the effort.

Yes, you should get experience from fighting, and yes, I agree with the idea that it should be the primary means of acquiring it. But we demand choice. Today in FFXI, there are a number of battlefield/adventure options for gaining exp--but these came much too late. Regardless, none of them compare in sheer efficiency to getting an EXP party and undergoing that terrible grind.

In Final Fantasy XIV, what if you got EXP depending not just completing a mission or quest, but a range of exp, based on performance? If you win, but just barely, maybe you get 75 exp. If you kick the shit out of it in record time, maybe you get 100. If you lose, maybe you still get 10.

If you make start synthesizing weapons or items, why can't you get exp based on your crafting level? Say you're at level 10 in 'alchemy'. Craft a level 1 item, you get 1 exp. Level 2, 2 exp. Level 3...? 3 exp. Crafting at your own level gets you double the exp of that level--so a level 10 item would get you 20 exp. It isn't much, but it's satisfactory on a basic level. That while a player focus on one thing, the experiences therein are still benefiting his character.

EXP aside, what does 'character growth' really mean? It means, simply, how your character resonates in the mind of the playerbase. Does the player see his character as they job he plays, or as the culmination of his experiences? Right now, it's the former. I'm of the opinion it should be the latter. The character's growth should affect the world in which all characters live. If your character did completed a quest for an NPC, and that NPC pops up from time to time in the pub, he buys your character a drink if your character is present--and other players witness this. NPCs talk about other players both to the playerbase and to one another.

The character needs to grow in the eyes of the player--not just in terms of points, but in terms of experiences. When you created your character, maybe it came to light that he had a fear of snakes. Fight snakes, and maybe he misses a lot. Fight enough of them, and maybe he conquers his fear and gains an accuracy bonus against them.

Maybe your character has a family. At random intervals, they may die--or your character may be given the opportunity to save them. Maybe your character has to save them to become a Paladin. Maybe the path of the Dark Knight opens up if he fails.

The point of all this is dual:

First, that having experiences should net you experience points. Because this type of game hinges on drawing this process out (and thus, keeps the customer paying), this process would have to be nuanced and executed with perfection--but if there's one development studio out there who could design and execute an RPG of such epic proportions, is it not Square Enix?

Second, and more importantly, that experience points are meaningless without memorable experiences. It is in creating not just a game, but a set of glimmering, crystalline* memories that the challenge lies.

Next time: NPC's and the world. Where do you fit?

As always, thanks for reading. We know our URL is a spelling fetishists wet dream, but a nightmare for everyone else, so bookmark us or use our handy RSS feed to avoid typing that shit in. 'Til then!

*I am really, really sorry for the pun. Really.