Of PAX and Podcasts

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
We at Somnambulant Gamer have been lucky enough to have gathered a few more readers over the last few weeks. As the proprietor of this blog I feel it is my duty to welcome you all. We feel very fortunate to have been welcomed so quickly into this often unforgiving industry.

We realize that our site has little content besides our rambling blogs. This is something we aim to improve upon. We have agreed to start not one but two succulent podcasts. First, Hiro and I will have a semi-regular podcast dealing with whatever interests us at that particular moment. Second, we will be setting up a podcast of our D&D games.

In other news, we have secured press passes for PAX and will be delivering regular updates from the convention. That's September 4-6 for you blasphemous few who aren't already going. It has come to our attention that none other than Man-God Ron Gilbert will fill the keynote pants this year. I will try not to kidnap him.

We want very much to hold your interest so we might wrap our coercive tentacles around your heads. We can't do that however, without your feedback. Let us know what you'd like to see changed and we'll see what we can do. Like any other site, fledgling or no, we rely on you to help us reach our full potential. Tell some friends about the site, link us on a board or two.

Thank you again, new friends and old. We could not have made it this far without you.

How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck: Part 6

Saturday, June 27, 2009
Shhh. Do you hear something? It's sort of a...scraping, scuffling sound. Maybe it's ghosts.

Oh, silly me. It's just just the other parts of this series. That's right, it's time for part six of Somnambulant Gamer's

Final Fantasy is about teamwork. It has always been about teamwork. Almost never in a Final Fantasy game are you asked to tackle an enemy using a single character; this is because friendship, camaraderie and codependence are major themes in the series. More than that, even; these themes rush like raging rivers as the undercurrent that carries these games to their finale. Final Fantasy's emotional impact on the player is propelled by these themes.

It is for this reason that I wasn't surprised when, shortly after beginning my four-year foray into Final Fantasy XI, I was told that 'soloing wasn't really a viable option for leveling up'. Indeed--but how could I complain? After all, hadn't I signed up for a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game? Why would I do that if I just wanted to sit around and play with myself?*

And it was fine, as I'm sure it was for a lot of players, until one day. That was the first day I wasted an afternoon looking for a party. For hours. And never got one. It was that day that I realized Final Fantasy XI had a major flaw. In this edition, we're tackling what is arguably the most broken aspect of FFXI's game mechanics, and how to fix it in FFXIV.


Now, even back before the days of huge-step-forward Fields of Valor and Campaign, which both enabled small parties or solo players level, you didn't have to sit there and wait for a party. You could make one yourself by inviting other players to join!

(Okay, well, actually, while that was a good way to avoid sitting and waiting for a party, it was incredibly frustrating all on its own. Looking for players could be as frustrating as waiting for someone to ask you to join--even moreso when impatient players drop from the party while they're waiting for you to find more players.)

The point is that a party-centric game isn't a problem as long as you always have other people to play with. When finding those people becomes a chore, the game becomes a chore. It would serve Square-Enix to remember this.

So, what about Final Fantasy XI's party system needs to go? What needs to be kept? How, if they feel so obligated, could they "rev that mofo into overdrive", as the kids say?

What to Toss:

So many things about Final Fantasy XI's party system need to be tossed. So many, that if you put them into a long list, Yakko Warner might fashion them into a catchy, educational song.

First of all, simply searching for people of a certain job requires deep menu-diving or typing a search command into the text box:
"/sea all WHM 55-60" will find all the White Mages in the world who are level 55 through 60--yet, the only place to get the information on how to conduct a search of this nature is through word-of-mouth through other players. The game's 'Find Party Members' mechanism is multifaceted to the point of confusion, with no clear guide on how to make sure you're seeing all of your options--not to mention the dreaded truncated list in which only, for example, A-L of your results are shown because there are too many people to list. And not 'too many' like 1500. "Too many" like 150.

The primary feature of FFXI's party system that needs to be kicked to the curb is the six-person group. For all intents and purposes, FFXI requires a group of six for an effective experience points party.

In no other Final Fantasy game has six people been required, and there is no reason it should be that way in an MMO. The way FFXI's party system is structured, if you lose even one member for any reason, progressing with your remaining five people can be exceedingly difficult, (especially at lower levels), and result in death for the entire squad. Because of this, finding a party and getting started (because no one wants to begin with less than six if they don't have to, and rightly so) can literally take hours. Often, a player spends more time finding a party than they do participating in one. So, no more six-member parties. Please?

Square Enix's soloing systems need to be ready on day one. 'Fields of Valor' and 'Campaign' are great, but 'Fields of Valor' is only a recent addition to the game, and the first to allow a player of any level to solo--it took six years for SE to add this feature. Nations of men have risen and fallen in that time!

Finally, there is something intrinsically wrong with the way FFXI is set up--it is a thread that runs through partying, exploration, and combat. It is the 'camp' mentality. For anyone who doesn't know, a 'camp' system encourages players to find a 'safe spot' and have one member pull monsters back to fight, rather than moving around fighting the monsters in the open. It needs to go. PERIOD. The exact same scenery, (usually a corner or an alcove) the same music, the same one or two monsters, over and over...it's enough to break a man.

What to Keep:

I may make some enemies here, but I actually like the way EXP is distributed in FFXI. It could probably be better, but as it stands, it works. The basic premise is that EXP is split between party members on a per-monster basis. If you kill monsters quickly, (read: if your team is working well together), you get bonuses to the amount of EXP you get, called an 'experience chain'. This all works really nicely, although, to be honest, there's a rumor floating around that Final Fantasy XIV will forgo experience points altogether, so it may be a non-issue.

I also support the notion that this is A) a Final Fantasy game and B) an MMO, so those themes I were talking about earlier need to be threaded into the gameplay. Players should be rewarded for grouping together and establishing bonds, but not forced to-still, Final Fantasy has always been about shedding a lone-wolf mentality and embracing others and FFXIV needs to carry on that tradition. There is a fine line to tread here but I think Final Fantasy XIV is capable.

Finally, Final Fantasy XI's 'Campaign' and 'Fields of Valor' systems are fantastic. They lead to significant gains in EXP while keeping things fast-paced, and are suited to both individual and group play. They are the basis for what Final Fantasy XIV's party system could be.

How to Revolutionize it:

Square Enix has lucked out here--'Parties' can't really be revolutionized because you either have them or you don't. SE also has all the know-how to make Partying intuitive and fun, because they've created that feeling in their single-player ventures.

The idea is that partying needs to be something that happens intuitively. It's really cool in Final Fantasy XI when you find someone with whom you share a common goal and decide to have a go at it together. In FFXI, this happens often in areas which are dangerous to navigate in small groups, and players find strength in numbers.

Bring a Friend

Even more common is the 'Campaign Party'. Campaign is an FFXI scenario in which enemies invade an area and players must defend it. To stay alive and win the day, players often band together in campaign parties so that they can assist each other--each is serving himself, by finding people to watch his back, but is also serving a greater purpose by helping his comrades defeat the enemy. The benefits to this arrangement are the same as they are in an experience party: it facilitates teamwork, it results in greater individual rewards in the form of EXP, and it leads to a sense of accomplishment. However, the difference in Campaign is that it is a natural progression instead of a predetermined arrangement, and it only lasts a short time. This spontaneity leads to a greater reward for the player because it brings the game to life. Adventurers unite against a common enemy, then separate to go on their own adventures. They don't sit in one place for three hours, repeating the same formulaic actions ad nauseum; the fight is mobile and fast-paced, with each player's style taking precedent over automaton efficiency.

I believe that parties should be strongly connected to a player's individual journey and the fate of a players home nation. Furthermore, parties should be composed of no more than four members--but I think three would be a magic number.

{Impossible to Gauge}?

A commenter in a recent article pointed out that it's difficult enough to find a healer when you have a six-man group; finding one for every three-man group would be, obviously, twice as hard. That's true.

Unless, of course, Square Enix makes useful one itsy-bitsy teensy-tiny game mechanic. That mechanic is items.

In previous Final Fantasies, items play a pivotal role in character survival--except in
FFXI. In FFXI, they were largely useless, relatively expensive, and difficult to come by. A 'Potion', something every player might be expected to carry a stash of, is a joke. Simply enable monsters to drop these items with regularity and suddenly adventurers have much greater flexibility of when and how they adventure. Potions can be sold by NPCs for a static price and dropped in the field--and using them opens up so many more options for soloing.

Of course, magic would still play a key role, especially in larger battles and storyline events, but why can't three melee-class adventurers have an EXP party and use items in lieu of magic? If they can find a healer, all the better, but if not, items can create a nice replacement. Used in tandem with the Job System changes I mentioned in Part Three, in which job Abilities could be assigned rather than simply 'subjobs', many more characters might be able to toss out a 'Cure' here and there by equipping the spell. This would offset the problem that most MMOs share--most people just don't want to play a healer, and this makes healers hard to come by. Give the average sword-swinger a way to compensate, even a little.

And hey, when you see someone in need, invite them to join a party--between the two of you, maybe you can get up to something a little more adventurous. Recruit people you meet along the way and align objectives, adventuring for treasure and getting extra EXP through chaining along the way--or go it alone, and reap the benefits for yourself, but run higher risks.

Or hey...maybe this is all moot. Square-Enix has hinted at an all new-battle system, and an all-new party system is likely something that will accompany it. What could it be? What could it have in store? Word is that it has something to do with the way the characters are drawn in the FFXIV emblem. What do they have in store? What are your thoughts? Predictions?

As it has been with all of these entries, these are just humble opinions and perfect-world prophesies . I encourage you to share your own in the comments section, and to bookmark our deviously long URL. Thanks for reading and look for the next entry, "Miscellany", in which everything not addressed so far will be tackled, including Chocobos, PvP, Music, and Crafting. I'll be gathering as much information as possible for these topics from forums at ZAM and Eorzeapedia, but feel free to give your input here, too. Special thanks to all our visitors from those sites, and to the admins of said sites who've kindly linked our little fountain of madness. You are much appreciated, one and all.

Until next time, Final Fantasy-philes.

*Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Adventure Game Field Guide, Part 3

If Franz Kafka had made a video game, it would have been Bad Mojo. Transformed into a cockroach by a strange family amulet, your character, Roger Sams, is tasked with finding a way to return to a more human and less disease-ridden form before the dangers of the environment kill you, or you are discovered by the authorities and your stuff is held as evidence.

You see, you're not exactly the patron saint of adventure games here. You're an entomologist that's fallen on tough times and decided to embezzle money from a research grant and disappear. However, your landlord is still looking for that rent money you owe him. An argument leads you to the amulet which transforms you into the icky bug you'll play as through the rest of the game. You explore various parts of the bar that Roger lives in. The basement, the kitchen, Roger's room and even the bathroom feature as pivotal locations for the game.

Bad Mojo was a cult success in '96 when it was first released and the "redux" version released in 2004 dealt decent returns. The problem it ran into was that of several games of it's time. This was an entirely serious adventure game. One of the keys to having a successful adventure game is somehow managing to get people to play it more than once. Most adventure games allow the player to explore their surroundings to find clues to a puzzle or quest but when the game forces the same choice over and over again just isn't fun.

Bad Mojo tried to make up for it's shortcomings by having several endings. This method for expanding the options available to the character was made to increase the life of the game and provide a way for the player to feel more in control. The trouble was that all of the optional choices sprang up at the end of the game rather than interspersed throughout the game, giving the player almost too much to work through at the the end.

Still, the biggest error Bad Mojo may have made in it's development was the decision to make most if not all of the game so seriously toned. In fact, I cite this as one of the principle causes of death for the genre. In a game where you are encouraged to explore your surroundings, finding that your character was abused as a child (by a nun no less) is not exactly the kind of witty banter that keeps the player coming back for more.

This seriousness in the genre could very well be what has kept adventure games from making a comeback. Few people will play through an adventure game more than once, unless it's something like Monkey Island or Sam & Max. More than anything, the serious adventure game, while as good as any other, lacks replayability.

No other adventure game exemplifies this better than I have no Mouth and I Must Scream. Before we continue, watch this video. This is the intro for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

As you can see, this is probably the most disturbing adventure game ever made. It's also one you've probably never played. This isn't surprising as it was never a terribly popular game, despite winning several awards.

The voice you hear is AM, a giant, incredibly intelligent computer that has captured the last five people left on the Earth. Each of these people caries a fatal flaw which AM uses to torture them . Your role as the player is to take each character through the "game" that AM has designed to torture the characters once more. However, it gives each character the opportunity to overcome their flaws by facing them directly within the game.

The player is free to choose how the characters interact with the world. Doing good acts increases your chances of defeating AM in the end while evil acts decreases it. The game is graphic and disturbing. It runs the gamut of taboo material from murder and torture, to rape and genocide.

IHNMaIMS (hell of an acronym, eh) was a very well made game, a very good game. Would I ever play it again? No. And that is my point. As much as I love adventure games, without a sense of humor, they're doomed to obscurity. If the greatest adventure games are those that survive the test of time, then Threepwood is king.

Adventure Game Field Guide Pt 2

Friday, June 19, 2009
We're told that adventure games are dead. We're told the genre died with a whimper, living it's final days in a padded room screaming about three headed monkeys. While that may have been true once upon a time, the stars have once again aligned and the Threepwood walks amongst us. Now I hear the familiar soldiers waking from their grave. The sound of leather souls, rabbit feet, clattering bones and motorcycles is near on the horizon. Their time has come again.

There are many a forgotten adventure game out there that deserve their moment in the sun. Since Lucasarts seem to have finally realized their blunder (their cancellation of all adventure game projects is what killed the genre in the first place) I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these titles get their own revitalization.

First and foremost, it's time Lucas arts re-examined Loom. Loom was one of the most innovative and difficult adventure games ever made. The entire game centered around music, from story to inventory. That's right, I said inventory. aking place in the distant future, the world is run by a series of trade guilds. Chief among these guilds are the Weavers. Now the guardians of the Loom, a magical web that holds the universe in balance, the Weavers are powerful magicians and seers.

When a young woman who asked the Weavers to manipulate the Loom to save her unborn child
is turned down, she sneaks into the guild and weaves a new thread into the loow. This thread is Bobbin Threadbare, your character.

It falls to you, as foretold in prophecy, to gather spells from the various guilds, stop the evil Chaos and repair the Loom.

In Loom, your only item is your Dystaff, a magical item you use to cast the spells you learn from the guilds. These spells take the form of musical notes that you must remember in order to use said spell. It's one hell of a task to remember these as some spells are quite complex. All must be learned by trial and error and if you don't write them down you'll probably add about 4 hours of gameplay to the experience.

I've only played a little of the game through Scumm VM, my wife is the great expert on Loom here (she's also the one responsible for our bitchin' header graphics. Give her a hand folks.). What I've played has been very interesting. The spell system is so unlike any other game, it's strange seeing it in an older game. In this industry, different often equals new.

Bobbin Threadbare is an endearing character and the world of Loom is deep. The villain, Chaos, is iconic to say the least and I'd say that the final confrontation is spectacular except that there isn't one. That's right, you never fight Chaos. Ever.

You see, Loom was conceived as a trilogy but he creator of the games only ever finished the first before he essentially (these are parctically his own words) got bored and moved on. So this game has been sitting, spectacular and incomplete for some nineteen odd years. It's fucking time to finish this story Lucasarts. I swear to god, if you make a prequel, I will strangle your pets in front of your children.

Loom is certainly a more adult game than most other adventure games. It's not alone by any means, yet the more memorable titles do seem to be those that lean towards hilarity. Myst is one of the few adventure titles/ franchises that was both adult and popular with the greater gaming crowd.

My name is Bobbin Threadbare. Are you my mother?

Another more adult and well forgotten series was Dark Seed. Dark Seed was interesting for a few reasons. First, it was a serious toned horror based adventure game. Second, the art design was headed by H.R. Giger, the perpetually insane Swiss artist. You might know his work from Alien and/or your most terrifying nightmares.

Dark Seed puts you in the shoes of Mike Dawson, a writer who moves into a new home. On his first night there he has a horrible nightmare that puts him in a place called the Dark World where beings called Ancients implant a device called a dark seed in his brain.

Good thing Giger isn't an architect.

Upon waking, Mike has a limited time to unravel the truth about the Dark World and it's connection to the town. Should he fail, the Dark Seed will explode from his skull, forming a dimensional rift and allowing the ancients to invade Earth.

The game was one of the first to actually put time constraints on the player, forcing you to act quickly. Should you fail to solve a problem quickly enough, you may find yourself in an unwinnable solution. It happened a lot, forcing you to restart the game/ save to continue on.

Dark Seed II was released in 1995 and you again had to stop the Ancients. This time round, Mike has been diagnosed as mentally unstable and is accused of killing his high school girlfriend. Somehow, everything is part of the ancients plot to take over the world. The game had a couple endings, although the good ending still had you killed off.

My name is Mike Dawson. Are you my murderer?

The series isn't necessarily dead though and could easily be brought back. Can you imagine what could be done with today's graphics and Gigers designs? Dont, it'll give you nightmares.

Keep an eye out next week when we'll explore Bad Mojo and a game that may be the most obscure and horrifying part of the adventure genre. Until then, be well my Somnambulant Flock.

When someone asks if You're a God,You say YES!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I was no more than four years old when I saw Ghostbusters for the first time. We lived in a trailer on some friend's property and I sat on our strange, matted down carpet playing with dinosaurs and staring at the TV. My parents had gotten a VCR not long before and my dad, (being my dad) went over to the school he and my mother worked at and grabbed every VHS he could carry. That night I was introduced to the movie that I would watch obsessively over the next couple months.

I loved Ghostbusters so much, I pretended I was a Ghostbuster whenever I got the chance. My brother actually built me a little Proton Pack out of an old tent, a few dowels and some surgical tubing that I carried everywhere until I lost it in the shop.

I'd run around the house screaming "AIM FOR THE FLAT TOP!" I'd draw the Stay-Puft marshmallow man on large sheets of paper and vanquish him over and over again. I didn't get the sex jokes, I didn't understand half of the things they said, but I loved that movie more than most could believe.

I wrote little stories about the Ghostbusters and watched the cartoon ever morning. If some blasted parent asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd reply "Peter Venkman" with a smug degree of disdain for not knowing already. Ghostbusters was my life.

Honestly though, who didn't want to suit up and fight ghosts with unstable technology? Check that, who doesn't want to suit up and fight ghosts with unstable technology? You see, Ghostbusters has mastered the entertainment formula, combining comedy, horror and action into one neat little package, covered in marshmallow debris.

With all that said, I have to say that I was very wary of the Ghostbusters video game. When I first heard the announcement last year I was excited, but felt the game was doomed to failure. When the game was roped in July, just as I had convinced myself the game would be worth playing, I thought the game was dead for good.

PAX was a particularly painful reminder that year, with the glow in the dark Ghostbusters lanyards, and the conspicuous absence of ECTO-1. Hiro and I spoke at length of what a huge money maker Activision Blizzard had passed up. Names were called, lines were drawn in metaphorical sand and one or two people may have died.

Then all at once, the light of day shone clear on my face when Atari announced they were picking up the game. All that led to a series of trailers and finally, just yesterday, the game was released to great reviews.

Ghostbusters The Video Game is spectacular in almost every way. The audio is spot on with the films. The first time you hear the proton pack switch on it's the same as you heard it in the film. Even the little things like the sound of the pack as you move and the sound of the trap hitting the floor are all there. Most games wouldn't bother with this level of fealty to the original material.

The voice acting and story is unmistakably Ghostbusters. From Ray's obscure occult knowledge, to Venkmans caustic wit, not a line is out of place and all members of the cast in top form. I actually forget sometimes that I'm actually playing a game instead of watching the third film.

Controlling the proton pack is intuitive without being too easy. It's nigh impossible to bag a ghost without damaging your surroundings pretty significantly. Blasting Slimer in the hotel, I strayed a little too high, and took out very very expensive. Suddenly something was vaporized and the damages icon flashed close to $5,000. Whoops.

Really though, Ghostbusters the Video Game has captured that same magic the original film had. It's perfect in it's portrayal of the Ghostbusters universe and that brings a tear to my eye. I can't thank the developers enough for their work on this title. Now if only the PS3 version had split screen co-op and Sigourney Weaver.

Thanks for reading everyone, I'll have more once I finish the game. Tune in Friday for the second part of my Adventure Game Field Guide. As always, tell your friends and bookmark our monstrous URL.

How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 5

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hey, and welcome again to Somnambulant Gamer's seven-part feature, "How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck". The first four parts can be found here, if you care to peruse them.

So far, we've discussed Combat, Story, Jobs and Character Growth--but having these things, even if they are great, is like having paint with no canvas--and you can't paint something beautiful if you don't have something on which to to put it. If we want characters who give us the illusion of being living, breathing adventurers, we better having a living, breathing place for them to roam.


In Final Fantasy XI, the world we explore is called Vana'diel. It is as vast a world as almost any game out there can boast. This is something that is alternately awful and incredible.
Final Fantasy XIV's world, Eorzea, has already been revealed--although the name is about all we know, so far. The question is, how is this world going to operate?

What in Final Fantasy XI's world needs to go? What needs to stay? How should Square Enix revolutionize it, if revolutionize it they can?

What to Toss

Look, Square Enix. We have to talk. Some of the choices you make, well, I just can't understand them. It's like you know how to do some incredible things, but you choose not to do them.

Like in Final Fantasy XI. Your NPCs. Why don't they move or talk? They just stand around, staring off into space. I would understand if it had never occurred to you to make NPCs move or talk--but it has! You even have one in there, just to tease me; that little runt who runs around in Southern San'doria making deliveries. He even says "Here's your delivery!" when he makes one. He is a buff of breeze in a city caught perpetually in the doldrums.

And another thing! The same NPCs are standing in the same places, 24/7. Yeah, I know you need to have someone there in case a player needs to do another crab-killing mission or whatever, but I have some ideas on how to get around that. The point is that a player's "willing suspension of disbelief" is dented when they're supposed to be running through a living world, but that world's inhabitants do nothing lifelike.

Also, I know you two are close, but...zones need to go. Zones were really cool back in the day. We didn't mind because they made playing technologically feasible. But today, zones are tired...and they make you look old, too. No more borders, okay?

And there's just one more thing. I know gaming's an illusion, but it's time to step it up.

Green Texture Mapping


Honestly, I'm reticent to say more about that--if I have faith that you'll change one thing for the better, it's your graphics.

I hope this was helpful, SE. You know I have feelings for you. I just want us to grow together, instead of apart.


What to Keep

There're a lot of good things to keep about Final Fantasy XI's world that should inspire Final Fantasy XIV. Square Enix already revealed that the same races will grace Eorzea as they did Vana'diel, or slightly-updated versions of them. I support this idea--Final Fantasy is an ever-changing entity, with only a semblance of continuity buried here or there--Final Fantasy Online needs more than that, and static races (with, perhaps, new ones added) are a great way to address that.

Square Enix needs to retain whomever did the design and writing for characters like Prince Trion, Prishe, Lion, and other memorable NPCs. These characters drive Final Fantasy XI's storylines in interesting, dramatic, and often hilarious ways. We need more like them.

As far as the world goes, (and far does it go), as dead and dull as some areas are, (Behemoth's Dominion, I'm looking at you) others are simply breathtaking, even today. After years of playing, The Sanctuary of Zi'tah still leaves me tingling with excitement; Lufaise Meadows is still magical; the intricate and (potentially fatally) alluring underwater labyrinth of Nyzul Isle is nothing less than enchanting.

There is something these three areas have in common--aren't at all anything super special to look at; but they all provide a dense sense of atmosphere. Everything within these zones 'clicks' with everything else--the monsters make sense, the music is excellent, the lighting is nuanced. Keep that sort of thing up, big time.

How to Revolutionize It

There are a great many ways FFXIV could take MMO worlds to the next level. Fortunately, none of them are particularly complex.

In fact, Square Enix has successfully executed one thing that would improve the world's 'believability" with flying colors--only in a different game. Final Fantasy XII, (that's 12, for those of you starting to lose track of all these Roman numerals,) had cities bustling with activity. This was accomplished in one simple fashion.

Not every NPC in FFXII can be spoken with. Many appear to be deeply immersed in conversation with other NPCs, waving their hands about, oblivious of you or your little world-saving errand. Others were busy shopping, or running to and fro, busy with their day's work. I'd estimate only 45% percent of NPCs could be spoken with in FFXII, although they did such a good job integrating the interactive and the static that it could be much higher or much lower--I was immersed, and thus, didn't care to notice, and that right there should be their goal.

If jam-packed cities aren't an option, simply rotating NPCs would make a lot of sense and give the game a big breath of realism. Take, for example, the NPC "Red Ghost" in FFXI. This hulking Galka walks the same 10-step path in Port Jeuno, day in and day out. He's dressed in flashy armor, and can't be missed. He's there twenty-seven hours a day, forty-four days a week. Obviously, he's on guard. And there are other guards around Jeuno!

I ask: Why don't they ever rotate? Wouldn't be cool if Red Ghost was replaced periodically throughout the game day? Or if you go in the middle of the night, and he's there, what if he's fallen asleep on the job? At noon, why isn't he eating his lunch? Another NPC could deliver it! You could use that annoying kid from San'doria!
The same goes for shop clerks, or just people standing around in general. They need to be other places sometimes. This isn't to say that they aren't available--maybe they go home, or to the tavern, or to church. They can almost always be found somewhere, and other related NPCs will tell you where they are if you ask them.


You get a mission involving speaking to Red Ghost, and head to his location--but it's 2 am Eaorzea time and he isn't there. So talk to the nearest guard. The game, knowing you have a quest involving Red Ghost, has the other guard tell you his current location. At that location, obviously the streets are emptier. Maybe the girl from the magic shop is standing near the water with the boy from the weapons shop. Taverns are more crowded at night than during the day. Even these small things would add bursts of life, which would ease the sterility that an MMO gains as time passes. In addition, a more lifelike experience for players creates another subtle connection between player and character.

But what, perhaps, could SE do to accomplish that same vivacity once the player leaves the city?

I already mentioned the problem with texture mapping, but every kid knows that if you don't want someone to see something, you just have to cover it up. That's what SE needs to do here. Add some physical features on those texture maps and we'll be in business. It would be nerdgasmic to run across and area in waist-high grass. Seriously.

But that doesn't make areas revolutionary; giving them atmosphere is what gets you that achievement. The trick is to make these areas (NOT zones!) interact with themselves. If it's windy or stormy, our waist-high grass would sway. If we're walking in said grass, a monster might pop out of it. A big snake would be good or another monster that eats the things that would thrive in a grassy area--so, don't make us fight all the rabbits that live there, but the things that each the rabbits..

Tigers would work! We like tigers...Big, black tigers that will eat your face! I mean, just look at him! Those fangs! Those eyes! Imagine watching that thing watch you. When it aggros, it doesn't just come running. If slinks through the tall grass. You can hear it growling, the low rumble of its empty stomach. The way it sizes you up, wondering if it can digest your armor, even as you draw your sword. You can see its black fur, cutting through the grass like a shark's fin, coming straight at you until...

Well, that's not the important part. Really, the point is that the monsters, the environment, the weather, the music, and everything else in an area should jive to be one breathing entity. Change the zone, and you could have any monster you--


Well, almost any monster. You get my point.

My point is that MMOs are about immersion and interaction with a world and the characters and players inhabit it. Make the world's functions and people connect with one another--make them cogs in one vast machine, rather than simple little self-contained universes of their own. Give us the illusion that the world has a vast undercurrent of life. Let us believe the NPCs know each other exist, outside of how they connect through the player. Above all, leave crabs out of the equation.

Next time, we address what is arguably the greatest area of contention among FFXI players: Partying and Soloing, and how FFXIV needs lots and lots and lots of room for both. Thanks for reading, and don't forget that we have an RSS feed, so that you can have some Somnambulant-flavored instant gratification.

Also, a huge thanks to Line for designing the graphic for this series, seen at the top of this post. I'm all about crabs in dumpsters. Thanks, Line!!

Til next time, somnambulant ones!

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.

How To Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 3: Job Systems

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Welcome again to Somnambulant Gamer's feature on Final Fantasy XIV--and how to make sure it doesn't suck. In Part One and Part Two, we outlined Combat and Story; what we liked about them in FF XI, what we hated, and how we think Final Fantasy XIV could revolutionize the concepts therein.

This time, we're tackling one of the most unique and most enjoyable concepts in Final Fantasy XI:


Job classes were introduced in the very first Final Fantasy, way back in 1987. After choosing a class (or Job) from the six available, ('Fighter', 'Black Belt', 'Thief', 'White Mage', 'Black Mage', and 'Red Mage'), you gave your characters each a name and your quest began. Later in the game, each class evolved into a more powerful version.

Final Fantasy III and V each improved upon the job system, adding more jobs and abilities, directly resulting in more choices for the player as to how to go about completing the game. In this way, every player's experience was a little different. Unlike other games of the same era, where there was a 'trick' to success--jumping at the exact time in Mario, taking the precise path in Zelda, or throwing down flawless fisticuffs in Punch-Out!, Final Fantasy presented a new way to deliver a story and a unique, player-driven mechanic for experiencing it.

Final Fantasy XI tried--and in many ways, succeeded--to recapture that initial burst of ingenuity.

FFXI's job system gave players the ability to customize in a way that MMO's had yet to be seen: A player chose a job at the beginning of the game, but at any time thereafter could change it by returning to his or her own city. As they progressed in this job, they gained abilities and traits, specific to their class. In addition, a 'sub-job' could be taken advantage of; a sub-job was a second job that could be equipped simultaneously, and add to the player's arsenal half of the abilities and traits of a second job. It is complex to discuss, but its in-game execution is intuitive and rewarding.

Thanks to the Job System, players, were able to fulfill any role they wished--healer, defender, attacker, caster--a myriad of possibilities were opened to the player. New jobs were unlocked via story-driven quests, so any time a player tired of their job, they could switch to another--this kept the game fresh and interesting. Final Fantasy XI started with six available jobs. Today, it has twenty.

Sadly, FFXI's job system, like the rest of the game, is beginning to show its age. This is where Final Fantasy XIV comes in. FFXI's job system is one thing about FFXI that absolutely needs to stay, but also needs to be reinvented and revolutionized to appeal to modern MMO players.

What to Toss:

This is going to sound bad, but it has to be said: Square Enix needs to toss motherfucking everything.

Well, almost everything. The job system, at its core, is much like the crystal around which Final Fantasy lore is based--pristine and beautiful. But there's a lot of scuff marks on this crystal, and we need to clean it up a little bit. Square-Enix needs to toss everything they think they know about Job progression and look at it as if they'd never looked at it before, asking themselves all the while, "Does this make sense?". For the entirety of this feature, "logical progression and interaction" has been a theme. The Job System should be no different.

At the beginning of Final Fantasy XI, you choose your job by clicking its name from a list. Toss it.

Adding a subjob involves leveling a second job in the exact same fucking place a player just leveled their first job, requiring them to spend twice the time in that beginner's hellhole, (named Valkurm Dunes), than about any other locale in the game. When you change your subjob, you select it from a list in a menu. Toss that shit!

We hate the dunes.

Changing jobs involves, again, selecting said job from a list. You see where this is going.

The point is that changing jobs needs to be as game-inclusive as possible. Today, many successful games have immersed players by hiding mechanics within gameplay. The new Silent Hill: Origins does this by adding menu functions into the main character's mobile phone screen. In this way, even when gamers are taken out of the game, gamers aren't taken out of the game. Savvy?

Final Fantasy XI needs to do the same thing. In Part Two, we hinted at how your job selection and growth should happen around a narrative. Selecting character traits at the beginning could guide you toward a specific job.

And subjobs? Scrap 'em. We can do better than that.

What to Keep

The job system. It's fun, it's interesting, it keeps things fresh. One player I know wants to get all jobs to level 60--a lofty goal. Thanks to the job system, he can do this without having to create a new character, forcing him to repeat storyline quests or cutscenes. The job system needs to be kept--it wouldn't be Final Fantasy Online without it. However, the system needs to be character driven, giving more identity to your character, rather than your job. This can (and should) be accomplished through advanced character customization. (Incidentally, character growth is part four in this series).

How to Revolutionize It

The nice thing about the job system is that it doesn't need to be revolutionized--Square Enix just needs to remember its roots.

In Final Fantasy I, jobs from the beginning of the game evolved into more powerful jobs later in the game. Final Fantasy XIV needs to follow this example.

For example, if you start the game as a warrior, once you reach a (story-driven) point, extra jobs will become available--just like in Final Fantasy XI. The difference is this: Warrior should lead in
to the next logical choice in jobs--defenders and damage-dealers. In World of Warcraft, this is done through ability trees. FFXI could do much of the same with "Job Trees", a la Final Fantasy Tactics. In Final Fantasy Tactics, in order to achieve some of the more advanced jobs, prerequisites for multiple other, more basic jobs, need to be present. So to become a Paladin, maybe you need to be a level 20 Warrior and a level 15 White Mage. This will open to you the Paladin story arc. Different job quests, as well as getting the first 10 levels of that job, could be story-driven and take place in different areas, against different enemies, involving a short but self-contained storyline that spurs the character on a job-centric adventure--eliminating the repetition and drudgery found in beginner's areas like Valkurm Dunes.

Borrowing from Final Fantasy V would eliminate the need for subjobs. In FFV, once certain abilities were learned, they could be attached to a player's Ability List. So, even if I'm a Thief, if I previously learned "Sentinel" as a Paladin, I could add it to my arsenal of abilities. Each ability would have a point value, and depending on the player's level, only a certain amount of points could be 'spent' at a time.

Example: A player has leveled Thief, Monk, and White Mage to different levels. His stats dictate he has 18 ability points to assign to his character. Currently, he is Thief, so his Thief abilities don't cost anything. Abilities from other jobs, however, cost--but they can be added or removed at will.

Available points: 18
Attack- 0 pts
Steal - 0 pts
"Counter Attack" - 8 points
"White Magic" - 10 points

Total: 18/18 points.

This enables every player to be a little different, and each job to be played via the will of the player. The effect is the same that the 'subjob' system was attempting in 2002, but the execution has more finesse, giving the player greater choice, the playerbase more diversity, and adding a meaningful connection between player and character.

In sum, jobs could be leveled via "career paths", and not simply choice from a list. They should be character-centric--the job is defined by the character, instead of the character being defined by the job--and players should never have to repeat the same area over and over when they want to try a new job out.

The next step, I still maintain, is narrative-driven gameplay. I think the job system could be integral to character progression, giving the game a deeper experience and enriching the connection between player and character.

As always, these are just a few ideas of how Final Fantasy's classic job system could be implemented in Final Fantasy XIV. Any further ideas? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.

Coming in Part Four, on Sunday, June 14 : Customizing your character and leveling up; "Character Progression" in Final Fantasy XIV. Don't forget to bookmark us. Thanks for reading!

Running The Show

Monday, June 8, 2009
I've started running a D&D game on the weekends I'm not playing Champions with my regular group. This new group started when my wife read an awesome book called Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress. It's a sort of biography of a woman who plays D&D on a regular basis. My wife was interested in D&D before she read the book, but it helped to get her more motivated to play the game.

More than a year later and we've finally gotten enough people together that we can have a regular game. We've had one session so far, and luckily for me, the players seem interested in the campaign I've worked up. I hadn't expected my first game as DM to be going so smoothly, but I really didn't expect to have so much fun writing everything up.

I expected there to be some fun points, certainly. Writing up the story and campaign outline would be fun for sure, but setting up encounters, establishing characters, mapping locations etc had to be tedious and annoying, right? Turns out, these things are the most fun I've had so far.

Crafting encounters and puzzles for my players to solve has become one of the most entertaining parts of this experience for me. I love sitting down to my graph paper and mapping out dungeons, writing out the rewards or encounters, carefully placing clues to the greater story.

Watching my players go through this world I've created and seeing them react to the still speaking severed head of an undead beast they dug up behind the Inn or puzzling out the meaning of a strange journal or smiling during an encounter I set up warms a part of my heart I didn't know I had.

I know it seems weird, but to have three people (growing to six this coming session) get so into the world I've created for them is incredibly rewarding. A few of you reading this will understand what I'm talking about. For those that have no experience with this, imagine working on something tirelessly for weeks on end, filling in every detail of the project, making sure nothing is left out. Then imagine the project accomplishes everything you hoped it would and more. That's about as close an approximation I can give.

I think I'll be running a lot more games after this one. It's great to see the players getting into their characters and exploring their personalities. I'm lucky to have players that are dedicated to the game and their characters in it. I look forward to making this a regular thing.

If you're interested, I'll be posting updates on Twitter as the game progresses. Follow the site here.

How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 2: Story

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last time on "How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck", we discussed combat and the many revisions to the system that need to be made so that this game doesn't end up being FFXI 2.0.

This entry tackles what is the most important aspect of a single-player Final Fantasy game, if not for a multiplayer one as well:


Story is the glue that holds any game together--even a game with a placeholder story still has one, and even games with poor stories still understand and adhere to some form of narrative structure. More on that in a minute.

Final Fantasy XIV needs to have an epic story. To measure up to expectations, (mine), it needs to have the best story of any MMO, ever. And it needs to present said story in a fresh, interesting, and unique way. Cutscenes are nice, but they aren't enough any more, nor should gamers be content with them.

What follows is not a series of expectations for what a story should include; it is how the story is presented to the playerthat makes all the difference.

In that vein, what aspects of Final Fantasy XI's storytelling need to be tossed? Which should be kept? Most importantly, how can Square Enix do that which Square Enix does best and re-invent the wheel--again?

What to Toss:

I'm going to lay it out in three words:

Cut the bullshit.

Stories in MMOs need to stop wasting my time. Final Fantasy XI's storylines are hyped as being the best in the MMOverse, but that's a half-truth. I would agree that the storylines themselves are deeply engaging; however, some of them are hit-or-miss. Their delivery is even worse. Square-Enix has a lot of chaff to toss when it comes to storytelling.

Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. You may have met him before. His name is "Narrative Hook" and every novel, film, children's story, TV show, newspaper article--even this very blog post--has one. Final Fantasy XI has one, too. Actually, it has a whole bunch of them; every quest begins with one. Every main storyline has one. But the first one--the very, very first one--sucks.

It amounts to: "Welcome to Vana'diel! Here are some people. Have fun, MISTER ADVENTURER!"

The first three main storyline missions--let me be clear, these are first three sections of the game that give the first available storyline--are dull. The first two are "click spot X for cutscene". Number three is "kill monster Y". Rank up!


These kinds of quests are okay, when given from random NPC's for small rewards; But a big, important, main quest needs to grab you at the very beginning and not let go.

What to Keep

As much as I condemn FFXI's early missions, I vehemently endorse the later ones. Final Fantasy XI has been given four full expansions, each with an all-new storyline. All of them are phenomenal--the plots are unpredictable and keep the player guessing; the characters are unique and flawed, with realistic reactions and fleshed-out histories. There are still many caricatures in FFXI--that is, characters existing as devices, to fulfill a plot point--but the game still does an excellent job of making them believable characters to whom the player gets attached. You have some good writers over there, Square.

Don't fire them.

How to Revolutionize It
Final Fantasy has always set the bar for RPG's--they're famous for having the best stories of any RPG anywhere. I don't thin it's too much expect a great story from the game--but how will it be presented? The mechanisms for presenting the story are what can be revolutionized here.

A friend of mine played FFXI with myself and my friends for a good long while--his undying complaint, though, was that no matter how epic a cutscene, he always felt like 1,000,000 people had done it before. I had to agree with him--playing a game with literally thousands of other people who you know are playing the exact same story you are. Most MMO's are only multiplayer in terms of gameplay, but they're single-player in terms of storyline. This needs to change.

Storyline needs to be at the basis of everything that happens in FFXIV--from character creation to endgame. Who your character is, where they are from, and the choices they make should affect the story they play. The idea is to make an MMO in which every citizen of the world has a (relatively) unique story. This is a grandiose assertion to make and a huge expectation to have--but if it wasn't, it wouldn't be revolutionary, would it?

Branching dialogue trees, seen in games like Mass Effect, go a long way toward customizable stories--but I think Final Fantasy XIV can and should take it a step further with branching storylines, starting with character creation.

In FFXI, you chose which city to begin your quest in. That was okay. But why should every character in the game start out the same? Nothing makes you feel more meaningless in a game than seeing obvious "Insert Player Name Here" text. Your story should start where you choose, but not in the sense that we're used to.

Imagine the following scenario:

You create a character. Along with physical traits (more on character creation in parts three and four of this series), you choose personality traits. Are you a more physical or mental person? Do you prefer cities or the great outdoors? Are you serious or silly? Disciplined or mischievous?

Answers to questions like these can not only lead your character down the Job path you would probably choose for them anyway--more on the job system in parts three/four of this series--but also where, how, and most importantly, why your story is beginning.

For example, if you chose "Mental", "Cities", and "Silly", you might start the game as an apprentice in a magic shop in a big city, with a boss who doesn't like you very much. This, of course, could lead you down the path of a Mage when your Adventure begins. Add in a few choices--(Your boss fires you for being goofy and ruining a batch of spells. Do you choose to make for the Religious Abbey to the west of the city? Try to join the military? Start a shop of your own? Each choice would give you a traditional directive to go talk to Person X, but the fact that you *made* the choice makes all the difference).

Add in dialogue trees for all NPC's and you've got yourself a custom storyline, something that's never been done in an MMO. This is all "If X, then Y" simple stuff--but implemented much more often, and in the right places.

Depending on your choices, you will, of course, be at times swept up in the struggle to save the world--but that story needs to be a part of the player's storyline. Imagine that six players stand, ready to face the final boss for the game's overall story arc--they're all there, but different choices have brought them there, together.

The storylines players forge should do three things:

1. Get them invested in the game's main storyline
2. Get them invested in their own character
3. Get them invested in other people's stories and characters.

Obviously, with all this storyline customization, players are going to have vastly different goals--if one player needs to kill enemy X, but another player doesn't have that mission, what's the draw in helping him?

EXP. Pure and simple. You help another player? You reap the benefits--what's more, you get to witness a part of their story. If that player reaches his goal, player 2 who helped him should get to see what unfolds when he arrives. Hear the dialogue, see the reactions, and maybe give his opinion to his new friend on what should be done next.

In the end, an MMO needs to be about more than 'mad lootz'. More than a cool cutscene every 25 hours of play. It needs to be a living, breathing storyline in which all players feel they play a part. An experience which is a little different for everyone. Every time I play, I want to remember that it was my choices that brought me where I am--meeting new players, getting swept up in a story greater than any one player, or just face to face with this dragon who's about to eat my face.

For once, the annoyingly shrill words of Tidus from Final Fantasy X ring in my ears: "This is my story."

As with the first entry, these are generalizations meant to give an idea of what a truly revolutionary MMO might do--and how players might become even more attached to
the experience of playing.

Look for part three on Wednesday, June 8: The Job System--at least one thing about Final Fantasy XI that's definitely worth keeping around, (if not tweaked, just a little bit).

Thanks for reading and be on the lookout for more entries soon! Never hurts to bookmark us--that URL can be a bitch.

E3: Melech's Perspective

Saturday, June 6, 2009
E3 fever has gripped the gaming nation once again. As is written in sub-paragraph A of the Shit You Have to Write About Act of 1999, we are required to submit our perspective on the proceedings. Below you will find my contribution.

E3 has become less and less a games expo every year. The 3 no longer stands for the multiplicity of that oh so very common vowel, but for the 3 major players in this industry. Yes, I speak of the mighty Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft corporations. These guys run the damn show down there.

If it weren't for the fact that EVERYTHING is announced at E3, I couldn't give a damn about the show anymore. If I wanted to see a pissing match I'd head over to the local frat house. There is little for me in these forever bland press conferences except the games. They can take their sales numbers and umm. Do something awful with them.

That said, let's talk about some of those games. First up, Project Natal. Certainly the most interesting thing to come from Microsoft this year, Project Natal could change a lot of things. Right now it's all tactical misdirection, but if it can do what they say it can when it finally hits store shelves, and can function with current titles as well as those built with Natal in mind, I'll be impressed. If you think a cam with real-time motion capture is great, it's probably for you and you probably own an Eye toy. God help you in your delusions.

RUSE is looking great, all 45 seconds of footage i was able to find. Bastards. It's not a small game by any means AND it appeals to our (or at least my) evil nature. You'd expect it to have a little more coverage from E3.

DJ Hero looks sufficiently awful to keep me from holding down any food. No DJ was ever a hero, nor will one ever be, outside the realm of D-Grade action movie fare. I know of only three people with whom I am acquainted that would ever consider buying this game, an two of them are legally insane. Wait...... This just in. Somnambulant Gamer has learned that the special edition includes two turntables and a microphone.

Assassin's Creed II looks wonderful, if a little too over the top. While paling around Murder inc with Leo of Vinci certainly seems cool, I'm concerned that too much of this thing will make the game impossible to take seriously. I think as long as they stick to the established story, it'll be fine.

Mass Effect 2 was almost all rumor and no game, a hugely disappointing fact that I've yet to come to terms with.

Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition. God that feels good to say. Secret of Monk- oh yeah! We told you so. Hah!

I've got more ranting to do later, stay tuned for more of my impressions and those of your somnambulant masters.

How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck--Part 1

This year's E3 was leakier than a rowboat made of Swiss cheese, but a few bombshells managed to blow up in our faces. One of those bombshells was Final Fantasy XIV.

No one saw it coming. Although many in the gaming community have already brushed it off, Final Fantasy XIV has the potential to be the greatest MMORPG to date. (This is not to say that it will overtake World of Warcraft in subscribers; World of Warcraft has penetrated the mainstream market in a way that no MMO before ever has, and I believe, no MMO ever will. My assertion is that Final Fantasy XIV could be a better MMO overall in terms of gameplay and story.) Let me say that again. Final Fantasy XIV has the potential to be the best MMORPG to date.

When Final Fantasy XI Online came out in 2002, it was groundbreaking. The world had never seen an MMO like it, with such a mainstream name--Final Fantasy--attached to it. What could be better?

And at first, nothing was better. For a long time, actually, nothing was better. But then, as other MMO's were born and evolved, the Everquest-era way of doing things began to show its age; a little here, a little there. A frustrating afternoon of wasted time became more common than necessary. (Hint: It's dangerous to go alone! Take this. Also, it should NEVER BE NECESSARY TO WASTE TIME IN AN MMO.) Very limited soloing, if any; looking for groups for long, long, long periods of time. Ultra-specific party makeup necessary to victory. In short, FFXI was fun and engaging, but it was not very user-friendly and could certainly become a chore.

Since--especially in the last year or so--Final Fantasy XI has made great strides making the game more user-friendly. 'Level Sync' eliminates the need to search for people your own level, as any person of a higher level can 'sink' to your level an gain experience in your party; this also allowed for equipment stats to sink, so that changing gear wasn't necessary. 'Fields of Valor' added soloing, from level 1 to level 60, and, after 6 years, finally let FFXI feel like Final Fantasy.

But it was too little, too late. The updates saved Final Fantasy's playerbase, and brought back a fair number of players, but the game had already risen and fallen; among most gamers, it was ancient history. I, as a die-hard Final Fantasy fan, have played the game off and on for nearly four years, and have taken some of my best gaming experiences from it. But even I'm ready for something new.

Final Fantasy XIV has an opportunity to be something great. It will not be enough to simply keep what works from Final Fantasy XI. It will not be enough to change what doesn't work. What it must do is revolutionize both.

Lucky for Square Enix, I'm going to explain just how to do it. Over the next two weeks, I'm going to be talking to Final Fantasy XI players, gamers, casuals, WoW enthusiasts, hobos, and, as always, myself, about what Final Fantasy XIV needs to do to make the splash it has the potential to be. Welcome Somnambulant Gamer's Seven-Part Series, "How to Make Sure Final Fantasy XIV Doesn't Suck".

We'll be covering seven categories: Combat, Story, Job System, Character Growth, NPC's/World, Soloing/Parties, and Miscellany. (Everyone loves miscellany!) In order to cut down on verbosity, (something at which I already fail gloriously), each category will be sliced thrice:

-What to Toss
-What to Keep
-How to Revolutionize it

Let's get started, shall we?

Part One:


-What to Toss

Final Fantasy XI's combat is obtusely boring. The age-old 'pull' system is in place, in which one member of the party (or the character, should he or she be soloing) pulls the monster to a safe place to fight. This leads to hours upon hours upon hours of standing in the same place, killing the same enemies over and over and over. It's BORING. Period.

Speaking of enemies, let me tell you something.

We want less of this...

...and more of this

These are both common monster types in the Final Fantasy XI. Both are good for gaining experience. Yet, there are forty-two different versions of one of these monsters. Guess which one.

That's right! Your friend and mine, the crab is fucking everywhere in Final Fantasy XI. I'm surprised those fuckers don't appear in your goddamn house. Identical in appearance, but of different levels of toughness, mistaking one crab for another can be fatal. The Manticore, (the other monster pictured), comes in just six flavors. Six motherfucking versions! It's just as good for experience points, so why don't we see it more?

I get it. No, I do! Some monsters need to be cooler than others. You can't see all the badass stuff right at the beginning! I'm okay with fighting crabs for a little while. But there should never be an endgame crab. I should never see the same monster forty-two different times at forty-two different levels. As I get tougher, I want them to get tougher and tougher-looking. Every time I level up, I want to think: Oh, fuck. This means I have to face whatever's next...

Notorious Monsters (or 'Named Monsters', more generically',) should not just be a little larger than their standard counterparts. They should scare me so much you'd think I had lady parts. *

Get it?! Good. Get to it.

What to Keep

There isn't too much of Final Fantasy XI's combat that should be kept. The skillchain system, with improvement, could stand the test of time. Two-hour abilities (which should really be one-hour or half-hour abilities) are the game's Last-Ditch-Oh-Fuck-I'm-About-to-Eat-it lifesavers that often come in the nick of time. Epic battles like Besieged, (when monsters invade a city and it must be defended) and Campaign (in which monsters or players hold an area and it must be attacked/defended to keep it safe) should be improved upon but are some of the most fun, as well as some of the best way to gain experience points. (Hint: Those epic monsters I mentioned? We see them a lot here. Keep that up. Nothing better than a Hydra half the size of a city attacking and watching three hundred players battle it!)

How to Revolutionize it

Combat needs to stay true to Final Fantasy roots. Three should be the magic number for number of members in a standard experience or questing party, (as has been the case in many previous Final Fantasy games). Four would work too. The point is that the great majority of other Final Fantasy games, with the exception of XI, have had a three or four-character party setup. This is perfect for an MMO.

Combat needs to be turn based, but in today's world, it also needs to be fast-paced. Players and characters need to be constantly on the move--combat should aid exploration, (something we'll get to later), not hinder it. And easy way to do this would be to have all characters regain HP and MP over time simply by running, exactly the way it was done in Final Fantasy XII.

Next, Characters need to interact on a combat-based level and there need to be real reward for this.

Concrete Example:

What if stats were altered by combat conditions? A 'tank' (defense) class character, were he a living breathing person with thoughts and feelings, might panic if he saw a healer-class person being attacked. Should, then, his 'Attack' stat rise incrementally and his "provoke" (or hate-drawing) ability timer decrease? Conversely, if the defender-class character is being eaten alive, might not the healer's worry lead her to shut her eyes andfocus, drastically increasing her magic power but drastically reducing her defense? The question is: What would you do if it were your friend?

Characters need to respond to one another's conditions in subtle ways through stats at the same time that players are responding in apparent ways by using abilities, items, etcetera.

Additionally, give characters personality traits (more on this later); let fighting in your character's favorite climate (which the player would choose and would likely be the player's favored climate as well) lead to faster recovery times for HP and MP. Subtle things like this build a player's emotional bond with a character. Let weather effects cause status effects in inclement weather and let many pieces of gear prevent status effects in a logical way. For example, while fighting in a desert, a (graphically gorgeous) sandstorm comes blowing through. This causes all characters not wearing headgear with a visor or glasses to be afflicted with 'Blind'. Combat should be influenced by logical factors like weather and armor should directly and visibly give protection, not simply statistically.

Because combat is the core gameplay element of any MMO, I've addressed it first and likely left out a lot of things. If you would like to add thoughts, opinions, or ideas, I'd love to read them in the comments below.

Look for Part 2: Story on Monday, June 8--this time, let's forge our own destiny.

*(No offense to readers with actual lady parts, who are probably tougher than me anyway.)