The History of MMOGs:
Final Fantasy XI (FFXI)
October 2003 - Present
Primary Developer: Square-Enix
Official Website: http://www.playonline.com/ff11us/index.shtml
Originally Released (US) : October 28, 2003
Base Current Pricing (US): $19.99 / box, $12.95 / month for subscription
History & Overview:
The "Final Fantasy" franchise is nearly as old as the original Nintendo Entertainment System, making it the longest continuously-produced series in the history of videogaming. Stretching back to before 1990, FF adherents came to expect that every iteration of the legend would bring a rich and compelling storyline, against a backdrop of the most quality-driven artwork and music of its day, peopled with anime-style characters (a few which make a trademark cameo in each episode). And Chocobos, flightless, silly-looking birds which act as speedy mounts.
If you delve into any two iterations of the series, don't expect to find much commonality outside these broad subjects. The Vana'Diel of FFXI hasn't much to do with the Midgar or Nibelheim of FFVII (the emotive title that many gamers, including myself, believe to be the finest RPG ever made). What FFXI offers that none of its predecessors do is the ability to play alongside one to 5,000 of your closest pals, whether their connected via a $100 PS2 console upgrade or a reasonably current PC. That's right; FFXI not only crosses-continents (at US launch, American players joined existing Japanese servers with mature economies and an oddity of an "auto-translation" tool), it crosses platforms, which makes for some wonky PC controls and a different kind of MMOG altogether.
World & Mythology:
The races of Vana'diel are stock for fantasy gaming with a few small twists. There's of course the jack-of-all-trades humans (Humes), the lithe elves (Elvaan), the catlike Mithra, and then there's the originals: the "Fisher Price Little People"- like Tarutaru whose speciality in magic, and the brute-force type Chewbacca-esque Galka. Each race peoples one of the three rival cities: Humes and Galka for the industrial city of Bastok, Elvaan for the stately San d'Oria, and Tarutaru and Mithra inhabit enchanted Windurst. The cities meet in a neutral land called Jeuno, a higher level area which acts as a travel and commercial hub.
The history of Vana'diel is fairly straightforward: all lived in prosperity until some twenty years ago the "dark" creatures tried to overthrow the good peoples of Vana'diel, and the "Great War" ensued. The cities bonded together, but the beastmen exacted a terrible price before they were finally defeated. So, each of the races is in a rebuilding stage. The Elvaan seek to renew their traditional position of strength, while the nature-attuned Tarutaru and Mithra struggle against the industrial sprawl and technological might of the Humes and Galka.
Weather, time, and season also impact gameplay more than in any other MMOG. Fishing is best performed at night and at certain peak times. Guilds are only open for certain hours each day. Ballista matches are conducted promptly at certain in-game times, and a variety of unique actions can only be performed when the weather and time are correct. It makes for quite an immersing experience, though the time-sensitivity can make life frustrating for a casual player.
Character Creation & Development:
The worst part about Character Creation initially is actually getting into the game.
After the install, you have to register a PlayOnline
ID, then a Content ID, then you have to link these IDs, and finally create a
character. The character that you create is on a random server, unless
you have a fee-based 'world pass' that lets you choose to play on a certain
server. It's rather complicated, and pretty frustrating for players who want to dive into the action. But on to the game...
FFXI pioneers a new way to add variety and depth to the traditional "level 1-50 as a particular character class" approach of other MMOGs. While things start with a fairly streamlined choice of race, class (or "main job" in FFXI), and starting city, at level 18 you'll be eligible to complete your "support job" - a secondary skillset you can raise to half your main job's level. At level 30, you can complete a quest to replace a job with an "extra job" - a sort of elite profession. You can even complete two extra job quests, one as your new main job, and another as a new support job. Players' choice of jobs is varied and satisfactory; one really gets a sense of job differences being more than just for show with FFXI and the multi-classing system is much more than icing on the cake.
Levelling in FFXI follows the standard MMOG model of experience for combat kills. What's slightly different is how exp is awarded, especially in groups. Experience for killing one mob is not equally divided among group members of equal level, instead everyone gets a multiplier of the mobs total experience yield. For example, if mob x is worth 100 exp, and there's 3 people in my group, the multiplier for 3 is .45, so everyone gets 45 exp for a total exp outlay of 135. Cool, huh?
Things get more complicated if everyone's not of the same level, since the mob is gauged by its relation to the highest level groupmate (and not by the group's average level). Another cool bonus comes in the form of an experience chain. Groups are rewarded with increasing experience amounts if they take down 2-5 "tough" mobs in a row. It's a great way to keep the action intense, rather than the old pull one mob -> fight -> heal to full approach.
Harvesting, Tradeskilling, Economy & Housing
Harvesting in FFXI is accomplished primarily through hunting with the NPC guard-casted "signet" on the player. With "signet," a player can gather different crystals from fallen enemies in zones not controlled by Beastmen. Likewise, lots of monster loot is necessary for crafting, so lower levels not interested in crafting can gather crystals and materials, and sell them at the auction house to higher level players with money to spare. It all works rather nicely. Resources can also be harvested through the time consumptive logging and mining methods, which require a player to find harvesting nodes (another FFXI first) and grab what they can in about 4 attempts before the item vanishes. Three item-consumptive methods are also available for harvesting: "chocobo digging" for players level 20+, gardening in your apartment, and fishing, which requires live bait or durable "lures."
Tradeskilling takes a number of forms in FFXI: from potion-making alchemy; to equipment and furniture producing blacksmithing, carpentry, tanners, and weavers; to jewelry-crafting boneworkers and goldsmiths; and finally foodstuff-purveying culinarians and fisherpersons. Tradeskilling is done by combining components with the appropriate crystal. As in any MMOG, crafting doesn't pay until you've paid your dues with lots and lots of boring, expensive low-level crafting. You'll proceed up the ten crafting ranks by performing well on an "exam," synthesizing an NPC Guildmaster assignment item and presenting it for grading. In another way devs designed Vana'diel to be more like the real world, Guild Halls keep hours, meaning these NPCs are unavailable during certain times of the day and days of the week.
The economy of FFXI might well be its achilles heel. The downside to giving such power to the players in economic determinism is that inflation can reek more havoc than the A-Team on a mission gone bad. Since the game is three years old, and really hasn't drained off much of its currency by ideas standard to today's MMOGs: non-durable items, repairs, high travel costs, etc., the surplus of virtual cash has driven player-controlled item prices through the roof. Unofficial, amateur MMOG economists like myself generally look to the cost and availability of virtual currency in aftermarket, unofficial purveyors. For FFXI, the obscene sum of one million gil can be bought from out-of-game sellers for about $16US. While doing a cross-game comparison is difficult in absence of an index of some sort, I'm comfortable guessing that a comparable sum for year-old games like World of Warcraft and EQ2 would easy cost 10 times that much. When currency is devalued to this degree, honest players might have a tough time keep up with price escalation.
In brighter news, FFXI introduced a player housing system that isn't just eye candy, it actually impacts gameplay. The items you acquire, especially the plants that your "moogle" is fond of taking care of, offer small elemental bonuses to your gameplay. The only downside: your house is "instanced" so, unlike in other MMOGs, you won't be able to accept visitors. Your moogle is also the one to speak to when you wish to switch out main and support jobs.
Groups, Alliances, and Linkshells
Groups in FFXI are composed of 2-6 adventurers, while the multi-group (7-18 player) foray against the toughest mobs in the game (and a must for a lot of the "Chains of Promathia" content), often called a "raid" in other MMOGs, is called an "alliance" in FFXI.
With a bow to its Japanese heritage, FFXI was the first MMOG to introduce "skillchains," or sequences of actions the meleeing members of a group can coordinate the use of individual abilities with to produce an bonus attack. Mages get on the fun by "magic bursts," a spell executed at the end of a skillchain that adds aggro-free extra elemental damage. Skillchains and magicbursts should be adapted to the weaknesses of the mob at hand.
The idea of a guild or players association takes the form of a "linkshell" in FFXI, which is more or less a simple chat world-wide channel. A player creates a linkshell to create the channel, then hands out "pearls" to players they'd like to stay in communication with.
Player vs. Player:
PvP in FFXI occurs in two ways: "conquest" and "ballistas." "Conquest" involves no direct PvP action but instead takes into account how many kills each of the various nationalities have done by players who are wearing their nation's "signet." These kills translate to "conquest points," which can be used to buy nation-specific items. Every game week, the server automatically decides which zones are under which nationalities control based on the conquest point count, (and if all nationalities have done poorly in a region, awards the zone to the beastmen).
"Ballistas" are complex PvP arena matches which begin at set times (Vana'diel times, that is). By default, folks play for their own nationality, but the NPC herald will balance the teams and hide the "petra" - which works something like a ball. Players can engage directly in PvP as each player /quarry's for a "petra." When a player finds the "petra," someone must first kill an opponent to create a "gate breach," then the player must throw it through their opponents "rook" to score conquest points for their side. When players die, they can simply return to the "camp" or home area.
Travel & Mapping:
The most common (and most dangerous) method of transit, as you might expect, is on foot. For a fee, you can travel to one of two destinations (Mhaura and Selbina) aboard a ferry at any level. With enough gil, a player of any level can also buy an airship pass that allows him or her to travel between the major cities quickly and easily, though most players elect to do the quest for an airship pass and thus save a load of coin. Level 20+ characters that complete the "licensing" quest can rent chocobos (flightless bird mounts and a staple of the series) to carry them to their destination. Chocobos can also dig for items
Maps in FFXI are done nicely. Every zone has a given-by-default, purchasable or lootable map that can be accessed while moving (though it overlays the screen). Unlike other games, every FFXI map has a marked coordinate system something like you'd see on a road map (where, for example, "A1" is the upper-left quadrant). This saves the guesswork of the typical /loc activity, and makes communicating about and finding objectives fairly easy.
Combat, Quests, Tasks & AI:
Combat in FFXI is as varied as the jobs combinations that carry it out. All characters have a health pool that is diminished by damage and replenished slowly through natural regeneration (or quickly through white mage-style healing and potions). Mages have magic-points that are diminished by spell casting and replenished through potions and natural regen. This much is like any other MMOG.
The difference comes with Tactical Points, or TP for short. Characters build TP by hitting mobs and being hit. When the TP meter climbs above 100%, characters can use their special abilities. Characters can continue gaining TP until the meter hits 300%. Certain abilities called 2-hour abilities don't use TP, but (as the name implies) can only be used once every two hours.
It's possible to learn a mob-type's weakness, be it elemental, light, or dark damage. Beastmasters can learn the natural predators and prey of certain beasts to make a pet of the beast best suited for combat against the mob type you're fighting.
There's enough quests in FFXI to keep Chinese bureaucrat busy. The quests are mostly well done and immersing, with console-style cutscenes that really bring your character to life (while your true, damagable self is held in limbo). Broader quests that support your national identity (helping you to rise though the ranks) are called Missions. These are complex quests, many parts of which require you to form groups and travel to dangerous places. On the whole, the quests add a modest amount of fun to the game, but causing you to travel far out of your way and channeling all players toward popular objectives consistently makes some players feel like slaves to the machine.
But back to the good stuff. FFXI boasts the most interesting approach to AI I've seen in a MMOG. The standard monster behavior is all there; there are passive and aggressive monsters, "linking" creatures that behave like grouped mobs, and some mobs behave socially- they'll come to an ailing fellow creature's aid. What's different is how creatures aggro. Some mobs aggro your sound, others to sight of you, others (dangerously) to smell- they effectively hone in on you, and still others (most dangerously) to the use of magic. The effect is most of the time subtle but can be quite disturbing; there's nothing like being tracked by a mob through a tunnel because you didn't use a deodorizer. For as many ways as there is to detect you, there's at least as many ways to beat out detection. Some mobs get still nastier; undead, for example, will aggro the group member with the least amount of health below 75%.
Deaths in FFXI cost a flat 10% of your present exp, or 2.5% if you get a "rez" (resurrection) from a healer within an hour. If you choose to revive on your own, you'll awaken at your "home point" (it's extremely important for players to discipline themselves to set these as they go along) with all your experience and coin.
While FFXI has solid staying power, the franchise prepares to give its swansong performance. Producers Yasumi Matsuno and Akitoshi Kawazu have stated that the Fantasy will finally come to an end with FFXII in 2006. With a recent announcement that FFXI will be adapted for Xbox 360, we can be reasonably sure that the FF MMO will keep a solid pace with the series' grand finale.
Artwork and screen shots Copyright © 2001-2003 Square Enix Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. The Final Fantasy XI logo, and "Final Fantasy XI" are trademarks of Square Enix Co. Ltd.