I enjoy MMOs, but I often find I lose interest in them after a while -- particularly if progress slows to a crawl.
That slow progress is usually intentional, of course -- it's designed to keep you playing for weeks, months, years rather than burning through all of the content within a week then complaining that there's nothing else to do -- but it's a fine line MMO developers have to walk, particularly if they're trying to attract players other than the hardest of the hardcore raiders. Progress too fast and people will leave, bored; progress too slowly and more casual players will get discouraged.
So how is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in this regard?
A month after release, and following what I'd call some "moderately dedicated" play, I've reached level 44 (out of 50) in my starting class of Thaumaturge (which I upgraded to Black Mage shortly after hitting level 30), level 15 in Archer (a prerequisite for unlocking the Black Mage job), level 29 in the crafting class Weaver, and level 14 in the gathering class Miner. (If you don't believe me, here's proof.) Raptr claims that I've played the game for just shy of 100 hours in total, and it's fit nicely in alongside other games that I've been playing such as Grand Theft Auto V, a probably misguided attempt to "get everything" in Tales of Xillia, and Sweet Fuse. In short, I'm happy with the progress I've made, and not running into my usual MMO problem of bingeing on it for a week, getting burnt out and frustrated that I seemingly don't have any time to play anything else, then never touching it ever again.
It's working well for me, then; I've never been what I'd call a hardcore MMO player, though I've got more "into" Final Fantasy XIV than any other game in the genre I can remember -- I'm a member of a Free Company (the game's Guild equivalents); I've made some friends; I feel experienced and confident enough to lead inexperienced newbies through some of the dungeons (I'm a Haukke Manor master, yo); and I'm at a stage where I can comfortably explore pretty much the entirety of Eorzea without dying, so long as I'm careful. That's a pleasant place to be in after a month of moderately dedicated play, then, and I certainly don't feel like I'm in any rush to reach the level cap and endgame content. At the same time, I do want to see how the main story ends, and from about level 40 onwards I started running into level-locked story quests that were just slightly higher than where I'd got through just questing and the occasional dungeon -- I've ended up having to go and grind a little to progress, but there's certainly plenty of places I can do that without having to fight the same monsters over and over again.
One of the nice things about Final Fantasy XIV is that there are a variety of ways to progress -- though once you've beaten a quest (including the main story events) once, there's no going back and doing it again. This means that if you either reach the level cap in your starting job or feel like a change, you'll have to find alternative means of gaining experience -- thankfully, the "Armory Bonus" mechanic gives you a significant bump in experience point gain based on the difference between your new class and the one in which you've attained the highest level, making even just running around grinding monsters a practical means of levelling up. To put that in a degree of context, upon reaching level 30 in my Thaumaturgist class, I was told I'd need to level Archer to 15 to unlock Black Mage; doing so took about an hour and a half of not trying particularly hard and primarily focusing on hunting monsters, during which I had a fleeting moment of regret at not picking Archer in the first place, as it's a lot of fun.
If you put in the effort -- and are willing to invest a considerable amount of in-game currency -- you can level your crafting classes pretty quickly, too. One member of the Free Company I'm a member of managed to get a crafting class from 1-50 in the space of two days, though it was an expensive process; crafting requires a considerable amount of elemental crystals, which can only be acquired through defeating elemental monsters, through gathering skills or, if you don't have the time or inclination to do that, through the auction house-like Market Board in the game's major cities.
Levelling a gathering class is a somewhat slower process, though it can be accelerated somewhat by taking on appropriately-levelled repeatable Levequests rather than simply grinding and hoping for the best. As you get better at the various gathering skills, you unlock a number of traits that make your job a little easier, too -- things like being able to find the nearest node of an appropriate level for your current skill, or being able to increase the yield of crystals that you mine from nodes.
Final Fantasy XIV feels like a game that's been designed to cater particularly to those who are willing to take their time and not rush through the content rather than those who just want to get to the endgame as quickly as possible. In other words, it's an MMO where the endgame isn't "where the real game begins," unlike many of its peers -- instead, it's a game where the whole journey to that level cap is just as -- if not more -- important than what you do once you stop gaining experience and start focusing on your gear.
That's not to say there's nothing to do at the level cap, of course -- there's "hard mode" versions of the various Primal boss battles from throughout the story, a hefty quest to get your "Relic" weapon, some challenging dungeons and raids and, thanks to the Armory system, at any point you can go and start a new class from scratch. Not only that, but if you have friends who are lagging behind you in terms of levels, a "level sync" function scales you down to an appropriate level if you're participating in group content with them. This is a particularly useful feature, as it means that almost everything in the game is constantly relevant to everyone -- so if you have a favorite dungeon from early in the game and just want to run through it again for kicks, you can do. At the same time, this means the game lacks that satisfying moment from World of Warcraft where you realize you can walk into certain dungeons and run them solo, but it's a small price to pay.
The player base's biggest concern at the moment is what's going to happen with the game's economy in the long term. At present, critical players say, there isn't enough gil flowing into the game from quests, while there is a significant amount flowing out through repair costs, Market Board fees and the like. This issue was partly addressed in a recent patch, which significantly lowered the cost of repairs and materials needed for players to repair things themselves as well as increasing the occurrence of "pure profit" items in high-level dungeons, but some players are still worried. In particular, these players would like to see greater monetary rewards from completing tasks such as repeatable Levequests and the public FATE quests you come across in the world, both of which are a little stingy with their rewards at present. While I haven't run into financial difficulties myself as yet, I'm given to understand that this is largely an endgame issue, when high-level gear costs obscene amounts of gil to maintain, and the quest to earn your class' "relic" weapon is also a particularly expensive prospect. Hopefully this is something that will be naturally addressed in the coming months as new content is added.
All in all, though, things are looking good for the game so far. Although some areas don't seem as heavily populated as they were around the launch period, this isn't necessarily a sign that players have dropped out -- more that, due to varying rates of progress, they've scattered themselves naturally around the game world. There's certainly always plenty of people online, though wait times for the Duty Finder are still rather lengthy if you're a DPS character. Most importantly, the server issues the game was suffering around launch are now nothing but an unpleasant memory forever commemorated by the various Free Companies who use "1017" as their tag.
We'll continue to revisit the game over time -- particularly when new content drops -- and keep you posted on how things are going. In the meantime, if you happen to be on the Ultros server, feel free to say hello to Amarysse Jerhynsson (me) or Zen Stormbreak (Mike) any time you see us online!
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