I enjoy Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV) a great deal. I ended my Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood review with this statement for potential players: "If you have the time and effort, play Final Fantasy XIV. Play Stormblood. It's worth it." I wholeheartedly believe that if you're looking for a great Final Fantasy game or massively-multiplayer online (MMO) title, Final Fantasy XIV is a great option.
That said, I have problems recommending the game to friends who ask me if they should play it. My reply usually begins with "Well…", as I begin to explain that it's a great game, but they really have to commit to it. Final Fantasy XIV relies heavily on its ongoing story, featuring the Warrior of Light and the Scions of the Seventh Dawn pushing back the darkness one villain at a time. Square Enix believes in that story, so Final Fantasy XIV has to be played in order.
It's this task that separates Final Fantasy XIV from many other MMOs. FFXIV players are very invested in the story. They care about its twists and turns, they enjoy seeing characters like Alphinaud, Alisaie, Lyse, Tataru, and Hildibrand. Part of that investment is from all the effort made during leveling, in doing scenarios, dungeons, and Primal trials. By the time you get to the end of Stormblood, Square Enix has a clear understanding of your place in the story and how well you understand the game's mechanics, since everyone had to do the same thing.
It's a double-edged sword though, as new players look at the game and see a mountain of content ahead of them. A quick look at the main scenario quests on this Wiki shows a total of 552 quests for the main story alone. That doesn't count the non-story quests and guildleves needed to fill out the rest of the leveling experience. HowLongToBeat lists a median completion time of 110 hours. Even for players who are at the Heavensward content, catching up feels like something you have to set aside time for, something you need to knuckle down and do.
Square Enix has offered a few recent additions to the game, the Level Boost and Story Boost potions. For real money, players can buy a level 60 boost for one job and an item that completes the main story quests for A Realm Reborn and Heavensward. The story and level boost items cost $25 each, so if you're just starting out, that's another $50 on top of the price of the game. I previously warned existing players about preparing for the the Stormblood expansion, because $50 was a bit much.
The point I made there still stands. In other MMOs, the developers tend to work hard to get players into the current expansion as quick as possible. World of Warcraft offers a current level boost token for free with every expansion. Guild Wars 2 is the same, offering a level 80 boost with every copy of its Heart of Thorns expansion. Star Wars: The Old Republic saves the level boost for subscribers. The Elder Scrolls Online has full level scaling, meaning players can tackle any quest and region whenever they want. There's a number of ways to get there, but the main idea is clear: get players to the current content.
It doesn't help that Square Enix has only gotten better with each expansion. In comparison to the work in Stormblood and Heavensward, the early questing in A Realm Reborn can sometimes feel rote and boring. That's why FFXIV players are frequently trying to find ways around the leveling experience. Some play PVP over and over again (until some recent changes). Some run the Palace of the Dead or the Dungeon Roulette back to back. FATE farming used to be the order of the day. Some just play the old fashioned way. "I'm just doing this until I get to the good stuff," they tell themselves in the back of their minds. It's a bit of a grind.
At some point, it's something that the Final Fantasy XIV team needs to tackle. The easy way is to raise the quest experience at lower levels, or retune the experience per level. A number of MMOs resort to this method to alleviate the problem, especially once they're a few expansions deep.
The most extreme method is the example set forth by Cataclysm, which was World of Warcraft's third expansion. Cataclysm drastically rethought the early leveling zones, bringing 2010-era Blizzard polish and storytelling to 2004-era content. Certain quests were played up, including some fan-favorite storylines. Others were minimized or removed completely. The stories of each zone were drastically improved with Cataclysm.
Eorzea has already undergone its cataclysm, but I think the basic idea could be brought to Final Fantasy XIV. Not a complete rewrite of the level 1-50 experience, but a few tweaks. The storytelling team at Square Enix is amazingly strong right now, and some of that expertise can be brought back to A Realm Reborn. Cut some of the cruft and polish some of the stories that you know you're going to revisit later. Add in a few more cutscenes to jazz the story up a bit. Play up quests like 'The Rise and Fall of Gentlemen', 'The Greatest Story Never Told', or 'Speak Softly to Me' that offer memorable situations or mechanics. When Final Fantasy XIV really gets going, it feels like a grand journey. There's no reason that the journey can't start a bit earlier than it currently does.
They can re-adjust and tweak the experience gain, but you end up with the same situation: your most boring and grindy quests aren't played. Better to rethink them, so that most of the quests are meaningful. It's not a grind to level 70 if players are actually enjoying what they're playing. It's a bit more work than just changing some experience values, but I think it pays off in the end. Especially if Square Enix is going to continue to charge $50 for new players to reach the current content.
Final Fantasy XIV is a great game, but it has a slow start. Anything that can improve that start will ultimately result in a healthier game overall. And I want Final Fantasy XIV to have a long, long life.
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