What are the big games of the moment, the ones everyone's obsessing over on social media? A quick survey of forums, Twitter, and Facebook turns up three titles: Nintendo's addictive Animal Crossing: New Leaf; Naughty Dog's nerve-wracking The Last of Us; and... Final Fantasy V, the Super NES adventure from 1992.
One of these is decidedly not like the other.
A dated-looking RPG well into its third decade of existence -- not to mention one that didn't even show up in the U.S. until its host platform was dead and buried -- might seem an odd contender for most talked-about game on the Internet in the wake of a vibrant E3. The secret lies in a website called Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta, which encourages people to challenge the game once a year in order to raise money for the Child's Play charity. These aren't normal playthroughs, though; as the name of the site implies, participants are limited to using only four of the in-game character classes. Not only that, but each player's class selection is chosen randomly by a Twitter bot.
The rules are simple: You commit to playing by tweeting the relevant hashtag to the FF5forFutures account each time you unlock a new set of classes. Once you've done so, you can only use that one specific Job class for your characters. Repeat three more times and pray to god you can finish the game.
It's a fascinating phenomenon that speaks to the innate excellence of Final Fantasy V; for my money, it's the most playable entry in the series, offering unparalleled strategic freedom by giving players a bare-bones story as a tradeoff for an insanely flexible skill system. The Four Job Fiesta happens annually, and each year more people participate. What started as a whim on the NeoGAF forum has spread across the web, even to GAF's "rival" forums like Something Awful. Each year, more people participate, and more people donate money to the cause (currently, a few days into the public period, the site has raised more than $4500 in donations, out of a $3000 goal).
While I could easily wax eloquent about FFV and the inherent qualities that cause so many people to jump in and play it over and over again with ever more limiting restrictions imposed on their session, I decided to speak to the charity's creator, Eric Koziol, to get his take. Koziol works as an English teacher in Japan, translating on the side and developing iOS software.
USgamer: How did you get involved with FF for Futures?
Eric Koziol: The short story is that I made it!
The long story is back in 2006 I did a challenge with NeoGAF member Red Scarlet where we each could only use half of the jobs in Final Fantasy V. She picked mine and I picked hers. In 2009 I wanted to do it again, and since there were 20 jobs (ignoring the Freelancer and Mime jobs) and there were four characters in FFV I figured why not restrict it even more! My intentions were to do it with only five people, but a whole lot were interested and I ended up assigning jobs to 48 people. Most of it was done by text files and with dice rolls.
In 2010, I thought why not make it an annual thing and did it again mostly by hand. There were 125 in the NeoGAF thread who wanted to play and it was getting pretty hard to do manually. In January 2011 I was participating in a foreign language reading contest and thought that would be a neat way to handle the Fiesta, so I asked the host of that how he did it and coded up the Fiesta website and Gilgabot. My wife was also pregnant at the time, and I was completely terrified every time we went to the doctor. Luckily my son was fine, but that made me think that it would be nice to tie the Fiesta to Child's Play Charity.
USG: Why Final Fantasy V? Kids love VI and VII more. Tactics has more expansive Job options.
EK: I do love FFVI and VII, but I do not think there are that many options for variant runs that are as interesting or even doable unless you are either very patient or already extremely familiar with the game.
The problem with Tactics is that you have to work to unlock the jobs. FFV just gives them to you for playing the game. I think this adds a great tension to the Fiesta because at the four points in the game where you get the jobs, you have no idea what you will get until you send your tweet to Gilgabot. You could kind of plan how you are going to play, but that could get shaken up quickly.
I actually do see a fair number of people say this is the first time they have completed or even played FF5. I like to think I am helping the children in more ways than one.
USG: I think it's interesting that you've doubled down on FFV instead of branching out to other job-style games like, say, Dragon Quest III. The latest round of rules includes some pretty arcane variations.
It keeps expanding every year. There were 48 players back in 2009 and looking now there are more than 1300 signed up for 2013.
EK: Yeah, every year I always worry that there will be a large chunk of people saying "Again? Seriously?" but it is pretty much the opposite. May rolls around and I start getting tweets asking when it is going to start up. I have been adding the variations to keep it interesting to players who have participated every year, of which there are quite a few. Plus, it keeps expanding every year. I mean, there were 48 players back in 2009 and looking now there are more than 1300 signed up for 2013.
I will say that the idea of similar events held during throughout different parts of the year has crossed my mind, but for now I want to dedicate the precious time I do have to work on this on making it the best yearly event that it can be.
USG: How time-consuming is this venture?
EK: Before the event starts, I usually spend maybe 20 to 30 minutes a day checking up on the tweets to make sure no one is having any problems and making sure the donations and votes line up.
My run took me about 22 hours last year and by the looks of things it might be a little longer this year. Once the Fiesta starts and people start submitting victory screenshots I take about a half hour a day to go through, check them out and put them up. Although I automated it a bit better this year so it should take less time.
USG: That's a pretty hefty time investment. Not that playing FFV for 20 hours is some grim burden, but besides the warm fuzzy feeling of raising money for kids and playing a classic RPG, what's in it for you?
EK: I was pretty fuzzy in the brain at the end of the marathon, that is for sure.
It feels great to have played a part in making a community and a tradition. I was watching some live speed runs today and other viewers were asking the streamer if they were going to participate in the Fiesta or not. It was just so awesome to see. On a more selfish sounding note, doing the programming for the event got me back into software development and even led to me developing and releasing my own game.
USG: How does the class selection process work on your end? Are there any combinations that you leave out of play or is there really no such thing as an unwinnable state in FFV?
EK: It is just randomly generated based on the specific player's rules. The only changes I make are adding a Berserker to a player who signed up for Berserker Risk for every $10 in donations before the Fiesta starts. Also, players are allowed to change their jobs by making donations, although this usually only happens when people want to play a certain way.
There are definitely some combinations that are much more favorable than others, but pretty much no combination in the Fiesta cannot complete the game. There is actually an set of very interesting reads here about solo runs for each job, that is the other three characters are left unconscious and only one character with one job is used for the entire game. The only one that was impossible, and it was more "mathematically unlikely" than it was "impossible," was the solo Berserker. But that is a job that is completely uncontrollable by the player. In last year's Fiesta, two participants were assigned a Knight and three Berserkers and both completed the game.
USG: From your experience, what's the ideal party setup to play as? What's the least enjoyable party (you know, besides berserkers)?
EK: The nice thing is that there is enough variety in the jobs that it is pretty hard, although not impossible, to go without a damage dealer and a healer. Often they can be the same class since the game features equipment such as the Flame Ring which lets you heal Fire damage. Suddenly Black Mages become decent healers and even a Magic Knight with the Fire Sword being used to whack your own party members and heal them. What you really want is some sort of synergy; getting a Blue Mage and a Beastmaster means acquiring Blue Magic will be less of a chore, for example. Most things are possible with the right strategy and a little bit of patience and luck, which is what makes this event so enjoyable, I think.
Chemist and Samurai are just pure cheese, though, and pretty much guarantee your ability to finish the game without much worry. Bard is highly underrated and is the entire reason I was able to finish my marathon at all last year. Berserkers are really frustrating more than they are bad, but they have kind of become the unofficial mascot of the Fiesta.
The least enjoyable would likely be something like Thief, Red Mage, Geomancer and Dragoon, especially if it is a Natural run where you cannot share skills between jobs. There is just low synergy there. It is still possible, and I am sure there are some fun strategies to find out. Alas, since the game was not intended to be played this way, sometimes the easiest strategy turns out to be "grind levels", which can be frustrating.
USG: Now that it's kicked off, I'm seeing FF5 for Futures threads on forums all over the web -- not just NeoGAF, but many others as well. How does it feel to be at the epicenter of a web-wide phenomenon? And how many people are participating this year?
EK: Like a real nickname, you do not get to pick what you are known for on the Internet. If people are going to know me as the guy who plays FFV for 24 hours straight and runs an event where hundreds of people around the world play a twenty year old game for charity, I cannot help but smile. It is just so cool that people are choosing to do this out of all the ways they could spend their free time.
I just actually processed the first victory, and that player asked when they could start on their next playthrough. This year is going to be huge. Registrations remain open throughout the event and people are free to join at any time.
USG: At this point, is it just you doing this thing? Have you considered going larger -- not just expanding to encompass other games, but doing this more than once a year? Getting others involved? Launching a non-profit foundation, even?
EK: Yup, it is just me doing this. To be honest, I had not considered much until it got so big this year that it is clear that I am going to have to sit down and think about it. I wake up to some people waiting for me to resolve something and since it is just me it can take longer than some would like. Longer than I would like, really. There are just some things that have to be done manually (making sure donations go through, confirming links are not malicious) and I am but one man. I am so busy with it and work and the rest of my life at the moment that I might have to put the thinking aside until this year's event is over.
USG: It looks like you're pretty well on your way to hitting your stated goal of $5000 this year. There are plenty of ways to give money to charity; why does this one work so well? Why do more and more people come back every year to play the same 20-year-old game with ever more baroque self-imposed limitations?
When something feels impossible, seeing that someone else did it makes it feel all the more possible. Being part of any community feels great. Setting goals and meeting them, even in a hobby like video games, just feels good.
EK: Yeah, and that $5000 is the "stretch goal" where I have to go and play a game that I strongly dislike (Final Fantasy XII). The goal was $3000, and that was beaten before the event even kicked off.
A lot of the inspiration for how to handle the donations came from the way Speed Demos Archive runs Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick. Donating money to charity feels good, but using it to "buy" things or affect how people play games just makes everything more interesting. Plus, streaming is becoming more popular every year and that helps immensely with the feeling of community.
As for why people keep coming back, I think it's linked to why Achievements, Trophies and Gamer Scores are so popular. When something feels impossible, seeing that someone else did it makes it feel all the more possible. Being part of any community feels great. Setting goals and meeting them, even in a hobby like video games, just feels good. Last year when I completed my run, it felt amazing to do something that I thought was going to be impossible. I had a little less luck this year but it still felt so good just to have gotten to the end of the game. Having people cheer me on felt good. And looking at Twitch right now, I see lots of people playing FFV with lots of people watching them. I am sure they feel the same way that I did.
I said "feels good" a lot there. That is probably a little reductive, but I really do think that when it comes down to it, there are a lot of little reasons why this makes people feel good and that is why they keep coming back. Even if someone does not have the cash to make a donation, their playing can bump up the pledge of someone who does have that cash. So everyone helps somehow. And that (to be so repetitive) feels good.
USG: Good luck, and have fun with FFXII. It's great.