I somehow live my life jumping back and forth between World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14. Due to the job, I don't have a ton of free gaming time—my backlog includes generational hits like Persona 5 for a reason—but I always make time for WoW and FF14. I've played WoW since its beta phase, and FF14 has been nothing short of fantastic since I started playing during USgamer's early days.
Last week, World of Warcraft launched its pre-patch for the Shadowlands expansion. These pre-patches tend to offer a narrative ramp for the upcoming expansion, while also giving players access to some of the expansion's new features. For this pre-patch, players gained access to new customization options and the new leveling experience.
The latter is key, because it continues a shift in how WoW's road to endgame plays out. Ahead of the Battle for Azeroth expansion in 2018, Blizzard Entertainment added level scaling to the old expansions. This scaling ensured that all content would be matched to your level within specific expansion bundles: The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were in the 60-80 level range, while Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria were in the 80-90 range.
Now, a new system has been laid over top of that. In your faction's major city, you can speak to the time dragon Chromie to enter "Chromie Time." This mode makes all of the content and rewards in older expansions scale to your level, so you can now level to the current cap of 50 within a single expansion. Players have reported a 12-16 hour play time to bring a character to cap under the new system, depending on which expansion you pick.
For me, it's been a boon, allowing me to bring two alts to max level. In addition to my Blood Elf Paladin, who I slowly had to play catch up on as I played Battle for Azeroth as a Human Paladin, I've also leveled a Vulpera Shaman and a Zandalari Troll Death Knight. Will I play either of them in Shadowlands? Maybe not, but I now have the option.
The problem with the change is it utterly destroys any narrative throughline for new or returning players. You'll get to the level cap before you finish an entire expansion, so you won't even get that expansion's full storyline. If you didn't play Wrath of the Lich King, you might not know how Bolvar Fordragon became the Lich King in the first place. Having not played Battle for Azeroth, you might not understand how Sylvanas became an antagonist again. That's oddly more important with Shadowlands: the expansion is sending us to the land of the dead, where we'll meet a number of figures key to World of Warcraft lore. Under the new leveling system, players won't have the narrative foundation to make those meetings meaningful.
Final Fantasy 14 recently underwent its own leveling revamp, cutting out some of the unnecessary quests in A Realm Reborn, but largely keeping the level experience intact. Shadowbringers is an absolutely amazing experience, one of the best stories in the franchise, but that impact requires the previous 100+ hours of play time. You need time to soak in the world of Eorzea, to become friends with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, to see villains like Gaius van Baelsar rise and fall. The road to the most powerful moments in Shadowbringers' endgame are based wholly on the thousands of steps you took to get there.
The problem with Final Fantasy 14 is I can't recommend it to anyone, despite all the excellence on display. It's still many, many hours to even touch the endgame, where much of the playerbase lives; Nadia started playing Final Fantasy 14 last year and she finally just got to Shadowbringers. I might get excited every time a friend says they're starting Final Fantasy 14, but at the same time I can't in good conscience say, "Hey, drop 150+ hours into this amazing game." Time is at a premium for many people.
That's the trade-off that Blizzard is working with here. With World of Warcraft, I can tell a new player, "Hey, it'll be 12-16 hours before you get to level cap and can start playing Shadowlands." The spin-up is relatively quick and then they're ready to engage in the new story Blizzard is crafting. But that quick hop to endgame means they lack a connection to make the moments rooted in lore sing. In Final Fantasy 14, getting to endgame takes forever, but it makes [*moment redacted*] bring the player nearly to tears.
Is it better to have more players and an easier entry for neophytes, or to have a very, very committed player base? There's no "best route," because these are two very different needs for two different audiences. It's a matter of what the developer prizes. With World of Warcraft's route, there's a full, healthy playerbase all at the latest expansion. With Final Fantasy 14's thrust the veterans are very happy, but it's hard for new players to start in the first place.
It's an ongoing problem in these older style of MMOs, where the expansions build and build on themselves in a world-serpent of legacy systems and stories. Newer service games like Destiny 2 or The Division 2 side-step the problem completely. They have the ability to break free and start anew, only hinting at lore from past games. World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 have to carry it with them, a heavy millstone of good and bad ideas that neither game can fully divest themselves of. And in solving that problem, each game has walked down two entirely different paths.
Whether you prize the journey or the destination is up to you.