Sunday, August 22, 2010

Final Fantasy XI: On Permanent Backlog

I mentioned in my post regarding Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits that I spent a number of years playing Square-Enix's MMO offering, Final Fantasy XI: Online. Since this is a game which will permanently be on the backlog (or one that I simply took 6 years to beat, depending on your perspective) I felt it appropriate to discuss here. Also, I still haven't beaten Arc, and needed something to write about.

I picked this game up about a month after its initial release, around the end of November in 2003. The concept is pretty simple; you're an adventurer in the world of Vana'diel, which is, as fantasy worlds tend to be, overrun with giant monsters and evil world domination-plotting villains. I got into it very easily, and played it until the end of 2009. If you take out time I stopped playing for various reasons, this single title dominated my gaming experience for roughly 5 years of my life. Especially impressive considering that for the last two I hated it.

Why did I keep paying to play a game that wasn't fun? Three reasons.

First, I grew up with this:

And this -

Definitely this -

And I saved up the $5 an hour I got working for a plumber when I was 15 until I had enough to buy this -

Someone stole my original. It remains one of the only games I've ever bought twice.

Final Fantasy had been a part of my life practically since I started playing video games when XI came out. The idea of an FF game which never ended seemed impossible to ignore.

Only, when you actually start playing it, a few things become clear. This game has some striking similarities to the Final Fantasy property line, but only insofar as it uses them to attract that fan base. This game is an MMO, and it will use every trick in the book to keep people playing. For example, do you remember trying to get a Rat Tail in Final Fantasy IV? The monsters that dropped it appeared only rarely in one area of the whole game and then had a ridiculously low drop rate for the tail. But you needed it to get the best armor in the game, so you'd spend hours hacking away at those rats until you got it.

Now imagine that you need to do that for pretty much every piece of equipment you're going to wear, on any of 18 jobs in the game you can choose from. Since you can level multiple jobs on the same character, this means you're going to be hunting that Rat Tail a few hundred times. More often than not, getting it also means waiting for the one monster that drops it while competing against others trying to do the same thing you are. For the biggest, most important items in the game, you'll need 17 or more of your closest friends to help you take down the monster that shows up once every 24 hours and has only a slim chance of actually dropping what you want.

So it looks pretty, and it has chocobos, moogles, cactaurs, a guy named Cid, and everything else that screams "Final Fantasy," but it's just a series of gimmicks to get people interested and try to make them pay for it. So why keep it up so long, even having figured this out? Well . . .

The second reason was that Final Fantasy XI is a social game.
For douchebags, this is a problem, though many of them got around it simply by banding together. People with relatively acceptable degrees of social interaction skills, on the other hand, were harder to find. I was extremely lucky to fall into the linkshell - FFXI's version of a guild - known as ThoseGuys. Early on in their lifespan, the shell attracted people who would eventually become some of the best players in the game, and were also for the most part very cool to be around. As we progressed in the game, we'd do everything together. Like fight monsters, talk about fighting monsters, and wait for monsters to show up so we could fight them.

Occasionally we'd just stand and look at monsters.

The thing about playing with the same group of people for years on end is that you make friends. And Final Fantasy XI provided a lot of friends for me, accented by the annual TG Gathering, where members from all across the country and around the world would congregate in Brooklyn for a 3-day event. We would have a barbecue, games of Super Smash Bros. and Rock Band, card games, bar-and-restaurant hopping across New York City, and in general just being awesome. They transitioned from being people I'd talk to in a video game to people I drive three hours to hang out with. I also used ThoseGuys as a creative outlet, dabbling with this short story about our fictional adventures.

So I'd sign in every day, and sure we'd hang around just waiting for something to happen a lot of the time, but it didn't matter. This was for me the same as going and hanging out at a bar with my friends, and cost less money in the grand scheme of things. We got to joke around, tell stories, and if we could fit it into our schedules, occasionally kill giant monsters.

"Hey man, want to hang out this weekend? Drink some brews,
maybe kill Cerberus, magma-blooded guardian of the underworld? Cool."

And then one day I signed on and all my friends were gone.

It happened much more gradually than that, but over time I realized that all those people I would drive up to New York to see had stopped playing. Other people joined ThoseGuys, and they were friendly and all, but not really my friends. There was no longer a social aspect for me, and yet I kept playing, more or less now for the sake of playing. So I wasn't enjoying it as a Final Fantasy game, and I didn't have a network of friends to play it with. Why, why was I still so determined to spend hours a day signed on to this game?

This fucking guy.

I love being the best at video games. For single player games, there is almost always a very definite way to establish yourself as highly skilled; for one, you can just beat the game. However, in recent times, the trend has tended away from using the warp zone to skip 6 levels of the game. Instead you want to revisit all 8 levels, as much as possible, because you never know what secrets or power-ups are lying in wait for you there. It is to your advantage to scour every single inch of the game and find absolutely everything. The addition of Achievements only helps solidify this way of thinking. There are now very real ways to demonstrate your absolute mastery over a game, and MMOs love giving you as many of them as possible.

You might never run out of things to do in Final Fantasy XI. And there's always someone else trying to do that thing too, and do it better. You are literally always in competition, and not just against the people you're playing against directly. There's a huge community of players out there endlessly speculating about exactly what equipment is exactly right for each situation. If you don't have the precisely perfect combination of gear, skills, and support? You're a gimp. A noob. A failure at life. This is what I contended with every day I played that game. For someone like me, an aggressive play schedule was the only way to try and keep up.

Then one day I realized that I could keep putting in all the effort I wanted, forever, and nothing was going to really ever change. There wasn't any tangible benefit attached to being good at this, and it would never end like a regular video game. I wasn't enjoying the game, I didn't have any friends playing, and I would literally never win. That's when I made the decision to give up the ghost. I turned everything that was my character over to Ayn, uninstalled FFXI from my computer, and rode off into the sunset.

This actually happens when you uninstall an MMO.

So now it's been nearly a year since I spent any appreciable amount of time playing. Over the course of the 6-year period in which I owned the game, I spent somewhere in the area of $700 on it. However, it was pointed out to me that most people would count themselves lucky if they got the kind of time out of a hobby I did for only $700 over half a dozen years, so it was, in a way, a pretty sound entertainment investment. It just took me a lot longer than it should have to realize that I had exhausted the possibilities of the game for myself.

Now, not everyone has my kind of mindset. Plenty of people are actually rational, sane human beings when it comes to games, and this kind of thing is something they can really just sit back and enjoy without it impacting their lives in any significant way. Others are much, much worse than I ever was, and spend nearly every waking second online, escaping into the virtual world. Ayn, whom also played - and still plays - FFXI, never had a problem prioritizing his life over the game. It would be cool if I could say the same, but it simply wasn't always the case. If anything, I'd say being able to "beat" Final Fantasy XI means maintaining that happy medium. While I certainly wasn't the worst at it, I unfortunately won't be able to claim I was the best.

So, now Final Fantasy XIV is on the horizon, the next online installment of the franchise. I'll be giving this one a shot, and hoping that I've taken enough lessons from my time on FFXI to treat this one like a game, not a job. I'll have some old friends from ThoseGuys returning to play with, and hopefully I'll be able to talk some of my other buddies into getting into it as well. I've got high hopes that this time will be different. Let's hope I'm right.

With that out of the way, I'm going to get back to Arc the Lad, and everything else waiting for me here at The Backlog.


ali d said...

Now that I've read this, I'm even more impressed by your skills at balancing being a boyfriend and playing XI. You are the best at that, as far as I'm concerned.

David Pratt said...

I don't know, I did make you sit through Dynamis that one time.

Tom Hamami said...

It's really hard when you deactivate. I finally did it in March, months after I felt like I "beat the game." I didn't play as long as you did - about 3.5 years, the last 6 months or so of which I really only did Salvage - but in retrospect I'm amazed at how I balanced being really, really good at FFXI and the rest of my life.

Time management, baby.

I miss it sometimes, but I really don't feel like dealing with all the new stuff they've added.

David Pratt said...

The thought of going back now with all the new stuff to deal with is a huge turn-off to me, too.

I did just put in my preorder for XIV though. I'm pretty stoked about starting from the beginning again.

Tom Hamami said...

I'll certainly give XIV a shot, too, though probably not until it comes out for PS3 in March.

Tom H. said...

And just in case you get the itch... it's worthwhile to note that ALL of our gear is officially obsolete.

Including a lot of very expensive, non-refundable Salvage gear. QQ