Radical Dreamers (or, Why You Should Be Playing FFXIV Right Now)

Adam Harshberger writes about the revolutionary new system Square Enix has planned for FFXIV.

My friends, we have been betrayed. Stabbed in the back, gutted on a halberd.

The MMORPG has forsaken us. Our One Last Great Hope has turned on its heels and walked out the door.

We, the escapists, the radical dreamers – the ones who hoped so desperately for a dynamic, meaningful virtual world – are left to watch our gamerly dreams die.

When I was young, I misguidedly thought of the MMORPG as the final frontier, the genre that would birth the game to end all games. They were to be dense, rich things—worlds begging to be explored, stories emergent and scripted, waiting to be told. I used to dream of quests that had meaning, that were dynamic—of Game Masters jumping in to artfully control NPCs at key junctures—of a narrative wrought with consequence.

What I wanted, and still want: a story that impacts the defining element of the MMORPG—the virtual world. This idea, to me, is the promise of the MMORPG. Oh, what should have been!

Instead, we got wax museums. The vast majority of mainstream MMORPGs are weird museums, overblown versions of Disney World—you can wander about and enjoy your favorite content whenever, however often—but it’s all on a loop. Nothing means anything because it all happens over and over with predetermined outcomes. There will be expansions, yes, but they simply fill the world with more story—they don’t change the story of the world. Instead of things happening to the game (or world) at large, we get cut-scenes and instances. Staving off Armageddon means nothing when everyone in the game has already done it twice. The promise is broken. Betrayed.

But, in the after-birth trembling of Final Fantasy XIV, there is a faint glimmer of hope. For the unaware, FFXIV’s launch went about as well as the Hindenburg’s. Square-Enix released it unfinished, broken and awkward. Some Final Fantasy purists or Final Fantasy XI enthusiasts—both groups that I am a member of—were able to glean enjoyment from it, but still, the game tanked.

Square-Enix, not content to watch a game in their flagship series burn, appointed a new director months after release. The new director, Yoshida Naoki—colloquially known as Yoshi P—set out to make sweeping changes to the game. and in these changes is where we can find hints of the promise being fulfilled.

One of the first things that Yoshi P is doing is massively overhauling the map—on top of battle system reforms, UI adjustments, and restructuring the market system (plus innumerable others) —but he isn’t treating the map adjustments casually. Many developers, I suspect, would just do the damn thing. Players would log on one day, patch their client and find the world to be different.

Instead, FFXIV’s developers have decided to bring about their in-game changes through the game’s narrative. Many of the more ‘gamey’ (the battle system, for example) changes can’t really be explained via the narrative, but the map changes certainly can.

To do this, Yoshi P and his team have developed an on-going quest line called ‘The Seventh Umbral Seal.’ This line deals with—as you might imagine—the coming of some Serious Bad Dudes to FFXIV’s land of Eorzea, and in typical Serious Bad Dude fashion, they’re going to bring about some cataclysmic events.

These cataclysms are a lot different than the ones we saw in World of Warcraft. They are to be played in real-time, brazenly, in the game-world-at-large. “To hell with instances!” cries Yoshi P, brandishing a sword, standing on his desk, I whimsically imagine. They’ll feature GM-controlled NPCs, world-changing events, and a lasting, player-influenced impact—and they’ll only happen once.

This is a story that will literally change the game. You have to be there to see it, to see the story of this virtual world move forward. No longer will an MMORPG’s drama (melo, in the case of Final Fantasy) and theatrics be relegated to instances and cut-scenes. We’ll be free to experience this quest line as a group, for the first time, a whole virginal massively multiplayer online community—not small sects repeating the same raid for the fifth time this week.

There is adventure and intrigue in the way that this “limited time only” approaches story-telling. Dull repetition is gone, the ten rats—at least until version 2.0 arrives—are dead for good. FFXIV players have no idea what will happen next – and how many times can you say that about people playing an MMO?

A caveat: it hasn’t really started yet. Yoshi P hopes to have all of the version 2.0 changes in place by October 2012—so we have to assume the Seventh Umbral Seal will begin soon. This means two things for you, dear reader: one, maybe temper your expectations a little. I’m overly excited, I’ll admit—but I’m also the one who’s written innumerably about the promise of the MMORPG and how bitter I feel. As with most things modern-day Square Enix, it all lies in the execution. They could botch this up, but I’m praying they don’t.

Second, you still have time to get in on the action. You’ll only see it once – and that’s exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented, in MMORPGs, or video games in general. How often can you be one of the people who get to experience an in-game event the only time it happens? Not very. Sure, FFXIV launched terribly, but I can tell you that it is a lot better now, and the visuals are still awe-inspiring. It’s on the rise, definitely enjoyable, and primed to become a reinvigorated, thriving game.

How much will the Seventh Umbral Seal matter, in the long run—even if it does help usher in a new golden age for FFXIV? Probably not much. The good doctors at Bioware probably won’t be rushing to follow Yoshi’s lead any time soon. This linear storytelling won’t revolutionize the way MMOs communicate with us – even though maybe they’d all be a little bit better off if they paid some attention to it—but it still matters to me. And it should matter to you, and to everyone that has ever dreamed of what an MMORPG could really be. The promise remains broken, and probably will stay that way – but at least we have a small morsel of what the genre could have become. I fear it will have to satiate us for now.