I’ve tried to get my “real life” friends into MMOs in the past. Lord knows, I’ve tried.
And, for a brief, blissful period in World of Warcraft’s early heyday, it was successful. We were all playing together, enjoying ourselves and having a blast. Then the inevitable happened: one of us started playing more than the others, and started steaming ahead. Then another person did the same. Eventually, we were left with something of a split group, unable to practically and productively play together because of our level disparity.
This is a common problem that has plagued MMOs since their inception, and different games have tackled it in different ways. (Some games haven’t tackled it at all, for that matter.) Final Fantasy XIV, for my money, handles it in a fairly elegant manner that helps ensure that all the content in the game remains relevant, regardless of whether you’ve just levelled up enough to try it for the first time, or you’re a level 50, item level 97 veteran who has run it hundreds of times to date.
The solution is fairly simple: if you outlevel a piece of content, you’re temporarily synced down to the level of that content for the duration, then you go back to being badass afterwards. In other words, if you’re a level 50 character and you decide to run a level 15 dungeon (or you’re presented with a level 15 dungeon by the daily dungeon roulette system), you’ll be temporarily knocked down to the highest possible level at which it’s permitted to complete that content — usually a couple of levels higher than what it’s rated as — and your abilities locked off accordingly as if you hadn’t unlocked them yet.
This makes for some interesting scenarios, as you’ll have to adjust your playstyle to compensate for the latter aspect in particular. If you’re a high-level Paladin, for example — one of the game’s two tank classes — you may find yourself having to maintain aggro on enemies without your full array of abilities. If you’re a high-level Black Mage, you may find your rotation thrown completely out of whack by the absence of a crucial spell like Fire III or Blizzard III.
Aside from the interesting challenges playing while level-synced raises, the chief benefit of this system is that it allows players with wild disparities in level to play together. Okay, if a higher-level player decides to slum it with their slacker friend, they’ll only be getting a fraction of the experience points they would have got if they were running something at their level, but they’re still getting a decent whack of experience. With the new Challenge Log system, too, you get flat experience and gil bonuses simply for running a certain number of dungeons in a week, so it’s never a waste of time.
As time has gone on, though, I’ve found myself worrying less and less about whether or not I’ll get the chance to play with my real friends — I have one in particular who will absolutely, positively, never ever no way no how touch anything with Final Fantasy on it, regardless of how much I think he’d enjoy XIV — and instead relishing the time I get to spend with the “friends not-met” I’ve made as a result of playing.
I can’t emphasise strongly enough how important it is to embrace the social side of the game. I started playing primarily because an online acquaintance invited me to around the beta period, and since that time I’ve become fast friends with the majority of the other regular players in our Free Company — FFXIV’s guild-equivalent. It’s a pleasure to log on and be greeted by them, and to be able to jump in and play through dungeons and encounters together with them. It’s a delight to share in each other’s successes and victories over difficult or time-consuming challenges. And it feels good to be able to help each other out, even though all we’re doing is playing a video game together.
I’m frankly surprised at myself. As someone who suffers from a considerable degree of social anxiety out and about in the world with the three-dimensional people, the thing that has driven me to quit a lot of MMOs in the past is the realisation that I’m not really talking to a whole lot of people online, let alone playing through group cooperative content with them.
Final Fantasy XIV has been different, and it’s thanks largely to the fact that I’ve had friendly people to play with right from the beginning. This helped me to build up my confidence in those important early stages — to such a degree that now, some several hundred hours and five classes at level 50 later, I’m more than happy to lead expeditions into certain dungeons by myself. (There are others I’m still too terrified to take on even with people I know and trust, though, but that’s more a matter of me simply not knowing my way around that content very well just yet. Give it time.)
All this doesn’t stop me enjoying playing with people I know in the “real” world, of course. My friend James has been playing for a while and making good progress despite frequently getting distracted by (in-game) fishing, and my partner Andie started playing recently, too, and has been romping through the levels at a frankly terrifying rate. Given the opportunity, I’ll always happily drop what I’m doing and run a dungeon with either — or, ideally, both — of them, but the important thing I’ve particularly learned — no, confirmed, since I already knew it — during my time with Final Fantasy XIV is that expecting to play exclusively with people you know outside of the game is likely to be an exercise in frustration.
Instead, take a chance, broaden your net and involve yourself with a group of like-minded people with whom you can play on an at least semi-regular basis. You’ll be very glad you did.
Eorzea Diaries is a regular look at the world of Square Enix’s MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. If you want to come play with me, you can find me on the Ultros server cleverly disguised as the Hyur female Amarysse Jerhynsson.