Stormblood: Introduction

Square Enix’s second Final Fantasy MMORPG is a big success now, having just enjoyed the release of its second expansion pack, but things weren’t always so rosy.

In fact, the story of how Final Fantasy XIV came to be what it is now is one of the most interesting in all of gaming — and certainly an inspiring example that demonstrates even if you release a completely broken mess of a game, it’s not necessarily beyond redemption.

Today, then, let’s take a look at the history of Final Fantasy XIV as a whole, and in particular how it’s developed since the release of A Realm Reborn in 2013.

The original incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV went live back in 2010 after an already mixed reception to its alpha and beta testing periods. At the time, localisation lead Michael Christopher Koji Fox and current producer/director Naoki Yoshida told the documentary team Noclip, Square Enix as an organisation was suffering somewhat from arrogant delusions, and this had a severely negative impact on Final Fantasy XIV even before it came to market.

Koji Fox noted that the success of XIV’s predecessor Final Fantasy XI had caused the company to feel there was little need to research the competition on the market, even as Final Fantasy XI was closer in execution to early MMOs such as Everquest than the current, more accessible formula popularised by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. The initial intention for Final Fantasy XIV was simply to create a more up-to-date version of Final Fantasy XI, but it should have been clear after World of Warcraft’s astronomical success that business trends and what people expected — and wanted — from an MMO were very different now.

Yoshida added that Square Enix’s reputation for high-quality graphics, particularly in the Final Fantasy series, had also contributed to the company’s overall arrogance; the company as a whole, he said, believed that they were the only ones who could produce games that looked that good, that they were “very arrogant and very prideful”.

As a result of this arrogance and pride, the initial version of Final Fantasy XIV certainly had a strikingly gorgeous appearance. It was based on a variation of the impressive Crystal Tools engine that had contributed to the PlayStation 3’s Final Fantasy XIII being one of the best-looking titles on the system, but unfortunately, as the team discovered over time, what works well for a highly scripted, cinematic single-player game isn’t necessarily ideal for a massively multiplayer online game.

Performance suffered, not only as a result of bizarre decisions like environmental objects having as many polygons as characters, but also due to the game being built on a scripting engine. While the scripting engine had helped the team to assemble the game as a whole more quickly, the fact that so many things are happening at the same time in an MMO meant that lots of these scripts had to run at once, which would both stress the servers and drag the performance of the game client down.

The team knew that they had a bit of a stinker on their hands even before it was released, but with Final Fantasy XI in mind decided to press on with the assumption that anything majorly wrong with the game could be “fixed” in post-release patches. It became clear after negative feedback from press and public alike post-launch, however, that this was not going to be a “quick fix” at all; something pretty major would have to be done.

Square Enix assembled a task force to determine what the highest priority problems were and what the development team would need in order to resolve them. Many of this task force confided in Yoshida, who was working on other projects at the time, and this led Yoshida to believe that there was such a fundamental problem with how the game had been developed up to this point that something drastic was in order. He spoke with Yoichi Wada, Square Enix’s president at the time, and asked him to declare a company-wide emergency in order to gather the resources needed to “fix” Final Fantasy XIV.

This was, after all, one of the company’s most high-profile, flagship brands, but the current state of the game was putting the series as a whole at grave risk; the Final Fantasy name had been sullied, but Yoshida believed that it wasn’t beyond help. He was subsequently made producer and director of the game by the request of the development team.

Yoshida asked his new staff, with whom he had not worked before, to give him three months. In that time, he told them, he believed that the members of his team could make an informed decision about whether or not they believed he was up to the significant challenge ahead of him. He did not try to immediately take control; instead, he sought feedback and researched MMOs in general — including the then-current form of Final Fantasy XIV, which he did not enjoy playing at all — with a mind to deciding how best to proceed.

Yoshida provided two options to Square Enix’s leadership: patch the game gradually to fix its most glaring issues, but let it die gracefully in the process, potentially permanently destroying the Final Fantasy brand in the process; or patch the current game while simultaneously building an entirely new Final Fantasy XIV experience.

Astonishingly, Square Enix’s leadership chose the significantly more difficult second option, and work got underway. Final Fantasy XIV’s 1.0 version was updated to address the most common concerns of the player base as well as advancing the game’s overall story towards an apocalyptic “ending” that would come to be known in-world as “the Calamity”; meanwhile, work began in earnest on A Realm Reborn, with the intention of picking up some time after the events of this grand “finale”.

Towards the end of Final Fantasy XIV’s 1.0 cycle, players noticed a strange object in the sky: one of the world’s moons appeared to be getting closer. As time went on, the moon, known as Dalamud, grew larger and larger in the sky, and the population of the game’s virtual world started to see more and more powerful monsters appearing. Ultimately, the truth of the matter was revealed the day the servers went down — November 11, 2012 — when players were logged out for the last time and treated to a spectacular cutscene showing Dalamud breaking open to release the powerful Elder Primal (and recurring Final Fantasy summon) Bahamut, who promptly started laying waste to the world, even as the last vestiges of resistance bravely fought back against the unstoppable tide of monsters.

It would be mid-2013 before A Realm Reborn, the new incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV, made its first appearance with a series of beta tests that gave players the chance to find out what happened to the world since that fateful day.

Unfolding five years after the events of the original version’s game-ending Calamity, A Realm Reborn sees players waking up to find a world much changed, but still very much in one piece. Bahamut was apparently sealed away, and the realm of Eorzea was trying its best to rebuild, albeit not without some resistance from the main villains of the piece, the Garlean Empire.

A Realm Reborn was a complete reboot of the game. From a technical perspective, almost everything was replaced, from the engine to the core mechanics, though in narrative terms many core concepts, characters and locales from the original incarnation of the game were maintained. It was designed in such a way that those who had played the original game to its dramatic finale could pick up where they left off, while those coming to the game for the first time would have enough context to not feel like they had missed out on anything. Perhaps most pleasingly for veteran players, the game’s original series of hardcore raids — known as “The Binding Coil of Bahamut” — helped bring the story of version 1.0’s finale to a comprehensive conclusion in absolutely spectacular fashion.

A Realm Reborn was met with much more positive reviews than its prior incarnation, because everything about it was better. Gone were the painful performance issues of the old engine, although the graphics and animation had received a downgrade as a result. Gone was the stamina-based combat system, to be replaced with a “global cooldown” mechanic more akin to what you’d find in games that follow the World of Warcraft mould. And gone was the rather vague structure to the whole experience, to be replaced with a much more authentically Final Fantasy-style experience, featuring a resolutely linear main storyline punctuated with sidequests at the various locations the player character visits throughout their long journey.

The initial success of A Realm Reborn made it clear that this time around, Final Fantasy XIV was here to stay, and as such Yoshida and his team set to work on producing new content for the game, with the intention of a major, story-advancing update every three months. To date, the team has stuck roughly to this schedule, with the original game and its Heavensward expansion both enjoying five major content updates at three-month intervals, with smaller updates pretty much every month offering balance adjustments, new ways to play and further refinements to the game systems.

A Realm Reborn launched with enough content to take players from level 1 to 50, at which point they’d take on two “final” story dungeons before being presented with the endgame, which we’ll explore further in a subsequent article. The major updates primarily consisted of an episodic continuation of the main narrative — often teasing what to expect from the upcoming expansion — and were primarily geared towards players who had already reached the level cap. The story content usually involved a new dungeon and/or major boss fight as well as a series of quests that were primarily narrative-based in nature.

That’s not all, though. The first content update introduced the first 24-player “casual” raid, based on Final Fantasy III’s Labyrinth of the Ancients. The second provided a new tier of hardcore raid, continuing the story of Bahamut. The third added Final Fantasy III’s Syrcus Tower as another 24-player raid; the fourth added the Final Coil of Bahamut, bringing this narrative arc to its conclusion; the fifth likewise brought the Crystal Tower arc to its own finale in the World of Darkness. The patch cycle for A Realm Reborn also introduced a new playable class: Rogue, which became Ninja at level 30, and which was one of the most-requested new Jobs in the game after its popularity in Final Fantasy XI.

By the time Heavensward came around in June of 2015, the formula for the game was seemingly well in place, but Yoshida and his team would clearly have to think about things a little differently this time. Rather than having 50 levels to spread new abilities over gradually, they were adding just ten new levels to character progression, so had to take care that players had ample opportunity to learn how their class played with the new options available to them.

As it happens, each and every class in A Realm Reborn played significantly differently at Heavensward’s cap of level 60 when compared to A Realm Reborn’s 50. Some changes were better received than others; those who played tank class Paladin, for example, were grateful for a bigger variety of combos to use in combat, while their Warrior counterparts were likewise extremely happy with the devastating amount of damage their class became able to dish out. Bow-wielding Bards, however, were initially less than thrilled with their class’ significant shift from a highly mobile kiter to one that played more like a mage, requiring the player to stand still while they “cast” abilities that had previously triggered instantly.

Over A Realm Reborn’s lifetime, Yoshida and the team had grown accustomed to player feedback and often acted on it, but only if their opinions aligned with those of the player base. Consequently, tanks found themselves having their damage formula adjusted a few times over the lifetime of Heavensward, while Bards still had to deal with cast times — something which many learned to deal with and even enjoy over time. The new classes introduced in Heavensward, too — tank class Dark Knight, healer class Astrologian and damage-dealing class Machinist — all enjoyed numerous balance tweaks and refinements post-launch, too.

Perhaps more significant about Heavensward was the team’s willingness to experiment with content a bit more outside the basic World of Warcraft-style formula followed by A Realm Reborn. One of the most notable additions was The Palace of the Dead, a 200-floor, randomly generated dungeon that could be tackled by between 1 and 4 players, and which had a completely separate progression system to the rest of the game. This subsequently became one of the best ways to level new character classes, and is very much a fixture in the complete game experience today.

Other additions were less well-received; the Diadem, for example, was supposed to provide the thrill of exploring uncharted territory in airships, but instead tended to devolve into 72 players all yelling at one another to try and spawn rare monsters rather than just doing what they wanted to do. So poorly received was the Diadem that it had a complete refresh towards the end of Heavensward’s life cycle; it still didn’t attain much popularity with the player base, but at least Yoshida and company were trying to improve it.

This is probably one of the most key things about Final Fantasy XIV’s development as a whole, particularly since the launch of A Realm Reborn: Yoshida and his team’s willingness to experiment and be bold, and not to be discouraged if things didn’t quite go according to plan. It’s been clear from the start that the developers behind Final Fantasy XIV are keen to “learn by doing”, and what better way to test out new game mechanics and structures than by getting a worldwide player base of millions to try them out for you? Stuff that works can be revisited in the future; stuff that doesn’t can be left to die quietly.

Which brings us to Stormblood, the newest expansion pack to the game at the time of writing. Stormblood represents a significant mechanical overhaul to the game’s battle system by reducing the “ability bloat” some players had complained about in Heavensward while shaking up the way classes do things.

The most notable addition to the formula, which, again, we’ll explore further in a subsequent article, was the Job Gauge system. Now, instead of relying purely on combos and perhaps self-buffs, many classes had the ability to build up another resource outside of the usual HP, MP and TP. Different classes implemented the use of this in different ways, allowing each class to significantly distinguish itself from others both visually and mechanically — the Job Gauges are all beautifully, intricately designed interface elements — without overcomplicating things.

Like Heavensward, Stormblood also introduces some new classes into the mix, though this time around only two of them, both of which are damage-dealers. Samurai is a “pure DPS” class focused on outputting enormous amounts of damage, while Red Mage is an interesting, technical class that involves a combination of melee combat, spellcasting and careful manipulation of two resources using their Job Gauge.

Thus far, at the time of writing, Stormblood’s reception has been very positive, even attracting numerous lapsed players (including myself) back into the fray with the promise of new story and game mechanics. That’s not to say there aren’t still things to work on for Yoshida and company, however — besides the expectation of content patches, the addition of another ten levels of character progression has meant that every class will need to be revisited in terms of balance and party role. In particular, players of Machinist, Summoner and Scholar have already been vocal about their dissatisfaction with aspects of how their class plays at level 70.

While Yoshida and company’s work will never truly be done — at least until they decide they’ve had enough and want to bring this virtual world’s story to a close once and for all — the future looks bright for Final Fantasy XIV. Both the lifetime of Heavensward and the initial response to Stormblood have proven that the game has what it takes to stick around for some time yet, and the most dedicated core player base of the game remains committed, enthusiastic and passionate — arguably a little too much so at times — about the experience as a whole.

We’ve come a long way since Final Fantasy XIV’s version 1.0 incarnation; while the story of A Realm Reborn is an inspiring tale of a phoenix rising from the ashes, the new incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV has proven itself more than worthy of carving out its own legend in its own right, even without its fascinating origin story.

Long may it continue. And long may everyone involved with the project walk in the light of the Crystal.

More about Stormblood

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