Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood reinvents the MMO once more
“What we want to do [with Stormblood] is to evolve Final Fantasy XIV to appeal to a wider audience of both novice and MMORPG players,” explains Final Fantasy XIV designer, director and producer Naoki Yoshida. It’s here, in the unusual setting of a traditional Chinese tea house in central Hamburg, that the savior of Square Enix’s biggest Final Fantasy failing explains it’s time for change.
Back in 2012 Yoshida was brought on to save the floundering Final Fantasy XIV project. It was supposed to be Square Enix’s fantastical new online adventure, but instead it was a total mess. Riddled with game-breaking issues, Square Enix decided it was time to cut its losses and switch everything off – opting to bring Yoshida on board to rebuild the entire game from the ground up. Now, four years on and with well over 10 million registered users, Final Fantasy XIV is an ever-growing success for Square Enix. Now Yoshida faces a bigger problem: making it go mainstream.
If you know next to nothing about Final Fantasy, chances are you’ve heard about either 1997’s Final Fantasy VII or last year’s Final Fantasy XV. Final Fantasy XIV is unlike either of those flagship, story-focused entries – instead of a tale that’s over once the credits roll, Final Fantasy XIV’s story and world continually grow, either through new official story content or tales shared player to player. It’s a game built upon how its player’s perceive it, and how they interact with one another and the world around them.
To some, the idea of an ever-growing Final Fantasy title may not be appealing enough. To others, the Final Fantasy brand may look and sound too gargantuan to just simply jump in 14-entries deep. This is where Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood comes in. As the latest expansion to Yoshida’s revamped online Final Fantasy XIV, Stormblood has been designed to streamline Final Fantasy XIV’s more complex elements in a bid not only appeal to general Final Fantasy fans, but to those that love MMOs but haven’t given the series a look-in before.
“We don’t think of these two [audiences] as separate,” Yoshida explains when asked how Stormblood is tackling such a problem. “Final Fantasy XIV is an MMORPG, but it’s also a numbered entry into the Final Fantasy series. If we don’t comply [with the series’] general ideas, there’s no meaning in it being a Final Fantasy game.
“From a producer/director point of view, I like to think of Stormblood as the latest in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy XV may have been released last year, but our expansion [to Final Fantasy XIV] makes us the latest entry!”
Solving the content problem
Being the latest entry in the long-running Final Fantasy series does come with its own set of problems, however. Stormblood may have streamlined its systems to appeal to newcomers, but how do you tackle the problem of story content numbering in the hundreds of hours, along with a player base of millions who have already eaten their way though most of it. Any newcomer is surely going to be left in the dust?
To help new players catch up with their friends who already play the game, or to just let them fit in with the hordes of level 60+ players roaming XIV’s world of Eorzea, Stormblood introduces level- and story- boosting items. Implemented in Heavensward for the Chinese market, these Scenario Shortcut and Job-level Boost items are in place to give newcomers some flexibility in what it is they want to achieve.
For a fee (£13.32 or £18.50 depending on package) newcomers uninterested in the story of A Realm Reborn or Heavensward can skip past all content and jump right in at Stormblood’s tale of taking on the Garlean empire. Jumping this far ahead in the story does have the knock-on effect of leaving you rather underpowered for Stormblood’s level 60+ quests and dungeons. To balance this, Yoshida’s team have also implemented a Job-level Boost item that, for £18.50 per job, can knock a job class of your choice – excluding the two newest Job roles – up to level 60.
Limiting these Job-level Boosts to one per account to avoid flooding Stormblood with over-levelled, under-skilled players, Yoshida’s real worry comes from properly reassuring existing players.
“For players who have spent ages playing through to level up and reach level 60, there’s a fear that you’ll suddenly be surrounded by new players who just jumped there.
“We’re not really concerned about the how and when of how we release these items. The two items were available to the Chinese market in Heavensward, so we already know how players reacted thanks to analysing the necessary play data. Concerns [from avid players] calmed down once the items were released, but there was initially panic about what was going to happen.”
That research signposted an interesting fact about Final Fantasy XIV players who opted to make use of these items. “It’s really rare that, [those who] haven’t played FFXIV before, don’t have any experience with other MMORPGs – and haven’t even tried the free-trial – are the ones buying these items.
“There may be a small percent of people [who fit that description] and do this, but it really won’t be a big issue. The most likely candidates to purchase these items will be players who have already touched upon FFXIV and would like to jump to the end content.”
In Stormblood, simplification is key
Jumping to endgame content is, even if you’re only somewhat familiar with general MMOs, quite the ask. To help newcomers better understand, and play, Final Fantasy XIV, Stormblood reworks some of the game’s core systems. “Our current build, [version] 3.57, is quite complex,” Yoshida explains. “If we add any more complexity [to Final Fantasy XIV’s systems] it’ll become harder, overwhelming and discouraging players to get into the game.”
“Making something simpler isn’t the same as making something easier. We aren’t making content [in Stormblood] any easier to complete, nor are we making Job progression simple –’core’ players have nothing to worry about.”
This simplification of Final Fantasy XIV takes the form of reworked Job systems and overhauled PvP (player vs player) encounters. Fearful that current systems were too complex to understand for newcomers, and that the lack of synergy between different job roles led some groups excluded certain classes.
“One concern we had [for new players] is that even if you’re familiar with playing other types of MMORPGs and then come to Final Fantasy XIV, you may not be familiar with the role you actually play within a team.
“We think it’s important to let [these new players] know what their role is and what their job is categorised in, otherwise they’ll just spend most of their time running away [from enemies].”
To do this, Yoshida and his team have ditched the number-heavy cues and complex actions interface for something more immediately obvious. The new Job Gauge helps you understand and utilise special job skills on a Job-by-Job basis and the skills hotbar has been tidied up to remove underused actions and merge scaled skills like Stone, Stone II and so on into one dynamic “Stone” action. It’s a system designed to facilitate for more approachable play, especially for players on PC and PS4 using a DualShock 4.
PvP has also been modified to remove the disparity between newcomers and experienced players and to streamline its complex controls. The biggest new addition comes with the announcement that free-to-play tier players can now participated in PvP mode and all gear is simply aesthetic to help level the playing field. There are also PvP-specific actions and a PvP-specific hot bar setup so players don’t have fumble around with switching around abilities for PvP areas.
These changes may sound drastic, but in reality they’re simply made to make the entire experience feel slicker. “We don’t rely on Jobs or systems to shape player’s journies through Final Fantasy XIV.
“The [game] contents and the Job system don’t link together [to influence how XIV unfolds]. Just because we’re making changes to how systems work, it doesn’t change the [narrative or explorative] experience players have.”
These changes may sound like they’re top-down improvements that many die-hard players may be displeased by, but Yoshida isn’t just Final Fantasy XIV’s lead – he’s an avid MMORPG player and community member. Stormblood’s tweaks have, by and large, come from community feedback – showing that Yosida and his team really do respect the people that know the game best.
“For UI [improvements], we take lots of player feedback as they spend so much time playing that their comments are really, really useful.” Feedback regarding game elements is a little tricker as “core” players have different needs to more casual users. “We can take everything into account but we do have to [look at data and] analyse what’s the best fit for everyone”.
That “best fit” can be a tricky thing to manage. Aside from managing the impact of Job-level Boosts to keep everyone happy, Yoshida is acutely aware of how difficult players perceive Final Fantasy XIV’s dungeons, FATEs and quests. Some players find everything too easy, but when pressed with dungeons that are deliberately challenging, they complain of how unfair things are – Stormblood aims to address that balance too.
“We know there’s a need for brutal, extreme, hardcore-mode dungeons from the core players so, for the 4.X series.” To do this, Yoshia and his team of hard-working developers plans to drop in “extremely difficult dungeons and quests” in every odd-number patch. Although, he does stress he won’t be building anything that’s too difficult to finish – he’s learnt his lessons from implementing the Savage dungeons of Heavensward.
As someone who hasn’t touched Final Fantasy XIV in well over a year, I can’t comment on difficulty, but I can comfortably say Stormblood’s changes work. Combat feels slick and more frenetic, while understanding Job roles and their special abilities isn’t anywhere near as complex. As a relative novice, playing Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood just made sense. The more offensive Samurai class isn’t for me – so much so I had to put the game down and take a break out of frustration – but the Red Mage is a perfect mix of up-close combat with ranged magic and support spells.
Stormblood is quickly approaching its 20 June release date and so, like any curious Final Fantasy fan, I need to know what’s on the roadmap for the series future? Aside from the aforementioned “extremely difficult” dungeons, it sounds as if Yoshida is just glad to see Stormblood nearing completion. “I’m really grateful for all of the development team’s help making sure we hit our windows.” In regards to what comes after, however, Yoshida is keeping his cards close to his chest “there’s no specific goal for developing [any] MMORPG. The actual end comes when the servers finally close.”