There is a summary of much of Final Fantasy XIII that goes something like the following: you start collecting characters, most of which have access to the same powers eventually, and then, somewhere around 30 hours into the game, you finally get access to go different places if you finish a series of side-quests. It’s nearly all linear.
Final Fantasy XIII sparked a number of different conversations around “linearity in games,” how it is perceived by players, and if all games are, in fact, linear or not. Much of the discussion focused on the build-up of the 30 hours to get access to different places in Final Fantasy XIII and not as much on the side-quests after the longer period of play. The concept of needing to complete a sequence of tasks to gain access to locations was not something to be remarked upon much at the time. It had shown up in other games and was commonplace. Do all the quests, gain access to more quests, and then travel around doing more quests until you stop or the content is exhausted.
In recently playing 57.2 hours of Final Fantasy XIV, I’ve been thinking back to that discussion years ago on Final Fantasy XIII and the one I kept hearing about FF XIV before I start playing it: “It takes 50 hours to get good.” That long stretch of time, that 50 hours, is in reference to the content collected under the packaging of A Realm Reborn. Finishing the original content unlocks credits and then another 50+ hours of content in the form of numbered patches and different expansions. These cannot be reached without that 50 hours investment to get through the initial content. You have to invest roughly that amount of time to get to what people call the good content.
When I was much, much younger, I like to tell myself, but really it was only around seven years ago, I used to do really self-destructive things. Given too much downtime, I’ve found, I often decide to take on large tasks and try to finish them. Such was the case of me playing Persona 3. I started and finished the game in a week. The game takes at least 80 hours to finish. There are 168 hours in a week. This meant I spend roughly 47% of every day (around 11 hours or more a day) for a week straight playing the game. And, if that was not rough enough, I also decided to record all of it and do a commentary on it. It was supposed to be a long-form experiment of a Let’s Play executed in a short time frame. What it ended up being was a descent into intense depression and a headache lasting for a couple days after I finished the game.
I remember thinking, before taking on Persona 3, that the length of a role-playing game was a good measurement of its enjoyment. Any reports of a game taking 40+ hours had to mean it was an enjoyable experience throughout all that time. Obviously, the longer a game was, the better it was. If you have to invest all that time, it must be good.
After playing Persona 3, I stopped playing games for long periods of time in one sitting. Much of that was because I simply did not have the time because of working toward getting a Masters and now into a PhD program, but some of it was based in that poor decision to play so much in so short a time. It finally broke the image I had of the length of a role-playing game being somehow equivalent to its worth. Persona 3 has some great moments, but it was not worth me ruining my health to attempt to complete it all in one week. It really changed my perception of time within the game with meeting and then saying goodbye to characters within hours of meeting them not really in vesting in the story presented in the game.
I’ve broken the 50-hour barrier in Final Fantasy XIII and have made my way through the 2.X patches. I’m somewhere in Patch 2.4 now, I believe. Yet, I can’t really report that the game has gotten good at this point. Sure, yes, I have experienced a large amount of a continuous story, something my thousands of hours in World of Warcraft never really gave me years ago, but I’m not convinced the content is suddenly better. What it is, though, is more condensed and purposeful in its storytelling than it was in the previous 50 hours, which had to establish the world, mechanics, and different groups of people. It is much more thematically about a journey toward fixed goals related to the larger narrative and pushing the player to connect the pieces and unite people together in the process.
I watched a YouTube video last night, 15 Years of WoW vs 1 Year of FFXIV [36:19], by Jesse Cox in which Cox makes the point that a comparison between the two games, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV, might be found in re-arranging the letters of their genre. WoW is a MMORPG and Final Fantasy XIV is a RPGMMO. With its much tighter focus on factions, dungeons, and PvP play, WoW is designed around being multiplayer where FF XIV, with its long story told over different patches and expansions, might be better sorted as a role-playing game first and a massively-multiplayer game second. All of the content I’ve experienced in 57 hours of play was done without needing to form a group or join a guild outside of the Duty Finder system assigning people temporarily to take on something and then disbanding after it was finished.
This was never my experience with WoW. The multiple times I have returned to play the game over the years, I usually hit the wall pretty soon of needing to grind reputation, join a group, or have to call on friends to repeat dungeons or raids to get gear or complete some of the story. In fact, what prevented me from returning to WoW this year and maybe checking out the latest expansion is all the memories of being so frustrated at the game that I could not move ahead in the story without needing to wait to re-run a dungeon or complete the same quest over and over. As Cox noted in the video on comparing WoW and FF XIV, it does really seem like one, World of Warcraft, is heavily designed around a central theme of conflict and competition while the other, Final Fantasy XIV, is much more about cooperation around shared goals than ranking individual players.
There is another point Cox makes about both games that I think is the key to understanding the good content threshold of Final Fantasy XIV for many people. Throughout much of playing World of Warcraft, quests are completed within the same instance as other players. It is a game about a hero rather than the hero as Final Fantasy XIV is. FF XIV opens with a cutscene making it clear the player is a chosen person with a destiny they need to fulfill. WoW opens with the player being one of a number of different peoples with their own troubles and then, over time, rises to be a part of a group of heroes taking on larger threats. Yet, it is this small thing that makes the games stand apart, I think.
Many of the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV conclude with a one-on-one moment between the player wearing their personalized armor and talking with one or more characters. There are no other players around. This is time for the hero and the quest giver or major character to discuss the progress toward some goal or major threat needing to be faced next. Time stops. The player can take the discussion at their own pace and move through the dialogue or skip it entirely. It is not disrupted by other player dancing around or even being a part of the moment. It is focused on the rather than one of a number of other heroes. All of the content of the patches end this way. Yes, the player has to take on various dungeons with other players, and often they need to battle and defeat various monsters along the way, but they all end on personal time with the other characters.
All of that attention and funneling toward a player’s personal connection to a story can be addictive. Even after 57 hours, and some major frustration with having to travel between places to talk to different characters to tell them things when they can clearly communicate over vast distances using magic, I want to know more. I want to know what comes next in the grand tale. The content has not really gotten any better, at least in my own perception of it, but the good to be found is in all the personal attention and time with characters outside of other players being around. It is not something I ever experienced in thousands of hours with World of Warcraft.