Combat speed, and what it ultimately means for everyone.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has some unique attributes compared to other well-known, recently launched MMORPGs. Namely, the game refreshingly offers a multi-platform experience: Playstation® 3 players are able to play, mingle and interact with PC players in the same servers, and Playstation® 4 compatibility expected to come in Q1 2014.
Generally speaking, Square Enix is considered to have "got just right" the controls and user experience of a console version. Combat, the cornerstone of any role-playing game offering advancement, skills, traits and levels to its players, has been adapted around this platform diversity.
Let's discuss combat, its features, feeling and fluidity, and attempt to answer the question:
How is combat balance affected by the developers' design decisions?
MMORPG players are not an easy crowd to please. The task of "balancing" combat, or any aspect of a massively multiplayer game which caters to several play styles, is Herculean in nature. It can result in a Pyrrhic victory for any game's notoriety and community support.
From the nowadays stone age moments of Ultima Online (which was heavily reliant on player skills for advancement, and a rather rapid speed of doing things) to the alternative, "action-oriented" combat style sported by TERA, one thing is certain: Combat has evolved in the genre in the past decade. There has been no revolution as much as an evolution; the predominant form of combat is "classic" and includes targeting enemies while attempting to bring them down in a timely fashion (ie, before you die). Exceptions to the rule do exist (Darkfall comes to mind); however, they do not necessarily create a fun or engaging combat experience.
Final Fantasy XIV: ARR does not share the same combat system the original, "version 1.0" release sported. In fact, the combat system of the patched original game (so-called "version 1.23 combat" is different as well). But does speed really matter, and how much so? Should Global Cooldowns (GCD) not exist at all? Lowered, even? What exactly does an arbitrary 2.5 second delay introduce to the game?
The answer is not quite so simple. First of all, there are advocates and opponents of any combat speed, as well as any combat experience: Final Fantasy XI players would really like A Realm Reborn to resemble their loved game from the last decade, where combat was deemed to be more "strategic" than what is available today. People who have lived and breathed World of Warcraft for years will easily cry foul when combat introduces any sort of delay, and deprives them of the innate joy of continuously clicking (or typing, or macroing, or binding to a mouse, there are so many possibilities) a lightning-fast rotation used by their character class.
As such, even Square Enix opting for a 2.5″ base GCD and casting time in the majority of cases seems a safe solution, a reasonable compromise in terms of combat speed.
The reality, of course, ought to take into account a very simple fact: controller users, current and future, must have played an important role in tuning the speed of battle in the game"s design phase. It is indeed very much possible to play with a much lower cooldown / casting / skill-using period, however, this assumes a standard keyboard-and-mouse setup (and macros, lest we forget them).
No matter how intuitive a controller UI becomes, the reality is still there: there aren"t dozens of buttons to be used in a perfect, harmonic order. Yes, there are combinations, and the cross-bar, and a whole lot of goodies available to a console player...quite a few tools compared to what one might expect. But, if the game operated under a significantly faster model (say, people routinely operating within the boundaries of a single second, in lieu of 2.5), the game would become nigh unplayable for controller users.
Would someone be bored and feel out of depth with such timings? Should we all watch our favorite film on level 50 while casually punching in a sporadic skill here and there, and throw taps into a barrel as we do that? The answer lies in tactical thinking, and can be summed up to a resounding "No!"