Ragar delves deeper into Carbine's new MMO for lessons FFXIV could pick up
Hello and welcome to the seventeenth edition of the Eorzea Examiner, ZAM’s column on Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. For this week’s column, we're going to continue our look at the recently released MMO from Carbine Studios, WildStar; in particular, we’ll be examining the game to see what design elements would fit well over here in Eorzea.
In part one we looked at their take on player housing (e.g. free to start, impacts rested XP, customizable to fit your playstyle, etc.) as well as their Renown social currency and how it encourages players to actually group together as they wander Nexus. While both of these are important elements that I’d like to see Square Enix take a look at, housing and social currency are more secondary activities in the grand scheme of MMOs. These systems may help prolong your interest once you’re invested, but first you have to get to that point and that requires getting past the first hurdle many MMOs fail at: combat. Luckily FFXIV has succeeded in making a keybind MMO that’s interesting to play, but there’s always room for improvement and WildStar has much to offer.
Ability/AMP Customization: Man, I Missed Talent Points…
At their core FFXIV and WildStar take very different approaches to how abilities should be handled. FFXIV is of the pre-Cataclysm World of Warcraft mindset where players should have access to all of the abilities their class offers at any given time; it’s up to them to prioritize and organize those abilities based upon what fits their build, their rotation, the encounter, etc. and throw the situational or silly abilities off to the side or leave them in the spellbook. FFXIV may not offer nearly the breadth of your old WoW class skill selections, but they’re only covering one spec worth of abilities with each class rather than three. On the other hand, WS uses limited action sets similar to Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World; you may know all of the abilities your class has to offer for multiple roles, but you’re only allowed to use eight at any given time (9 and 0 are for your gadget slot and your path ability) so you need to choose wisely.
I’m not going to sit here and argue about which is better between LAS and traditional skill systems. I may prefer LAS, but it’s completely subjective and both sides have their advantages. LAS is arguably easier to balance and keeps players from feeling like they’re drowning in options, while traditional systems remove that TCG element of “this ability is fun, but I can’t justify wasting a slot with it” that relegates some skills to sit forever in the spellbook. What I am going to talk about that FFXIV should take a look at is how they customize those abilities.
When you level up in WS your character gets an ability point and an AMP point. Abilities can be unlocked at their appropriate levels similar to other games, but these points aren’t for unlocking these abilities; instead these points are for boosting the power of equipped skills. Each ability has a base rank and eight more beyond that, where ranks 1-3 and 5-7 each cost one point and the 4th and 8th ranks take a whopping five points each. So why the dramatic increase in cost? While the filler ranks will bump up the damage/healing/threat/etc for an ability, those milestone ranks have significant impact on how the skill works in the game. Let’s use my primary interrupt Zap as an example. The base ability does some amount of damage to foes within its cone of effect and applies a stun, destroying one Interrupt Armor and stunning enemies without any IA. The skill is useful by itself and additional ranks bump up the damage and stun duration, but you’d get more damage out of other ability ranks. Where things change is with those rank 4 and 8 bonuses. Rank 4 causes Zap to now remove two Interrupt Armor – this means that between Obstruct Vision (destroys one IA) and rank 4 Zap, I can now get Moments of Opportunity on world elites and quite a few dungeon mobs with 2 IA without the help of other players. In a game that’s so interrupt heavy as WildStar, this drastically changes the power of that ability.
For a DPS example, let’s take a look at Tremor for Warriors. This is a 12-second cooldown AoE attack/pushback centered around the nearest target. Good by itself, but what happens when tiers 4/8 get involved? At tier 4 the ability now has two charges, meaning players could move into battle and dump two of these attacks off the bat rather than waiting 12s – quite handy when you have weak trash to thin out. Rank 8 is where it really starts to shine though with an additional 50.9% Assault Power in damage to any foes below 30%; by capping this ability, you’ve now given your warrior an AoE Execute ability. With that addition of these ability points and the ability to respend them anywhere outside of combat, WildStar has now given players the opportunity to really fine tune their characters loadout. Will you snag as many tier 8 bonuses as possible or will you try for tier 4 across the board? Which bonuses will synergize well with abilities your party uses?
Now that we’ve talked about ability customization, let’s dig into WildStar’s other area of class customization, AMPs. For anyone who’s played WoW and similar MMOs, AMPs operate like more focused talent points. The AMP grid is split into six sections: Assault (DPS), Support (Tank or Healer depending on class), Utility, and hybrids between each of the three primary sections. The bottom tier for each is for your standard talent-style bonuses: bonus damage, increased shields, lifesteal, etc. With enough points in a tier (and the minimum level), you’ll gain access to the second and third tiers in a section. Those are where things get more interesting.
If the first tier of talents is your traditional “increase X by Y%” set of talents, the other two tiers are where all of your milestone talents live – ability unlocks, modifiers to existing skills and more powerful conditional effects. Ability unlocks and skill modifiers are what you would expect, giving players access to certain skills and bonuses to ones they already had, but only if they’ve delved deep enough into that specific branch of the AMP grid. The conditional modifiers are the big ones that affect gameplay, like Warrior’s Kinetic Fury (7.2%/9% bonus damage when above 500/750 Kinetic Energy) or Medic’s Emergency (landing direct heals on yourself or an ally below 30% also restores X shield).
With one of these AMPs slotted, a Warrior might try to sit at max Kinetic Energy for longer periods than before and a Medic might prioritize their heals differently to save their targeted spells for those sub-30% moments. Between the tier bonuses for ability points and the choices for AMP loadouts, WS players can really fine-tune their class to fit their exact needs, be it soloing, small group PvP, raiding, etc.
FFXIV may give players a wider breadth of abilities at a time, but you do feel that lack of customization. They do offer players traits to affect abilities as they level up (reduced cooldowns, bonus effects, etc.), but there’s no choice here; if you’re actively playing the class that gets that trait and you’re high enough level, you get the bonus. Cross-class skills offer some customization, but we’ve already talked about just how limited their implementation of that system is. So how do we go about adding this kind of customization to FFXIV? We’ve actually got most of the tools already in the game with the cross-class slots and the traits picked up while leveling each class.
Players could be provided with a set of trait-specific slots in their spellbook similar to the cross-class slots already available. Some traits could be cross-class like “Increase run speed by X%”, but the bulk of them would be class or job-specific with things like “Increased threat for Overpower”, “Cure also adds a heal-over-time to the target for Y% of the effect”, or “Reduced cooldown on Convert”. Now players have a choice in how they build their character. Tanks could choose between main and off-tank builds, healers could tune for single-target or group healing, and DPS classes could fine-tune how much they put into support versus all out damage. Between these trait slots and doing something to fix the cross-class skill selections, FFXIV would finally give players the options they need to build the Warrior/White Mage/etc they want to play.
Challenges Should Be More Than a Murder Grocery List
When I originally previewed FFXIV, one of the design aspects I really liked for the combat classes was the Challenge Log. The log provided players with side objectives while leveling their main class for bonus XP and a way for alt classes to get XP beyond mob and FATE grinding. The system’s not perfect though: while the XP supplement is generally enough for your main class, it feels paltry amidst all of the grinding you have to do for your second class and onward. With the current implementation, players will break from grinding FATEs and guildleves just long enough to take out however many X mobs are needed for a nearby log entry, then go back to more grinding.
WildStar’s interpretation on Challenges is a little more nuanced. Once you’ve done something to trigger the start of a challenge (killed a mob, picked up an item, started climbing a mountain, etc), you’ll get a prompt telling you how much time is left and how close you are to Bronze/Silver/Gold rewards. With these unannounced challenge popups, a sense of spontaneity is added to the leveling process. Combat challenges have that “gotta hurry!” aspect that we’re usually missing with normal questing. Item pickups/races make you interact with the world around that’s often ignored as we rush from marker to marker on our quest logs. Of course, getting extra loot is always a plus.
Whenever WS players complete a Challenge, in addition to some experience, a window will pop up with a variety of rewards, ranging from simple bags of crafting mats/food to equipment, decor items and more. The better the reward, the lower your odds are of getting it. As the player you can choose one item in particular to boost your odds of getting: 2x for Bronze, 4x for Silver, and 10x if you’ve managed to pull off a Gold medal. Pick your favorite item and cross your fingers that the slot roll stops on your loot. Didn’t get your item? Here’s the important part: challenges are repeatable. Stay online another 30 minutes (some have longer cooldowns) and try your luck again. Are Challenges the most efficient way to level in WS? Absolutely not, but they spice up leveling and give you something to break up the normal quest flow.
So how should FFXIV learn from this system? To begin with let’s look at expanding that Challenge Log beyond a hit list for the combat classes. Give the gatherers some challenges to get specific/HQ mats from each zone, as opposed to simply getting a checkmark next to each material in the Gathering Log. Add a general tab of challenges with exploration challenges to give players a reason to map out zones beyond a handful of meaningless achievement points. There’s variety in FFXIV’s quest offerings, so why not the Challenge Log as well?
When it comes to repeatable kill challenges, those are technically already covered by the Guildleve system. The problem here is that even with the boosts to guildleve XP, it’s still more efficient to grind FATEs and leave those guildleve counters for leveling your Disciples of the Land/Hand classes. You might get slightly more Gil for a guildleve versus a FATE and possibly a more valuable item, but that’s unlikely and outweighed by the fact that guildleves have to be turned in back at the NPC while FATES pay you immediately and have a tendency to keep chaining into more FATEs. Now the question is how do we make combat guildleves more attractive than FATE chaining? To do this we need to make the reward more attractive, even if it’s just a potential.
When you’re picking up guildleves from the NPC, you see straight away what the reward will be and whether it’s worth grabbing. If we swap those out for a slot-style system similar to what WS uses, then you’ve added a gambling element to encourage players to sacrifice XP efficiency for a shot at the jackpot. You can make the high-odd items your vendor items and elemental shards, put some basic equipment in the mid-range, and for the lucky high rollers – housing décor and equipment Glamour skins that can only be earned through guildleve rolls. Mixing in these low odd items across the world’s guildleves also serves to spread out your player base since now you’ve given the 50s a reason to travel to all corners of the globe to finish their RP set and furnish their bedroom.
While WildStar and FFXIV are two completely different MMOs targeting different sections of the MMO player base, there’s no reason the two games shouldn’t look to each other for inspiration. These last two columns may have focused upon what I’d like to see FFXIV borrow from WS, but there are elements of Eorzea I’d be happy to run into in Nexus. I like the idea of guildhests and think tying a 5-man group training simulator into the dungeon finder and rewarding players for using it is a great idea, especially with something as complex as WildStar’s dungeons. While I enjoy gathering, crafting and the tech trees in WS, it doesn’t quite compare to having classes dedicated to those pursuits. That’s one of the great parts of having multiple solid MMOs out there – seeing what the competition brings to the table, then finding out how everyone else is going to use that or one-up it.
That’s it for this edition of the Eorzea Examiner. What do you think about WildStar’s limited action sets versus FFXIV’s traditional hotbars? How would you go about adding in some customization to FFXIV’s abilities? Would you like to see the Challenge Log expanded or do you think the current Guildleve system is sufficient? Tell us in the comments below. If you've got any requests for column topics, add those as well. Until next time, see you in Eorzea.
Michael “Ragar” Branham