Ragar would think the story should have a little more permanent impact than cutscenes and quest rewards
Hello and welcome to the 25th 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 be talking about the player's impact on the world around them. As with all MMOs there's a constant struggle between the RPG need for a world that evolves with the player's actions and deeds, versus the MMO need for a persistent world where you can interact with other players, help them with quests you've already completed, rerun dungeons, etc. However, FFXIV is unique for an MMO in that it's placed such an emphasis on its main storyline, tying it to most aspects of the game from unlocking features of the game to connecting the various dungeons to it in some fashion. How do we reconcile the need to have some lasting impact on the world with the other thousands of people playing alongside you, all wanting that same sense of progress?
Why Do None of These NPCs Know I Saved the World?
FFXIV truly wants all players to experience its main story and feel like they've had an impact on the world, just like they would if they were playing through an offline Final Fantasy game. To their credit, they succeed for the most part. The problem comes when the last quest of the patch is finished and the cutscene is complete, the world itself is the same as it was when you started. The cities all look the same, the battlefields have the same respawning soldiers and monsters occupying them, and the dungeons are still there with the same named bosses waiting at the end to die once more. For those of us who are MMO veterans, this is just something we just had to deal with years ago. We knew that future content patches would acknowledge our accomplishments, but those existing zones would remain in their original "the bad guy is still threatening us" state until the developers went in and changed it.
Things don't always have to be so static, however. World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls Online and various other MMOs have implemented features like phasing to add some player impact into the world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, phasing is a way to change parts of the world for some players, but not for others. As an example, in the Wrathgate event during Wrath of the Lich King, players first come upon the gate where Alliance and Horde forces are preparing for an assault on the gate to gain entrance into Icecrown. During the Wrathgate cutscene, forces on all sides are decimated. When this cutscene ends, rather than showing back up to the previous pre-battle scene, you're now in the world after the battle with all of the carnage and death shown in the movie still in effect. If another player walks up to the Wrathgate prior to completing that quest, they'll see the pre-battle scene you witnessed before, but from now on, every time you return to the scene you'll be greeted with the post-battle version.
Features like phasing help bring the world of MMOs slightly closer to their single-player RPG roots by letting the players see the effects of their actions continue to exist in the world. The system's not perfect though - both WoW and TESO have had issues over the years with players on different legs of quest chains being unable to interact with one another. It can also lead to items like mining veins and other gathering nodes vanishing before you because a player in a different phase snagged it and you couldn't see the competition. Even with these problems, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to giving the players some impact on the world they quest in. When a player completes a major storyline in an RPG or MMO, they want to feel like something they've done will have a lasting effect on the world around them.
My Little Piece of Eorzea
Phasing is one way players can feel like they’ve contributed to the MMO world around them, but there are other alternatives, one of which FFXIV does offer players – housing. The housing districts in FFXIV, along with RIFT’s Dimensions, WildStar’s floating islands, ArcheAge’s various houses and farms, Lairs and Hideouts in DC Universe Online and all of the other takes on player housing in MMOs give players that sense of “this is my corner of the world to do with as I please” many of us are looking for. For some that’s getting as much benefit for the rest of the game as possible – training dummies, gathering node spawners, crafting benches, raid portals, etc. For another group it’s a decorator’s paradise, giving them the chance to build anything from a war room fit for a general to something off the wall like the skate parks I’ve seen in various WildStar YouTube clips. There’s even a group of players who view it as a valuable tool for RP, letting them build custom sets for whatever storyline their group of actors has going on at the time; something like The Secret World’s Albion Theatre, but for a less public audience.
Player housing is a great tool for players, giving them the chance to have a part of themselves that’s available for others even when they’re offline. The ones that are actually incorporated into the world at large give an even greater sense of this, but both are still valuable. They aren’t perfect though. With instanced housing, your house is only visible to those players you choose to allow access to. With public housing, now all of the players can see your work, but as far as the NPCs are concerned, your home may as well be invisible. Well, other than ArcheAge, but that’s only because the taxmen keep track of it when they mail you a bill each week.
For many out there, this issue of “the NPCs don’t acknowledge my property” isn’t a problem and to be fair, it’s not a major one. Something like phasing for quest progress would certainly be a more pressing matter to see in FFXIV with its heavy emphasis on storyline, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider how to bring that same concept into the player housing realm, especially when other games have started doing it.
Base Commander (Insert Player Name Here)
In the upcoming WoW expansion, Warlords of Draenor, one of their flagship features is the addition of Garrisons. For those unfamiliar with the idea, Garrisons are about as close as WoW comes to player housing. Once players have quested enough in Draenor, a Garrison will be built as a stronghold for their faction’s efforts in the war against the Iron Horde. As the Commander of this new Garrison, the player is responsible for delegating all of the actions within the base. Your base will have slots for small, medium and large buildings and it’s up to you as the player to choose which of the multitudes of buildings will go into each slot. Do you want a Blacksmith to supplement your own Blacksmithing skill with additional materials and daily cooldowns or would you rather place an Alchemist to give you access to a crafting skill without the need to level an alt? Do you want a War Mill for transmogrification sets and a free raid bonus roll token each week or a stable for increased mount speed and the ability to capture special mounts?
In addition to choosing which buildings to place/upgrade and when, you’ll also have followers available. Some will be non-combatants primarily, giving you bonuses at one of the buildings you placed, but the majority will have player classes and be used for missions. These followers have their own levels, some equipment, and class/race traits to boost their chances with various mission types. It’s up to you as Commander to assign your followers to the missions that suit them best and bring you the greatest reward for the effort. At higher levels these followers can even go on group missions (some even have item level requirements for your followers) and some of their mission rewards will even provide useful items at endgame, from Apexis Crystals to Seals of Tempered Fate to even Honor Points for the PvPers out there.
So this is all well and good, but it is still instanced, right? So what makes this different than the instanced housing in other MMOs or having a house for everyone to see in FFXIV? The difference lies in how this version of housing is tied to the story. You gain access to this land from following the story – you’re entrusted with this base because of your actions with the Alliance/Horde. The followers you find have names and roles like you give your Retainers, but here you have a multitude of them, befitting a Commander at the warfront. Features of the Garrison can be unlocked simply as a function of level for those players not interested in story, but for those who quest to level, they’ll be rewarded with earlier access to what the Garrison offers. In addition your Garrison can even be attacked by the enemy – there’s a quest that pops up periodically where the Iron Horde assaults the base and you must repel the invaders with your troops. All of this makes the Garrison feel like it’s truly a part of the world and acknowledged by the NPCs you quest for, rather than just a place to RP and remove gold from the game’s economy. So how do we get something like this in FFXIV while still tying it in to the story? We can do this with the same organization that the main scenario has been tied to, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn.
The Scions of the Seventh Dawn exist to combat all of the various issues that plague Eorzea as a whole. As a member of this group, you have fought back the primal threat, the Garlean Empire and members of the Ascians who have been manipulating all of these events in an effort to resurrect their dark god, Zodiark. Whatever further threats the Ascians bring against the peoples of Eorzea, the Scions will be there to stop them and that includes the player’s character. This includes anything that could potentially come with expansions down the road, with whatever new lands open up for the player to explore. Of course, while you’re exploring these new lands, the Scions will still need to maintain their base of operations in Eorzea – after all, they still have plenty on their plate keeping the Beast Tribes from resummoning their Primals. It stands to reason that they would need some sort of field base to conduct their work, and as the face of the Scions, it would fall to you to organize and control this new base.
Now we could go the Garrisons route with this new field base and it would certainly be applicable, but I’ve actually got another idea that comes from an older game series: Suikoden. In this series players recruit a wide variety of characters (the “108 Stars of Destiny”) to fill a castle or other type of base as they wage a war against an enemy force. Some of these characters were combat-ready and would be used in your party, while others would open new shops or unlock new quest chains.
Imagine having something like this in FFXIV. When you start off in an expansion, your field base would be this sparse building – just you and maybe one or two Scions agents sent along with you. As you quest and get further into the main scenario, more and more features would show up. Perhaps one quest has you protecting a town and fighting alongside the local blacksmith. Once the battle is complete, the blacksmith could offer to join you at your base and from now on, every time you returned to the Scions field office, he’d be there offering to repair your equipment. You could have similar quests with other vendor NPCs and town functionalities (Retainer bells, Aetherite nodes, etc). By the time you’ve finished the launch story for the expansion, your small field office could become a full-fledged town with nearly everything a main city would offer, short of airship access and class/job quests.
Getting the base up to “as good as a town” doesn’t have to be the end of things either. The main storyline could unlock the features, but from here there could be side quests for some of those NPCs. Maybe that Blacksmith you recruited has a storyline of his own or wants you to find out if his apprentice made it out of the battle. Perhaps whoever’s manning the Retainer bell in the base is willing to tell you about some new Venture opportunities if you help him out with a few things. These side quest chains could expand the capabilities of those NPCs – new Ventures with unique rewards like gear for Glamour uses, dailies for crafting tokens used in endgame equipment or for buying recipes, items to summon vendors out in the field, etc. With a system like this, we have a portion of Eorzea that not only shows you the changes brought about by your actions, but we have NPCs that acknowledge your deeds and provide you with rewards that last longer than a new pair of gloves.
A good chunk of the appeal for MMOs comes from the sense of permanence they offer; while a single-player RPG has a distinct beginning/middle/end, an MMO keeps going and everything the player does builds on top of what’s happened before and continues to persist until the servers finally shut down. That permanence brings about the desire for control and customization – players want the world to show the results of their deeds and for their actions to persist. Player housing, phasing, and features like the Garrison and what we outlined in the last section are all ways to give the player the ability to contribute their own bit to the world they exist in. The more of these options an MMO offers to its players, the longer it can keep them interested and the more time they spent logged in.
That’s it for this edition of the Eorzea Examiner. What do you think about phasing and player housing? Do you want a portion of the world that’s under your control? Is it important to you that the world shows the results of your deeds with phasing and other tools? 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