Wisdom of Nym: Examining the nature of Final Fantasy XIV’s metagame
There are a lot of discussions swirling around pretty much everywhere about how one aspect of another of the game’s balance is off, and the “raid meta” is frequently brought up as an example of why the balance is overall kind of messy. For example, if you look at the meta composition and replace your Machinist with a Red Mage, you’re losing some raid damage! It’s clearly worse, and casters need something to fix it!
Except it’s not clearly worse. In fact, it’s actually fine. So let’s talk a little bit about what the meta composition is and why it doesn’t matter in the slightest, when you get right down to it.
Balance as a concept
Yeah, we’re starting with really big fundamentals, kicking off with the simple question of what balance actually is. Bluntly put, “balance” is all about “whatever I lose is made up for in a gain elsewhere.”
Conceptually, let’s look at Paladin, Dark Knight, and Warrior as tanks. Warrior, without a doubt, is the most offense-oriented of the three, able to unleash some very powerful attacks in quick succession. However, in exchange it has to drop its defenses substantially to be able to use those attacks. It also doesn’t get any innate damage reduction from its tank stance, just a bigger pile of HP. You could switch to Paladin, of course, and get much more defense and party utility… but then you lose out on all of that offense. Dark Knight takes more of a middle road, having more offense than the others while in tank stance, but having a more complex resource management game.
You can argue whether all of these jobs live up to those concepts, but the core ideal there is that in each case, you trade X for Y. If I go from playing Paladin to Dark Knight, I am acknowledging that I will have less defense, but more offense. The goal is that the two options average out into the middle. Healers have to do more work to keep me going, but I deal more damage to make up for their decreased time spent dealing damage.
The reality is that balance never entirely works. You can never get things perfectly balanced for every situation, and in context various factors are going to be of different importance. Consider, for example, a team of characters going through Temple of the Fist with level 340 gear; a Warrior has a distinct advantage over a Paladin simply because that innate lack of defense is mitigated by out-gearing the instance.
But the goal is still there, and the point is that you try to get close and manageable. The changes to Paladin, for example, mean that a Paladin player is capable of bringing out a fair amount of offense (albeit less than the Warrior) and even provide other options. For many trash pulls, the Paladin might be able to let the healer focus almost completely on dealing damage, thus edging the deficit in other ways.
Consider the meta
So, here’s something that I think is fascinating to consider: the “ideal” FFXIV meta composition is not made up of the highest DPS jobs. Sure, Ninja and Dragoon are both more than respectable, but Bard and Machinist are both (intentionally) lower in raw damage. The reason for this particular meta composition as the “default” is that it’s a group of jobs which all synergize with one another exceptionally well.
That doesn’t, however, mean that these jobs are overbalanced or too good or even synergize too well. It means that the question you’re asking isn’t “what’s the best composition” but “which composition has the most internal synergy.”
Imagine, for example, that you yank the Bard and replace him with a Red Mage. You lose the Bard’s contribution to the party’s overall damage, but you gain more damage from the individual Red Mage. You also still get a nice party buff, and you have someone else there who can pick up party members when they drop.
In an ideal bit of content, of course, you don’t need to pick up any dead party members. Everyone lives. But ideal situations don’t happen all that often, and once you’re into flawless runs the idea of “perfect progression group” becomes kind of useless. The goal here is that on a whole, you gain about as much from adding the Red Mage as you lose from the Bard.
Do you get precisely as much? No. It’s hardly perfect. Your group’s DPS may theoretically suffer slightly. But if you have a player who’s a great Red Mage but a mediocre Bard at best, you’re probably getting more out of that player as a Red Mage anyhow. Comparing the two as “well, all else being equal” is neglecting the reality that all else is rarely equal ever.
Casters, at the moment, have a bunch of tricks, buffs, and improvements that only they can bring to the table. People complain that Red Mage has a raise and a heal while Black Mage does not, but Red Mage is going to have much more limited options when it’s time to start really moving around the arena (Triplecast, Swiftcast, Firestarter/Thundercloud procs, and Scathe are all going to allow for more casts than one Dualcast, Swiftcast, and Fleche when it cools down). Samurai has no real buff for the party, but Samurai can get out of range, attack, and get back into range faster than anyone else.
All of this wouldn’t matter, of course, if these jobs were so undertuned that their “advantages” didn’t matter. But that’s also not the case. You can argue that some are tuned a bit wrong in various directions, and some jobs were definitely balanced a bit wonky at the launch of the expansion. Still, the difference is a matter of slight tilts in one direction or another, not “content cannot be cleared with these jobs.”
It’s barely relevant
Even if we take the ideal progression composition as gospel, for the majority of players, that “ideal composition” does not and will not ever matter. Looking only at the top-level content available right now that requires groups, there are four dungeons, one alliance raid, four raids, and two or three extreme primals (depending on opinion) that aren’t really “progression.” Comparatively, you have five raids that serve as “progression.” Even with just that amount, there’s twice as much content that doesn’t care about progression groups nearly that much.
For most players, if you can reliably kill things in the open world and in dungeons, the job is working correctly. This is why a lot of arguments about these jobs being “unbalanced” wind up at “well, the rotation feels bad,” because the person making the argument is dissatisfied more at the play pattern than actual numbers. And that’s something hyper-subjective; there’s no “right” rotation for any of these jobs.
Case in point: I really, really enjoyed Machinist gameplay with Gauss Barrel cast times through Heavensward. The major rework to the job in Stormblood has been a bit tricky for me to adapt to, so I’ve had to put in more practice. But that doesn’t mean the new rotation was inherently bad; it just meant that I kept wanting to fall back on familiar habits and think about it differently. As I get a feel for how it’s supposed to work now, it feels better over time.
And one of the glorious parts of the way the game works is that if you’re really unhappy with your job, you can always change it easily. You can always level something else that plays more to your liking or fits better with with your need to be desirable in group compositions. It’s something worth considering before complaining that a job isn’t working on a fundamental level.
Not to mention that, again, the most challenging content in the game to date was cleared with a composition that basically completely ignored the meta, and that seems to have worked out pretty well.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, I think I’m going to start talking about future jobs, starting from the perspective of classic jobs that could still fit into the game somewhere.