Your first experience with something has an outsized importance. This feels like one of those statements people really want to argue with sometimes but is also more or less undeniable. If your first interaction with a dog is with a black lab licking your face while you fall over and laugh, it’s just going to lead to a different set of expectations than if your first introduction is with an aging collie who spares you one glance and then walks away. And the first video game you ever play is going to give you ideas about what is and isn’t possible with video games; the same goes for subgenres of game, too.
My first MMO, as I have said before, was Final Fantasy XI. And while cleaning, that got me thinking about the expectations I have for MMOs in general based on playing that game, both good and bad. So let’s talk about that, both because it’s a useful way to think about these things by taking a step back and seeing “oh, now I have a framework for understanding how my own first experiences shape my view of MMOs” and because, well, it’s a chance to talk about FFXI.
The thing that gets me about FFXI in terms of visuals is that this is a game released in 2002. The game’s visual presentation is not flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but if you look at how the character’s are rendered… well, I’m going to compare it to another title that’s an all-time favorite, City of Heroes, a game legendary for having flipper hands, faces that are clearly flat textures stretched across a head, and particle effects clogging up your ability to see what is actually happening.
CoH came out two years later, and also didn’t have the limitation of having to work on the PlayStation 2. It’s a miracle that FFXI looks as good as it did, to the point when a cheaper game released with its graphics today would probably only lightly be dinged for that fact. There’s a stiffness to the animations in places, definite limitations, but the general look of the game is still astonishingly sharp and lovely even years removed from its launch.
The story of FFXI is not perfect in either the telling or the plotting. There are some definite issues here and there, parts that aren’t paced as well, plots that don’t land, the entire story of Wings of the Goddess. And yet the emphasis still stuck with me. This was not a world wherein things were intended to be static forever, nor was it one in which in the story was secondary at best. There was a definite effort to place narrative in a central spot.
I’ve talked before about the way that the game’s plot suffers in terms of pacing, but even though I found my own progress largely stymied by the way the game was set up, I never felt like the problem was one of the story itself, just how it was delivered. There was a definite sense that the characters in the story are developed, given motivation, and so forth. Going back through the story with the more modern design elements of the game struck me with how well it actually does work as a narrative. It certainly gave me certain expectations for other titles.
3. Group dynamics
There were definitely roles at play in parties for FFXI. They weren’t as simple as just the usual tank-healer-DPS setup, but they were there. What feels far more important, though, is that the roles were also a bit more amorphous. If you were playing as a Red Mage and not serving as primary healer, but something started going south? No one would ask you to start healing; you were just expected to do that because it was literally part of your job. It was this or, well, dying.
My experiences here really did inform my overall feelings about group dynamics in the future. There’s sometimes an emphasis or even expectation of tunnel vision for most players in a given group, that even if you have a healing spell it’s not your responsibility to use it on someone if you aren’t a healer. But it was your job in FFXI, and as far as I’m concerned that’s still the case in most games.
4. Grouping, period
I certainly had a lot of time to think about what I should be doing in groups, thanks to the fact that I frequently was waiting for one. At the time I was most actively into the game, I had a sharply limited amount of time available on a daily basis to play, and as a result it was kind of… basically impossible for me to level any damage-dealing job. Playing Dragoon meant not actually playing Dragoon – it meant sitting in Jeuno looking for a party and not getting any experience.
Needless to say, people crowing about how these games prompted social interaction get more than a little side-eye from me. The frustration involved in being unable to do basic things without manually forming a party hasn’t gone away years later, and it’s even what encouraged all my time spent healing and tanking in FFXI to begin with.
5. Combat approach
Gosh, I got good at navigating menus in this game. You sort of had to, since there were no action bars of any sort and making a macro for every single ability you used quickly became tedious, especially if you played a mage. This was helped somewhat by the fact that the game’s combat was balanced around precisely that, with most abilities having notable cooldowns, attacks coming slowly, and a somewhat slower pace than even most other games of its era.
At the same time, this was a deliberate choice to support, well, deliberating. It wasn’t just a test of your ability to hit buttons quickly but of your ability to choose the right buttons, so to speak. While it gets more active at higher levels, the fact is that it’s always a game in part about thinking your actions through, and it instilled an affection for that sort of gameplay and conditional ability use in general.
6. Saving money
Money was scarce in FFXI basically forever. Farming was miserably difficult (based on my aforementioned play schedule) and things were expensive. Thus I learned a very basic lesson to spend money only when it was actually absolutely necessary, and take a very dim view of considering convenience as “necessary.”
People wonder why I have so much money in MMOs these days.
The world of Vana’diel always delighted and enchanted me, not least because the whole thing is just so layered. Nothing in the game feels accidental or arbitrarily named, with everything having names that felt… well, obviously fantastical, but given an air of verisimilitude with their designations. The various beastmen outside of the city weren’t just Quadav Warriors and Quadav Red Mages; they were Amber Quadavs or Ruby Quadavs or Garnet Quadavs, and while you’d learn that they did have specific jobs, it was part of the experience instead of just being told.
The richness of the setting along with the story really conspired to give a sense that the game world was, well, a world. It kept turning even when you weren’t there, with people and places that operated even without major plots centered upon them. This had a big impact even on my own view of the setting, something that would influence a lot of my play later when it came to roleplaying.
Of course, actually seeing that world was another matter, since the game generally taught me to see exploration as a great way to die and level down. I got very accustomed to new areas being new spots to die in and places wherein any missteps would be punished badly. There were pits, impassable gates, general hostility… it gave me a sense of caution that sticks with me now, even though new zones in more modern games are rarely if ever so brutal.
9. Use of guides
This is probably the worst habit I picked up from the game because when the game launched in the US it launched after having been out in Japan long enough for the first expansion to already be bundled in. The net result was a sense that you weren’t really supposed to figure anything out; all of the quests and game mechanics and such had already been figured out. You were supposed to find good guides and follow those.
It’s taken a lot of work for me to break out of the habit that I need to read up about everything before ever going in to see it. Sure, I still consider that an advantage, and I don’t really balk at the idea that I might wind up mildly spoiled about something. But there’s a difference between that and a need to look at guides for, say, content that literally released on the day I’m first doing it.
10. Expectations for maintenance mode and twilight
Yes, the maintenance mode for FFXI happened years after I was no longer playing heavily. And yet… it actually still struck me because the whole process of handling the game in its later years has been marked by a real sense of respect and affection. It’s clear that the game’s developers are doing everything possible to keep the game going even with the understanding that it’s no longer a fresh and happening thing.
I respect that, and frankly, I think that’s admirable. I want every game’s development staff to treat even their older games with that sort of dignity. No, the game might no longer command big content updates, but FFXI is still pumping out something every single month. That’s dedication right there, and I can only hope that more modern titles get the same sort of affection as the years go by.