Vague Patch Notes: Player vs. class in Final Fantasy XI

It's a tiny little sprout thing. It might kill you.

I had finally hit level 41 on Red Mage in Final Fantasy XI. That was when the world changed, and if you played the game, you know why. It was Refresh time.

If you’ve never played FFXI, you may not understand how significant this was. Heck, if you’ve only played it recently, you may not understand the significance because it didn’t used to be this way. At this point, the game is not really an exercise in downtime. But back then, it definitely was. MP pools were very finite, and in order to restore MP you needed to kneel, a process that made you unable to move and more vulnerable to enemy attacks. It also decreased your TP, making it a non-starter for any physical jobs who needed that for weaponskills.

At level 41, though, Red Mage got Refresh. A single target, reasonably long-duration buff that simply let your MP tick back up without forcing you to kneel. A real game-changer, and for most Red Mages, the moment you found out if you could manage the tasks of the job correctly.

Red Mage was not useless before 41, of course. The job had an excellent Enfeebling skill from the start, and while you didn’t get multi-target buffs like Protectra and Shellra, you still had targeted buffs. Combine that with an arsenal of heals and nukes, and Red Mage was useful in the party… provided, of course, that anyone had the extra space left over once you had the more vital roles filled.

At this time, many MMOs didn’t really adhere to a consistent holy trinity in class design. Instead, you had a variety of roles you needed people to fill. Sure, you had a tank and a healer, that was familiar. But you also needed a puller, someone who had a ranged weapon of some kind and knew how to grab enemies without getting unwanted aggro (and, theoretically, knew the map). You needed an off-tank if you had a Ninja in the group. You needed a magical damage dealer (which almost always meant a Black Mage) alongside a physical one. If you were very lucky, you had a support job, which was mostly where Bard hung out.

What were you fighting? That part wasn’t all that important.

Get some.

Leveling in FFXI was a pretty stagnant affair. You found a camp – a reasonably sized chunk of the map without aggressive enemies where you could all stand without too much distance to where enemies would spawn. Then you would have your puller head out, grab a thing, and bring it back. The tank pulled it, the healer took care of the wounds that the puller had sustained, and you all went to work killing the dang thing, which was… not actually difficult, just slow.

See, you weren’t really fighting the enemy. You were, but your goal wasn’t so much a matter of ensuring that the enemy died, which was a simple prospect in a six-on-one fight. No, the real question was speed. How quickly could you kill it? How much damage did the tank take? How fast could the healer be ready for another pull? And so forth.

In the broadest sense, it was PvE gameplay, but the “E” there was only present in the most technical fashion. Instead, what you were really looking for was efficiency. This was why, for example, Bard was so valued at lower levels; by giving everyone a passive boost in healing or damage, Bard served as a force multiplier without having to do much else of note in the actual battle.

At lower levels, this made Red Mage more of a dodgy prospect. Red Mage could similarly be a force multiplier, because again, the real challenge was efficiency. If you debuffed the enemy until it only dealt half as much damage, that sped everything along. The question was whether or not you could debuff it that heavily… and at lower levels, this was a pretty dubious quality. You had a very basic handful of debuffs that didn’t have that much effect, making you less attractive over another party member that could be more helpful in efficient killing.

Level 41 changed that equation. Suddenly, Red Mage had something that only Bards otherwise had access to, but also that was more useful for targeting. Your Paladin would no longer have to kneel in order to make use of healing spells, boosting efficiency again. Your Black Mage could cast longer. The Dark Knight spells actually had some utility and functionality.

It never ends.

Of course, this came at a cost… namely, keeping up the Refresh Cycle. People had to have Refresh on them as optimally as possible. You also needed to be debuffing the enemy still. You also needed to be ready with Dispel if the enemy had a buff that would make killing it that much harder.

It wasn’t that the enemies had changed much or at all; odds are you were still fighting bats, beetles, and crabs, same as you had been at earlier levels. Instead, what had changed and gotten more complex was the job itself, requiring you to fill more roles and do more things amidst all of your other demands.

Red Mage thus became much more challenging. You might actually be called on to be the main healer now, simply because your heals were good enough and it was more efficient to fill a space with your debuffs and your heals. Or you might be magical damage. It was kind of a relief when you could actually just be debuffing and buffing instead of filling multiple roles at once.

But the point, as always, was efficiency. You were struggling to make things move as quickly as possible. The real struggle wasn’t against your target but ensuring that your camp was the best at killing things, that experience flowed quickly and without any major drawbacks.

When I play Red Mage right now in Final Fantasy XIV, I don’t have access to Refresh as a buff. I’m not debuffing the enemy, at that. I’m alternating my damaging casts and timing when I rush in to do melee damage, depending on the things that I’m fighting.

At this point, efficiency is not really the watchword. My rotation is reasonably complex and my ability to respond to situations is important, but the main challenge is not about pulling a sequence of crabs as quickly as possible. Instead, my focus is entirely around the mechanics of the thing that I’m fighting. This boss lays down damage fields that cause important changes to where I’m standing and where it’s safe to remain. Another boss has adds that need to be dealt with. The part that makes these fights intense is not that my class now has many more things to do, but that bosses grow outward in complexity.

In this context, of course, debuffs to vastly decrease enemy activity don’t really exist. I can’t Paralyze and Slow and Blind these enemies until they functionally just sit there. The actual enemy abilities are the danger, one that I have to learn to deal with, a fight of understanding and skillful execution rather than maximizing efficiency.

You can all write your own conclusions to this particular set of anecdotes.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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