When the Final Fantasy XIV media tour happens, it’ll be the first opportunity anyone outside of Square-Enix has gotten to look at anything related to Endwalker. This is a bit unusual. A lot of MMOs have public betas of some kind for their expansions, and even those without a full beta event for said expansion usually include some degree of opportunity to test out new content patches with actual players instead of just internal company representatives.Final Fantasy XI, I had no real experience with MMOs (due to that being my first one and all) and thus had no real sense of public test servers being a thing. Over time, obviously, I grew accustomed to them being around… but then I started getting used to not having them around again for FFXIV. And quite frankly, looking at everything the game has accomplished over the past several years, I’m increasingly actually glad that we don’t have public testing outside of the occasional media event. I think it works out well.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to preface this particular analysis by noting that when you get right down to it, it’s pretty clear that FFXIV puts out some remarkably balanced and well-designed content without any kind of test server. While I think there are definitely some areas where there’s room to look at the setup and argue that the game could be richer with some public testing (which I disagree with, but we can put a pin in that), the fact remains that the simplest argument against public testing is that the game is working fine without it.
But let’s put that to one side for a moment. Let’s look at the advantages of lacking any sort of public testing, starting with the fact that new stuff is new for everyone at the same cadence.
There’s no impetus to test things, find optimal routes, and be ready to speedrun everything on the day of release because the first day of early access no one is going to know the fastest way to speedrun anything. Sure, you can make certain guesses, like how to level up as quickly as possible… but leveling in and of itself isn’t going to get you through the MSQ, so even that requires a little bit of re-evaluation. Your fastest way through the MSQ is to just do the quests as they come up, after all.
Similarly, new dungeons, raids of all varieties, trial bosses, beast tribes… all of this stuff is new for everyone at the same time. No one knows the best way to do things on the day of the launch. We’re all novices at the same time. That gives an equalizing effect and it prevents people from getting bored with the content before it’s even officially playable.
Just as importantly, it keeps datamining to a minimum. While there is still stuff mined out around FFXIV (it’s discouraged but present), generally datamining is much more controlled and rarely involves figuring out things in advance of official notifications. Games with public test servers rarely enjoy the same grace period, with most players actively participating in the game’s news cycle knowing about changes, plot points, content mechanics, and so on long before anything new actually comes out.
It also means that tuning is based more consistently around expected average players rather than cutting-edge players, and tuning is further expected to be done based on the playerbase as a whole. This is an important and subtle distinction, but it ties to people not practicing or taking part in the content ahead of time.
Basically, in games wherein you’re using a public test server to collect data on how well players can clear things, you are naturally getting data based chiefly on the people who are devoted enough to start practicing on the content before it’s live. That means that if something is tuned fine for that particular group of players (who are usually quite dedicated to the game), it isn’t necessarily designed to be accessible to the majority of players. Getting your data without that imbalance means that everything has to be balanced around an expected average, and the adjustments that come later are based on observed reactions from the actual average playerbase.
Now, the issue of balance does actually come up in certain cases, like the launch state of Ninja in Shadowbringers. It’s an indisputable fact that Ninja was in a terrible place when the expansion started, and odds are with player feedback something could have been done about this ahead of time without having to make Ninja pretty useless for a while until the balance passes were done, right? After all, then the developers would have had information ahead of time.
Except, well… class balancing is hard. It’s hard to do it at the best of times, and having to translate a whole bunch of player feedback from multiple languages, sifting through all of it, and deciding which bits of feedback were accurate and which should be discarded doesn’t necessarily fix the problem. It’s definitely true that someone would have noticed that Ninja was a mess before launch; what’s not clear is whether or not people would rightly identify that just Ninja needed major tuning out of melee and whether or not the developers would be able to find the ultimate solutions with that feedback.
Based on how many people currently say Samurai is underpowered, my bet is “probably not.”
The other big thing that public testing can really do is serve as a means of hype, getting people excited for the next major bit of content ahead of release. However… even disregarding the fact that FFXIV has little trouble getting people hyped up for its next few releases well in advance (we’re all counting the days until Endwalker at this point), that hype is mostly confined to the people who are really active in the game’s community and with news, once again.
For that matter, the test server hype can work against the actual release. I talked before about getting bored with the patch before it had even come out, and that’s definitely an issue. Imagine if all of the patches for FFXIV were up for testing for a month before they launched, even if we pretend the MSQ was somehow disabled and it was just a matter of chain-running the new instance and raids and what-not on the test server. Wouldn’t you be kind of bored by the time it actually came out? Wouldn’t patch day feel less like a chance to get to see all of this in action and more of a sighing “finally” when all was said and done?
So, yeah… I don’t miss having public tests. Part of me does miss the energy of the game when it did have its beta events before the relaunch and wishes that something similar was going on for the next expansion… but another part of me is happy that by the time I’m really playing this content, I’m really playing it.
The media tour notwithstanding, I mean.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week? You know we’re going to need to talk about that live letter, naturally.