When you get right down to it, the character specs on display in Final Fantasy XIV are some of the most limited out of all the big five MMOs, largely due to the fact that your spec is wholly determined by your job. You are not choosing between, say, a half-dozen different ways to play your Warrior; you’re choosing to play a Warrior, and that’s the extent of your choices. Indeed, you could argue that the game really just has five class options (tank, healer, ranged physical, melee physical, and ranged magical) and all you’re really doing is choosing between those specs because the entire class is a despote rotation.
Is that a good thing?
Let’s start by diving right onto this double-edged sword by looking at the game’s balance as a whole because I think there’s no better demonstration of something that the game actually does quite well in that regard. FFXIV is remarkably well balanced. It’s not perfect, of course – almost nothing is – but any collection of jobs can take on pretty much any sort of content and reasonably expect to clear, and that includes even the least meta-capable configurations you can imagine. And part of that is, yes, due to bespoke rotations.
See, when every job has a very specific list of abilities and options, the designers can anticipate everything a given job is going to be able to do. All that matters for tuning is the execution of same and the ability to deliver on the full potential of a given job, not whether or not you’ve used the optimal choices for your particular job. Beyond melds (which have a fairly small but notable effect) you’re looking at pretty consistent and predictable outcomes.
The obvious counterargument to this, of course, is that there are other games with at least moderate balance that do allow you to choose your loadout and abilities. And people will argue right away that if you don’t care about the best options in a meta sense, you can do almost anything you want.
This is technically accurate but practically wrong.
I don’t simply mean that it’s wrong looking at things like how few options a given game gives you; that, for these purposes, is largely irrelevant. I mean it in the much more mundane sense that from a functional standpoint, most of these games have certain expectations about what you’re going to pick and how you’re going to set up your character.
You are, technically, free to ignore the things pointing in those directions. You are also free to get used to things taking much longer to kill and a lot of content being impossible for you. The balance will usually be tuned so that non-meta builds will function and be playable, but there are certain expectations about aiming for efficiency. There’s a reason there are so many sites devoted to offering players viable or “optimal” builds for various roles, and that’s because some choices are basically going to wind up being better than others.
That doesn’t mean that making “wrong” choices isn’t valuable or isn’t possible; it just means that the game is balanced around you making reasonably good choices, even if not the optimal choices. And for better or worse, most players would prefer to be making good choices even if that means sacrificing some of their personal agency with their class choices.
Having said that, the result is still that having bespoke classes means that having two characters with the same jobs means having two functionally identical characters. If you know how to play a Ninja, getting another character up to the same level in Ninja will make that character functionally identical to every other Ninja. The only real choices are in how well you can execute your mechanics while also dealing with boss mechanics.
But at the same time, that’s also part of the core experience of the game, not an accident. The challenge of boss fights is down to learning how to best execute your rotation amidst a bunch of things that make that more difficult or force you to have some downtime, with various jobs balanced around how much damage is lost when you have to be running around and staying at range. The more mobile a job is and the more it can do at range, the lower its overall damage. This is a core element of the gameplay.
And yet for some people, that’s just not going to be all that fun. Some people want fights to be more a proof of planning ahead of time. You made the right choices about how to build and gear your character before you went into the fight, so now you just execute the mechanics and follow a pretty straightforward rotation, and out comes your victory. That’s the fun element of the game.
Yet the complexity of FFXIV’s rotations in and of itself is fun for some people. It’s hard to have an interlocking network of skills which all depend on one another when you’re not actually sure what skills any given player is going to be bringing to the encounter, after all. By having a set lineup of abilities, you can tune the rotation to have a lot of moving parts and expect all the parts to, you know… actually be there and be working together.
So am I saying this is actually the better option? No. I’m saying that this is an option, and it’s the way that FFXIV’s designers have chosen to set it up. I’ve been not even a little bit subtle about saying that it’s kind of a shame to not have any customization options for any given job and that one of the major drawbacks the game has is that limitation; I even wrote a whole column about how the Save the Queen content offers a different potential mechanism for giving players more custom options if the designers wanted to.
But I also think it’s important to understand why those options aren’t taken. There is a value in FFXIV being designed the way that it is, a unique space of design that could not exist with heavier mix-and-match elements. As much as I can sometimes miss the way that abilities mingled together in the first version of the game, the net result in combat design and the overall experience now definitely make for a more entertaining and satisfying experience… and it’s important to note just how much of that experience comes down to the limitations of customization.
Feedback is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, as with every other week. Next week, I’d like to talk a little bit about future jobs… again.