Wisdom of Nym: Bespoke rotations in Final Fantasy XIV as both a positive and a negative

    
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It burns, burns, burns.

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?

The answer to that question, in the true and most weaselly fashion, is that it’s kind of both? It’s a very limiting setup that also has some definite advantages for how the game is designed as a whole, and today I want to spend my time talking about exactly that. It’s one of the aspects of the game that I personally criticize the most, but it also does have some definite advantages and reasons for being there, even if I’ve noted before that there are ways to provide more options.

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.

Fandaniel is a bad person, don't be like Fandaniel.

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.

Custom.

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 eliot@massivelyop.com, as with every other week. Next week, I’d like to talk a little bit about future jobs… again.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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Knight Porter

The specializations in WoW are partly there to offer variety on a single character. A paladin will always be a paladin, whether ret, prot or holy. In FFXIV, your different classes are your specializations, without having to level an alt. (yes, you have to level the class, but that’s a less arduous process, since you’re not re-doing major content/quests/etc).

There’s also an argument to be made that complexity removed from the classes by a fixed rotation is added back in by every single boss fight having notable mechanics. I remember being absolutely *floored* that the boss of the first dungeon in the game had actual mechanics going on. (sadly mostly negated now because of stat balance changes, but it still applies from midgame onward). Every boss fight I’d been in in WoW outside of a raid was just pure tank-and-spank, and even raid fight mechanics were never all that complex.

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raistlin-nahum

It all boils down to one word: limitation.

Those of us who have been in this genre for a few years now and have not limited ourselves to just a casual game (WoW or FFXIV) have seen how much fun a game rich in options is.

In Ragnarok Online you can make several builds in the same class (Paladin golpel, shield boomerang, holy cross, tank…) and that makes that same class can play totally and radically different and gives a lot of fun, and also makes you USE YOUR BRAIN to see how to deal with different situations.

Final Fantasy XI with the job/subjob system and the equipment system means you can go as Paladin/blu and control mobs, or go /war and focus on a specific enemy or go into less dangerous content with the two handed sword Ragnarok and do damage, or put on DD equipment and go as a paladin and do damage with excalibur sword or savage blade or go /nin and try to tank a duo with another tank. …there are a thousand possibilities for most of the jobs and you can EXPERIENCE different roles with most of the jobs and that gives a beastly and unmatched FUN.

In the best MMORPGs you have to have options, CHOICES, not just limit everything to the same thing and then give options only to glamour….

But the problem is a concept problem, in FFXIV there are only 5 roles, but it changes the classes only in visual aspect.

And all the content is limited to that, that’s why there’s no real difficulty in the game, it’s just spamming your rotation while dodging lights on the ground, there’s no depth or different strategies when facing situations.

It makes a lot of difference when facing a battle in FFXI if your tank is PUP or is PLD or is NIN or is MONK.
In FFXIV that doesn’t exist.

That’s why, calling FFXIV one of the best MMORPG, with how casual and LIMITED it is, seems very sad to me and shows how undemanding is the current public that swallows everything, as long as it’s pretty.

And that it is easier to program a game with only 5 real classes to developers is not an achievement, it shows how limited are those programmers, it should not be rewarded that a game is limited so that programmers can be lazier.

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Vincent Clark

“That’s why, calling FFXIV one of the best MMORPG, with how casual and LIMITED it is, seems very sad to me and shows how undemanding is the current public that swallows everything, as long as it’s pretty.”

1. Don’t be sad.

2. The majority of gamers fall into the “casual” bracket, no matter how much that may leave a bad taste in your mouth.

3. Most people don’t need their entertainment to be “demanding”. Life is demanding enough.

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IronSalamander8 .

I strongly disagree with the idea that FF14 is super casual or that some of us like it because it’s pretty. The looks are actually part of why I keep leaving and coming back, it’s too..flowery(?) for me.

EQ was my first MMO, and far from casual. My favorite board game of all time is Star Fleet Battles, and I haven’t been able to play in years as the game has so many rules that I’ve had a hard time finding people to play with after moving from my old group, so I’m normally one that likes lots of complexity and options, and FF14 is deeper than it appears, although you have to be higher level for that to really show up.

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Andrew Clear

To be fair, the actual combat mechanics (rotations, ogcds, etc) did take a drastic turn toward the more “casual” (a people like to describe it), since the ability purge in Stormblood. The boss mechanics, on the other hand, are becoming more intense.

I would argue that FFXIV is a casual game, and I would argue that it is a hard core game. Most casual players will not bother with Ultimate, Savage, Extreme, and Unreal fights. The hard core crowd will. Casuals will do roulettes, level jobs, RP, etc.

Also, I would never define a game as being casual or hard core based on the number or complexity of systems. Hell, many casual mobile games could be considered hard core if that was the case….

FFXIV has the beauty of allowing people to play when / how they want, and go as deep into the complexity of the systems as they would like as well.

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Bereman99

The condescension is positively dripping from this post.

I’d love to see a breakdown of how you came across the “only 5 real classes” categorization though. Tank, healer, melee, physical ranged, caster?

Bet I could just as easily lump classes in RO into similarly restrictive categories based on arbitrary criteria about how they play the “same.”

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Bruno Brito

I’m all for choices but dear god, this isn’t a good assessment at all.

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Andrew Clear

I haven’t really played RO, so I can’t comment on that, but FFXI is not a very balanced game, at all, and that was by design. Let’s leave the sub jobs out of the mix for now, and just look at the jobs themselves. They were designed to serve very specific functions within a party composition. Even in doing that, SE could not even get those jobs balanced with one another, and many jobs were just far superior to other jobs that served the same function. Now, let’s drop the sub jobs into the mix. Since the jobs were originally designed for a specific role inside of a party, certain jobs were naturally better suited for sub jobs while others were useless. To top that off, each job would only have about 1 to 4 viable sub jobs.

Let’s also address the fact that FFXI allows you to swap armor while fighting, and is easily done inside of their macro system. If this did not exist, then the amount of viable jobs, and the viability of main jobs would be decreased as well. The developers are not even that concerned with balancing, and haven’t been for over a decade. They are just concerned with people having fun, and the people who still play do have fun.

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Mason Dixon

I really enjoy FFXIV’s choice not to allow much customization in how the jobs work. I played Destiny 2 semi-casually for years, and I was overwhelmed when they started introducing more complex armor and artifact mods. I never landed on a build I really enjoyed, and it was difficult to know what my opponents in PvP were running at a glance. I had times where if I didn’t want to run the new broken seasonal build, or if my comfy build got nerfed, I was little more than dead weight for my fireteam.

In FFXIV, I know exactly what both friends and foes have in their kit, given I know how the job works. The fight designs in later expansions combined with higher level rotations give me plenty to chew on as a mid-core player, so I don’t need any more complexity or customization to satisfy me. I don’t know if I learn differently than others, but just getting one job’s standard lvl 80 rotation down and managing to remember it is an undertaking for me. Once I have it down I can pay more attention to my party and what they’re doing, with the added benefit of each of us being semi-predictable for each other. Overall, I understand the negative sides but the current system works well with my brain. There are other games that do give you more freedom, but I quite like my rails.

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jealouspirate

I have thoughts on this, as well as game balance in general. For reference I am part way through Stormblood. TLDR: I’m fine with this system. I also like other games that provide more choice, like WoW. Both can work.

FFXIV is remarkably well balanced.

This is something I hear a lot from people who know more about the game than I do. So I assume it’s true. But I can also say that I have no idea if it’s true based solely on playing the game. There are no real metrics available for me to evaluate this without breaking terms of service. It’s not obvious from just playing the game itself. More importantly, even if it’s balanced in theory, it’s certainly not balanced in practice. I’ve done a lot of dungeons and raids – and skill varies wildly. I’ve grouped with some great players, and some terrible ones. The difference is largely inconsequential most of the time, since content is so easy.

Which brings me to my 2nd point. It doesn’t really matter whether most content in this game is balanced or not because it’s so easy. As far as I can tell, there are no serious dps checks in normal/hard mode content. Mechanics are important, but can often be ignored. Everyone can kill pretty much everything. I’ve gone into every dungeon and raid blind as a tank or healer and almost always 1-shot stuff. Maybe 1-3 wipes at most. Never had a group disband.

What is the point of all this rant? It’s to say that FFXIV seems to have a lot of room to experiment and shake things up before balance problems would actually matter (or even be noticed).

…but any collection of jobs can take on pretty much any sort of content and reasonably expect to clear

This is 100% true in games like WoW as well. You can clear heroic raids or +20 keys with any group composition in the game, and let people make whatever non-meta choices they want. The reason this doesn’t happen is entirely based on player perception. WoW doesn’t obfuscate performance like FFXIV does, and of course there is a player culture that cares about largely negligible 5% differences.

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Bereman99

The reason this doesn’t happen is entirely based on player perception. WoW doesn’t obfuscate performance like FFXIV does, and of course there is a player culture that cares about largely negligible 5% differences.

Not sure I can agree with this when it comes to WoW, largely because the difference between the top DPS classes and bottom DPS classes is bigger than 5% (closer to 20% on some fights, and that’s comparing the median…so your average player), and I’m not sure those bottom DPS classes offer anything to offset their lower DPS the way FFXIV does (lower DPS in FFXIV are balanced lower based on how much they improve the overall group’s damage through buffs/utility).

Of course the content can be cleared by any composition, but a 20% potential difference is a hard thing to shake.

Mechanics are important, but can often be ignored.

Yes…and no. Some mechanics can be sort of ignored in leveling content, as all they do is extra damage or add something like vulnerability debuff that causes you to take more damage. Other mechanics can and do still wipe groups if not done properly, even in content that isn’t at the level-cap.

This is most prevalent in the Extreme trials or Savage versions of raids, as well as the three Ultimates.

And even then, most mechanics won’t outright kill you, but ignoring it more than once or twice usually leads to a death. They tend to hit hard enough to make you go “I probably shouldn’t do that again.”

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Andrew Clear

Yeah, the normal / story stuff is easy now. It used to be much harder. There are DPS checks in normal / story stuff and the newer the content, the more likely you will see people failing those. The key with those DPS checks, is that, if you are dead, then you can’t DPS, and it is normally other mechanics that people died to that cause the DPS check to be failed in normal / story mode.

Those same DPS checks exist in the Savage / Extreme modes as well, and again, most of the time they would be failed for the exact same reasons.

I don’t tend to put much into damage meters, considering all the variables that can be involved in the normal second to second game play, as well as character composition (gear / materia, etc).

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Tenthyr Adi

I will argue till my face is blue that materia as a system could be so much more, if flavored a little bit like the runes in GW2, for example.

Not that this wouldn’t require a massive adjustment to how classes are balanced but still, it’s sad that I basically don’t pay attention to gear beyond it’s ilvl.

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Andrew Clear

That’s a shame, because a lot of time each job / role could have two pieces of gear, at the same ilvl, that have a different combination of main stats. This is how some people could customize their characters further.

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Ryan Allgood

Another bonus to the system as it is, I feel, is that it’s likely a lot easier for them to design and add new Jobs.

In something like WoW, which has customization but not even to the level of some of the other MMOs, adding a class is really adding like adding 2-3 major playstyles (each spec) with a fair number of smaller playstyle tweaks (each tier of talents).

I feel like this is why we get new Jobs every expansion, while WoW very rarely gets a new class.

And honestly, I like new Jobs, so I’m happy with this system. I don’t think every MMO needs the same level of customization. If I want to work out crazy unique builds, I’ll look more to something like Guild Wars 2.

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Bruno Brito

If I want to work out crazy unique builds, I’ll look more to something like Guild Wars 2.

Wat

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Andrew Clear

I love getting new jobs as well. I am looking forward to the future, as they have to start being more creative since each job is supposed to be a different weapon….

I can’t wait for dual pistols, or maybe a bo class….who knows what is in store.

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Erika Do

One of my favorite things about WoW back when I played it was picking the talents I wanted even though they were “suboptimal” for raids because I didn’t really want to raid. I wanted to see how much damage I could do on a healing priest in a heroic with friends while still keeping everyone alive, or doing pretty much anything as a ret paladin in BC and other such challenges to myself.

But over time, the developers seem to have decided that if it’s not raid-viable, you shouldn’t be allowed to choose it, even if it’s fun. They kept removing options one by one until each spec became its own class that has little to do with the others in some cases, with only a handful of pre-vetted choices to make in each. I quit that game when they took fistweaver monk away due to it being “too hard to balance”.

I’m playing FFXIV now and I don’t really miss that customization. There are enough classes that I feel like if I don’t like how one plays, I just pick a different one.

If devs want to give people choices, give them choices! Not all of them have to be balanced for raiding, because not everyone is raiding. I feel like balance in general makes classes less fun because they start to feel too homogenous. I wish more MMOs were more unbalanced because part of the fun is figuring out how to get the most out of a spec that is less good on paper.

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Andrew Clear

I used to like the idea of having customization in my MMOs, but it got to the point where you inevitably would need to go to a website in order to get the “proper” setup for your character. Have a non optimized character is not always fun (although sometimes it can be). In an offline RPG, have a non optimized character is generally ok.

I do like how FFXIV is pretty well balanced, but I do miss some of the tiny amount of customization we had with 2.0. I do believe the 1.0 level of customization was too much. I love the sub jobs in FFXI, but in reality, you had limited, (2 to 4) options for some jobs, while only having one option for others. But, the decision to design the job system that way allowed for many jobs to not even be viable in specific content. The balance was normally garbage as well.

WoW struggles with balance, as does many other mmos that offers choices. It is a trade off. As the saying goes, there is no free lunch.

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IronSalamander8 .

It’s an interesting design choice and one that I’m surprisingly ok with; normally I like having a lot of choices in RPGs, going back to the 80s when I first started playing basic D&D out of that red box, so one of the reasons I’ve left and come back to FF14 is that each class has its own skillset, passives, and way to play, so that every character of the same class/job is going to play much the same as every one, barring gear, level, and personal skill. I generally find that stifling.

We used to have to cross class to open up certain abilities from other classes (like provoke, or rampart, can’t remember which, was a GLD/PLD thing I needed on my warrior back then), which gave an illusion of choice, but some abilities are so crucial for your role that it wasn’t much of a choice really, you needed to get those skills.

Back when I played more WoW, especially in BC and Wrath, there were choices to be made with which spec you focused on and how far you went with the idea of hybrid builds, and which talents to take, and at many levels in the tree you had a couple choices; with 1 being the best, 1 being terrible, and 1 that was ok. It wasn’t much of a choice when you get down to it, if only one choice is actually good. It still has that with the newer talent system, it’s just less choices to make so it’s not actually better, it’s just less interesting.

Keeping classes/jobs with fixed abilities does make it much easier to balance, even if it lacks the player agency I normally love. At least I never feel gimped on any job I’ve played so far in FF14, or that I have the wrong build and my DPS is below par from that choice, unlike some other MMOs out there.