It is the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy XI this week. Not the 20th anniversary of the game being in the US, and thus not my own personal 20th anniversary of playing MMOs in general; that’ll be next year because the game launched in Japan with a notable lead time compared to its localized release. But the 20th anniversary of the game has me thinking about the title from back in the day, my first steps into Vana’diel, and the things I’ve learned about the game since then and even the ways in which game design has evolved.
And hey, sometimes this column exists to be self-indulgent; that’s at least half of its purpose. Plus, it’s a chance to laugh at me because in my first few steps in Vana’diel, I did basically everything it was possible to do wrong. Like, seriously, it was a comedy of errors, starting with the fact that I did something that is basically known as the last thing you should ever do in an MMORPG: begging a random player I thought was high-level for money.
Lest that not sound dumb enough, let’s begin with some context. I had started in Bastok, and there is an early quest in Bastok sending you into the Zeruhn Mines to collect some soot and turn it in as proof that you cleared out some monsters there. Someone was looking for a party to help him in doing this. So, as a new Red Mage, this seemed like a great idea to get in there and accomplish something! So I went in with him, we killed monsters, he got the soot he needed, and…
Well, then nothing happened.
The older and smarter me realizes that for one thing, I could have picked up the quest myself, and for another thing, that quest needed a party to complete like you need a full retinue of bodyguards to stop by the gas station for an energy drink. It might make you technically safer, but it’s overkill in the extreme. But the net result was that our party leader cleared the quest, and the rest of us were left without anything other than a handful of random drops and some experience (but not much) to show for our time.
I was rather perplexed and I really wanted some of the new cool armor I’d seen people walking around in, but it was going to cost me more gil than I had. So I went up to someone who had a full set of what (to my eyes) was higher-level armor, and I asked very politely if they’d be willing to lend me a few gil to buy some early armor.
To his credit, he laughed and loaned me the gil. To my credit (yes, there is actually a slight upside there) I friended him and did indeed pay him back as soon as I was able to do so. He was a cool guy. I hope he’s out there living his best life; I’m not in touch with any of the friends I made back in FFXI, not even really my old roommate whom I got the game to play alongside. (Not because of any falling out, just life taking us in different directions. If you’re reading this, Joe, you’re still cool.)
What’s not to my credit is that even back then, when I knew nothing about MMORPGs, I knew that begging for money was considered a no-no. But I still did it because I had no idea how to make money in the game even to fulfill basic functionality. FFXI in general was a game that basically seemed to have no interest in having you around; if you knew how to make money or had no idea what you were doing and fumbled through everything, that was all the same to the game.
I was never good at making money in the game, as it happened, and relied heavily upon the charity and willingness of others to deal with the fact that I was, in fact, perpetually broke. (At one point someone was shocked that my gear was still in such a deplorable state… and then funded a bunch of nice upgrades for me, so that was princely.) In general, FFXI came from a time when you were tossed into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim, and if you happened to never hook up with people who knew what they were doing… too bad for you, right?
You might be expecting that this is the time when I talk about this as somehow a thing we have lost… but the fact of the matter is that this is a good thing to lose on a whole. Make no mistake, I still deeply love FFXI, I will always have a love for it, but a lot of how it managed to grab me and hold me at first was more luck and novelty than anything. The many nights I spent sitting in Jeuno doing nothing while hoping to get a leveling party are not worth counting. The lack of any idea about how to get money while everything was expensive made the game frequently feel confusing and unclear.
Hell, there is no other MMO I’ve played consistently for so long wherein I spent so much of my play time feeling as if I had no idea what was going on. And if it were still as inaccessible now as it was back then, I would find going back to it a downright frustrating and almost infuriating experience.
But something wonderful has happened to FFXI over the years. It’s carefully, piece by piece, charted a course forward in which it is no longer as hostile to players without sacrificing all of the elements that made it so charming at the time.
I know I’ve talked before about how to get started in FFXI and what can be done there now before on this site; I even had a whole CMA series explaining how to start from nothing now without being lost or crippled or incapable. And that is entirely to the game’s credit. As times have changed, as philosophies have changed, the game has evolved along with them. The game you can play now is not like it was back in the day… but that’s also a good thing, because there’s no one in Valkurm to form a party with in the first place and no one liked forming leveling parties in Valkurm to begin with.
The game has changed. But to its credit, most of the game is still actually accessible as a result. The fact that there are fewer people around doesn’t meant that you’re locked in a dead world you can’t explore. And that’s a good thing because there are absolutely things about this game that I still love, and I adore the fact that now it is a game wherein you can see all of its wonders solo if you’re so inclined.
So here’s to you, Final Fantasy XI. You were always a weird game, you haven’t become less weird over the years, and you’re strange and sometimes hostile and off-putting and yet you’re also a place I still consider home. Here’s to 20 years of Vana’diel and many more to come.