Wisdom of Nym: Sorting through Final Fantasy XIV’s current balance state

    
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Kershadow

So right now, some jobs in Final Fantasy XIV are performing better than others. In other news, water retains its moisturizing properties. Early reports regarding the sun moving from east to west remain unconfirmed.

Honestly, part of me is tempted to just leave any and all analysis of the game’s current balance state right there because the reality is that this is not only not unusual but also not particularly interesting in and of itself. And a lot of the issues that people have with the balance of the game at the moment involves misunderstanding some of the most basic issues of how balance in FFXIV – or any online game – really works.

Still, this is something that deserves a bit more discussion. So let’s talk about those balance issue and the way that balance works on a while with games. And let’s start that with a little bit of relevant discussion about how balance works in other games, beginning with FFXIV’s obvious antecedent, Final Fantasy XI.

If you’ve never played FFXI before, you probably are (understandably) not terribly familiar with how the game manages balance. In broad strokes, the designers have explained that they balance jobs primarily by their expected overall utility. So, for example, Red Mage is balanced around the fact that it can heal, raise, and debuff, and it has reasonable weapon skills, and so forth. It can do almost everything, and it is balanced accordingly.

The problem, of course, is that this balance still leads to issues. The thing is that while Red Mage can do a lot of different things, it can’t actually do many of them very well. It makes a lot of sense to keep all of the various elements in place for the job, but the fact remains that most of the things that Red Mage can do aren’t actually useful most of the time. In fact, many people have noted that Red Mage might be able to do more things at once than Blue Mage, in practical terms, Blue Mage can do everything Red Mage can and usually better.

If you play Red Mage, this feels kind of bad. You might be aware of the reasons behind it, but it still isn’t exactly pleasant to realize that because of potential abilities that rarely roll over into actual, you wind up being pretty underpowered. At the same time, it’s not like there’s an easy or straightforward answer; if you asked most Red Mage players if they would trade all of their heals for more damage, I don’t think many would answer in the affirmative. In fact, most Red Mage commentary that I’ve seen basically boils down to “I should be just as capable as I am now but also way more damaging.”

I'm thinking it over.

The reality of balance in any MMO means some character options are going to be better than others. And with that out of the way, let’s talk a little about balance issues in FFXIV because there are some complaints people have raised that are legitimate… and a lot of them that really, really aren’t, starting with that basic misunderstanding.

For example, one of the things that I’ve seen people complain about is the way that Endwalker has standardized cooldown windows. Everything is on a 60s or 120s cooldown, usually with bigger party-wide cooldowns on 120s which means that every two minutes is a big burst window for the party as a whole. The result is that burst is definitely strong, lack of burst can be an issue, and it can make jobs that are much more about sustained damage rather than burst cycles feel worse.

But you know what? That isn’t actually new. The only thing standardization has changed is that these things now come on a steady, reliable cadence instead of sometimes requiring you to hold a cooldown for 30 seconds to sync up with everyone else. At the end of the day, most of what this has changed is making play more intuitive. The right thing to do is to burn your cooldowns as they come up, not hold them to arbitrarily sync up with someone else’s window.

And most of the “sustained” damage jobs without big burst windows actually do all right for themselves. The ones that don’t are jobs where there are still very much rotations of damage, but they don’t line up cleanly. Paladin, for example, is absolutely a job with a rotating damage pattern of peaks and valleys; they just don’t really line up well with burst windows of anyone else.

Paladin’s problem is not that the job is bad; its problem is that someone has to be the worst tank. Someone always has to be the worst tank. Someone has to be the worst DPS, someone has to be the worst healer, and someone has to be the worst DPS within the various sub-categories. This isn’t a design flaw or a problem where the designers don’t know how to balance; it’s a problem with the reality of how things are going to be rated.

Are there jobs that are underperforming? Absolutely, but sometimes it’s the sort of issue that isn’t down to numbers but design elements. Machinist does not deal too little damage to be viable; it’s just that its damage is balanced around being the highest-damage physical ranged DPS job. That means it has all the benefits of ranged instead of melee and doesn’t have to park to do damage. Frankly, making it a “selfish” DPS job with no substantial party buffs? Kind of doesn’t work.

Saw.

But does that mean you can’t clear content with a Machinist? No.

Does it mean that random groups will take a Machinist? Also no.

Does that mean it’s worse than it’s ever been? No, because random groups on party finder have always been like that. A collection of randos that you don’t run with on the regular are usually going to go with the most reliable and safe strategy, and when other jobs bring more to the table, the Machinist is going to have a hard time finding a place.

Again, though, this is literally always the case. There are always jobs that people are more reluctant to bring. And no, they’re not always the jobs with the highest or lowest parses. Monk has long kind of suffered because it’s seen as bringing not quite enough to the table while being complex to play; Reaper is sometimes seen as being less desirable than Dragoon or Ninja for group benefits. Groups that will take a Bard or Dancer might not take a Machinist. Red Mage often has a problem with most of its utility being about recovery rather than damage. Heck, there were times when Summoner was seen as a gamble because it was so complex and not everyone could play it at a solid level.

It’s not that balance is worse than it’s ever been or is in some unusual degenerate state. It’s just that the wheel turns and it does steadily. And trust me, if this is your main MMO and/or the first one where you’ve really followed endgame balance, there are games out there where balance is much, much worse.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, we’ll still be a bit out from the next live letter to chew on, so let’s chew on something else: Food! And potions. And yes, the whole delightful system of consumables for buffs that FFXIV uses.

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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