In August of 2013, the Final Fantasy XIV relaunch happened and did basically every thing you should not do with any sort of long-format storytelling. It launched with a story that did not have a fully finalized long-term plan and one that was going to require a whole lot of time and space to fully tell, meaning that Square-Enix was betting on this portion being successful enough that it would get others. And the next several years would demonstrate that this bad plan which should have been wildly unsuccessful… would actually pay off very well, with a long-form story that genuinely rewarded the time spent by players until the whole thing concluded in Endwalker.
Good on you, folks! Take a holiday. (They already did. We’ve had the Endwalker victory lap already. It’s a joke.)
Here’s the thing, though: I feel like it’s valuable to take that into account when you look at what the future of the game is going to be over the next few expansions. We know at the very least that another expansion is planned already and that we’ll be getting foreshadowing for our next expansion when patch 6.5 rolls around. But what will be the shape of storytelling in the game from this point onward?
It’s important to point out that saying “this was a long shot that could easily have totally not worked” is not just idle speculation on my part. The team and Naoki Yoshida have all noted that the Hydaelyn and Zodiark storyline had a lot of places where everything could have fallen apart or gone horribly off the rails. Successfully shepherding the game from 2.0 through 6.0 across four expansions to tell a single contiguous story? That’s a big accomplishment. It’s frankly astonishing.
But that just further raises the question: Is trying that again a good idea? Is it even the idea that the team is working on at this point? Should it be, either way? I think it’s a worthwhile question to ask, and so it’s one I’m going to explore both for and against in this particular question.
Eight years is a long time to tell a story, especially in the case of MMOs. The reality is that eight years is actually a pretty good timescale for an MMO to launch, become popular, reach its apex, and start declining. Setting out to tell a long-form story like that has the very real risk that you may or may not have the audience around for the end of the next arc.
And let’s be real here, no one on the development team is unaware of that fact. Right now, the story of FFXIV is in what amounts to its victory lap. No, it’s pretty much a known fact that the story is not going to go the route of having each expansion be its own self-contained thing a la Final Fantasy XI, but that doesn’t mean that we need to embark on another story as grand or far-reaching as the last one.
Heck, a smaller story has its own advantages. It lets us touch on smaller but still important areas in the game world that might not naturally lend themselves to the same kind of scale as Zodiark and Hydaelyn. Telling some smaller stories along the way sounds like a nice thing to me, even if it might not feel quite a consequential at a glance.
The main concern, though, really is simply one of execution. The game is not getting newer, and while it defied odds once by producing a nearly decade-long story that actually worked, it’s never a good plan to figure you can beat the odds twice because you managed it once. Smaller and less sweeping stories provide a lot of opportunity to still have fun without trying to artificially inflate the length of the story or the stakes of the same. Nothing is ever going to feel like the first major arc. It just can’t. We don’t need to chase it forever.
Heck, isn’t that one of the fun things about the very nature of the game in the wake of Endwalker? We have almost definitionally had the big climactic showdown with a force that challenged the very persistence of the universe. The stakes were as high as they could go, and the Scions and the player character won. Now things go lower-stakes and we can enjoy a victory lap in a game we’re enjoying. No problems there.
On the other hand… even if I might say that it’s not a very good idea, years of experience have proven that Naoki Yoshida and his team look at things they probably should not attempt to do less as a hard stop and more as a challenge to rail against.
The reality is that there is probably no universe wherein the FFXIV 2.0 project sounded like a slam dunk, and heck, even as someone who literally lived through this game finding a huge audience and becoming a massively influential title, I still find it kind of hard to believe that it’s an actual thing that happened. It’s very easy to point out that in the abstract, trying another big extended story is probably not a great idea.
But this is a team that has looked at basically every prior case of “this is going to be really hard” and said “well, let’s do it anyway.” If “this is going to be hard if not impossible” didn’t deter anyone from trying to pull off the first major story arc, there’s no reason why the team wouldn’t try to do it a second time.
Heck, in some ways the fact that it was a long shot that they pulled off once is almost like a corrective for trying to pull it off again. If it doesn’t work this time, no big deal, right? Doing it once was tricky, doing it twice was always going to be a hell of a thing to ask for.
And there’s a certain level of expectation there, too – a sense that maybe this is more doable than people think. Hard, sure, but not something that can’t be done, just something that rarely is done successfully.
Having said all of that, what do I think is the most likely future for the story arcs in the game? I honestly don’t think that we’re going to get another arc that runs as long as the first one. It’s just a heck of a lift, and it runs smack-dab into the problem of being a bigger challenge than the developers actually need to attempt to prove what they’re capable of.
But I do expect that the next story arc that’s being set up in these patches is going to last longer than just through the end of the Endwalker patches. While I don’t think the next expansion is going to be a fun vacation inside the Void, it does seem like what’s getting set up for the future, and something we’re going to have to deal with after this arc is over. And we’ve got Zero for a while to keep building that up.
So maybe it’ll last for two or three expansions. We’ll see soon enough, won’t we?
Feedback, as always, is welcome via email to email@example.com or in the comments down below. Next week, let’s take a look at something I’ve deliberately waited to talk about for a long while. I want to talk about the major themes of the first major story arc now that we have it firmly in the rear view.