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Friday, April 8, 2011

Can There Only Be One? (from Zam forums)

Nobody thought FFXIV would be in FFXI's shadow. Is there room for both MMOs?

Remember last summer when a certain ZAM staff member wrote an editorial questioning whether Final Fantasy XI would crumble next to the magnificence of Final Fantasy XIV?

Yeah, so about that…

When I wrote my editorial last summer about the coming of Final Fantasy XIV, I figured many players would leave Vana’diel to check out Eorzea. I thought Square Enix was done adding significantly new content to Final Fantasy XI, and that the powers that be would rather have adventurers traipsing around Eorzea. After all, what kind of self-respecting gaming company would want its biggest cash cow chained to obsolete Playstation 2 technology?

Unfortunately, the launch of Final Fantasy XIV failed. The game is stunningly beautiful but still extremely low on content. Although the game still has a chance to rebound with a strong Playstation 3 release and continued tenacity from Naoki Yoshida, the game’s new producer, we may always wonder “what might have been” when pondering the game’s catastrophically premature release.

But today I'm wrestling with bigger questions -- could Final Fantasy XI be regarded as Final Fantasy XIV's biggest competitor? If so, would the folks at Square Enix be willing to cannibalize one game to save the other? And if the choice had to be made today, which game would be more worth saving?

While Eorzea was floundering, Vana’diel was thriving, thanks in large part to the Abyssea battlefield expansions. The first Abyssea expansion, titled Vision of Abyssea, was released three months prior to the launch of Final Fantasy XIV. Expectations were low for the quality of the Abyssea series, mainly because of the low regard among players for the previously released trio of add-on scenario expansions. By the time Final Fantasy XIV was released, residents of Vana’diel were realizing the vast potential of the Abyssea areas.

Fast forward to today, and Abyssea has clearly redefined endgame in Final Fantasy XI. Rather than spend countless hours grinding for experience points, players can now spend more of their days hunting notorious monsters and seeking rare treasures. There are numerous carrots to be chased in the Abyssea areas, and the sticks are both long and short. Thanks to Abyssea, Vana’diel is suddenly an endgame adventurer’s dream come true.

The facelift of Final Fantasy XI doesn’t stop in Abyssea. Fields of Valor was expanded, allowing players to participate in unlimited battle regimens. The development team also increased the amount of experience points awarded for killing mobs in non-Abyssea areas, and skilling up weapons and magic was made easier. Not only was the endgame of FFXI reworked, but low-level soloers and parties were given a sizable boost. Next in line to be reinvented are the core zones of Dynamis. If the success of Abyssea is any indication, I have a feeling one of Vana’diel’s oldest activities is about to become lively again.

Even more amazing is the fact that my home server of Lakshmi seems as populated as it was last September. There must have been some attrition in Final Fantasy XI, otherwise Square Enix wouldn’t be on the verge of merging more servers. That said, there’s no way the playerbase of FFXIV holds a candle to the population of FFXI.

I still don’t doubt that Square Enix wants Final Fantasy XIV to be the company’s new flagship MMO, and why wouldn’t they? The game was (shockingly) under development for years. It’s built upon the in-house Crystal Tools graphics engine. The game is built with the latest technology in mind and is arguably the best-looking MMO on the market. Most of all, a revamped version of FFXIV would be very appealing to a large demographic of gamers who have grown up on the Final Fantasy series.

There was a time when Final Fantasy XIV was more attractive to a wider range of gamers. A poll conducted by developers earlier this year showed that people playing FFXIV had more experience in FFXI than any other MMO. Not far behind was World of Warcraft. Beyond that, FFXIV gamers had come from games ranging from Guild Wars to Aion to The Lord of the Rings Online. However, the bad press surrounding FFXIV’s failed launch as taken a toll on the game’s playerbase. I can’t imagine too many WoW refugees will pass up games like RIFT so they can stand around in Eorzea.

This highlights the ultimate truth. Not only does Square Enix need to completely revamp its flagging MMO, but the company must find a way to recapture that fan base that has carried the Final Fantasy franchise for so many years.

And therein lays the ultimate dilemma – because thousands of those players are currently having the times of their lives in Abyssea.

So, I ask, what will become of Final Fantasy XI?

There’s no longer any question about whether Final Fantasy XI is dying. It’s not. But does saving Final Fantasy XIV mean stunting the growth of Final Fantasy XI? The world of Vana’diel is as lively as it has been in a long time, and the announcement of more new content – especially something as big as a full-scale expansion – could guarantee years of additional shelf life for the 9-year-old game. However, good luck convincing those players to move to Eorzea if any such expansions were to happen.

In a recent interview, Naoki Yoshida reaffirmed his commitment to salvage FFXIV. Unlike other gaming companies, Square Enix is not at the mercy of investors, he said, and can take whatever time is needed to heal its ailing title. On our forums and elsewhere, people have openly debated whether the Playstation 3 version will ever come to fruition. I have no doubt the game will be released on the PS3 – otherwise, Square Enix would have already pulled the plug.

That’s why I wouldn’t expect any massive content updates to Final Fantasy XI in the near future. Why would Square Enix want to release earth-shattering content for Final Fantasy XI at the risk of suffocating Final Fantasy XIV? On the flipside, how long can FFXI thrive on recycled content before players require something more? How long can Square Enix hold off on genuinely new content for Final Fantasy XI before the tried-and-true cash cow stops yielding milk?

Forget what you wanted six months ago and ask this question now: would you rather play a revamped version of Final Fantasy XIV – a game that still lacks plot, personality and purpose, and even with a massive overhaul might never get off the ground -- or today’s version of Final Fantasy XI, an incredibly deep and revitalized game that could conceivably be unchained from its PS2 anchor? I really love the drive that Naoki Yoshida brings to the FFXIV development team, and so I'm not ready to write off Eorzea.

Honestly, though, Vana’diel has never looked so good -- and for the folks at Square Enix, that’s got to be a serious problem.

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