Final Fantasy XI: FFXI Beta and Rise of the Zilart

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So, in the last post I talked a bit about Square’s online ambitions with the PlayOnline Service, so now let’s actually discuss the game that PlayOnline was really designed for, Squaresoft’s first MMO entry in the Final Fantasy series: Final Fantasy XI.

I remember the day I first heard that there was going to be an online Final Fantasy. It caught my attention immediately. In those days, I had largely abandoned console gaming. I was a full blown PC gamer at the time who had just only recently purchased a PlayStation 2. I was browsing some of my favorite geek-news sites at when I came across an article announcing that Square (soon to be Square-Enix) was accepting beta testers for the North American version of Final Fantasy XI. Up to this point the game was only available in Japan, but SE was preparing to bring the service to the US. American gamers would be able to share the world with Japanese players in what was to be the largest most epic Final Fantasy title yet.

I did not hesitate to apply for the beta and much to my elation, I was accepted! After a few weeks, I got my beta kit in the mail. This package was complete with the game, a set of beta test instructions and even a hard drive for my existing PlayStation 2.

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It was on that day I created my first Final Fantasy XI character: Nakijin, the Hume (human) from the industrial city of Bastok. I named the character after a castle that I once visited during my years on Okinawa. I participated on a beta server called Cactuar. If I remember right, the beta ran for maybe a few weeks to a month or more. I remember being so confused at the beginning. I had never had much success with MMOs before. My experiences with Ultima Online and Everquest left me cold. At first, I felt the same way about FFXI. It took me a while to understand the controls to begin with. On the PlayStation, FFXI is played with a controller but it is also recommended that you use USB keyboard so that you can communicate with other players. Your character is controlled as expected using one stick on the controller. The camera is controlled with the other stick. The Crosspad is used to either target objects and enemies, or to navigate the menus. For an example of what the game UI looked like on the ps2, see the image below  (I had to find this one online, since I never thought to save screenshots back in those days):

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It took me a few days to get the feel for the way the game worked, but once I did, it came natural. For the most part, the game was already tested and feature complete. The main focus of the beta test was to look for translation and localization issues and to help stress test the servers. There were a few events where GMs (Game Masters – characters played by SE employees) would spawn a giant monster just outside of town and a mass of players would engage the monster to see if the server would crash under the weight. On one occasion, the producer of the game even made an appearance and showed off some armor and weapons that would be available in the retail version.

Once the game was released, I decided to switch from the PlayStation 2 to play on the PC. So I purchased a PC copy and started my character over again. I played the game for a few more months before I finally cancelled my subscription due to both moving and starting a new job. But make no mistake, I was hooked already.

So, now that I’ve given you my starting experience with the game, let’s talk about the game itself.  Please note, that for the most part, I will be explaining this game from the standpoint of the original release. So many of the modern day changes, etc will not be touched on yet in this post.

When you start Final Fantasy XI for the first time you will be prompted to create a character. The races available are Hume (human like race), Elvaan (elf), Taru Taru (little guys), Galka (big ugly guys – male only) or Mithra (cat girls!). Once this is complete, you choose a starting job: Warrior, Monk, Thief, White Mage, Black Mage, or Red Mage. Finally, you choose a starting city, The options here are: Bastok – an up and coming republic – (think colonial America), Windurst – a mystical forested nation, or San d’Oria (and old-guard style kingdom).

The one thing that sets FFXI apart from most other MMOs, even today, is that no matter what job you select for your character, you are not stuck in that role. Your character has the ability to change their job. Each class is leveled independently. So, while you may start the game as a level 1 Warrior, you can later decide to try your hand as a Black Mage. Switching to a Black Mage for the first time, will find yourself back at level 1 for that job. But, if you switch back to being a warrior again, you’ll find that all of your progress as Warrior was saved. On top of that, a player can also choose a secondary job. They must first reach level 18 on one job. Then, upon completing a special quest, they can equip a second job or “sub-job”. The sub-job will always be limited to half of the main job’s level, but will grant the player access to the skills and abilities up of that job up to it’s max sub-job level. This makes FFXI a very diverse game. You can truly do everything with only one character.

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Unlike many MMOs at the time, FFXI was very focused on story. The game actually has a very epic plotline, and your character is the center of it. The first few chapters of the story will vary slightly depending on the starting nation that you select, but eventually these origins converge into one main plot for the main scenario. The story of the game is driven through Missions. As you start out and follow the hints given to you by the game NPCs, you will eventually stumble into these main scenario missions. Once you get started on that path, it is very easy to keep track going forward. The game also has plenty of optional side quests that offer same currency or other rewards, these often also help expand on the lore of the game.

In Final Fantasy XI, you play as character who resides in the world of Vana’diel. The game is set in a time of fragile peace. Approximately twenty years prior to the start of the game, the three nations were united in an ongoing battle against the various Beastmen Tribes of Vana’diel. This was known as the Crystal War. Much of the game’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of this war and fragile truce between the city-states. As the player’s progress through the game they will learn more than a few deep secrets about the true origins of this conflict and the fabled leader of the Beastmen: The Shadow Lord.

As you play the game and experience the storyline, your character will need to grow. Like many RPGs, your character earns levels by gaining experience. Experience points are earned through combat. Your character’s stats are increased automatically as you level up. Beware however, if you die, you will actually LOSE a small amount of experience points. So yes, it is possible to de-level. Harsh! Not to mention, if no-one is around to resurrect you from the dead, you will have to start back from your “home point”. Which may be nearby or far far away from your current location, depending on how diligent are with updating it.

After a while, it will soon become obvious that  to get anywhere in this game, you’re going to need to team up with others. This is the core of the very game itself: playing with others and making friends. The entire game was originally designed around the mechanic of forcing you to have to play with others. To earn any meaningful experience, you will need to fight monsters in parties with other adventurers. To complete special events or progress in the missions, you will HAVE TO team up. This can sometimes lead to drama, but more often than not, it results in forming bonds with other players. To help with this, players can communicate with each other over long distances using a “linkshell”   (glorified chat channel). During my time in Final Fantasy XI, I made friends in-game that carried over to the real world. Many of these people I still in touch with today through social media. This is the best thing about Final Fantasy XI in my opinion.

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It is important to note, that when Final Fantasy XI was released in the USA, it actually included both the original game AND it’s first expansion: The Rise of Zilart. In the minds of many players, there is no difference between the two. The Zilart missions and the main scenario go hand in hand for a large part, and the areas added to the game by the expansion also seem to fit in seamlessly. Shortly after the North American release, the level cap for players was increased to 75 where it remained for a very long time. It is also important to recognize that RoZ did bring about the inclusion of several new advanced jobs to the game. At North American launch, the game contained the following Advanced Jobs that players could strive to unlock and master:

Paladin, Dark Knight, Beastmaster, Ranger, Dragoon, Summoner, Samurai, Ninja and Bard.

To unlock advanced jobs, a players must complete a quest and meet certain job-based requirements. Each job has its own specialized role. This mechanic is finely tuned as needed through patches and game adjustments, but largely remains unchanged. When factoring all of the skills and abilities afforded by the various jobs in the game, players are able to better define their roles in a multi-player party situation.

This is the world in which American players found themselves in after the game was brought to North Amercia. There was a lot already to explore, and plenty of ground to cover. Most players had barely gotten started when the next expansion to the game was announced.

I’ll touch on that and the further evolutions of Final Fantasy XI in the next post!

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  ** POL Viewer Final Fantasy XI – The Rise of Zilart    –   Chains of Promathia –   Treasures of Aht Urhgan  –  Wings of the Goddess –  Add-on Scenarios – Abyssea Scenarios –  Seekers of Adoulin –  Rhapsodies of Vana’diel **

Rise of the MMOs – Part 1

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The nineties were a truly epic time for gaming. This decade saw many changes in the home console market. Handheld gaming became mainstream. And of course, PC gaming took off at a rapid pace. With the ever growing popularity of the internet, a new concept in gaming began to rise to the surface: online connectivity.

The first online multiplayer game that I ever played was a text-based adventure game hosted by a local BBS. It was called Legend Of the Red Dragon. The game was quite simple actually, but it totally floored me at time. The BBS in which it was hosted could only handle one or two connections simultaneously. When trying to connect during peak hours I’d have to command my modem to dial over and over until I was finally able to get on. LORD is a hard game to explain these days, but essentially, the first time you played it you made a character and you could perform a certain number of tasks daily. This is includes things like fighting monsters, exploring, flirting with the taverns girls, etc. I don’t believe you could participate with other players in real time, but you could leave notes for other players that they would see when they logged in. Also, a log of player actions and accomplishments were posted so that everyone could see what had gone on during the day. At the time, the whole concept was fascinating to me and I have many fond memories of the title.

Example of the LORD interface courtesy of Moby Games

LORD was a watered down version of what is known as a MUD, or Multi-User-Dungeon. These text-based games allowed multiple players to interact together to one degree or another. MUDs were the first “MMOs” in many ways.

The first full blown Massive Multiplayer Online game that I truly experienced was Ultima Online.  I had been a fan of the Wizardry series for many years, and I had recently came off a binge of playing every RPG game I could find on the PC. as a result, I had just finished a marathon of Ultima games and the franchise was on my mind. I remember seeing the game on the shelf of my local computer store and I recall the fierce debate that raged inside my head; do I really want to pay to buy this game and then pay to play it?

I had a somewhat moral objection to revenue model for this game. I had recently read about it in a magazine and I was appalled to learn that the game was going to have a monthly subscription. In my mind, paying for the purchase of the game was enough. I had all but decided to boycott the product, but yet, actually seeing on the shelf – I couldn’t resist.

 

I played Ultima Online for a couple of weeks, but I wasn’t able to really get a sense of understanding for the title. It looked and played like some of the later titles in the series. But the online element felt rather chaotic. Also, to me, there didn’t seem to be any clear-cut goals to accomplish. Maybe I just missed something, but by the time my free month had expired, I decided that the game wasn’t for me and filed in the back of desk drawer – swearing to ignore these types of “pay to play” games from now on.

Of course, a year or two later I was persuaded into trying the latest and greatest multiplayer title, Everquest. You see, by this time I had moved on from hanging out on BBS forums and I was a full blown Internet user. I used to hang out in an IRC chat room with other local people and all of them were big Everquest fans. They raved about it non-stop. So, I bought the game and indeed, I was impressed by the way the title looked and operated. I was quite ignorant about the inner workings of the game, and I didn’t really understand the community aspect that already formed around the game, but I was enjoying exploring and checking things out.

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It was only a few days after getting my feet wet with the game that I again decided, this was not the title for me. You see, every time my character would leave town, I would be attacked by a group of players. Being new and inexperienced, I was no match for them. I would literally take one step out of town and BOOM. These guys would kill me. It was my first experience of being griefed by another player. It was all I needed to say “That’s it. I’m done.” Despite this bad experience, the game still intrigued me. I could see the draw behind the game. Everquest reminded me a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. (The tabletop role playing game that I played a lot as a young teen).  I found the setting and most aspects of the game very appealing. But at that time in my life, I had very little patience and being held back by other players was just unacceptable. Today, the game is still active and in fact recently reached its 15th birthday. Since the time of its original release, the game has changed dramatically, 19 expansions and countless updates, the Everquest of today barely resembles the Everquest that I played in 1998. In fact, I believe it is even Free-To-Play now. I’m also sure that the type of player-killing I encountered now has some safeguard in effect, so for the curious, the game might be worth a look. It’s also important to note that Everquest spawned a sequel, Everquest II. A third sequel is also on the way.

Due to these experiences, I stayed away from MMO RPG style games for a long time. My multiplayer experience was restricted to first person shooters almost exclusively. Then, one day I saw an article stating that Square Enix was looking for players to help test a new online game, this game would be Final Fantasy XI. This struck a chord with me. I had enjoyed the Final Fantasy series immensely and for the first time in a while, I found an MMO that interested me.  I’m not going to go into too much detail here now, because one day I will post a whole article about XI. But, this game is the MMO that finally managed to hook me. I played the crap out of this game. I have wasted years of my life… seriously. It’s actually kind of sad.

Final Fantasy XI

In Final Fantasy XI, I found the perfect balance I has always been looking for in a multiplayer game. FFXI has a wonderful storyline. So, you’re not just walking around killing monsters and getting stronger for no apparent reason… you’re doing it so that you can continue experiencing the game itself. In fact, everyone is doing this – as a result, teamwork is encouraged. It finally all made sense. FFXI really opened my eyes to the magic of MMO games. Since that time, I have tried several titles over the years with varying degrees of success.

No discussion about MMO games would be complete without a mention of what is arguably, the most popular of all time, World of Warcraft. WoW is the title that really brought MMO games into the public consciousness. I should go on record as saying that I am not really a big fan of World of Warcraft. I have played it, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But by the time WoW popped up on my radar, I fully invested in Final Fantasy and WoW did not offer enough compelling gameplay to tear me away from my home. That being said, Warcraft certainly offers a lot for new players and it’s very easy to get into.  One feature that really set WoW apart from the other games at the time was the concept of player alliances. You see, when creating a character in World of Warcraft, you have to choose between creating an Alliance character or Horde character. This represents your character’s allegiance or affiliation. Originally, this had a big impact on gameplay. You could only befriend and talk to other players on your faction, members of the opposition were considered enemies. This has become very watered down over the years, and the concept really doesn’t mean as much as it once did. In many ways, the World of Warcraft has reached the sunset of its lifetime. Over the last couple years, the game population has dwindled as more MMO games have captured the attention of players. Now, players can often even create characters that are instantly granted maximum level in the game. This is a practice I disagree with.

Regardless, WoW really did wonders for the genre. It introduced concepts and practices that were very much needed and still permeate to this day. For example, in Warcraft, when you encounter an NPC that offers a quest, there is an icon floating over the head of that character. This let’s you know that they have something interesting to say. In prior games like Everquest and Final Fantasy, there was no identifier. To uncover quests and assignments you pretty much had to wander around and talk to every NPC that you encountered. WoW also popularized the Quest Tracker. This provided an in-game log of assignments and your character’s progress on them. Until now, these sorts of things had to be kept track of manually on paper by the player.

Character Creation for WoW

After the success of Warcraft, it seemed that there was a new MMO popping up every time you turned around. Conan, Vanguard, Guild Wars, the list goes on and on. For the most part, I managed to ignore most of these games and stuck with Final Fantasy. But occasionally, I ventured off my tried and true path.

I admit being sucked into buying the original Guild Wars and all of it’s expansions. This game intrigued me with its beautiful art-direction and pricing. You see, unlike most other games, Guild Wars does not require a monthly subscription. It functions off a model known as Buy to Play. After paying for the initial boxed software, you can play the game for free. As a result, the content in the game is somewhat limited compared with other MMOs, but there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.

One of other side effects of this sort of pricing I discovered, is the general immaturity of other players. Up until now, I had found MOST other game participants to fairly friendly and mature. This was especially true for Final Fantasy XI. WoW certainly had its number of jerks, but nothing like what I experienced in Guild Wars. I’m not sure how it is today, but back in 2007/2008 you could almost guarantee that the first thing you would see when logging into the game was a line of half-naked women dancing or people arguing in open chat. One time I asked another player if they wanted to team up for a quest and I was told repeatedly to “eat his farts”. So… free to play and buy to play gamers, be prepared to grow some thick skin against this type of nonsense.

The beautiful world of Guild Wars

I’ll be continuing my thoughts on MMO gaming in another post within the next couple of days. If this is a subject that interests you, stay tuned.