When Square (as then was) announced that the next game in its headline Final Fantasy franchise was going to be an online game, it wasn't a popular decision. Bluntly, the kind of people who played Final Fantasy games had pretty strong ideas about the kind of people who played MMORPGs, and they weren't entirely charitable.
EverQuest's players didn't think much of us, either. Discussions followed a predictable track; they were basement-dwellers addicted to a dull and endless treadmill, we weren't real gamers at all. The ad hominems would flow thick and fast. We had a suspicious attraction to Asiatic pretty boys. They had a superstitious terror of soap and sunlight. And so on, and so forth.
The upshot was that Final Fantasy's fans felt pretty betrayed by Square's decision to chase EverQuest's tail-coats - as we saw it. Fans of existing MMOs vacillated between lengthy expositions on why they didn't care about FFXI in the slightest, and concerned mutterings about how a load of plebs were about to invade their sacred hobby. It didn't help that the game was going to be primarily a PS2 title, one which would require the expensive hard drive and network adapter add-ons to function.
As launch neared, hearts softened in light of Square's relentless charm offensive. Gorgeous artwork, a hallmark of everything the company has ever done, depicted the game's five diverse races, its stunning locations and the little touches, like chocobo mounts and moogle housekeepers, which made the game distinctively Final Fantasy. The game's intro video, an epic piece of animation which showed an army of the five races trooping into a fantastical city under a natural stone arch, which they then defend from assault by demonic invaders, was a tipping point for many Final Fantasy fans.
For us in the West, there was over a year's wait between the launch of FFXI in Japan and its localisation for the USA (poor old Europe would have to wait a further year for it to appear on our shores, and then only the - admittedly superior - PC version). This was probably just as well, because despite a glowing review in Famitsu, early word of mouth wasn't very good, suggesting a buggy and distinctly unfinished game.
Within a few months, however, things picked up, with Square burning the midnight oil and introducing major new features at breakneck pace. The mood among Japanese people who had been early adopters of the game improved markedly, and sales picked up. "They put weather into the game last night!" a Japanese friend told me excitedly a short while after launch. "We didn't know until a player ran into the city shouting that it was raining outside. The whole city just emptied out into the field and stood there waiting for it to rain again!"
I don't know why, but that daft little vignette sold the game to me. It just seemed like such a homely, warm, community bonding kind of experience, and combined with a deep-seated love of the franchise itself, it melted my resistance. Later that day, I popped into the now long-defunct indie game store in my town and put my name on the pre-order list for the US version.
Final Fantasy XI was my first MMORPG. The last time I'd played an online game of this variety was when I tried out the ancient ancestors of modern MMOs, text-based MUDs, on FidoNet bulletin boards back in the early nineties.
Playing the game again now is an unusual feeling - a bit like performing archaeology on my gaming past (and indeed my social past, which has always been a little too closely tied to gaming for comfort). I've tried dozens of MMOs in the intervening years, including some of the early games which had passed me by before FFXI, and have had lengthy and committed, if not monogamous, relationships with several of them.
The result is that my reactions to FFXI now are very different to the dimly remembered magical awe of almost seven years ago. I'm vastly less tolerant of the game's peculiar foibles, for a start. The PlayOnline Viewer software, which is required to launch the game and manage your accounts, felt futuristic and sleek back then. Now it feels pompous, a messy and over-designed piece of software which was meant to be a launchpad for a myriad of Square online games which never actually materialised.
My tolerance for editing the Windows Registry in order to make the graphics of the game work acceptably has also diminished. FFXI actually remains a startlingly good-looking game, scaling impressively to modern hardware if you're willing to fiddle with Registry settings and manually set various parameters. There are guides online for it. I think I had more patience seven years ago for looking up guides online just to make my games look okay.
Other things, though, are simply a matter of expectations. Today, most of us have clear ideas about how MMORPGs should control, exemplified most clearly by World of Warcraft. WASD and a mouse; spells on number keys. It's a rare game that strays from this, other than to make minor adjustments (such as Age of Conan's multiple attack keys, ranged around the WASD buttons).
Final Fantasy XI, to someone used to this control scheme, is utterly insane. It's designed for a joypad, and tries to translate those controls onto a keyboard fairly directly. Mouse controls are only supported in the most rudimentary of senses. Inputting commands - to attack things, cast spells, view your stats, and so on - is a task accomplished entirely through a series of menus.
Plenty of other MMO standards are also dispensed with - like, to cite an example that got me killed plenty of times when I dived back into the game last month, the lack of recharging health.
FFXI doesn't pull its punches early on, and most encounters - despite largely involving fighting bats, rats and annoying sentient onions, will sap a good chunk of your health bar. Unlike in most modern games, that health bar won't recharge until you actually tell your character to sit down, at which point it will crawl back upwards. Forget this - as I did - and certain death awaits. Keep forgetting it after a few levels, and you'll start losing 10 per cent of your level in XP every time you make the mistake.
In other regards, the game is just a throwback. It expects you to grind your way through levels, and treats quests and missions almost as a reward for your patience, rather than the backbone of the game. It hands out candy sparsely along the path - level dings are rare enough that even now they still attract a "gratz" from passing strangers, while new weapon skills and spells are handed out with generosity worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The game makes you work for absolutely everything, in other words, and it's perversely proud of it. This hasn't really changed in seven years - it just feels a little less forgivable now. Yet even now, some of what made me stick to the game remains. There are sparkling moments within the drudge, sprinkles of magic dust scattered around the game's environments and systems. Every time you think you can't face splatting another cheeky dancing onion, the game tips its hat at you - showing you tantalising depths which will open up if you can only stick to it, or flashing you a vision of one of its rolling, fantastical landscapes just as the beautiful soundtrack hits the right notes.
I recall spending most of my first 20 levels in Vana'diel, FFXI's sprawling world, watching other players zooming past me on chocobos and looking forward to the point when I'd be able to ride one. This time, things are a little different. I still desperately want to hit level 20 and make friends with the feathered mounts, but I realise that it's not getting a chocobo that I'm most looking forward to - it's the run to Jeuno.
The three starting cities of Vana'diel are, essentially, spokes on a wheel - and the hub of that wheel is Jeuno, a fantastical pillar of a city that rises out of a steep-sided gorge in the centre of the map. Walking there from one of the starting cities takes a significant amount of time, and drags you through increasingly tough zones. Walking there is the only way to win yourself the reins of a chocobo.
I dreaded the infamous Jeuno Run when I was starting out in FFXI. It ended up being one of the most exhilarating things I've done in a game - running through mysterious zones full of ancient structures whose purpose I couldn't even guess at, populated by monsters who wouldn't even break a sweat while pounding me into a fine paste. Escaping by the skin of my teeth more times than I can count. Seven years of rose-tinted coatings on my specs have turned half an hour of heart-in-mouth creeping around the detection boxes of high-level foes into a dimly remembered masterpiece of gaming.
The reality isn't quite so exciting. I don't think things have been made easier, although I do have to refuse the offer of an escort from a very friendly high-level stranger so that I can relive my near-death fantasies. It's still an exciting run, but it's been made more mundane by years of similar death races, dragging low-level characters through high-level zones.
Still, I'm in Jeuno. I've got my chocobo driving licence. For a fleeting moment, I feel some kinship with people who moan about WOW handing out mounts like candy - I've worked damned hard to get chocobo privileges in FFXI, and I'm flushed with a sense of accomplishment. It's time to strike out into the wider world.
Time for a confession - I didn't hit the level cap in my return to FFXI. It's level 80 these days, recently raised from the long-standing cap of 75, and after getting to Jeuno, I hit the game's biggest speed bump of all. This is, resolutely, a multiplayer game. Soloing, in the view of FFXI's creators, is a learning process, a tutorial mode that shows you how to play and prepares you for groups - nothing more. Once you hit a certain point, progress without a group is impossible. You first encounter this around level 10, in Valkrym Dunes, but after level 20 it becomes even more pronounced.
It's why I quit the game first time around. The friends I'd introduced to FFXI had more time - or at least, made more time - to progress in the game than I could afford. They outpaced me quickly, and I ended up begging for pick-up groups on the edges of zones, wishing I'd levelled my White Mage job a little more diligently so I could serve as one of the much-needed healers. A damage-dealing class could spend far more time looking for a decent group than you'd actually spend slaying monsters, before someone in California had to go to a lecture, or someone in Japan, typing through the game's rudimentary but wonderful auto-translation system, had to go to bed.
Today, things are much improved. A level-syncing system was put in place some time ago, allowing players to synchronise their levels (gear drops its stats proportionally to compensate) to one member of the party, so a level-10 player can complete quests with level-75 friends. It's a great idea, one of many which populate the game. I'd have given a limb - well, perhaps a digit - for it seven years ago. Today, most people I know have moved on to other games, but it's still a nice system.
Scratch the surface of FFXI, and you start to find countless brilliant ideas. The game made no bones about being heavily influenced by EverQuest, but it also dug deep into Final Fantasy's history for its ideas. The Job system is inherited from Final Fantasy III, and forms the core of the game, replacing character classes in other MMORPGs. It's superb, still arguably unmatched in its utility and a pleasure to tinker with.
You start out your character as one of six basic jobs, and at level 30 you unlock quests, which give access to more specialist jobs - everything from Samurai and Ninja through to piratical Corsairs, elegant Dancers and one of the more recent additions, the somewhat maligned Puppetmaster. Each expansion pack has introduced a few new jobs, and a character can play any number of these, switching between them at your "Mog House", a personalised home in your chosen city. High-level players treat the number of jobs they have maxed out as a badge of honour.
Even more interestingly, at level 18 you gain the ability to set a "support job" - a role which will grant some of the abilities and boons of a second job to your presently equipped main job. Your support job is maxed out at half the level of your main job, but gives huge flexibility to the system, with different combinations often yielding very differently balanced characters.
Beneath this over-arching system, various other statistics keep ticking away. Like any MMORPG worth its salt, FFXI is a complex clockwork assembly of various figures, counters and cool-downs, all of them working in concert to keep the game interesting and challenging - with the focus here definitely being on the challenging side of that equation.
Yet the face the game presents to the world couldn't be more different. Final Fantasy XI, more than any MMORPG before or since, is a game about stories. Many MMOs are content to let players tell their own stories. Some, like WOW, build elaborate worlds but are happy for players to skip all the quest text and ignore the lore if they wish. FFXI, however, is at heart an exercise in storytelling, a game made by a company whose finest creative moments have always laid on the borderline between games and interactive narratives.
As such, the game is littered with cut-scenes, establishing the world and its characters by regularly taking the camera out of your hands and allowing events to unfold around you. Some gamers recoil as if they've been bitten at such a concept. Others are content to let great storytellers tell great stories, and on occasion, that's what FFXI manages to do.
Characters introduced in the narrative over the years have become firm favourites, enjoying a status among players which no NPC in World of Warcraft has ever managed to achieve. Quest chains are treated as serious exercises in storytelling, developing casts of characters, employing dramatic twists and turns, and usually punctuated with epic set-pieces.
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We make our own stories, too. Square Enix (as it became) has said that keeping the world's population on one set of servers saved a lot of money, but it also built a unique community. Distinct groups played in distinct timezones, but there was overlap, and a translation system that let us all communicate, at least in a rudimentary way. Some players kept to their own countrymen. Others formed lasting friendships across continents.
And me? What's my story? Even after seven years, there's an allure to FFXI, a world which invites you to explore more, a game system which beats you black and blue but makes you feel like you'll achieve something worthwhile, just as soon as the bruises heal. Yet I feel like I'm returning to the scene of a crime. I walked back into my local indie store a few days later and ordered three more copies, a task I'd repeat several times in the coming weeks.
I stopped playing less than six months later, without reaching the level cap. I returned briefly, played long enough to hit the cap and try a few dungeons, and then quit again. Those whom I'd introduced to the game, whom I'd bought copies for, persuaded to give it a try - they stayed. I felt like a reformed drug dealer, having turned over a new leaf, walking down a street and witnessing the lives of those whom I'd started down the path of addiction.
I think, now, that I know how it is. FFXI is powerful stuff. It's even, in the final analysis, a great game - a beautiful, intriguing, mysterious and captivating experience. For me, however, it belongs in my memories. I've finished writing this article; with a little sadness, a little reluctance, I'm going to go and uninstall it now.