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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Near Vana'

We visit the Final Fantasy XI fan festival.

"I don't get to go on many adventures in real life," says tall Girl A scratching a furry ear. "Final fantasy XI allows me to be a heroine, to fight alongside people; people that sometimes go on to become close friends. It's a social thing and a questing thing. That's why I play."

Next to her, short Girl B nods feverishly in silent agreement. A towel headdress frames chubby cheeks and excited bright eyes: geek sheikh. Girl A swishes the long tail avalanching conspicuously from the seat of her tight hugging red shorts. "Oh! And I love collecting the clothes."

Jesyka D'Itri, Girl A, is a 23-year-old architectural engineer. She's dressed in full slinky and provocative get-up as a Mithra, one of the cutest races in Square-Enix's flagship MMORG title. We're standing on a blustery pier in Santa Monica, California for the Final Fantasy XI fan festival, an event put on by the publisher to promote the new PS2/PC expansion pack, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, and the impending 360 release of the four-year-old online RPG. This is a gathering of the individual souls, minds, fingers and thumbs that habitually inhabit the virtual world of Vana'Diel; nerds incarnate, avatar masks slipping off and the 'real' personalities, lives and faces of Final Fantasy XI's communities slithering from that dimension into this.

"It's not really a shock when you get to meet your online friends for the first time," explains Jesyka. "We spend so much time together each week questing and talking that our real characters become pretty clear. I think the job type that people choose for themselves in the game really reflects their real personalities too. Paladins are always very protective of others; all the Black Mages that I've met in real life seem really intelligent; Red Mages (that's my character) are always very sociable, team player types, while ninjas are, without exception, arseholes."

Besides offering a chance to experience the full 360 release and the new areas the expansion pack brings, there is opportunity here for spirited cosplay, real life 'questing' (such as picking up litter from the beach for 'exp' points that can be traded for gil), exclusive merchandise that can be part paid for with garnered gil and a host of in-game competitions with sponsored prizes. Crucially, the weekend also provides a platform for the Japanese development team to release a flurry of new feature release details to hopefully knock some of the wind out of World of Warcraft's still gathering sails. Better to do it here in front of loyal subjects for whom the slightest evolution of their world order carries heavy implication than to a sweaty hall of disinterested E3 attendees.

Indeed, as the development team sit lined shoulder to shoulder for the event's inaugural question and answer session it's like an audience with the gods for these attendees. Whooping players, each hanging dry-eye-balled and pregnant-lung-ed with anticipation tiptoe transfixed. They swing on every word their creators choose to bless them with. Each announcement of gameplay tweaking and balancing, however mundane to an outsider (new spells for Black Mages! White Mages to be able to heal all ailments in one go! Warriors can now throw axes! Mog Lockers will be able to hold 140 items!) brings with it jeers or cheers from those players in the audience that will see their character's social stock increase or decrease as a result. Black Mages are to be penalised for questing in groups: Hell Yes! Hell No! All around players fist the air or stamp their feet in incredulous response to the microcosmically evolutionary pronouncements.

And it's not just a one-way discussion either. Index fingers poke high into the pubescent air as each community member strains to be picked to speak a gameplay question/suggestion to the team. Those granted platform see their prayers either dismissed or noted down in spidery kanji to a soundtrack of applauding concurrence or outraged disagreement from the rest of the floor.

For an outsider it's otherworldly. But, to mock these people for something so seemingly inconsequential as caring about the future of their online world enough to travel halfway across America and lay down the $100 entry fee is to miss the point. Obviously this isn't just a game or leisure time space: it is life, it is community, it is a society with friendships and rivalries and hurts and reconciliations and greed and economics and all the other ten thousand things that happen when a group of human beings come together and live in a space. As people that spend as much of their waking time in the lands of Vana'Diel as those of America, the in-game economy of gil can often be a more pressing issue than that of whether to vote Republican or Democratic out-game.

Matthew May is dressed as a bard. He has a flute, a broad smile and an astonishing but by no means extraordinary accrued playtime in Final Fantasy XI of 120 days. "Yes, I've tried World of Warcraft," he admits. "But when you've invested so much of your life it's hard to emigrate from one MMORPG to another. To do so is, in a way, to dismiss everything you have worked for; you have to keep playing to justify the fact that you have been playing. Moving to a new MMORPG is like a kind of suicide; starting afresh in a new world, leaving behind experience, status and friends. I'm not ready to do that."

But many have been and so the changes that the Aht Urhgan expansion signal, in particular for the 360 versions, are crucial to maintain interest for current inhabitants and entice new players. Of main note to series' fans is the development of a Final fantasy 7-esque Chocobo-breeding dynamic. "Yes, you will be able to breed Chocobos and then race them," assures Hiromichi Tanaka, creator and overseer of Final Fantasy XI. "Any player at any level will be able to breed a Chocobo, but only players at level 20 or higher with a license will be able to ride them. Although there are many features, like different colours and types of Chocobos planned through the breeding program, we are trying to make this element of the game as distinct as possible from the Final Fantasy 7 one."

The introduction of three new job classes will satiate the game's current inhabitants bored with their current skill sets. Alongside the previously announced Corsair and Blue Mage classes, Aht Urhgan will introduce the Puppet Master class, a job which sees it's practitioner able to enlist and command a hapless enemy as their pet. Additionally enemies in search of the jewel, the Astral Candescence, can now besiege towns. Players must repel their attacks in an effort to prevent losing the jewel to their opponent's stronghold. Should the besiegers manage this, in a bizarre capture-the-flag-RPG cross-pollination, teams of players must turn offensive and quest to return it. For high-level players between 50 and 75, new assaults are to be provided; short one-hour bursts that don't require a whole evening to enjoy and can be completed with small teams of between three and six players.

The worlds of Vana 'Diel are the same across all three platforms and it will be possible for existing players to play their character on PC, 360 or PS2 interchangeably to maximize play options. Likewise, Square-Enix is promising French and German language versions of the game in late 2006, although there have been no Italian or Spanish language announcements as yet. All of this conspires to make Final fantasy XI's world ever more inhabitable to as wide a user base as possible but, nevertheless, at four years old this is still an ancient universe in MMORPG carbon dating terms.

As a result, there is the nagging question as to how long the game will be sustained. Running another dimension costs a lot of money and, as the team announce towards the tail end of the event that its next-gen MMORPG is coming along nicely, prophetic questions tumble. Tanaka-san is predictably vague: "We will keep Vana'Diel inhabitable as long as people come to inhabit. We're not looking to phase anything out at the moment and we're not certain if our new game is to replace Vana'Diel or to be a separate universe altogether." Either way, there's a lot of distance left to run in this game yet for those with broad enough shoulders to bear two lives at once.