As an avid fan of Final Fantasy 14, I regularly log in on the evenings and weekends to play the game. But recently I noticed a trend while logging in; queues. It's not too unusual to have a short wait that almost immediately resolves, but this time, the line sat at over 300 players. It took ten minutes to simply get into the game - and all I wanted to do was mull around in the Bojzan Southern Front to grind away for an extremely shiny weapon. Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn is coming up to eight years old. So, why are more players than ever logging in to play the smash-hit MMORPG now?
Let's take a look at some of the stats. Final Fantasy 14 keeps breaking its Steam concurrent player records. At the time of writing, it just broke another concurrent record of over 67,019 players. But, that's just a peek behind the curtain for Final Fantasy 14's current player count. Many people still play the game on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and another native PC launcher, which is much harder to track with public information.
However, what is unusual is for the developers to issue a statement about the explosion of growth, and an apology from the game's director Naoki Yoshida on the recent phenomenon. He detailed immediate actions for Final Fantasy 14 to be able to handle this unprecedented surge in popularity over on the game's official blog. Action has been taken to cull queue times immediately, and a server upgrade originally intended for use at the release of the latest expansion, Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker, has already begun to roll out. But, why is this all happening?
More than just a meme
Upon the release of Patch 5.3 for Final Fantasy 14 last year, the game extended its free trial period to include the award-winning Heavensward expansion, where players are now able to play the game (with some restrictions in place) up to level 60. This includes access to all classes included in A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, and the wealth of content sat outside of the main story quests that you're able to experience, too.
Over the last year or so, this has become a bit of a meme for diehard advocates to convince their friends to play the game, and it's working. Why? Because Final Fantasy 14 is not just about running hardcore raids with your friends - there's a wealth of side-content to complete outside of combat, too. Things such as crafting or gathering to create your own gear, or making food to provide you with buffs are all activities that take time away from the main, dramatic story quests, but also create a stronger sense of culture within the game. For example, some players are intent on simply playing crafters, focussed on creating the strongest gear to equip them and their friends with. This takes a significant amount of time to prepare the necessary materials, but they're still legitimate ways to enjoy the game.
Outside of that, the developers of Final Fantasy 14 have also taken steps to streamline A Realm Reborn, cutting out a significant amount of main story quests which mainly served as padding beforehand, giving newer players a more cohesive and well-paced experience in their first foray into the world of Eorzea. This all builds up to the fantastic Heavensward expansion and all content associated with it, which houses some of the best storytelling that Final Fantasy 14 has to offer. This potent mix within the free trial of allowing players to experience the highs of the game in Heavensward, and speeding things along in the now rickety and aged A Realm Reborn means that they're getting to the better parts of the game quicker than ever.
In addition to this are the raid content and alternative classes within the game. Unlike World of Warcraft, you don't have to start an alternate character if you wish to play another class, and the game encourages this by giving you boosted EXP when levelling an alternate class, too. Over the last year, we've seen some accounts "max out" a free trial, getting every possible class to level 60, and kitting them out with the best possible gear and items. With no obligation or subscription attached, these players can experience some of the best Final Fantasy 14 has to offer and play it for potentially thousands of hours without running out of things to do in-game.
A wealth of content
Now approaching eight years old, Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn is a fountain of content. Of particular note are the guest writers, who add to the world of Eorzea through their own unique lenses. These are lovingly crafted with appearances from some bonafide JRPG rockstars in the form of the Yasumi Matsuno-written "Return to Ivalice" raid series in Stormblood, in addition to the "Save the Queen - The Blades of Gunnhildr" storyline in Shadowbringers. Most recently, the team also collaborated with Drakengard and Nier director Yoko Taro for the "Yorha: Dark Apocalypse" raid series, which adds to the official Nier canon, too.
This is all in addition to the main storyline, which has only gone from strength to strength with every expansion. But, there are other things for players to immerse themselves into, too. Of note are the "Ultimate" raids, for those looking for a challenge. These can take up to 100 hours for players to progress through with a team and offer the hardest challenges in Final Fantasy 14. So, those who want to play more difficult content are never at a loss for things to do, either.
Outside of combat and story, there are also things such as hand or land classes as previously mentioned, in addition to player housing. Some people in the game open up their houses to be used as places of gathering, or clubs for roleplayers to head into. There's a wealth of things to do, and that list is only ever getting progressively built upon with the release of each new expansion. As a player who has spent two years in the game, I still have not touched huge instances like Eureka, where you can get special gear and mounts, or the deep-dungeon Heaven on High. It can be overwhelming at first, but once you get a sense for the game, and what you get the most out of, you can easily lose weeks to just chopping down trees, if you're so inclined.
A surge of streamers
If we take a look at the past year for Final Fantasy 14 on Twitch, we've seen a significant jump in early July, thanks to streamers such as Asmongold, RichWCampbell, CohhCarnage and more shifting their focus over from World of Warcraft, and beginning their journeys in the world of Eorzea. This was met with some trepidation by the Final Fantasy 14 community, with many fearing that the influence of some of these streamers may bring forth a more toxic culture within Final Fantasy 14.
The impact of this is still yet to be seen in Final Fantasy 14 itself, outside of small incidents such as a streamer boosting their character's level, then diving into a difficult raid without any understanding of how to actually play the game. However, the larger streamers like Asmongold and RichWCampbell are taking their time to go through the game organically, and seemingly enjoying the experience along the way
Many of these new streamers felt disappointed by the latest patch for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, which is what triggered Asmongold, by far the most popular World of Warcraft streamer to try out the game, after having repeatedly dismissed it in the past.
Regardless, the game has erupted in popularity on Twitch. According to Sullygnome, a website that is often used for tracking metrics over on the streaming service, Final Fantasy 14's average viewership has jumped by 377%, with over 435% of max viewers and an upsurge of 33% in the number of broadcasters playing the game itself when judged against the previous 30 days. This correlates well to the queue times many players experienced during this timeframe, meaning that the influence of these streamers cannot be understated when looking at this most recent surge of popularity.
Indeed, this has spawned plenty of memes. In particular, one of RichWCampbell uninstalling World of Warcraft live on stream while a Lalafell player character dances in the background. Now dubbed the "Uninstallafell", this wave of World of Warcraft expats has lead the charge for introducing a new audience of potential players to Square-Enix's hit MMORPG.
An open and humble team
Due to the disastrous launch of the original Final Fantasy 14, the team behind A Realm Reborn have always been extremely open and honest with fans about the state of the game, its development and more. In the most recent Fanfest, we saw composer Masayoshi Soken reveal his battle against cancer over the course of the pandemic, with director Naoki Yoshida in tears. Most recently, the team's response to queue times due to the recent popularity of the game was detailed swiftly, and comprehensively, followed by an apology that some players might not be able to idly dance around in cities or go AFK as often. This kind of open culture breeds a loyal community and fanbase. With Endwalker's release just around the corner, we've seen all of these factors combine for a 160% increase in preorders in comparison to the last expansion, with plans for more investments in servers and datacentres to manage the rapidly expanding population of Final Fantasy 14 players.
Final Fantasy 14's history just got a little bit weirder, but the rapidly expanding player base of over 22 million registered players is just another strong point for Square Enix, who have now firmly steered the game out of disaster, and into a series of well-regarded expansions and now stands as one of the most popular MMORPGs today.