You have to hand it to Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada: it took some guts to admit that Final Fantasy XIV had “greatly damaged” the storied franchise. The questing and crafting systems were the stereotypical MMO grind reduced to its quintessence; the UI a laggy abomination, cluttered with cumbersome menus; and the very process of creating an account could have passed for a boss in Dark Souls. The litany of problems seemed without end, but few anticipated Wada’s announcement that Square Enix’s effort to win back players would “basically amount to fully redoing the game.” The scale of those efforts, set to culminate in the upcoming: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, is staggering.
It’s all so ambitious, in fact, that it’s hard to fathom why Square Enix didn’t just ditch the entire thing and develop a sequel with the lessons learned from FFXIV’s failures. The dismal reputation of the original version will remain, after all, and I’ve encountered several MMO fans who seem to be under the impression that A Realm Reborn amounts to a mere expansion, and more of the same. Yet even if they were aware that sweeping change was coming, they’d be wary of the MMORPG community’s history of makeovers. Though they’re rarely so extensive, they’ve often had as many downsides as upsides, and call the purpose of the whole into question. Here are three notable MMO do-overs that should make any gamer question the wisdom of a large-scale revamp.
Star Wars Galaxies: New Game Enhancements
Star Wars Galaxies had a respectable run that lasted over eight years, but for many players it died after just two, on November 15th, 2005. That was the the day the New Game Enhancements dropped, almost without warning, on the formerly sandbox MMO’s community. It was a drastic revamp of SWG’s systems, intended to slow or reverse the downward trend of subscriber numbers — but Sony Online Entertainment’s effort was in vain. Tensions were still high after the simplification of the combat system earlier in the year, but they exploded once players installed the patch to find that the original 32 classes had been crammed down to a mere nine, the open skill-based design had been replaced with a leveling system styled along the likes of EverQuest and the emergent World of Warcraft, and in a move that Syndrome of The Incredibles could appreciate, everyone could be a Jedi from the moment they first logged in (as opposed to the previous system that rewarded only the hardest of hard-core players with Force powers).
In an interview with The New York Times, Senior Director Nancy MacIntyre defended the change by arguing that, “We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat.” But did the players? Hardly, at least from the view of those of us who saw formerly bustling player cities die in the wake of the exodus of subscribers. The numerical evidence, too, was grim. By early 2006, an unconfirmed but highly popular blog post was making the rounds, suggesting that a mere 10,363 players were online during a typical Friday night. (SOE disputed that number).
The NGE may have set out to save Star Wars Galaxies, but it robbed SWG of a hefty chunk of the features that had set it apart from its rivals and morphed it into an inferior version of them. To many players, the move threw out any meaningful evidence that SOE was including its loyal players in discussions of upcoming changes.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm — The Shattering
The second major MMO overhaul we’re looking at happened in 2010. By then, the original two continents of World of Warcraft were showing their age. You could feel that age weighing down on you when you stepped through the Dark Portal and into the breathtaking skies of Outland, and you could sense their weaknesses when you visited the majesty of the Ulduar raid instances and Wrath of the Lich King’s phased quests. For new players, stuck with tedious grinds that had been taken for granted but a couple of years before, it must have seemed unthinkable that better experiences waited at the end of the long journey to level cap. And so, with Patch 4.0.3a, Blizzard used a grumpy dragon as an excuse to trash the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor and replace them with a leveling experience it felt was better suited to modern audiences.
The most immediate effect was in the visuals — Stormwind’s park became a gaping pit, the sandstone rift of Thousand Needles morphed into an island-pocked lake — but Blizzard also changed significant aspects of the gameplay. Group quests effectively became extinct, and phased quests initially prevented players from seeing each other while questing. Not that it really mattered; World of Warcraft’s leveling experience acknowledged that the bulk of its playerbase was near the level cap and thus former challenges like Hogger took a backseat to a storyline that focused on you, the awesome hero who could solo baddies without any teamwork. Changes like these only fed grumblings among the old-school fans that WoW had become too easy and casual.
Yet these were minor concerns compared to the impact the redesign had on the endgame content — or rather, the lack thereof. For most of Cataclysm, players complained that the new zones (scattered hodgepodge throughout Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms) were neither as big or as engaging as the zones in the two previous expansions. When new content did come, it came in the form of “greatest hits” re-releases of bosses and dungeons from Classic WoW. Some of these were fun, sure, but the sheer quantity of recycled content hinted at a creative drain from recreating an entire world. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that Blizzard taking its eye off the endgame ball had more than a little to do with World of Warcraft’s much-discussed dip in subscribers in 2011 and 2012. For a while, even after enthusiastic initial reports, it looked as though World of Warcraft was teetering on the brink of losing its dominance.
But of course it didn’t. World of Warcraft was reporting subscribers in excess of 10 million in November of last year, and the new continent for the Mists of Pandaria expansion rekindled interest in players who’d had their fill of old Azeroth. Yet Cataclysm had been a big risk — that overhaul of the first 60 levels might have helped World of Warcraft’s survivability for the long run, but it was a luxury that few other developers can afford to indulge. The time spent on it placed the core endgame experience in what seemed like serious jeopardy for far too long.
A problem with the above examples is that all, at their core, were mere patches for existing games. How much can a patch really solve? Few MMO developers have had the guts to scrap their existing game and replace it with something ostensibly better, save when they take the comparatively safe route and introduce a sequel that usually coexists with the original release. Other than Final Fantasy XIV, the most significant exception is Darkfall: Unholy Wars, what can best be described as a remake of 2009’s ambitious but lukewarmly received Darkfall. The original is full of great ideas like full loot, action-based PvP, a sandbox environment with no instances, and sieges that cater to a devoted niche audience, but it suffers from interminable grinds and a general lack of polish. Many of these problems can be blamed on the ridiculously long development timetable — first conceived in 1997, Darkfall didn’t come online until 12 years later. By that time, many of its elements felt behind the times.
Unholy Wars, due to launch sometime this year, introduces several significant attempts at improvement. It’s prettier, for one, and it benefits from updated graphics that replace scenes allegedly left unchanged since the firsts stabs of development way back in the early 2000s. The new UI is a striking example of simplicity and utility, and the combat itself reflects the lessons learned from studying modern first-person shooters and action games. Other improvements include a new system that lets players switch between five archetypal “roles” at will. Perhaps most importantly it sets a lower bar for entry for new players, and while that decision’s already attracted the ire of some veteran players, it might mean good things for Darkfall’s success. (Then again, the same was probably said about Star Wars: Galaxies.)
It’s a pity, then, that the full extent of these changes remain hidden behind an NDA, and the launch date has already been pushed back twice with only “early January” listed as a possibility. That’s… now, actually. Final Fantasy XIV and Darkfall are two different games with significantly different audiences, but Darkfall: Unholy Wars’ reception could shed some light on how an interested audience accepts a reimagined version of a game they’ve played in the past and the potential for an update to bring new players into the fold.
If the examples above serve as any indication, redesigning an existing MMO is a risky proposition at best, and the danger for Square Enix may be more extreme now than ever. When Final Fantasy XIV first appeared in 2010, it was still one of the few big-name MMOs operating aside from World of Warcraft, and the threat of competition from Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and others still lay in the future. Today, its gameplay seems too conventional amid the enticements of action-combat, dynamic events, and attempts at level-less gameplay, and its subscription model carries with it threat of financial disappointment after the first month. That’s a tough battle even for an innovative game; for one that’s merely been brought up to acceptable standards, it must seem like Leonidas facing down the Persians.
At least one thing’s in its favor: with so few noteworthy MMOs and expansions coming out this year, FFXIV might end up making lists of 2013’s best “new” MMOs through a stroke of sheer lucky timing. Now wouldn’t that be a surprise?