Back when I resumed writing here in mid-2017, one of the motivators for that was a desire to talk about Final Fantasy XIV. At the time, Stormblood, the game’s second expansion, had launched, and it was what I was playing more at that point in time. This was the doldrums of Tomb of Sargeras and the Broken Shore story, which, if you have blocked it out of memory, was done as an 11-week staggered rollout with a relatively small amount of weekly content, usually which distilled to 1-2 quests that took a pretty small amount of time to do.
So it was quite easy to fall into a Final Fantasy XIV hole, really ramping up my playtime in that game as my WoW time fell down to raid nights only and a small amount of time outside of that.
However, something interesting happened, looking back on that – I hit level cap in Final Fantasy XIV on one job, did expert roulettes (basically random heroic dungeons for the WoW-only here), and did the Deltascape raid(which is basically two-difficulties only, an LFR-style and a premade difficulty called Savage which is probably somewhere between WoW’s 3 raid difficulties in terms of mechanical complexity, depending on the fight). After doing that on Duty Finder (basically the LFR mode), my playtime dwindled and as patch 7.3 came out, I mostly committed to WoW.
At the time, this would have surprised me – I actually started to think about a world where I would also play FFXIV as a primary game, and while this would mean a balancing act between it and WoW, I was thinking of the ways in which that would work. However, something about the intrinsic design of FFXIV is very different from WoW, and given the increased focus on WoW’s timesink mechanics, I thought it would be worth exploring!
Final Fantasy XIV Has Timesinks, Too, But The Game (Somewhat) Disincentivizes Them
WoW has a constant hum of activity in its expansion cycle. You level, you grind out gear, you raid, you grind higher gear, then a new season happens, and the gear grind repeats. At launch, you have a pile of reputations to grind rep for, in order to secure rep rewards and achievements like Pathfinder, with subsequent patches adding a smaller number of reputations and their own rewards that require additional grinding, but that cycle lasts over the full expansion, with the later reputations (generally) being easier to grind and giving rewards faster. Compare the rep grind of something like Nightfallen to Argussian Reach – both could be annoying, but Nightfallen took a bit longer to grind and had barriers to sprinting ahead to the finish line, where Argussian Reach had a large number of World Quests available, gave rep from story quests, and was typically easier for players to get.
Final Fantasy XIV kind of has this too, but it is all done through currencies which convert in a way similar to the Emblems during Wrath of the Lich King. There are Hunt currencies, rewards for additional quests you can choose to undertake that have their own rewards ecosystem (and are so optional that even as I write this, I have not done one). Then, there are the Tomestones, which are the currency like Emblems in WoW. Every tier of PvE content has its own currency, and when first introduced, the Tomestone currency used is new and relatively constrained in acquisition, limited to a weekly cap which limits your ability to gear from them to a planned, regular pace. Reaching the weekly cap requires partaking of a variety of activities and is often somewhat difficult to do.
So this sounds somewhat bad, in that both currency mechanics are grindy and difficult to cap, but there is a catch. While FFXIV scales rewards in a similar fashion to WoW, with item level leaps from tier to tier that result in a large gap from expansion to expansion, the game also, generally, scales less power from item level than WoW does. While if you play it regularly, this grind makes sense and is worthwhile, if you are a content tourist, it is actually very easy to keep in line with the story content, new dungeons, and the raids as well. Which is good, because…
FFXIV Is Made for Content Tourists
There’s something really great about the design of Final Fantasy XIV that I would actually like to see in WoW more. WoW is designed to keep you playing between patches, with content that is made to repeat and a gearing cycle that pushes you to acquire as much power as possible, using systems like scaling world quest rewards and Titanforging to make the rewards carrot viable for longer. FFXIV, on the other hand, is explicitly designed in a way that people like me can drop in, play the expansion content and base gearing, drop out, come back in 2-3 patches, play the story content and new dungeons, then drop right back out and wait for another 1-2 patches to repeat. It is so well designed, because the team is okay with people subbing and unsubbing, as I have. Yoshi-P, the game director for FFXIV, has said repeatedly in interviews that the game structure is built to appeal to that type of gameplay. While the game does have staying power for people that really enjoy it, with Hunts, Tomestone rewards, and the ability to keep all jobs and professions on one character, it is built almost better for those that want to drop in every 3-6 months to run through the story and then wait for the next cycle.
The thing that I find fascinating about this is that the game does a great job of managing these opposed interests balanced. The free company (basically a guild) I am in in FFXIV has people who log in and play every single day, and a bunch of others (myself included) who play for story content and some of the dungeons and raids, but tend to do so in chunks that are spaced out by weeks or months. Both audiences seem pretty happy and the fact that this is the case is something that should be seen as a huge accomplishment, in my opinion.
FFXIV Does a Better Job Storytelling, and Focuses on That Strength
Unlike WoW, FFXIV has a strong central story that has little or nothing to do with the zones that the story takes place in, outside of their strategic value to the conflicts being shown. This is a mixed strength, as it does tend to make FFXIV zones less individually memorable (I would struggle to name more than maybe 7 or 8 zones, not counting capital cities from the game) where WoW has strong zone themes and stories but this tends to cause deviation from the central plot. Where FFXIV shines, however, is that its story has a strong central cast in the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, of which the player character is a member (and serves as what I think would be a better mode of storytelling with the player character as the ultimate champion of legend compared to WoW). Couple that with strong leaders for each of the 3 nations in the base game, and strong supporting casts for each expansion who don’t overstay their welcome, and the whole thing plays out very well. It keeps the story front and center while you play and makes most all content in the game story-relevant and interesting. The dungeons aren’t just random caves filled with enemies, but rather moments in time where our hero has to take specific action to move forward in their quest (usually). Raids also serve largely the same purpose, as the Primal fights are story-driven and capture the moment, while the EX primals (the equivalent of a Heroic raid for these one-encounter raids) are done from the perspective of a story being told and embellished by a bard, which makes them logically fit within universe in a really good way. When I look at a raid like Uldir (for the Alliance, anyways), I can’t help but feel like there is wasted potential there.
Ultimately, Though, Final Fantasy XIV Is Its Own Game, For The Better
But my point in comparing the two games is not to compete for a title of “best” MMO, but rather, to point out that the differences in gameplay are pretty drastic and they serve to make the games feel totally different. While there are similarities (hotkey and tab-target combat, global cooldowns, buffs, debuffs, etc), both games cater to different player niches. WoW combat, even post-BfA GCD changes, is hectic, fast-paced, and requires quick adaptation and reflex-heavy gameplay, where FFXIV uses a long GCD and longer cast times to make everything feel slower, more deliberate, and slightly more accessible (it is designed to be fully playable on a gamepad, after all). Both games have different core strengths in their storytelling, with WoW having a more world-centric narrative that focuses heavily on the ways in which players intertwine with the world and its inhabitants, while FFXIV has the world largely functioning without the player character and inserts us to change the outcomes for the better, which makes the player character more political in a way, which works for the game’s story where it wouldn’t for WoW (can you imagine the headache if your player character’s faction mattered for the lore in WoW?) Both games have distinctive art styles and very different philosophy around class design, combat design, PvE and PvP content, and the world itself.
That, to me, is the biggest takeaway I’ve had in my last two-ish years of being involved with both games. In my younger years, it would have been easy to have fully thrown my support behind one or the other and dissed the one I didn’t choose. Hell, I bought FFXIV at launch in 2011, and it was an absolute dumpster fire then, which I played for the first 9-10 character levels before ditching it completely. However, with age and wisdom, I realize that while both games are involved in a superfluous contest for “best MMO,” both games are actually very different products that use the genre of MMORPG as the window dressing to two very different views on what an MMORPG actually is. Labeling them as competing is a counterproductive exercise, as while they “compete” in terms of mindshare and marketing, they are indeed different games, and I am glad that the genre of MMO has two top contenders with such different outlooks on what an MMO can be.