A short one today, as I did some research ahead of time and spent a good chunk of my day today playing Final Fantasy XIV…with a gamepad.
In order to better accommodate my girlfriend’s use of our shared office (“office” as it were!) for her online courses, I ended up updating my FFXIV account with the PS4 version licenses, which would allow me to play in the living room during her exams so as to not be a bother. To prepare, I tried playing on my PC with an Xbox One controller and then played a bit on PS4.
Firstly, a side note – the PS4 version of FFXIV is awful compared to PC if you have even a halfway decent PC. On my PC, everything runs at 100 FPS thanks to a gaming monitor and is smooth with all of the visual flair turned up (the work a 12-core CPU and GeForce GTX 1080 Ti can do for you!), but on PS4…the game runs at 30FPS, barely, and feels like molasses compared to the PC version. The controls felt a bit laggy and unresponsive at times, and overall, I did a Guildhest and Alliance Raid (World of Darkness for the first time as a tank, no less!) and then noped out back to my PC.
However, the thing that occurred to me is that FFXIV is often lauded for having good gamepad controls, borne of the necessity for catering to Square Enix’s homeland audience who often games on console, but I had never really tried them in any meaningful sense. So, I set out today to learn more about the controls on a gamepad worked for the game.
Setting them up is easy enough, the game recognized my Xbox One controller readily and with a simple toggle switch in the options, you can immediately switch it over, going from the standard grid of 1×12 hotbars to an assortment of plus-signs of 4 hotkeys each. The basic way the interface works here is that you set pages of hotkeys, which are toggled between at will, each activating 8 abilities – 4 that can be hit with directional presses on the D-pad and the other 4 with the face buttons of the controller. With no page selected, you can jump (actually critically important as many of FFXIV’s fun secrets involve jumping puzzles), target select or deselect, activate a virtual mouse, and open the map for your use.
The biggest hurdle straight away is one of the worst parts most of us can imagine – targeting. How do you manage targeting, you might ask?
Well, the game lets you set filters, activated with specific combinations of keys, so that you can rapidly toggle between enemies, friends, party members, or a custom filter that allows you to set specifically what should be included as a valid toggle target. With the filter engaged, you get a paupers’ version of tab-targeting via the left and right directions on the D-pad. When working with enemies, there are hard targets and soft targets, and I’ll be honest, the distinction wasn’t extra clear to me and so I kind of gave up on trying to understand it and hard targeted everything I wanted to hit.
This highlights the first flaw in the system – while you can focus a target and then use macros to use abilities on your focus target, a lot of the gameplay with a gamepad focuses on cycling targets. My tanking in the game, which is already still a low skill level, was downright awful even on my PC with a gamepad, and on the PS4? Ugh, forget it. I didn’t try healing but I imagine it would be a nightmare in a trial, as you could in theory have to tab through up to 7 players to get your preferred target. You can configure the party list in game to pop tanks to the top, so that sorting helps as it then determines how your selection rolls through, but after the struggles I had with just tanking, I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be. This would be even more of a problem for a healer as they are also expected to DPS to ensure a group keeps on pace, meaning you would need to toggle filters to switch from Enemy targeting to Friendly targeting, or worse, build a custom filter with both sets of targets and scroll through every enemy and ally to find the one to heal. Could the virtual mouse save you? Maybe, but it is incredibly dicey. On the PS4, you can use the touchpad on the controller’s face for it, which does make it much easier to point, at least, but then pressing the touchpad functions as the controller’s select button, so the intuitive use case breaks at that point.
Keybinds are also fairly clunky, as I often met with problems trying to target cycle while keeping my keys active. You can choose to hold down the shoulder button to activate the page of abilities or have it set as a toggle, and while toggle feels more intuitive, it also ruins targeting by forcing you to un-toggle the page to gain the D-pad for targeting again. There was a hybrid option, but I did not try it, and I imagine it will come with some sort of tradeoff all its own.
The thing that really stood out to me though is that our current gameplay model for MMOs is not really made to be enjoyed on any device other than a PC. Sure, you can adapt controls that function for a gamepad or a touchscreen device, but there is loss there too. The gamepad struggles with targeting and managing pages of hotkeys is often cumbersome in the heat of combat, requiring precise setup. A touchscreen often has to display text at high resolutions on a small display, meaning that your UI options are limited when it comes to things like tooltips, unless designed specifically for a tablet or larger touch surface.
So it made me think – what type of MMO would be suited for these alternate interfaces?
I don’t know that many of our commonly-played games would fit the bill.