(Editor’s note – hey, so…uh…this was gonna be up last week, but between capturing a lot of screenshots and then being moved to work from home due to CoVID-19, my blog kind of took a backburner while all of that was going on! I’m home and fine, so now, here it is!)
Back in the halcyon days of Summer 2019, I was writing quite a bit more about Final Fantasy XIV and something I said in the wake of experience with EX trials and the Eden’s Gate raids in Shadowbringers was that the highest difficulty raiding in FFXIV (well, almost highest – Ultimate fights are higher!) isn’t quite as bad as Mythic raiding in WoW just because there are patterns.
I want to revisit that topic today, because the thought has been rattling around in my brain about difficulty and how both games are actually uniquely difficult in their endgame content.
WoW’s model, which most of my readers are familiar with, is a highly reactive model for difficulty. You can prepare for most mechanics to a point, but random targeting, timing, or varying positioning means that each iteration of a fight is, in its own way, very slightly different. Health-based breakpoints change the cadence of a fight as your group gets better gear and better skilled at handling the core mechanics of a given fight. Random targeting of mechanics means that the movement patterns of a group and reactions to specific things in a fight change between pulls. WoW’s model is reflex gaming in many ways – when presented with a mechanic, your prompt is to make a needed change rapidly without negatively impacting your performance at your core role.
Final Fantasy XIV leans much more on proactive difficulty. Fights at the highest levels rely on patterns that provide a cadence to the fight, and these are seldom interrupted by unexpected or reactive changes. Where WoW asks you to rapidly accommodate to changing environments, FFXIV asks you to smartly plan ahead so that you can perform your core role with minimal interruption. Partnering with this, FFXIV has much tighter enrage and DPS checks – because it is pattern-based and largely pre-plannable, you have to maintain high performance even as a fight demands that you move or adjust to mechanics. It is, in part, the reason that even healer DPS matters in high-end play in FFXIV – enrage timers are made or broken by every player outputting maximum DPS. It seems bizarre, in a way, coming from WoW, but it actually makes a lot of sense – since fights are pattern-based, there isn’t a need to constantly fill in with heals. Your healers can safely DPS in the time between major tankbusters or raidwide damage, and then can weave off-global cooldown healing spells into the rotation to bring everyone back to health.
Back when I was first writing about difficulty in raiding, I hewed closer to WoW’s model because it was what I was used to. In truth, for some roles, I actually like the WoW model better – when the core repeatable content can vary between pulls or weekly kills, it gives you a little something that makes the content more engaging, whereas once you learn the pattern of a fight in FFXIV, every pull can almost literally be the same – same strategy, same cadence, with only gear changing.
However, I think there are merits to both. WoW is difficult in that it challenges your ability to adapt reflexively and consider a wider possibility space. Every pull of a given fight will have some variation – last tier on Lady Ashvane, for example, you’d have different spawning points for corals, different targets for the linked damage burst used to break the coral, and different targets selected for the trapping bubbles. It means many bosses take more pulls to learn – everyone who is eligible for a given mechanic has to know it at some level – but it also means that learning is a constant challenge.
Even as you gear, higher gear becomes an interesting variable. This tier, for example, Ra’den has a mechanic on the tanks in his final phase that places a DoT on the tank based on their current health amount at the time of application. When you first do the fight and get it down, it may not even be noticed – healers are struggling with raidwide damage and might not be topping off the tanks, which is correct and good for this mechanic! As you gear up and tackle it later, though, it actually becomes more of a problem – tank health outscales healer throughput, and as healers come to understand the pacing of damage intake on the last phase, it is more likely that your now-higher health tanks are closer to topped off, which then counter-intuitively makes Ra’den’s tankbuster hit so much harder, and the scaling of health then also means it is much harder for a healer to catch up! That is without getting into phase mechanics and transitions based on health, which can create overlaps and challenges as you get better geared and capable of knocking the boss from phase to phase faster.
WoW’s difficulty is in managing chaos – it can feel unstructured and chaotic, which is the point. As an individual member of a raid or dungeon group, you have to be more on your toes, more adaptable, and more able to position and adjust quickly. WoW’s mechanics are often easy to distill because the game uses a common design toolkit – mechanics largely boil down to stack/spread, managing health levels to an appropriate point (usually triaging to higher health, but sometimes, like the Ra’den example above, keeping health at a low but survivable point), and ensuring group damage output remains on-target to push past difficult transition points (beating Azshara’s add spawn timer in Phase 1 of that fight, for example). Individually, these elements are actually very simple and straightforward, but combined into a single stream of actions, make gameplay more fluid and interesting. Couple that with random targeting and reacting to other player activity, and you find the core design of the WoW raid game.
FFXIV brings difficulty from a different place – pattern recognition and adjustment. The normal mode fights, which most players do, have a very generous telegraph system where a boss’ upcoming AoE ability highlights the target zone in bright orange, where the game uses a common iconographic language for mechanics that require spreading out (3 stylized arrows pointing away from each other!), stacking, or other adaptations, and you generally get a reasonably long amount of time to adjust. The 8-player size of groups in FFXIV’s top-end content means that there are fewer bodies to confuse things, and the smaller encounter areas often help with that as well.
Where EX and Savage content differ is that they assume a familiarity with the fight from the normal mode of the content, and so when telegraphs are present, they are much shorter and delivered too late to make any shift larger than what two seconds of activity can get you. Mechanics in FFXIV also alternate versions – Titania has a mechanic that shares the same name between a stack under the boss and a spread out version, with subtle graphical clues (the positioning of her wings!) as the means to communicate which version. In the current Eden’s Verse raid, the last boss uses a Mirror mechanic, which looks like it would functionally work the same each time until you realize she is reflecting her current attack, which varies with each Mirror use, meaning that the way you position for a safe spot varies.
These examples probably sound awful for a WoW player, where at least Blizzard has the decency to tell us through different names how each mechanic works. However, what this misses is that these abilities, despite the naming snafu, exist in a cycle. Titania’s first AoE is always a stack underneath her version, and the last boss of Eden’s Verse always uses a frontal cone at the mirrors first, which places the safe spot between the two mirrors. Likewise, her second attack with Mirrors is always the Axe Kick, a circular AoE that hits all 4 mirrors and reflects, leaving the center of the room as the only safe spot. Because this pattern is consistent, you can plan for it constantly and a failure to move out of an ability means you did not properly plan for the moment. She won’t suddenly and randomly use a different ability instead that changes the positioning – each hit always has a designated safe zone you can move to quickly. The difficulty and expression of player skill here is something I think I really like about FFXIV – the goal is to maintain my own ability to play my job while not clipping my performance adapting to mechanics. The use of tight enrage timers makes clear when you aren’t meeting expectations, and the goal is to better adapt your strategy to handling the boss mechanics so you can maximize your gameplay within your core rotation with minimal or no interruption. Critically, all of that revolves around your skill with your job – encounter mechanics are a part of it, but you aren’t drastically deviating from your core rotation to do any of this.
Overall, where I once believed that WoW was simply the harder game, the thing that I realize with more time spent in the FFXIV endgame is that the games are simply difficult in different ways, and I think it would be hard, if not impossible, to outright say one is truly and constantly more difficult than the other. If you deal well with rapidly changing circumstances, you’re probably a WoW raider. If you plan ahead and structure your gameplay to match events you know are coming, then, well, you might be an FFXIV raider.
What’s great is that even within a common-ish mode of gameplay, both games have something interesting and unique to offer.