Okay, so 27 years ago (no wait, it was January 2020), I promised a post on my experience playing Everquest II. What I’m about to say is going to be both disappointing but also hopefully recoverable, so here it goes!
This is that post, but it is also not that post.
My experience with EQ2, playing for free and attempting to level, was not bad, in actuality. I had tried when the game first went F2P way back when and bounced off of it really quickly. This time, I ground out a few levels, did some gathering, got a sense of how the gameplay worked, but while I was having a smidge of fun, it just didn’t sink a hook in, and then I got distracted by WoW’s patch 8.3, and then FFXIV patch 5.2, and then time passed and now it’s May (June as of editing!) 2020 and here I am, writing this post!
When I think about my experience with EQ2, it was fine enough. The game’s graphics are a bit dated and the style is sort of ugly, in a way, but that is subjective from me as I am used to the saccharine oversaturated brightness of WoW and FFXIV. The interface was a bit confusing – typed commands aren’t new to me, but a game not also having a menu with a lot of them tucked away was a bit weird for me in 2020. Gameplay-wise, it was okay – maybe a bit slow, but I also thought the same of FFXIV when I started.
It was in the comparisons that I started to contemplate why I felt like this and how I was so instantly bouncing off of the game. Instantly is maybe the wrong word – I put a handful of hours in, but I wouldn’t say it was much or enough to have an accurate framing of the game.
And in that contemplation, came a revelation.
MMOs kind of suck to get into, especially now.
Let’s start with my history, because I’ve talked at length over the last 3 years here about my history inside of the games I do play, but I’ve only rarely gestured in the direction of how I got started in them, and the answer for both WoW and FFXIV is – I almost didn’t.
When WoW came out in 2004, it was a revelation to my roommates who were all bit by the bug, one person buying it day 1, playing until level 30, and quitting, but that was enough to spark the other 2 into buying it and playing it damn-near non-stop for a long time, and both are still active-ish in the game today. Seeing them play it, well, I wanted to understand it, so I got their permission at varying times to roll characters on their accounts. (Don’t tell Blizzard!)
My first WoW character ever was an Orc Warrior. I got him to level 10, spent most of my time in Razor Hill blacksmithing, and gave up. Then I rolled a Troll Mage, whose name I still remember – Akaviji! – and played until…level 10. I quit. I tried a Night Elf warrior – level 8, no dice. Finally, around May 2005, I rolled a Night Elf priest, got him to 18 and then got my own account, rolled a new NE Priest, transferred whatever items and money I could between the two, and that became Syladylin, my first ever main and usually my second character through an expansion’s content these days, after whatever my current raid main is.
It took me so many attempts to finally get hooked on WoW. I spent hours across three friend’s accounts just trying to even come to an understanding of what they liked about the game, but once it popped into my consciousness, I was all the way in.
Similarly, with FFXIV, it took me a long time to get onboard. I bought 1.0’s collector’s edition in 2010, and boy did I want to like it. I loved the atmosphere, and my excellent PC for that era could handle the game reasonably well even with its well-publicized issues with overdone graphical fidelity. However, I ground through a handful of levels, and around level 10 and a trip to Ul’dah later (hearing Nobuo Uematsu’s masterful Twilight Over Thanalan for the first time), I quit. I completely gave up on it until the summer of 2014, when my friends got into A Realm Reborn. I bought it on an Amazon sale and played until around level 30ish as a Conjurer, and at the point I needed to grind Arcanist to 15 to unlock White Mage, I gave up. I came back in time for Heavensward launch and got to 50 – hooray! – but then was ground to dust in the middle of the horrible hundred (all I really wanted was to roll Astrologian, but being forced to hit 50, do the story quests just in order to get to Ishgard to then downlevel to 30 AST and effectively start over…). When Stormblood was about to launch, I got involved in the hype with my friends earlier, and it seemed like some positive changes were coming, so I got back in, ground out the horrible hundred, picked up my Astrologian job, leveled that to 70 post-Stormblood launch, played really solidly for about a month, and then…bounced off of it again. It wasn’t until January 2019, disenfranchised with WoW and excited for Shadowbringers, that I finally got the actual hook of the game and I’ve been playing it ever since.
Why bring all of this up? Well, I have a simple hypothesis about MMOs as a genre that I think is worth discussing, and it is this: for a large subset of modern gamers, MMOs roll out abilities and gameplay too slowly to be exciting and the end result is that the early hours feel like tedium that burn a high percentage of people out.
When I play most modern games outside of MMOs, the gameplay unveils itself in rapid succession over about an hour, with some sort of sequence of thinly-veiled tutorial missions nudging you deeper and deeper into the gameplay until the bulk of the core loop is available. It is fast, well-paced, and doesn’t have to float a vague promise of some other content waiting at the end of the road. Sure, there are often systems that promote longer-term gameplay development, but these tend to tweak and refine rather than define.
This allows a few advantages – gameplay is more engaging to start, which helps players get stuck to the game, and it allows challenge to be added to the recipe early. You have a handful of button presses, some solving of gameplay puzzles, and there is an element of danger to early fights.
MMOs on the other hand, are built for the long haul – players start with a pittance of abilities, lacking gear, and with access to almost none of the systems that define the actual gameplay. WoW players don’t get talents for 15 levels, and they don’t fill every gear slot on their paper doll until the level 30-40 range. You can’t do a single dungeon until level 15 (maybe earlier if you are Horde and have physical access to Ragefire Chasm), raiding is never really discussed by the game at all until the current level cap, crafting requires you reaching level 5, PvP is later for organized play modes, and you don’t get a first mount until 20. You spend agonizing amounts of time at low levels with classes built around 1-2 button rotations which often lack any complexity or depth, fighting enemies that pose next to no threat even to a rookie. The world is cool, but the game rarely calls attention to it anymore – it’s set dressing, effectively.
Now, let’s look at Final Fantasy XIV. Okay, so the core rotations again are pretty shallow, but the combo system adds a little spice. It still results in you having 1-3 button rotations for much of the ARR questing, though. Crafting is cool, but you have to hit level 10 in a combat job to even think about trying it. The game uses Guildhests to teach new players ways to approach combat scenarios in the game and as a sort of micro-dungeon mode of content, but even for a newbie, these wear thin incredibly fast, and it isn’t until 15 that you can start the leveling dungeon roulette – assuming you unlock the dungeons necessary first. Like WoW, you won’t fill out your gear slots for a while, although in FFXIV it only takes until about level 15-17. PvP is a far-off fantasy, only in organized play modes, and the balancing that gives you special PvP abilities and a fixed level/stat loadout is kind of confusing if you’re new, not to mention the whiplash of having full combos all of a sudden. The game has a lot of features designed to give you things to do – hunting logs, challenge logs, the Main Scenario Quest, leves, sidequests, etc – but the game is almost allergic to showing you combat, as the questing very rarely involves fighting, and it is only through hunting logs, the few quests with combat, or dungeons that most new players will interact with their core skillsets at all. It’s not until level 50 that most jobs have pulled-together rotations with fleshed out combos, off-GCD abilities, and decent pacing, and even then, because of the scaling design of the game, you get the weird level 50 designs almost preserved in time – they’ve changed to suit some rotation adjustments over the years, but they still feel a little off-putting depending on the job!
The sad thing is that a lot of MMOs have merit beyond that initial journey, but I think for many, that initial part of the journey is a slow, plodding mess. I have played WoW for 15 years now, and yet, it took nearly a full year into release for me to decide on sticking with it! It wasn’t until I ran the Teldrassil > Ironforge route of danger that the adhesion was planted deeply, and that was a decision I had to make for myself – Blizzard’s design didn’t make that explicitly a path in front of me. FFXIV had the allure of what looked like a fascinating combat structure – and once I actually did endgame content, I really liked it! Both games, however, were very similar in that they put up a series of roadblocks in that the early hours of play were just kind of there. In retrospect, I didn’t hate them, but I also didn’t particularly like them either!
The thing is, I don’t even think this is earthshattering or revelatory anyways. Blizzard is undertaking a major revamp of leveling in WoW from start to finish in Shadowlands, the third such effort in the game’s lifetime. Patch 5.3 for FFXIV is going to see the game’s first major revamp of the original leveling content of A Realm Reborn, a persistent weak spot that crushes otherwise enthusiastic players. If we count smaller tweaks and curve flattenings or smoothing, WoW has basically flattened the experience curve with almost every expansion since patch 2.4-era The Burning Crusade, while Square Enix has made tweaks and adjustments of a similar manner while also removing some of the blocks in the way of the fun (removing cross-class abilities in favor of Role Actions and removing the requirements to reach level 15 in a second class after 30 in your main in order to acquire the main job crystal).
Most MMOs with long lives tend towards taking a lot of action on newbie content, and when you are in the thick of the endgame, it is easy to question why that is. However, when viewed through the lens of a different game of the genre with which you are less familiar (as was my experience with Everquest II), you wonder why these things don’t get more attention.
The answer, I think, is obvious, but also somewhat tricky and multi-faceted. It also involves the angle at which you view the current available content from, which can change the view a lot!
New Players Matter – But Continued Revenue Is King: WoW, FFXIV – any long-lived MMO with a subscription or recurring revenue stream – all depend on existing players continuing to show up, log in, and play the game. Yes, as a game reaches a saturation point and the existing audience begins to taper, new players need to be brought in. However, many people who bow out for weeks or even months at a time will often come back with a good expansion or even a bad one, just to see the new stuff. A large chunk of my guild in WoW (and my Free Company in FFXIV) is players who play the new story content, stick around for a couple of weeks past that point, and then bow out until the next expansion or major content release. It is often a path of least resistance to pull in players who have already been drawn in at some point, appealing to them with new content. These people are much more likely to buy a boxed expansion (or DLC pack, or what have you) and renew a subscription for at least a month during new content windows. During Legion, from 7.1 to the 7.3 release, Blizzard maintained a release schedule of a new patch every 11 weeks, or roughly 3 months. If you think about that, it means one new content release a quarter, which for these players means you get at least 1 month of subscription for these folks each quarter! Such a pace can also keep hardcore players engaged – the Legion model is one that kept me almost fully in the game through until BfA prepatch!
New players, on the other hand, are important but harder to reach – there is an obvious need to replenish your player ranks as attrition takes root, and new players are often more used to new design philosophies and tend to be happier with content decisions made when they come up in the game, until the point where they become the new grizzled veterans.
Business Decisions Make Getting In Hard: However, new players are resistant to jump right in, for the gameplay reasons we discussed above, but also from a business angle. FFXIV, for example, requires you to purchase the base game and the most recent expansion for full content access. WoW requires that you purchase the newest expansion if you want to play that content, but doesn’t require you to buy the base game any longer – you have to subscribe to play the content up to the current expansion (and WoW Classic), however. FFXIV includes a month of subscription time with the base game purchase, and WoW (confusingly) also offers a retail box that no longer offers any value at the price charged, but is basically just a mechanism to get 30 days of play while browsing at Walmart.
Both games used as examples here also have some mechanism for boosting or bypassing troublesome content – WoW offering a level boost to 10 levels beneath the current content in the box for free with the current expansion (or to the current level cap in the case of a preorder for the next expansion), while FFXIV’s MogStation offers both story content skips for the main scenario quest and level boosts to 10 levels below current content on a per-job basis.
Lastly, both games offer a bevy of options for getting into them. You can buy a retail box for both that contains the base game, you can buy a boxed purchase of the newest expansion, you can buy legacy expansions that remain in-stock at less well-informed retail outlets, you can use starter edition downloads with paid unlocks to full versions, and then there are promotions in both games for recruiting friends to play with you and offer incentives to both recruit and recruiter. Unlike most games, where you simply roll up to the store or pull up the digital marketplace of your choosing and buy the game, getting into an MMO is hard. Free to play examples can get even more complicated – depending on the game, you might have an in-game currency mechanism to purchase time or premium content, premium currency bought with real money or earned slowly, a subscription model that unlocks bonuses or additional content on top of the base level access, an expansion model requiring purchases of content access separate from any other part of the model, and that’s without accounting for the myriad of cosmetic, loot box, and player-tradeable currencies and tokens purchased with real money by one party of the transaction. Even for most AAA games today with a box purchase and layers of premium content and currencies, there is less confusion.
Giving Low-Level Players More Abilities Can Make Late-Game Progression Boring: This one is the reason I think most MMO designers would offer as to why the early experience is sparse on abilities or gameplay modifiers – simply put, it is easier to offer players a progression path as a carrot on a stick to push them to level and get into higher-end content. Both FFXIV and WoW use spellbooks with greyed-out future spells as a tantalizing vision of what is to come – just wait until you hit level 50, man, then you’ll get all the cool stuff! In FFXIV, you can even keybind the abilities you don’t have yet, allowing you to watch a level 80 rotation and gameplay guide on YouTube and setup your eventual endgame play early.
I’m of two minds on this – the first is that I bring it up because generally, I agree with the idea – if you hit a high level in an MMO and don’t get anything for it, it feels really awful (a common complaint with the leveling experience of WoW’s Battle for Azeroth!). Pacing out spells and abilities gives a clear reward at set milestones and also allows gameplay balancing to make certain assumptions about what tools players will have. (FFXIV dungeons, as an example, rarely use trash packs larger than 3 mobs until around level 40, as some classes don’t have their core AoE ability until near that point.) However, on the other hand, this is kind of an excuse given that you can offer modifiers, talents, or other perks as means of getting that same progression. WoW Classic has the spell rank system, where each rank is a new spell in and of itself, giving you upgrades with power and cost scaling when the game starts to run out of core rotational abilities. On paper, who cares. In practice, however, with the non-linear scaling of power and cost, things like downranking spells, binding all versions of a spell for use in different ways based on the demands of the moment, and the like all become new gameplay vectors. When I healed in vanilla, it wasn’t uncommon for me to have two or three versions of a given spell on my hotbars because they all got used in some way.
To tie this to the original inspiration for the post, this is something in my limited EQ2 experience that I really liked – the game gave me something every level that I played, so I felt this progression and could see my hotbars filling with abilities faster than they do in both FFXIV and WoW, and that felt nice. Every level brought new depth to combat and engaged me a little bit more. In those moments, I could feel a hook trying to find a way to grab onto me, and given more time and a few less quirks for my tastes, it might have actually grabbed a hold.
Questing Is A Bit Rough: I say this subjectively and not objectively, but the quest model of the MMO is kind of long in the tooth. WoW gives you a bit of flavor text that seldom adds much to the world early on and then turns you loose on its excellent combat, while FFXIV provides you with an interesting story that ramps up really well over the course of the full experience but rarely offers much actual role playing in the world as your character and job. WoW has very few sidequests that divert from the main story being told in a given zone, where FFXIV offers an overarching main story and then all the sidequests are full of fun flavor about the zone the quest takes place in and the people giving you the quest. If you want to fight stuff via quests in FFXIV, sidequests are the way to go and even most of them are not combat-focused. Back in A Realm Reborn, you could do levequests for combat (which still exist today in those zones but TBD on if they’ll stay in 5.3), while WoW is largely built on combat quests and offers very little variety of non-combat quests, most of which break down to clicking to place quest items or simple shuttling of items from location to location.
I don’t want or need every quest to offer critical lore and raid-caliber gameplay, but I would like to see quests with phases that offer a variety of different gameplay options – more fighting in FFXIV, more interesting non-combat gameplay in WoW. In EQ2, I felt like quests skewed combat-heavy early on – there was some world-building but I didn’t see a really cohesive story forming or trying to pull me in.
The Sense of World Is Missing at Low Levels: This is a knock on most MMOs I’ve played in general, but I often find that it is difficult to get a real sense of scale for a game early on. My time in EQ2 wound me through a decent-sized zone, but it felt like something scaled for and built on a system from 2004. WoW Classic pushes you through its zones well enough, but it also has to overcome limitations of the time in other ways – lots of zone boundaries make use of tunnels to obscure loading. Modern WoW is awesome when you have flying because you can really take in the scale of the world, but it also has design problems like zones being built in chunks of gameplay rather than in a way that feels fully natural and interesting. FFXIV, while it no longer supports the PS3 version, still builds zones that feel like they could work on that hardware – compact, with loading screens between each zone and boundaries that logically don’t really work.
More than those complaints though, I think low-level players often miss out on the scale of things. What hooked me on WoW back in vanilla was that famed Alliance player journey from Teldrassil to Ironforge. That journey inspired awe and wonder – but there’s nothing that really pushes a player to do that early on, and the gameplay mechanics make it a road fraught with challenge. At higher levels, the game has a bevy of quests that ping-pong you all over the world map, which really builds that fantasy, but it takes 20 levels of slog to get there. Modern WoW is all about zones, so while it builds great setpieces, they never feel connected in that same way. FFXIV’s early story is all about geopolitical intrigue and sends you all over the place for quests, which does help build some sense of the world, but those damned zone boundaries, constant loading screens, and uninspired names (all of the ARR zones save for two are named *cardinal direction* *name of region*, and I still don’t even know which zones are appropriate at which character levels). The game builds its capital cities well enough to make them memorable, and that helps, and from Heavensward on, zone naming gets a lot better, but today we’re talking about noob experience, and to be frank, the noob experience with building world familiarity in FFXIV sucks.
The thing is, I like all of these worlds – EQ’s seems interesting and like something I would like, and I really enjoy WoW’s massive sprawling cosmos and FFXIV’s building around nation-states. All of them offer something, but it just takes so long to get to a point where you can appreciate it as a package deal.
When you combine these things, a theme sort of emerges – the games built on this type of model are usually viewed through the lens of a high-level player (high on the level scale, not like a top-end skillful player). My lack of enthusiasm for EQ2 is built on a lesser skillset and smaller scale than what someone at level cap would see. My enthusiasm for both modern WoW and FFXIV required slogging through less-than-ideal starting experiences which burn out a lot of people and required a lot of effort on my part to stay adhered to until the game could do the lifting.
Given all of that, I think it is a thorny problem with no easy solutions. If you rebalance when abilities come into rotation and you risk throwing off someone near the middle of the level curve. If you make low-level content super-engaging with rotations and more modern enemies, you might risk overcomplicating things for a more casual player. If your business model for entry is tweaked too much and loses revenue, you risk someone from a C-suite coming down and firing you because the game isn’t making money as well.
However, the next few months are going to be an interesting case study, as the two juggernauts of the current MMO market are both on the cusp of launching new models for leveling, and I for one am eagerly anticipating seeing what happens.
(And now that I have more time, maybe some EQ2 time could be in the cards. Privately, this time!)