(There will be some mild gameplay spoilers for 5.3 in this post, and a screenshot of the trial)
Something interesting seems to be brewing in the design paradigm of FFXIV, at least based on a few pieces of data we now have and have seen.
Last weekend, I took my first crack at the EX version of Seat of Sacrifice, the new trial added in patch 5.3. It took about 90 minutes of progression with my free company mates, but we got the fight down, and it was a really fun and challenging trial. However, something I noticed and was commented on by longer-tenured FFXIV players in the group is that the DPS check on the fight was very tame.
In truth, it really was. I played White Mage for it, as healing is my main role in MMOs in general and where I started in both WoW and FFXIV, and I didn’t do nearly as much DPS as I am capable of, but we didn’t brush up against the enrage at all and mechanics were met on-pace. It made me think about some comments Naoki Yoshida made during last year’s pre-Shadowbringers media tour.
To deviate slightly, it is worth revisiting how healing works in FFXIV for the uninitiated. Healing in FFXIV is a role that serves strictly in a triage capacity. Unlike WoW, where raid-level fights have multiple different healing checks designed to keep healers busy with…um, healing, FFXIV healers basically spam DPS rotations and then occasionally break off to use heals, mostly trying to use off-GCD abilities to not clip their DPS rotations. Within the FFXIV community, healing design is a sore point of contention, to put it mildly. The game’s model has some appeal to players like me, who like being tasked with juggling priorities and feeling the rewards in execution for properly managing a split between doing damage and keeping allies alive, but for people used to healing in WoW or other similar MMOs, the model in FFXIV is bizarre and feels weird.
It has some pros and cons. While I like the target juggling and shift in focus, the DPS rotation of healers is super bland and simple, boiled down simply to a cast time nuke spell and an instant, on-GCD DoT. Flesh it out with an AoE core ability and a few flavor spells per job that are situational in nature, and that’s it. Healing-wise, the 3 jobs have some core similarities but have lots of layered-on flavor outside of that, but in DPS terms, the gameplay of a healer is very plain, bland, and uninspired – which makes it rough that the core role is to use that basic rotation and then fill it out without clipping GCDs.
So during last year’s media tour, YoshiP commented in a Japanese interview that healer adjustments for Shadowbringers (particularly the reduction in Scholar DPS tools) were made to create a focus on healing as a role over DPSing with healing breaks. This created some controversy among those who love the FFXIV model of healing, as the idea that the design would shift away from DPS was unwanted for those people.
The end result? Shadowbringers has been very similar from a gameplay perspective to most of the rest of the game with just the initial job adjustments being a differentiator. Healers still mostly DPS and heal as little as possible, and being a top-parsing healer is largely down to maximizing damage done.
Here’s where my observations of Seat of Sacrifice EX come back into play – the fight, at multiple levels, uses mechanics and tweaks that change the way in which healers play for the course of the fight. Right off the bat, the fight immediately hits everyone with a variant of the Doom debuff that reduces the whole group to 1 HP and requires healing them to full within a few seconds to avoid instagibs. While a lot of FFXIV fights use variants of the Doom mechanic, few of them reduce a player to 1 HP and fewer still do so to the while group at once. This sets the tone immediately, as using oGCD heals to top everyone off at the start of a fight is practically impossible and requires that your healers spend at least a few GCDs healing the party. From there, multiple mechanics have an almost WoW-level healing check, causing massive amounts of unavoidable damage to the whole party, tanks requiring external mending due to multiple tankbuster mechanics, and an overall higher level of party damage than most fights in the game.
Now, from this, it’s hard to say for sure that Square Enix is going to make this a trend going forward, and so I would normally avoid reading too much into this. It does, however, dovetail nicely with the comments made prior to Shadowbringers by the development team, and with this encounter in focus, I think we can see a change in direction that I would not be surprised to see as the norm going forward. Seat of Sacrifice, despite the lack of a strong DPS check, is still a tough fight and one that requires even coordinated groups to meet a series of tough mechanical checks. It also, unlike many fights in FFXIV, has a degree of randomness, as the second phase uses 4 different add phase mechanics that shuffle at random, with a couple of the phases being particularly difficult if they come up back to back. While a healer can still DPS here (and with proper learning attempts done, you could probably get back to close to normal execution of FFXIV healing), it takes a higher skill level to maintain DPS through all of the varying healer checks. In fact, that seems to be the point – this fight, for me at least, carried a higher number of GCDs spent on healing spells compared to most other fights.
The question remains – is this change going to end up being indicative of a larger trend? Right now, we don’t know, but it shouldn’t be long before we see 5.4 previews, some of which should include the next tier of Normal/Savage raiding, and with it, we’ll likely get a better impression of whether this is a permanent design shift or not. My immediate impression is that I like it, though. The game’s healing model is something that appeals to me, but it also doesn’t ask you to make as many adjustments in most content as I would like to add depth, which tends to make it feel like playing the simplest, dumbest DPS around. The model used for Seat of Sacrifice EX still allows the shifts to happen, but it makes those choices more meaningful and requires more variation in gameplay, which is great. Healers can (and should) contribute DPS to bring a fight to a close (less time spent fighting is less healing needed, after all) but I feel like the model in FFXIV has veered too close to being healers as dumbed down DPS who sometimes heal rather than being actual healers. Unlike some, I think there is a compromise between the two that stays close to what FFXIV has traditionally done while getting more healing in there.
So, all of that said, if Seat EX becomes the model of FFXIV encounter design going forward, I think there will be something to celebrate for healers.