After the FFXIV Fan Fest Online this last weekend, I saw a tweet from Taliesin & Evitel that was sort of interesting to me:
Now, I’m not going to accuse this of being outright trolling, although I can see the tone and wry smile in my head. Why? Well, I think it does highlight something interesting that I can speak to as a fan of both games – the Final Fantasy XIV team does get something of a pass compared to Blizzard. Taliesin has claimed to have played both games in the past, and I think his wording here comes from a personal place – that he is often called a shill for Blizzard regardless of the actual content of the T&E videos.
But I want to evaluate this statement, because I think there is something worth stating and evaluating here…
Square Enix Absolutely Shows Less and Gets More For It
FFXIV events show very small, controlled bits of information. We get a new job unveiling with a preview video, no actual gameplay details short of general style. We get new zone flythroughs without any relation to timeline in the story. We get dungeon preview videos that blend styles well enough to make it hard to tell where the dungeons are split from, making it a sort of rolling preview of anywhere from one to four dungeons. We get trailer music and beats that aren’t really specified, and the team loves using quotes and snippets in misdirecting ways, like how the little gremlin in the Shadowbringers trailer was actually saying one of Emet-Selch’s final lines to us from the MSQ.
But yet, look at the Fan Fest online posts coming out of this last weekend, including my own. Overwhelming positivity! This topic interests me so because I can feel it in myself. I don’t look at FFXIV and think that Square Enix should be getting flak for showing so little – I’m genuinely excited, despite the fact that I would still identify as a WoW fan primarily and would not give Blizzard the same credit!
I think it is genuinely fascinating, because I think there are multiple actors here. On the one hand, Square Enix has built their own style of announcement and has reasons for the way they deliver their news and it is received, while Blizzard, likewise, has done the same. I want to start with Square Enix and then wind back to Blizzard.
Why Does Square Enix Get Hype From So Little?
Generally, there are a few factors I could identify as to how the FFXIV team has landed in this most envious position.
Firstly, I think there is a cultural difference worth evaluating. Japanese game devs have a very sort of closed-door process in how they preview information. Square Enix rarely has playable builds running at Fan Fests in person, and if they do, it’s usually a single trial with no other content. When they do Media Tours, where most of the real information for a new expansion is divulged, it is a controlled, small-group setting, with limited attendance and tight supervision of a small slice of gameplay in the new expansion. Most information we get right up until launch as FFXIV fans is tightly controlled – there aren’t open Q&A sessions, public beta testing, or any of the trappings of the WoW experience. They do small interviews with established media outlets and content creators, with limited scope of questions – and all of this feels very much in line with what I would have gotten from reading Electronic Gaming Monthly or Computer Gaming World up until the mid-aughts. It is sort-of anachronistic, but the team has also set this expectation quite tightly.
That feeds into point number two, which is simply this – because there is such a slow drip of new information, everything is valuable. Fan Fest showed less than 5 minutes of gameplay footage, about two of which was a Reaper doing an animation cycle of a couple of attack animations and the rest was zone footage. The Endwalker trailer in all its glory is almost more runtime than the entirety of the gameplay footage of Endwalker we’ve seen so far, and it would probably be longer were it not for the previous Sage trailer from the February event. Yet, you see the avalanche of positivity coming out, and that is easy to understand contextually – given a good enough quality of footage, even 5 minutes of footage with around an hour or two of discussion is enough to get people talking, speculating, and overall quite hyped.
Next, it is worth considering the way in which Square Enix presents the lack of information compared to their genre contemporaries. Final Fantasy XIV is, for all the things it offers, presented as a dynamic, modern Final Fantasy-style epic story, one that relies on smart writing, carefully built tension, and surprises. Fans are willing to run with the explanation that Final Fantasy XIV must be kept under wraps until launch because it hides spoilers and saves the story for playthrough later. Each FFXIV expansion launch has a degree of job balancing that has to be done to fix things that are out of line, but they generally get close enough that most players forgive any missteps on that front, and it helps that the raid tier that launches with the expansion is usually held back for a week or two until some attempt at balancing can be made. It isn’t always enough, but analysis of FFLogs shows that for the lack of public testing, the game generally is better about keeping a tight performance band from top to bottom. This is also helped by the fact that the game offers very little choice in build outside of gear and Materia.
This last point is one we will revisit to close the post, but it must be said that Naoki Yoshida and the whole of Creative Business Unit III at Square Enix have the trust of their fans. A Realm Reborn was damn near the first of its kind in the world of gaming – a game launched so disastrously and yet fixed so well in one fell swoop that Yoshi-P and team have a lot of faith earned from that initial launch. Since then, they’ve done very little that would step over that line in any other direction – each expansion has built upon the strengths of the vision implemented in the revamp with ARR without making drastic shifts away from that model. The gameplay is very similar overall, but abilities have layered on interesting interactions, there’s been very little pruning or consolidation of abilities, and you can generally count on things staying roughly similar expansion to expansion, short of significant class revamps, which are few and far between and even then lean on the established play to keep a foundation. People had cynicism for the Realm Reborn project, but Yoshida’s team has wiped that away and kept that trust with players intact.
Why Is Blizzard So Scrutinized?
Now, the other side of the coin in this direct fanbase comparison – why are Blizzard’s moves with WoW so contested, so cynically met, and so reservedly observed?
To start with, Blizzard shares so much more of their development pipeline and design ideas with the playerbase. If SE is a controlled drip of information, Blizzard alternates between high-pressure garden hose and firehose – blasting players with details at every unveiling. We get key art, concept art, zone screenshots and videos, gameplay design overviews, new system overviews and even detailing, discussion of raid bosses, dungeon bosses, and all things in-between. A typical in-person Blizzcon comes loaded with panels and discussions, a playable demo on the show floor, and that’s without diving into the multiple livestream interviews with content creators, traditional media publication interviews, press kits, and the like.
The challenge with Blizzard, however, is in how much of the information they share that is then later scrapped or changed. A big part of the fuss with Legiondaries, as one example, is due to the team sharing them first at Blizzcon 2015, saying they would be targetable, and then…not doing that until much, much later. The legacy of World of Warcraft is full of things like this – the dance studio, Path of the Titans, the originally-planned Karabor and Bladespire Citadel capitols in Warlords of Draenor, and more. Blizzard has created, for better or worse, an environment into which they share far more information, but the hit rate of information they share is rarely 100% and things quite often change prior to launching. This leads to some amount of skepticism about what they do announce and thus it is quite rare to see unreserved praise for an announcement from them.
This is then compounded by a larger issue with a lack of communication. I know, it seems contradictory, but stick with this one. At announcement events, Blizzard has piles of details and news to share – videos, demos, slide decks, slick sizzle reels, and developer Q&A sessions. Once those are over, however, the team is generally quiet and tends not to peek out until they have larger details to share. Shadowlands was a perfect example of this – big announcement with a few weeks of residual excitement, silence, BfA discussion, and then all of WoW discussion went fairly quiet on the Blizzard side until the late announcement of the Shadowlands alpha test. Similarly, we got a release date for the game with the beta announcement, and the beta test was proceeding apace until we started to get really close to the release with no prepatch date even speculated – and then the delay. Then we had no content patch news for Shadowlands until 9.0.5, which was also clearly a warning sign, and then the Blizzconline event in February dropped 9.1 news. That news was exciting, but it was all we had until nearly two months later, when the PTR launched, and even now we’re in a sort of similar situation – no real clear release date, an uncertain amount of required testing still to be done, and the likely answer being a bad one – no patch until almost July. Yikes!
Blizzard also remains stymied by their insistence on a public test process, which invites datamining to the table. I like Wowhead and MMO-Champion’s datamining efforts generally, but I also understand that if you’re Blizzard, they’re probably frustrating to some point. A lot of WoW news and changes aren’t announced by Blizzard at all, but instead revealed early via datamining, devoid of context that could help to set the stage or ease the change. The public test process also creates a perceived gap in feedback response, where things caught in the testing process are publicly discussed, with no changes, until they eventually make it to live servers and receive 10x the complaints. They’ve done better with the expanded number of cinematics in the recent game at keeping things more contained – using encrypted files in cases where the surprise must be maintained, but these tend to be for major story moments and rarely are for much else. For example, there’s a model indexed as the Jailer in 9.1 that is encrypted, which creates a lot of speculation but nothing too concrete. However, you can’t do that with everything critical while still being able to test publicly – you need players to be able to see quest text and broadcast text relating to the story to properly test content, and while my armchair game dev brain suggests using placeholder text, doing that everywhere isn’t all that realistic. These things are the byproducts of a public process – sometimes, there are just going to be very early spoilers floating around, and even for those not testing PTR or beta products, Wowhead will plop them in front of a portion of your audience anyways.
All of this leads to a seeping distrust in the WoW development team. They might be the most well-intentioned and strong game designers and developers around, and I believe that they want to do right by the players and deliver something interesting. However, they’ve lost the trust that would allow for unreserved excitement and hype around the game with a large chunk of their playerbase – we’ve been burned too many times, left hanging on too many features, and overall, they have pushed themselves into a corner where it is difficult to take their announcements at face value and be unabashedly excited, or to trust content creators who are excited without reservations expressed. Now, I want to say here that calling anyone a shill is somewhat unfair – to the original tweet genesis of this post, I don’t think Taliesin and Evitel are shills. They speak about the game the way I do – it’s something they enjoy and they seem genuinely excited to share their passion for the game. Their videos are far more cautious and reserved than people give them credit for, as well – they often establish a degree of skepticism before reporting on new topics and present their own concerns in a way that resonates with me. And yes, I know they’ve done things for Blizzard like the 2019 Blizzcon WoW Q&A and had interviews with the development team – but I think the shill label is often thrown at them by the same type of trolls I noted in my recent post about MassivelyOP – people disconnected from the game who perceive any excitement about WoW as “shilling” or people being excited for the game as part of a mythical “Blizzard Defense Force.”
Contrasting The Trust
So ultimately, it is worth coming around to the trust discussion again to close things out here.
The World of Warcraft team has one of the longest-lived modern MMOs in their care, one with a long history of success, and that is an asset to them. However, they also have to reckon with the fact that the game has been on a downward trajectory in both publicly-available metrics and perceived quality, and they’ve done little over the last several years to course-correct in either regard. As I say that, I recognize there are design elements of Shadowlands that are actually improvements on the things that have yielded the harshest critique in recent years – less grindy borrowed power systems with finite endpoints, less randomness in gear drops meaning there is a peak you can theoretically reach in a given season of content, and an attempt at building an end-game around more of doing what you want. However, they remain sort of tone-deaf when speaking about their darling systems, and the game is undeniably in a cycle of introducing temporary systems for player advancement per expansion, which then get scrapped and upcycled for each new expansion, instead of building meaningful RPG-style progression into the game where players reach and maintain a baseline of power and ability.
This coupled with a severe lack of communication about what is taking their focus and time and how they expect it will improve the player experience creates a seemingly-dissonant but accurate perception of a studio that is enthusiastic to share new information but difficult to pin down on specifics, that is excited for players to experience their new designs while asking for feedback but also overprotective of things that players don’t enjoy and willing to be perceived as stubborn to protect systems few like.
Final Fantasy XIV is the complete opposite, in that way. The game was a joke in 2010, a rushed piece of crap with some interesting ideas tucked away where no one would ever find them, with a team at the helm that was out of calibration with the MMO market and just wanted to make Final Fantasy XI-2. With Yoshida at the helm, the game was pulled out of that and has become a game on a constant upwards trajectory, to the point that even the changes Yoshida oversaw in 1.0 are interesting and fondly remembered, and the act of entrusting him with the title is seen as a turning point. The Herculean task of pulling Final Fantasy XIV out of the mud was something no one expected to work, but in 2021, FFXIV is one of the most successful MMO’s in the world, one of the most fondly received Final Fantasy titles of the modern era, and thus the team on the game has earned an unheard-of level of trust not just from the public but also within Square Enix by all accounts, and there have been no major missteps to call that into question. The team’s success has led to Yoshida being appointed as one of the shepherds of the FF franchise, and now his CBU III team is at the helm of Final Fantasy XVI, the first next-gen, single-player story in the Final Fantasy saga.
In the FFXIV world, Yoshi-P and the team at large deliver when they promise they will, and they communicate and discuss why things are how they are and adjust to move and meet players where they are. The game isn’t perfect, and it does have some recurring small issues that players could nitpick at (Egi glamours being perpetually promised before Yoshida recently said “not likely in the near future,” UI mods being a “someday” thing before Yoshida later confessed the team dedicated to that effort had started and stopped pretty quickly and they had no plans to resume) but these things are small roadbumps on a path that has, overall, been incredibly responsive to player needs and even in the cases mentioned, the game has alternative options that help address the underlying concern (well, except for Egi glamour…).
So in the end, while I get that it might seem weird at best or hypocritical at worst, as a fan of both games, I can see why the difference in tone among players is there, and why someone might unapologetically embrace being excited about FFXIV and those who are, compared to WoW, where skepticism is baked-in and someone excited for something sight-unseen might, indeed, be smoking something.
(But shill is a dumb insult and so hard to prove even if you do think it’s right so think of something new for fuck’s sake!)