Something my recent forays into Savage raiding and harder EX trial pushing in FFXIV has brought to mind is a key difference between the core combat gameplay of both WoW and FFXIV.
For those who haven’t played either game, let’s do the basic rundown – in WoW, the primary mode of difficulty adjustment is through encounter mechanics, where each fight tends to form a unique mode of play against which you execute what is, mostly, a pretty basic rotation. Over the years, WoW’s rotations have gotten simpler, from pruning but also by use of new resource systems and short-duration cooldown abilities that force a tempo to play (compare playing a hunter with a mana bar to playing with a focus bar – very different experiences!). WoW’s non-caster DPS classes get a decent chunk of their DPS through auto-attacking, so uptime on a boss matters and that is why movement mechanics on bosses can be particularly punishing – bosses often have fairly small hitboxes that don’t extend much beyond the model, so a big part of learning a fight is pushed to mechanics – knowing when and how to move to maximize uptime on the boss.
In FFXIV, most fights focus on seeing everyone (DPS, tank, and healer alike) hit their maximum DPS through tight gameplay of a more rigid rotation. Boss mechanics definitely matter here as well, but most boss mechanics serve to deny uptime, so a goal of a good strategy is to ensure that mechanics are done in a way that allows everyone to keep hitting the boss as much as possible. Auto-attacks are far less of the actual damage done by your melee and physical ranged DPS, so their combo adherence matters a lot more, and a big part of FFXIV’s melee game in particular is the use of positional attacks – so you need to not just hit a rotation in the right order, but also to be at the flank or rear of a boss at the correct points in that rotation to do maximum damage. FFXIV’s combo system also punishes players for losing their place – the core build of almost all jobs in the game save for healers focus on a 3-action sequence, with each action past the first gaining a large buff in damage and often other effects for being correctly combo’d. The game doesn’t disable these buttons outside the combo sequence, so you might not even notice when you’re learning – as an example, the low-level Samurai combo has a second hit that is 100 potency without the combo bonus, but 280 with it (and hitting the combo also grants a damage dealt buff). In Savage, this is amplified with tight DPS checks, and further amplified by punishing mechanical noncompliance with a Damage Down debuff (instead of the normal mode raiding use of Vulnerability Up debuffs), so trying to uptime cheese a mechanic as a DPS and failing represents a pretty huge loss of damage!
I’ve thought a lot about these models over the past few weeks, because I think it is an interesting difference between the two games. Both have shared elements of design and play similarly on a surface level, but it is in these differences that both games have their distinct flavors.
The Pros of WoW Raiding Gameplay
One thing I always really liked about WoW raiding is that each tier feels very different from the ones that came before, as each new raid’s mechanics bring a lot of new gameplay to the table. Even if you can distill mechanics into simpler forms that start to feel similar to one-another, the actual gameplay experience can be very different. Movement mechanics have gone from being static checks to multi-part dodges, raidwide AoE has changed a lot in scope from simple passive healer checks to mechanics that can also force movement or ask healers to interact in new ways, dispels of debuffs went from a thing you try to automate to something you have to really hold and think about (Remnant of Ner’zhul sends you flying if you don’t!), and tank mechanics have gradually layered on additional things (Sludgefist needing to check pillars with his charge).
While DPS checks are often a part of WoW fights, they tend to do one fight a tier now, usually later in the tier, where the DPS check is less like Patchwerk (an static, flat race against time) and instead built things where the raid has some measure of control. Guardian of the First Ones in Sanctum of Domination has the energy core mechanic, which allows the raid to determine the best time to move the boss into the core based on how much incoming raidwide damage the healers can handle. This lets you set things up so that a composition with a slight imbalance in number of healers per total raiders can benefit and strong healers can carry a group through this mechanic for longer before having to trigger the core and take that resource away. Having these fights later in the tier also often makes a good organic performance and gear check prior to the last boss – if you struggle with late raid DPS races like Sludgefist or Guardian of the First Ones, the last boss is likely to be a struggle as well.
Lastly, having trash that attempts to teach some of the mechanics is a net good. While it’s become more inconsistent in Shadowlands raid content, generally a lot of the trash leading to a boss will have some smaller form of a boss mechanic, which acts as an example of what to expect. So often now at this point, the trash ability is even named the same thing, so it builds up a degree of familiarity with what is coming at you during the fight with the boss. This isn’t perfect, but a good raid lead can often help a raid realize this and use it as a teaching tool.
The Pros of FFXIV Raiding Gameplay
One thing I most appreciate about FFXIV’s raids is that the core of mastery lies with my ability to play the job I choose to bring to a competent level. If you know your opener, your rotation, and how your role otherwise interacts (what healing breaks to take, what damage reduction is needed as a tank), you’re generally ready for a Savage encounter. The challenge of the fight is meeting mechanics while molding your rotation and gameplay around them, and while that sounds simple enough, it has layers to make things interesting.
I also like that the game offers Stone, Sea, and Sky training dummies to raiders. While I wish they also offered mechanics checks, at least the dummies give you an indication on if you can meet the DPS check of a given fight or not. If you have anxiety about your job performance, you can go smack the dummy and if you win, you have the baseline rotational mastery needed to play that job in that content. For me, as an example, my parse anxiety went way down when I realized that on Samurai, I can kill all 4 Pandaemonium Savage dummies in the time limit. Doing that level of damage in the actual fight while doing mechanics then becomes the challenge, but at least I know that I am where I need to be on that level, and it becomes its own fun minigame – can I beat the dummy without a tincture, without food, can I do a simple rotation with no positionals and still win – all of these help set me up for success against the actual fight, because I can feel out the limits of my current skill and gear.
I really like the team-based nature of a lot of mechanics in Savage raids in FFXIV, as well. Something that stands out a lot about Savage content compared to standard dungeons and raids is that those role action abilities to reduce damage that DPS have, like Addle and Feint, become pivotal to a raid’s success in Savage. Coming from WoW, I am very used to DPS not often having that level of responsibility to ensure survival for the whole raid and not just themselves, and a lot of mechanics in FFXIV are built this way. A proper Feint or Addle can be life or death, especially during progression at minimum item level. So many actual mechanics require team coordination too – stacks obviously, but planning for spreads, things like Channeling Flow on Hippokampos, Kampeos Harma positioning, and placing for things like Fourfold Shackles, Intemperance, and the shared-damage tankbuster on Ericthonios.
Lastly, I do like on progression that FFXIV raids are standalone instances per boss with no trash. A wipe doesn’t mean running back, taking minutes of time tacked on to do nothing. You are right back where you need to be, ready to pull. A bigger amount of a raid night is spent actually doing the hard thing and progressing the boss fights, and not spent on running around, rebuffing, and the like. Those things add up – on the WoW side, a bad night of Kel’Thuzad pulls could add around 20 minutes of time just in travel and rebuffing, where FFXIV, that time is all strategy talk and boss pulls.
The Cons of WoW’s Raiding Gameplay
WoW’s raids are visually stunning places with character and sense of place, and that is a huge benefit to immersion! However, from a gameplay perspective, the more large-scale and impressive a raid is, the more annoying it is to actually play. Sanctum of Domination does an excellent job feeling like the executive level of Torghast, but then runs between bosses are minutes long each, and with a minimum of trash so a lot of the time is spent just running. I get it, it’s dangerous, we’re invading an enemy stronghold…but at a certain point, the immersion breaks from annoyance and ends up being a detriment. A stronger system of cross-raid teleports and checkpoints would go a long way here! This is also hit or miss, as some raids do an excellent job of having travel between bosses or wings provided, while some raids just miss the mark there.
On the mechanics front, one of the key challenges WoW continues to face is over-complexity of fights. Once boss mods took hold over the community, the response was to layer mechanics, but there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. This means that over time, raid fights have had to add many more layers of mechanical complexity to compete with boss mods, which effectively makes the assumed state of a raid player one with boss mods, meaning that playing the game as offered by Blizzard without mods is a handicap, one that grows larger over time. A lot of WoW’s most dedicated raid groups are decidedly casual, and this has a huge knock-on effect on how willing those groups are to participate in the content. I feel like there are other ways to add that difficulty that can be more responsive to such groups – playing with the order in which things go out and resolve, using delayed mechanics more frequently to create a looming danger that a raid group can systematically tackle in steps, and focusing in more on player class/spec execution as a check would all be meaningful ways to keep difficulty feeling like a scale without just throwing out 8 mechanics at once that force a ton of different responses.
I think WoW would benefit immensely from some way to practice a boss fight outside the raid, or at least a readiness check of some sort. Being able to have a DPS check dummy to at least tell you how close you are to meeting a baseline level of performance would be nice, and I’d almost like to see something like a training ground where you can pantomime boss mechanics solo or even with your raid to see how things go.
The Cons of FFXIV Raiding Gameplay
It gets said a lot, and I will add my voice here today – FFXIV’s raid settings feel like video game boss rooms and not actual places. The story of Pandaemonium is cool, but I don’t get the sense of this sprawling testing ground from the raid – I get 4 rooms with slightly-different visual kits. They look nice and there is effort put in on them, but it just doesn’t feel like a place that exists in the world. The Alexander raids actually did a good job of this, because they have little hallways and connective bits that you traverse first which set the scene – you don’t need to bring back raid trash to still do little things like that to add some character and sense of place to the game.
Stone, Sea, Sky is great for practicing DPS in isolation, but I’d love to see it be better able to emulate the actual raid fights more. If it would have mechanics you’d have to play along with or take a damage down, that would be pretty cool. At the same time, I know that is asking for an effectively new, miniaturized version of the boss design, almost like a third difficulty, so I don’t expect it – but it would be very cool as an option.
While the reward design of raids in FFXIV is very well-tuned around the 4 boss tiers that have been in place since the Second Coil days, I think an extra boss or two per tier (not counting door bosses in Savage) would be great. Of course, this is sort of a free space on MMO Complaint Bingo – more bosses is more content and players generally always want more content!
Other than that….I think FFXIV raiding is in a great groove, with a clear design vision and ideal it follows patch after patch!
Different Approach For Different Folks
One of the things I think both games have is a raiding scene that largely suits the players in it. While I think WoW’s raids are hitting some teething pains, as I’ve noted recently that the raid design was a sticking point in my decision to step away from the game, there’s still something there that is attractive to a fair number of players. FFXIV has a formula with raiding, as it does with many things, but that formula serves to give players a predictable, enjoyable experience that largely meets expectations each time a new tier is out.
And of course, a big looming question is how many people even raid in each game and if development work on raiding content is worthwhile given that answer – and I don’t know the answer to that. For my personal enjoyment, I hope raid work continues in both games, but I don’t have a more nuanced answer that is in-scope for this post. It’s an interesting exploration that could be done, though.
Overall, for as similar as these two games can be in gameplay, the raiding game really emphasizes the differences in both, and I think that alone makes them more interesting to compare and contrast, as that is fertile soil for a larger philosophical debate between the two games.