A look ahead at Square Enix's plans for FFXI
As a self-proclaimed fan boy of Square Enix, it has pained me to rake my favorite gaming company through the coals while openly questioning the direction of Final Fantasy XI.
I made it clear in a January editorial that what the game needed was a full-scale expansion, and that anything less just wouldn't be good enough. I inferred that FFXI's developers had already moved on from Vana'diel, and that they hoped their loyal players might do the same.
I might have been wrong.
We're not getting a full-scale expansion, at least not this year. What we are getting is Abyssea, a three-part add-on series that will include new areas, common lore, job-specific armor, new battlefields and more. Like the other add-ons, the Abyssea mini expansions are expected to retail for approximately $10 per installment.
The bigger bombshell of the day was the development team's announcement of the level cap being raised to 99. For years, the development team has said the level cap would remain at 75, and that increasing the level cap would be far too difficult to integrate with the rest of the game.
Slight of hand, or change of heart?
Regardless of SE's motivations, I've got to give credit where credit is due. Square Enix is taking a big chance to keep the game exciting.
Let's talk about Abyssea. The last thing I wanted to hear from SE was the unveiling of new add-on scenarios, but I'm willing to be optimistic about these add-ons. I really like the fact that these mini expansions will be connected by new land and lore. The previous add-on scenarios failed because, when trying to tell an epic story, unfortunately size does matter. A lot. If handled correctly, these Abyssea expansions do not need to leave us wanting more.
I'm also intrigued by the description of Abyssea on the PlayOnline Web site, which reads: "In Abyssea, concerns such as the over-population of battle areas and the need for large time investments will be a thing of the past." This leads me to believe that the Abyssea expansions will introduce new endgame elements that are actually playable with small groups of people -- hopefully not in the same way that Einherjar was originally "playable" by small groups.
The level cap has generated far more buzz than the announcement of Abyssea, and this is where Square Enix is really going out on a limb -- which is why I’m giving the development team props.
Who knows whether raising the level cap is a good idea? There's a lot of room for error. I'm sure the last thing developers want is to alienate their most hardcore players by rendering all of their hard-earned gear completely obsolete. We’ve been told we'll be able to upgrade our current endgame gear, so that it retains some use beyond looking good on our mannequins. We've also learned to take a wait-and-see approach when SE promises to implement something new.
I also don't know how much I care about re-leveling my jobs, and I've always considered myself to be someone who enjoys the level grind. Sure, I'll be capping off my red mage, and possibly even my black mage. I'd have to be very, very bored -- meaning Final Fantasy XIV would have to suck -- for me to take any other job to level 99. In fact, I can't possibly imagine taking a new job from level 1 to 99 unless SE drastically reduces the experience points requirements.
On the other hand, raising the cap to 99 will breath life into the jobs we love the most. It's been years since I hit level 75 on red mage, and now I'll be able to take my beloved job to new heights. We'll be able to experiment with new sub job combinations and battle strategies. Also, monsters that were once only beatable with full alliances may now be conquerable with just one party of rugged adventurers.
Perhaps the most important function of the level cap increase is to get people excited again about Final Fantasy XI -- to send a message that big things are happening, and that the development team hasn’t stopped thinking outside the box.
I still believe the only way to guarantee a bright future for Final Fantasy XI is with a full-scale expansion. I know many players will agree with me on this. However, the development team has at least given us good reasons to be hopeful. They've also reignited interest in the game by promising to implement such a huge, sweeping change that nobody saw coming.
The development team needs to keep being innovative. They need to keep thinking of ways to implement enjoyable and rewarding content that carries forth the story of Vana'diel. They need to remember that the golden days of Final Fantasy XI are gone -- which I believe they understand, given the upcoming world mergers -- but that the game's future is still as bright as they want it to be.
Seems like only yesterday that we were comparing Final Fantasy XI with World of Warcraft. Those days are long gone.
It's time to start chasing EverQuest, which proved a game with a strong following can only be as tired as its developers. This year will be pivotal for Final Fantasy XI. I, for one, am cautiously optimistic.