Game Design Spotlight #3: Final Fantasy XI’s uncompromising combat has one of the steepest learning curves in MMOs
Welcome to the third installment of Game Design Spotlight, a weekly piece where I examine the design elements of various parts of an MMO, such as player-friendly systems and controversial limited-time features. Last week we went down memory lane to discuss why Grizzly Hills is so beloved by the World of Warcraft community, and today we’re focusing on Square Enix’s first foray into the MMORPG genre: Final Fantasy XI.
One of the main strengths of the title was Final Fantasy XI’s combat system before the addition of the trust feature, as many players tackled most of the game together in groups out of necessity. Slowly leveling up in dedicated camps in dangerous areas is the name of the game, but understanding the learning curve that comes with it is another part of the journey. Anyone who doesn’t take note of the systems in place and seeks veterans’ help from online sources will get mutilated within the opening hours of Final Fantasy XI.
This is what makes the game’s uncompromising combat system interesting. systematically challenged to think carefully about enemy encounters, especially with today’s titles. Final Fantasy XI doesn’t reveal the obvious or hold beginners’ hands, throwing them headfirst into combat and other areas of the game to learn through. Do.
To understand the intricacies of the combat system, you have to go back to the launch of Final Fantasy XI. The game was originally published and developed by Squaresoft and eventually Square Enix, released in 2002 for Japan on PlayStation 2 and PC and later worldwide. In addition to being Square’s first game of its kind, Final Fantasy XI was also the first MMORPG to offer cross-platform play between PS2 and PC. It was hugely successful due to its exploits as a cross-console title and was the most financially successful game in the entire series until the appearance of Final Fantasy XIV.
One of the selling points of Final Fantasy XI is obviously the combat, which adopted the ATB system from previous mainline games but was mostly inspired by Final Fantasy XII. There’s an assortment of jobs, skills, and even macro functionality to speed up starter abilities or player actions when clicking through menus is a hassle. It had all the elements of a standard Final Fantasy but, when running, became a crisp, punishing, yet oddly progressive and rewarding combat system.
After creating a character and choosing a starting town, Final Fantasy XI spits you out onto the streets. You’re broke, squishy (whatever job you’ve chosen) and you probably don’t know how to open the game menu. You’re off for a great start here, soon to be sent to the wilds of Vana’diel for glory and homeland. Your first agenda? Kill an orc outside of town and steal his ax (really simple, honestly), but you’ll realize after you’re killed to death that your fantasy of power in a new, alien world is just a hoax.
You skipped a step here. You have to learn the tools of the trade, which means reading player-run wikis to make sense of almost everything in Final Fantasy XI. The first learning curve of the game is knowing that you can’t do this whole “I’m going to learn as I go” thing. Guides, whether focused on new players or veterans looking for advice on a particular level, are extremely important to your enjoyment of the game.
Luckily, a lot of the tips focus on combat and leveling. You see, there’s a bar option called “Check” in-game that lets you size up an enemy, giving you an idea of their strength on a scale from “Easy Prey” to “Unscannable”. While it doesn’t reveal their level, players will generally want to fight “Easy Prey” or the next stage, “Decent Challenge”, to avoid getting stomped.
Even worse is the type of monster you’re fighting. I told you at the start of the game that an orc would kick your teeth, but that’s not the only monster to watch out for. Some enemies can throw poison and cast a magic DoT (damage over time) debuff on you and beefy monsters with high defense outlast you in battle because you have low health. “Check” is hugely important, but knowing if you can fight a specific troublesome beast is another learning curve some have learned through constant deaths.
Another impending learning curve is to proactively use TP, MP, and class combat skills through consecutive slow combat sequences. Final Fantasy XI has its standard deal of classes, such as Warrior and White Mage, unlocking signature class skills through leveling up.
These classes have ideal weapons they should use and magic that only they can wield. Where things get tricky is how a weapon type – like a sword – must be leveled in battle to unlock devastating weapon skills. The same leveling process applies to magic but only strengthens your spells.
At first, you have no flashy moves and barely two pieces to put together to buy magic (yes, really) for yourself. Here, the grittier elements of Final Fantasy XI make an appearance, but taking the time to build up your skill arsenal will definitely increase your longevity in the long run. Incidentally, most of the difficult lessons are between levels 1 to 10. Throughout these levels, the game teaches the player not to overshoot, i.e. keep monsters away from aggressive ones, rest in safe places and not to stray far from the city. The best part is that all of this can be accomplished easily by…
use your head
The classic version of Final Fantasy XI worked best with players who weren’t shy about falling through the methodical loop of gaining experience and getting stronger. One enemy at a time, all players had to fight their way to power up brick by brick.
The combat system was like a deliberate tango – albeit slower – but heightens your anxiety intensely when you and the enemy reach 5% health, and a miss could be the end for either of you. This cycle of jumping into risky fights teaches players to slow down and make smart decisions because everything is a process…even in a fictional world.
Well, that wraps up another week of Game Design Spotlight! For the curious, the retail Final Fantasy XI is a different game to where it started, and there are classic servers like Eden hoping to preserve its early years. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XI, what do you think of the combat system? Also, leave any games or features you’d like me to cover for next week’s story in the comments if you have any suggestions!