Final Fantasy XIV’s buffet effect

A little under a year ago, I wrote a column about how Final Fantasy XIV needs to generate a wow factor. It needs to surprise people, have something unique and special to offer. There was a lot of stuff that felt distressingly rote, and that wasn’t good.

So what’s changed since then? Well… not a huge amount, honestly. There are several features in the beta that feel like rehashes of things we’ve seen in other games, like FATEs and quests and instanced dungeons and so forth. Yet the game is clearly generating a wow factor, something that I’m happy about.

This week, I want to throw that previous article out completely. Just kick it to the curb. As I’ve been playing the beta weekends and seeing what the game has to offer, I’ve realized that there was something I was completely failing to embrace and consider. It’s the power of the buffet.

No, it's not a euphemism, I could literally eat you up.

If you’ve never been to a buffet, congratulations on not being fat. But beyond that, you’ve never had the experience of dropping a fixed amount of money for as much food as you can toss on your plate at any one time. And you’ve never understood why a good buffet place is wonderful in a way that a regular restaurant isn’t, even though regular restaurants actually serve you a plate of distinct food instead of trusting you to shuffle over to steam trays and spoon in whatever you want.

The thing is, normal restaurants rely upon serving you something unique. The management isn’t rolling out the Double-Wide Super Southwestern Nacho Burger just for the heck of it; it’s because this is the only place you can get a Double-Wide Super whatever. Hopefully these unique offerings are actually good, since a restaurant can’t live on selling Bleach-Infused Chicken with Broken Glass Breading, but the core is serving you something new.

By contrast, the buffet doesn’t care if you’ve had it before. The core is variety and combination. You’ve had french fries, you’ve had pizza, you’ve had mashed potatoes. You can’t usually get all of them together. Yes, all the meals are familiar, but you can combine them however you want, and that is also valid.

I mentioned back when talking about the early beta phases that the questing in Final Fantasy XIV is fairly standard. It’s nothing bracingly unique, familiar to anyone who’s played an MMO in the past several years, without any particular novelty. You click on things and kill things and talk to NPCs, and aside from incorporating minor bits of brilliance like not making you fight over clickables, it’s pretty straightforward.

The key is that it’s supposed to be that way. The goal isn’t to create a totally new model of questing; it’s to create a series of quests that work very well in a game where you don’t have to bother if you don’t want to.

After about level 10, you really can do anything you want in the game. Even before then you have a huge amount of options, with nothing forcing you to keep questing instead of filling out your hunting log or whatever, but once you’ve unlocked levequests and other classes, the game pretty much just lets you off the rails. Don’t care about the story? Cool, here’s plenty of other stuff to do, and you can come back to it whenever you want.

You don't get the hot springs pictures.

Dynamic events exists. They’re not the biggest thing in the world, but they’re there, they work, and you can just jump in when you want to. If you don’t want to, you don’t lose anything by opting out. See something you want to do when you’re overleveled? You can jump over, sync down to the appropriate level, and go to town.

Want story-heavy stuff? That’s in place. Want to go your own way? That’s in place, too. Most of the limitations in place simply prevent any one model from being too functional rather than force you to do one thing or another in order to advance. You can easily tool around with different classes and make it to 50 as a crafter without ever having to worry about FATEs if you would rather just make things and sell them.

This, more than anything, is what made me fall in love with FFXIV in the first place. Yes, the launch version of the game was a mess, but the fact that you could easily find yourself on a lengthy personal quest to put together a new spear was profoundly worthy. And none of that has been removed or diminished in the new version. There are challenging multi-stage battles against bosses, there are dungeons for people who like those, and there’s stuff and stuff and stuff all over.

And you don’t have to pick. It’s all under the same roof. You can find yourself choosing to level something completely different on two different nights while playing the same game with the same character. That’s a bracing idea, and it comes back to us from other games — some departed, some still right here.

In other words, I was right that FFXIV wasn’t focusing on unique aspects, but I was wrong in thinking that the remixed version was somehow less valuable than novelty. Most of the games we remember aren’t the first ones to try ideas, just the first ones to try them with polish and panache. If creativity is a matter of combining ideas in interesting ways, I feel it’s best to point to this buffet of ideas in Eorzea and marvel.

That having been said, I still want more options for customizing my class. Come on, people.

Feedback, as always, can be left in the comments down below or sent along to Next week, I want to talk about someone going from doubtful to faithful. And the week after? I’m talking about group quests.