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The MMO Blues (aka Final Fantasy XI)

I've been feeling very enthusiastic about gaming recently. I just started this blog, there are some exciting releases on the horizon, and I've been having some fun experiences.

Then Steam had Final Fantasy XI on sale for $US9.99, and in a moment of morbid curiosity I decided to give it a spin for the 30-day trial. If I wanted to sap away some of my gaming enthusiasm this was a really good way to go about it.

After several hours of patch downloads, and an unnecessarily convoluted sign up procedure, I finally managed to create a character and set foot in the game world of Vana'diel.

The first obvious thing about FFXI is that the keyboard setup is non-standard. It took several minutes to work out how to move around, interact, and access the menu to change the damn keyboard setup (it's under the '-' key, followed by an arrow sideways to access another menu). Not a very welcoming beginning.

Each starting city has an NPC for giving out very simple beginner quests, but they are located nowhere near the starting area. I spent several hours exploring the city before I found them. Finally, I ventured out of the city in search of low-level monsters to fight. We trade blows for a while, one of us comes out on top, and so it continues.

I've only pushed myself through to about Level 6, which is not enough to say anything informed about the game, but it is enough to start me wondering why I am putting myself through this experience. I know MMOs were still developing at this point, and WoW has since worked out how to be more accessible to beginners, and provide constant reward feedback to keep people playing. But I still thought there would be slightly more here. Perhaps there is, if I were prepared to put in the time to get there.

There is a vague sense of developing yourself as a hero and adventurer, but I had no real concept of why my character would bother (let alone why I would want to be part of their journey). Maybe someone passionate about Final Fantasy can explain it to me, but I just haven't been inspired by the game series in general. And the MMO-version is probably far worse, with less in the way of pretty cut-scenes or story to fall back on.

The world feels vast, which is one of the strong points of MMOs, but in the end all that really means is that things are spread out and it takes a very long time to run anywhere.

Maybe I'm more easily bored these days, but this has got me thinking about what can make me endure a grind in gaming. I certainly have ground enemies often enough. I enjoyed Borderlands despite it not providing a lot of variety, and sometimes things just work out that way.

In World of Warcraft I put up with the grind aspect partly to have a place among a community, which I admittedly haven't sought out in FFXI. But I think the major difference in WoW was I had enough of an investment at the time to research the ins-and-outs of what I was doing. I knew exactly where to gather resources, how the economy on my server worked and what items were valuable, and how best to utilise my class abilities. I gained some enjoyment from being an expert on what I was doing.

It takes a while to gain that sort of knowledge of any particular MMO, and I won't be going through the learning curve in this case. I think it's unlikely I will ever go through that sort of experience again, in fact -- a new MMO would have to be something pretty special to tempt me back into that kind of gaming.

Other games that can make me grind are those where I am given something to collect. I'll happily search for rubber bands and garden gnomes in Bully, collect shiny bugs in Twilight Princess (though I stopped short of hunting down all the Poe Souls) or try to fully level up Folks in Folklore. Maybe I'm just a bit ODC in this context.

I will occasionally load up Final Fantasy XII, not because I find the story, characters, or gameplay particularly inspiring, but because I like filling out my bestiary with information about the creatures I encounter. I basically pretend I'm a travelling naturalist (if a rather violent one) rather than a hero or adventurer. I expect this is is a rather unusual way to play the game, but it's more in line with my personal interests. If any game ever has David Attenborough narrating I'll be all for it.

FFXI doesn't have a bestiary (as far as I know), so I'm yet to find a silver lining. About the one positive thing I can say is that you lose XP for dying -- I really wish more RPGs had harsher penalties for death.