World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV
A Clash of Titans
Trevor | December 3, 2019
Once a popular business model for MMOs, the traditional subscription service approach now has only two major survivors — World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy: XIV.
Editor's note — Do not take this article as an indication the Game of the Century has been tragically shelved. Those deliberations are still underway and our results will be posted when they are ready. In the meantime, please enjoy more MMO talk.
Somehow, October and November became MMO months here. I bounced between World of Warcraft: Classic, continuing the adventures of Lazerdrone, and Final Fantasy XIV, where my Warrior of Light Crokdia Taile continues to slay Gods by the bushel.
Having already discussed the differences between World of Warcraft: Classic and what I suppose people now call “retail WoW,” I thought we could turn our comparative lens to another world — the convenience of Eorzea, juxtaposed against the rich mundanity of Azeroth.
1. Getting Around
Nothing highlights the difference between these worlds like how you traverse them.
Azeroth is a large, congruous planet. In order to get from place to place, your character has to physically move there on foot, boat, or griffin. In order to not break this feeling of continuity, the game also loads very infrequently. You either have to die, switch continents, or enter an instanced zone to see a loading screen appear.
This design decision makes the world feel like... well, a “world.” While each zone is technically broken into level ranges and you progress from one to the next like any traditional RPG, the congruity makes it all feel alive and ever-present.
However, this also means an almost insufferable amount of time in Azeroth is spent walking. The closest thing to a fast travel system is flight paths, but those still require watching your player fly across the world. It takes forever, but these flights also help players feel the scale of it all — the longer apart the destinations, the longer the travel time, and the more zones pass around you.
Meanwhile, over in Eorzea, each town is the same button press away.
In Final Fantasy XIV, you only have to walk to each destination the first time. Once you’ve attuned to a town’s aetheryte crystal, you can warp there whenever for a negligible fee. Final Fantasy XIV also has far more frequent loads, as each region is divided into zones. While it is technically possible to walk across the world, you still load each time you cross the boundry into a new area.
I think only the most obnoxious contrarian would argue teleporting from town to town is somehow less convenient, but the fragmentation exposes Eorzea for the series of compartmentalized zones it is, rather than a persistent, connected place.
Personally I’m a fan of the convenience, as it means you can spend more time actually playing the game, but it does detract from the sense of scale. Even when you board an airship to travel to another city, you simple load from one landing dock to the next. There’s no time spent traveling across the skies, watching the world below go by.
I can't help but think there's a missed opportunity there to both encourage socialization and help players feel the scope of Eorzea, put it into a geographical context. In the current state of the game, the airship docks in each city exist to be used once for story purposes, and then forgotten about forever.
2. To Battle
Both World of Warcraft: Classic and Final Fantasy XIV offer a measure of flexibility, but each do so in remarkably different ways.
In Final Fantasy XIV, players are encouraged to dabble with other classes. If you aren’t thrilled with your class, you can pick up almost any others by the time you hit level 10. There are a few limitations — certain classes start at 30, 50, or 60, and can’t be picked up until you have another class at their level or higher — but for the most part, the world is your oyster. In fact, Final Fantasy XIV awards an experience bonus based on the difference between your highest class and your lowest, called the Armory Bonus. This makes leveling up new classes much less daunting, diminishing the grind.
Over in Azeroth, however, you are locked in to your choice at the onset. Class selection is a binary choice; your character either is or isn't a druid. If you want to experience how another class plays, better roll up a new character and invest the time to level them.
It’s possible my choice as a Paladin in World of Warcraft: Classic has hamstrung my enthusiasm from the onset. Maybe the reason Classic isn’t gripping me is I haven’t found a class that speaks to my playstyle, but here’s the thing — after two months, I’m only level 37. The idea of playing another character as long as I’ve played this one just to see if I like it is profoundly terrifying when I’m having what I'd describe as a modicum of fun.
There's another system full of semi-permanent decisions with each level in World of Warcraft; the talent tree. Starting at level ten, you’ll make some tough binary decisions about what role your character will fufill with talent points. As a Paladin, my trees are split into three obvious roles. Holy for healing, protection for tanking, and retribution for damage.
I appreciate the off-role flexibility this system allows for. As a Paladin, I can spec primarily in retribution, but still dip into the holy tree to provide off-heals when the main healer is overwhelmed (or dead). It also means every point assigned has big ramifications. Every point dropped into damage is one less you can throw into the healing or tank tree, and you won't get enough to fill out all three. In this way, World of Warcraft allows flexible dual-classing, but with less freedom to fully experiment. You’d better have an idea of what kind of role your character will fufill at endgame as you go, or you could make disastrous choices in your talent tree. You can rectify these mistakes by greasing your class trainer's palms with a little coin, but considering how scarce money can be in the Azeroth of old, best to avoid it.
Tools like Wowhead’s talent calculator help forestall disaster.
There are times I wish Final Fantasy XIV leaned into this style of flexibility somehow. Since there’s no such thing as “specing,” every class is hyper-focused for its designated role. Even Red Mage, the veritable “jack of all trades” class from previous Final Fantasy games, is really just a DPS mage that can occasionally heal and raise. The recent addition of Blue Mage seems like a short hop in this direction, but in its limited state, it's a far cry from a proper multi-faceted class.
Lots to unpack on this one.
Final Fantasy XIV has the kind of storyline progression you might expect from any Final Fantasy game. You start as an adventurer in a small town, doing tasks for the local adventurer’s guild, when suddenly you are wrapped up in a greater threat. Enter the scions, a group of protectors who keep the land safe from the meddling of evil forces, be they primals or the empire.
There are some variables — which scion you meet first is dependent upon your starting city, for example — but for the most part every player will experience the same events in a linear fashion.
Unfortunately, the early parts of Final Fantasy XIV are the worst it has to offer. A Realm Reborn meanders, zags, bounces from tangent to tangent. It’s extremely easy, I’ve found, for new players to bounce off right then and there, and I don’t blame them. Square-Enix has acknowledged this as a flaw, and will be revamping the ARR questline in the near future so new players will get a more concise, less bloated experience. However, this isn't slated for release until 5.3, two major patches from now. Odds are we won't see this adjustment go live until mid-2020.
A Realm Reborn's poor start aside, each expansion's story progression has been better than the last, with Shadowbringers being downright astounding. It left such a strong impression on players that an unexpected standing ovation at PAX West moved the main scenario writer, Natsuko Ishikawa,to tears. I don’t know where it will rank on my Game of the Year list yet, but I'm fairly confident it will be there.
Over in World of Warcraft: Classic land, meanwhile, I am a mailman.
World of Warcraft: Classic should’ve rebranded the story so every player-character is employed by the Azeroth Pony Express. We deliver mail like it's no one’s business, and clear the road of wild animals or defias bandits.
That is it. That’s all I do.
I literally cannot tell you what the story is thus far, because I mostly wander from place to place delivering parts, souls, and missives to people in need. Occasionally, there’s a quest with some actual progression, which typically culminates in a battle against a tough boss that requires a small party to defeat. Then the local militia captain or mayor who gave me the quest says “good job,” slaps a piece of gear in my hands, and sends me on my way.
Curiously enough, the retail version of World of Warcraft provides a more linear questing experience, with major characters and plot developments, but somehow I actually liked that less. The issue, when I think on it, is one of progression. In Classic, I feel like a nobody inhabiting a greater world. The fact most of the major players in World of Warcraft Classic ignore my presence ties in to this sense of a greater, persistent world — I’m just a random adventurer, after all. There are hundreds like me running through Stormwind daily. Why would Sylvanas or Varian care what I’m up to?
In retail World of Warcraft meanwhile, I felt like the most important person in Azeroth from day one. Not even an hour into my experience, I went on a horseback ride with Sylvanas while she filled me in on the entire geo-political state of our faction.
A combination of these experiences, growth from one to the other, would be ideal, I think. And maybe, at one point in World of Warcraft's long history, such a story progression existed.
But Blizzard hasn’t made a server emulating that era of the game.
Ping me when they do.
Overall, I personally enjoy Final Fantasy XIV a great deal more than either version of World of Warcraft, but this article isn’t really about what I personally enjoy more — rather, I hope to have elucidated what each has to offer, and what to expect if you’re thinking about trying either.
Final Fantasy XIV provides a much more modern experience, full of convenience and accessibility. You’ll spend far less time traveling and much more doing battle, watching cutscenes, or crafting goods. Whatever class you pick may have an off-role ability or two, but it will be hyper-designed to fulfill a single purpose in a group composition.
To be clear, this is not to say there are no complex classes in Final Fantasy XIV. Quite the contrary; Ninja, Summoner, and Monk can be notoriously difficult classes to master. If what you want is a class with a high skill ceiling, you can still find it here. But the complication will be in learning to master your specific role, rather than learning how to contribute outside of it.
Over in World of Warcraft: Classic, you will find an enjoyable mundanity. Like Geralt in The Witcher, much of your success is decided before a battle starts, in choices made long before. What talent tree did you go down? What zone have you decided to quest in? Have you been regularly mining to keep your gathering skills up? Did you cast all your buffs, or eat your food long enough to get some bonuses going?
And when you decide anything in World of Warcraft, by C’Thun there will be a weight to it. If you teleport to the wrong city in Final Fantasy XIV, you only need to open up the teleport menu and pop over to the right one. You’ll burn some gil, but you’re the same loading screen away.
But if you fly to the wrong city in World of Warcraft: Classic? Forget the wasted silver, what you’ve really lost is time. Time spent watching your character fly all the way to the wrong city, knowing a second flight awaits you once you arrive.
In Final Fantasy XIV, leveling up will net you new abilities and skills. You’ll have new rotations to master, new buffs to manage, but you won’t be making any choices to modify the way your class plays. Meanwhile in World of Warcraft Classic, in addition to having to pay for access to your new abilities, you’ll be making a permanent choice on your character’s future at each level. Spend your talents wrong and you may end up with a useless build, in need of a serious cleansing once you’ve got the cash to afford the respec.
All this mundanity contributes to a feeling of permanence. Even though I enjoy the modern amenities Final Fantasy XIV provides, it's nice to know there’s still desire out there for a more taciturn experience.
Azeroth is a big place, and you just live in it.