Final Fantasy XIV is in an exception in an often brutal MMO market. It originally launched in 2010 for PC in a poorly optimized state with very little interesting content. Square Enix continued to patch the game, but it was clear major changes needed to be made. Other MMOs in situations like this would likely have dwindled and eventually been shut down forever. Square Enix decided to rewrite the graphics engine, overhaul the combat system, the interface and more, and is now in the process of bringing the revamped version, called A Realm Reborn, into closed beta testing. The PC beta test starts up on February 25 and the PS3 version will go into testing during the beta’s third phase. The plan is to launch both versions simultaneously, though a final release date has yet to be determined.
What’s also odd about this situation is that Square Enix is going to relaunch Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn as a subscription-based game. This may seem ill-advised considering the recent trend of MMOs like The Secret World, Tera and even the massively big budget Star Wars: The Old Republic giving up on the subscription model in favor of free to play options. A Realm Reborn’s director and producer Naoki Yoshida explained why.
“For a free to play model, it’s very important to be able to give a lot of items to players in a very speedy manner. Unless you do that, you can’t get the money back as a business model. With [Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s] kind of quality, we won’t be able to bring so many items. If you want to support free to play as the game business model, the game design itself should be totally different.”
Yoshida went into even more detail about why he thinks a subscription model will work for Final Fantasy XIV even though it’s failed for so many others. “There are so many great MMOs in the Western market. Most of them, they have investors behind. So those investors want their money back as soon as the game is released. If they don’t reach a certain number of subscribers and they can’t give the money back to the investors, then they switch to a free-to-play mode to get the huge money straightaway and divide the profit among the investors. Only Blizzard and Square Enix are the companies making MMOs with their own money. We don’t have to worry about giving money back to investors. As long as we never give up we can continue supporting the game.”
“We think this game is going to be very, very successful, so we don’t think we’re not going to reach the target [number of subscribers]”
Yoshida wasn’t willing to reveal the target number of subscribers.
So is A Realm Reborn actually worth looking forward to? It’s certainly a lot prettier and runs a lot better than FFXIV, and many of the environments have been adjusted so there’s more visual detail and variation in topography. I had an opportunity to play through the early starting experience, from character creation through some of the first quests. While that’s nowhere near enough time with an MMO to determine overall quality, I can definitely say many aspects feel improved. Compared to the sluggish tedium of Final Fantasy XIV’s original combat system, A Realm Reborn’s is noticeably faster. More importantly, the interface is hugely improved. It actually responds to inputs instead of constantly lagging a few fractions of a second behind or longer. The in-game map is also easier to use and quest goals tend to be clearly highlighted in towns. Many of the features of big budget modern MMOs are there, though how A Realm Reborn stacks up against the best in the field like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 isn’t obvious.
Other features, like a search function for player sold items, an automated dungeon finder, end game raids and dungeons and even player housing are planned for A Realm Reborn. A basic public questing system was also on display. In combat zones around main towns these public quests will start up and simply by walking over to them you'll accept the quest and fight alongside any other players also in the quest area. The public quests I played involved basic kill tasks, but perhaps they'll become more sophisticated later on and include more story. These aren’t exactly novel MMO features, but seem to put Square Enix’s MMO on more equal footing with the rest of the genre. For the PlayStation 3 version, Square Enix wants to make sure it plays properly on a controller. Though Yoshida mentioned chat with others is still ideal with a keyboard, it seems as though gameplay should be possible with a PS3 controller.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to try the game out with a controller so I can’t say how it feels. With the setup, Square Enix will allow three eight-button sets to be available nearly simultaneously. By default, the D-pad handles target switching between enemies and party members and the face buttons handle functions like choosing the nearest target, opening the map and jumping. If you hold L2 or R2, you access a new set of commands tied to each face button and D-pad direction. These sets are customizable and you’re given the option to save presets, so you could have a set of abilities best for group play, one best for solo and one filled with emotes, and switch them around depending on what the situation demands and even assign macros.
PlayStation 3 and PC players will all play on the same servers and accounts will be cross-platform, so you could very well wind up in a dungeon group with both controller-using and mouse and keyboard-using players. With the PlayStation 4 out in the open now, it’s natural to think Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn might also show up on Sony’s much more powerful in-development platform. According to Yoshida, a next-gen version sounds like it’s a possibility. This question was asked before PlayStation 4 was officially announced.
“We have been promising our players for over three years that we’re going to bring this game out on PlayStation 3. We’re definitely going to keep that promise and that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment. That being said we do have a Windows version which is very high end, so as long as the console side is going to have a high spec it’s not a problem for us to match those console’s requirements.”
So far it seems like Square’s doing the right things to fix the many mistakes made with Final Fantasy XIV’s original design. It’s not clear yet whether the adjustments were enough to turn A Realm Reborn into the kind of top tier MMO experience Square Enix hopes it will be, but that should become more obvious after playing around in the upcoming beta tests.