One of the things I was most looking forward to at E3 was SquareEnix’s new MMO baby (as seen in a previous post about wishes that now, in retrospect, leaves me crying into my ice cream).  They dropped the initial bombshell at Sony’s press conference, and it looked … okay, but it reminded me an awful lot of an existing game.

The trailer was mostly pre-rendered bits with a sprinkle of in-game footage, and though it looked awfully good, it can’t be denied it seemed awfully familiar.  One of my largest preexisting fears was that the game, sharing a large amount of it’s development team with Final Fantasy XI, would be too similar to Square’s original MMORPG.  Unfortunately, the only news to come out of E3 about the game after that was a lackluster Q&A session and an interview on IGN that only added one or two new pieces to the puzzle.

So far we know that the game takes place in a brand new world, with similar races to FFXI to keep fans of that game comfortable.  Here’s hoping there’s new choices, as well.  The game will have a larger focus on pleasing a large variety of players, whether you prefer to solo, party, play for 30 minutes, or play all day.  There will be a number of “new systems” in place to make the game more accessible, and the job system will supposedly work very differently, to boot.  IGN’s interview also revealed that weapons will play a much larger part in the game, and that advancement will not be handled via experience.

What I’m keeping my fingers crossed for is that at least a few things on my beautiful wishlist for the game will be addressed:

Maintaining FFXI’s unique pacing while better engaging players, AKA The Biggest Problem:

Though a lot of folks lobbied complaints against the pace of the game, I do staunchly disagree on some supporting points of that argument.  FFXI felt to me like one of the few MMOs that had a larger focus on enjoying the journey rather than simply racing to level 60 (or 80, or 99, depending on your MMO of choice), with well written NPCs, a fairly beautiful landscape, and a small collection of side activities.  FFXI has grown in my heart, not as the kind of game that keeps you in a white-knuckle grip on your mouse, but a relaxing game that you could, say, write a journal about.  As dorky as that is. 

But I do very much identify with the boredom associated with the especially grind-tacular parts of the game and the fact that non-combat activities never amounted to much entertainment.  My answer?  Instead of building an enjoyable world in an MMORPG and hoping people notice (which is what FFXI hinged so much on: how much enjoyment you took from everything that was going on around you, and not just the action-packed bits), they should put a very real focus on showing players what’s there to enjoy.  It’s a multi-step idea, but basically making the time between levels enjoyable is what a slow-paced game needs more than anything.

On one level, the solution is more content, including quests, mini-games, and crafts, and content that is also directed at making the player appreciate their situation.  In a game where the goal isn’t to race to hero-level power, you need to teach the lesson that you don’t need to be highly powerful to feel good about your character. Comics, television shows and anime regularly feature characters that rise gradually in power as their stories progress, but that doesn’t make their earlier episodes boring or worthless.  There are still rewarding moments that come with being a hero-in-training!  More stories, quests, and content that emphasize the difference a small-town-hero can make in a meaningful way could help willing players (who might otherwise get bored with being low-level) see that you don’t have to be max level to enjoy yourself.

And of course, there are a number of small “tricks” to underline features like exploration, the beauty of the world and fiction, and the joy of sheer experience over constant battle and progress.  Scripted cinematic camera angles, little cutscenes with voice acting, and specialized rewards could all serve to italicize moments that gamers would normally miss.

Character Customization, or “Improving a Lack Thereof”:

Even by the standards of its 2002 release, Final Fantasy XI’s character creation options were lackluster.  For modern MMO players, the options must seem downright criminal.  Race, then sex (unless you’ve chosen one of the two single-gender races!), one of three height options, and then a handful of pre-made “heads” each with only one variation?  Though it was a bit easy to forgive because it was one of the few games at the time with characters quite so good looking, it was still disappointing.  It wasn’t too hard to find your doppleganger after a few hours of play, at least in terms of from-the-neck-up.

In order to keep up with modern standards in this area, SquareEnix would simply have to include a number of facial options, whether pre-constructed or more in-depth, along with a fairly large number (twenty would have to be the minimum) of hairstyle choices, each with a range of color options.

Of course, simply keeping up with the standard isn’t what we hope for or expect from the big SE.  In my fantasy world, FFXIV ships with options galore: enough facial options to at least make it easy to make it unique, be they sliders (which I feel are overkill for most games, as the only parts of a character most folks ever get in close enough to see are the eyes and hair) or a menagerie of Mr. Potato Head style swap-out parts, with an especially large number of eye options and colors.  A nice variety of skin tones and complexion options for freckles, beauty marks, makeup and facepaint.  And last but opposite of least, (as when you’re zoomed out 20-feet from a character it’s really the big, colorful thing that you notice most) a big juicy hairstyle buffet.  Having existing styles with color choices and a dynamic length option is good, but I think for something as prettified as FFXI having a number of smaller options including mixing and matching different elements like bangs, tops, sides, and backs with a large palette of color choices for tips, highlights, and body, would blow the competition out of the water.

Of course, FFXI’s problems with character customization didn’t quite stop once you had made your character.  Clothing/armoring choices, which are even more characterizing than hairstyle or eye color, followed the same disappointing trend most MMORPGs still do to this day: It featured a limited number of choices, about one or two sets every five levels, and you had no reason to use anything other than the number-one statistical set.  This setup waylays characterization, and indeed actually works against it: the most visually defining feature of your character is now a simple flag.

Instead of broadcasting “I am me!”, your largest visual descriptor now simply broadcasts “I am just another level 10+ Warrior”.  And for folks interested in the trappings of a fantasy life, nothing erodes immersion like being another face in the crowd.  This system forces all players (other than those who are willing to fight with a humongous handicap by choosing aesthetics over statistics) into restrictive identity labels, no matter how much or how little they care about individuality.

In my opinion, this is the area of character customization that is the most vital and needs change the utmost.  There are a variety of existing solutions in a number of implementations: dyes for armor and clothing that let you individualize with a large pallette (these must be accessible and affordable for low-level players or else the point is fairly moot!),  having stats exist seperately from equipment via all DEF values coming from “accessories”, having a “costume” layer for wearing pieces that you prefer aesthetically over pieces chosen for their statistical value, or being able to move desired statistics around between articles you might prefer the appearance of.

Admittedly, I know enough about visual design in games wherein I can’t deny the importance of visual identification in terms of class and strength.  Though it’s terribly restrictive to have sets that castrate your identity into nothing but a single identifier (like level 10+ Warrior), it’s still vital from a visual design standpoint that people can still tell that you are a low-level warrior at a glance, as well as an individual.  There’s no reason, of course, this can’t be paired with a large amount of customization.  Dye colors can be limited based on what article you’re dyeing, so that your “Rusty Iron Plate” won’t end up fluorescent red and be confused with a high-level “Flaming Plate of the Ember God”.  You can still have a large number of options in the “looks like standard warrior armor” category, and reserve the “Masterwork” pieces for later.

Interface 101:

FFXI’s relatively mouse-less (on the PC) setup was understandable considering the multi-console nature of the game and the emphasis on classic Final Fantasy menus.  But even for a menu-based game, the interface was a huge barrier for new users due to its clumsy organization, poor key layout, and general lack of friendliness.  Necessary gameplay functions were hidden behind complex menus, and the actual controls for getting around just weren’t that friendly.

Here’s hoping for a much more streamlined setup this time around that still reads like Final Fantasy, and at least optional support for gamers who are otherwise used to a classic WASD setup.