This was a script for a video I never wound up making, because I realized I didn’t care. But the same people (my Discord server) who convinced me to think I cared, also convinced me to publish the unfinished script here.
MMOs are designed to eat up all of your free time, and probably the bulk of your expendable income. You don’t need any other games when you’ve got me, they say, and they do the same thing to all of your friends until they’ve locked your entire social identity into a downward spiral, ending with your early death when you slump over at the keyboard, habitually tapping the spacebar while you wait for the great queue in the sky to pop.
But before they do all of that, they need to woo you a little first. And the New Player Experience in MMOs is all about sucking you in.
GAME DINK GAME THINK: THE NEW PLAYER EXPERIENCE
I was watching a video by Josh Strife Hayes where he talked about the length of time most players give a game before deciding to keep playing or not. Really, this should be an ongoing negotiation between player and game, but no, it seems most of you have made up your minds within the first two hours.
I thought, hey, I’ve got two hours, so I wanted to directly compare my experiences in some of the biggest MMOs people are actively playing right now. Especially WoW and Final Fantasy XIV, to see if there’s a reason for the recent mass migration of players from Azeroth to Eorzea that isn’t just Blizzard Fatigue. I also checked out Guild Wars 2, Black Desert and The Elder Scrolls: Online. I considered adding Runescape to the list, but couldn’t stop laughing.
LET’S GET STARTED
The first thing you do in all of these games is create your character, and a couple big things stand out about this process (quick zoom in on black desert titties). World of Warcraft has recently improved its character creator tremendously, but it still feels the most dated. You’re basically cycling through a few stock character designs, and you can’t do much to accomplish specific looks you might have in mind unless a designer at Blizzard happened to put that preset in for you.
At the other end of the spectrum is Black Desert, with customization options so convoluted that I audibly gasped and scared my cat when I first realized what I was in for. At the end of it all, the character I wound up with looked basically the same as the starting template, which is a problem that the boob slider explains pretty eloquently. THIS is the smallest pair of tits possible in BDO. The designers clearly aren’t willing to give you as much control here as you might think.
Final Fantasy XIV also has a boob slider, but one that most girls can use without feeling personally victimized. In fact, the gate here swings so far in the other direction that I’m not sure a man like myself, absolutely ridden with and burdened by my excessive testosterone, can create a character without feeling like I’ve just walked in on a teenage girl’s slumber party. None of these characters are old enough to drive, much less do… this… in public, but I eventually managed to find a way to put eyebrows on one of the two races designed to be ugly, and that does feel at least a little more like me.
Once we actually get into the open world(s), Final Fantasy and WoW couldn’t be more different. WoW has you running around an island doing all sorts of WoW things within minutes. You start learning basic combat on mostly-harmless Murlocs, interact with NPCs and heal your allies, collect meat to cook over a fire and feed it to somebody in dire need. Then it’s right back into the action, slaughtering hordes of enemies, performing mad science experiments on pigs, conducting aerial surveillance and stomping the fuck out of an army of undead. All of this happens in the first twenty minutes.
By comparison, Final Fantasy XIV has you running back and forth in a city talking to NPCs. This is billed as a more story-focused game, and you should expect to do a fair bit of reading, but this opening was way more tedious than I had prepared myself for. I don’t know who any of these characters are, so running around learning their names is exactly as interesting to me as reading a phone book. The slow start doesn’t just comprise the first twenty minutes of the game, but remarkably, I was still running apparently meaningless errands in the same place over an hour in.
An hour into World of Warcraft I had populated my toolbar with a bunch of class abilities after a series of adventures into spider-infested caves and ancient ogre ruins, and I was ready to group up with other players for the first time for a quick dungeon. It’s not very challenging, but it’s a suitable introduction to the kinds of things that people love about this game.
WAIT I ALMOST FORGOT
Two of the other games I was New Player Experience-ing had pretty strong introductions. ESO felt immediately engaging, with its highly polished and quick start, and more than anything, the completely different feeling of its direct combat compared to its tab-targeting competition.Guild Wars 2 sends you to rip the head off of a minotaur as your first quest, which is a bit of a statement, and its combat feels visceral and connected. Both of these games made me want to keep playing. At least at this point, but we’ll get to that.
Meanwhile, in Black Desert Online, I felt like an idiot learning how to play video games for the first time. The controls are so strange, and the UI so unintuitive that I was basically tripping over my own feet and wondering where the fuck I was supposed to go, for… far too long. Which is a shame, because the game is, in a lot of ways, beautiful, and combat here feels really good. It’s mostly just interacting with NPCs that feels awful, and seems to reveal that the developers spent the entire budget on breast physics and threw in the rest of the game at the eleventh hour. There’s all kinds of shit plastered around the screen that I either don’t understand or don’t care about, and while I’m sure some of these problems are fixable, Black Desert Online feels so bad that I just couldn’t stand it.
Four games remain, in what has apparently become a reality-show style competition with eliminations after each stage. I didn’t plan it that way, but hey, nobody could have planned for BDO to be that terrible. Who will persevere and go on to become that one MMO that that guy on Youtube thinks is pretty much the best, at least early on?
2 HOURS REMAIN
After the first hour, Final Fantasy suddenly realizes that we need to go outside and actually kill some shit, and things start to pick up. Questing and combat here are both remarkably similar to World of Warcraft. Combat is so close that it’s hardly worth talking about the differences, but the questing experience is a little more interesting.
In World of Warcraft, quests come in clusters. You arrive in a new town and talk to a few people to pick up all the quests, and then go out into a hostile area where, usually, all of the quests in your log can be completed at the same time. Kill six of these guys, collect four of those. Click on something, kill another dude, and then head back to town and bask in the endorphin rush of turning everything in for your rewards.
In Final Fantasy XIV, the emphasis is placed on the main scenario quest, which is differentiated from side quests by a unique icon. You can pick up side quests for small bonus rewards, but this is strictly optional, and everyone will tell you to stick with the MSQ because it’s way more rewarding and will give you enough XP by itself to get you through the base game, plus you’re absolutely required to do it. So that’s what I did. And the best way I can describe the main scenario quest is that you run back and forth for fucking ever, but we’ll get to that.
Guild Wars 2 has an approach that players either love or hate, and I kind of hated it. You don’t get many quests in a traditional sense, but instead you’re encouraged to explore the map and discover little events to take part in, called Hearts. On paper this sounds like it would make the world feel more open and organic, but it really doesn’t. You just go from one heart to the next as if they were quests, and the hearts themselves are kind of clunky and not very interesting.
Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft both actually have something very similar to Hearts, called FATES and World Quests, respectively. The difference is that in those games these things are treated as bonuses you can optionally complete while you’re doing your other quests, but in Guild Wars 2 it’s all you get. It feels grindy and directionless, and while that might appeal to some, it felt pretty bad for me.
Guild Wars 2 had a few other problems I couldn’t get into, and the worst of them is something so simple I’m still irrationally angry about it. The game doesn’t allow you to reorder your combat abilities on your hotbar. Period. You just aren’t allowed to choose which buttons are for which skill. It’s something that I could probably learn to live with, but the idea that it has to be this way is infuriating and, yeah, Guild Wars 2 is the next contestant we’re going to vote off of the proverbial island.
I said at the beginning of this video that I was mostly interested in WoW and FFXIV, so it’s a little obvious that we’re looking to get rid of The Elder Scrolls: Online next, but hey, let’s take a moment to congratulate ESO for being the least-worst of the MMOs we knew weren’t going to take the crown.
And really, it’s a good game. The only problems I have with it are that it feels like a single-player game, and one I’ve already played a few times over. None of the Elder Scrolls titles do a lot to change the formula, but… man, this is straight up Skyrim.
As a single-player game, the Skyrim formula is hurt a fair bit by MMO conventions, and the simple fact that there are other players running around the world with you. Do the multiplayer aspects of the game make up for that? I played a little beyond the three hour time period I had set aside to run a dungeon, and it was fun, but it wasn’t better than the competition. The Elder Scrolls: Online is… fine. That’s the review. I don’t hate it, but I wouldn’t play it over an MMO that was designed from the ground up to be an MMO.
THE VIDEO STARTS AT X:XX
Finally, we’re down to World of Warcraft vs. Final Fantasy XIV. At least as it comes to the new player experience. And if you’ve been waiting for an in-depth analysis, I’m here to disappoint you by saying that there isn’t much here to talk about that wasn’t covered in that section earlier about the first hour.
Mostly because FFXIV just keeps on trucking along in pretty much exactly the same way, and three hours in nothing had really changed. I was running back and forth talking to NPCs ad nauseum and, honestly, not having the best time, but there were big highlights worth talking about.
Final Fantasy’s world absolutely feels more alive and intricate than any of the other games in this video. It also feels far more populated with real players, which I think the others really undervalue the importance of. There are some fantastic monster designs here, too, which stood out to me, but ultimately gameplay is king, and the first three hours of FFXIV felt like a big chore.
Actually, I played FFXIV for about twenty hours. Slightly longer than intended. I just kept pushing forward to see if there was something different around the next corner, because all of my friends and everyone on the entire Internet kept telling me that was the case. I ran a bunch of dungeons, which are a lot better than the questing experience, but nothing special. They’re roughly comparable to classic WoW dungeons: Not very mechanically interesting, but a lot of mobs with higher than normal health pools.
People will say that Final Fantasy XIV gets good, eventually, but this is a video about the new player experience. If I wasn’t feeling it twenty hours in, that’s a failing grade.
LONG LIVE THE KING
It didn’t take twenty hours to get into WoW. within the 3-hour time limit I had originally set out, I had accomplished more in WoW than in all of the other games on this list combined. It’s easy to see why this game has, for such a long time, reigned supreme over the others.
Quest design that is varied and tries to engage you from every angle, dungeons that, even as a low-level player, feature a plethora of set piece moments and sometimes genuine mechanical challenges. PVP battlegrounds which become available early on and offer another alternative to questing. WoW’s biggest strength is that it has something for everyone. At endgame this can feel like the developers are forcing you into content you aren’t interested in, but leveling up, it means you have more freedom to choose whatever path you like, and mix up the gameplay in ways its competition can’t approach.
So, why are players moving to Eorzea in apparently king-slaying numbers? Is it really just that players are fed up with Blizzard and finally voting with their wallets?
Final Fantasy XIV is a good game, and it’s a game that is extremely similar to WoW. I was constantly struck by how much it felt like a slightly older version of World of Warcraft, and a lot of WoW players will tell you that they prefer the way things used to be. That’s a part of it. But the things it does do notably differently are also things Blizzard has consistently undervalued. Chiefly, things that foster a strong community for role-players.
Ultimately, WoW is more of a video game, and Final Fantasy XIV is more of a virtual world. Which of those things matters more to you is down to your personal preference. But when it comes to the new player experience of leveling up and engaging with the content, FFXIV’s opening hours really don’t even come close to what WoW can offer, even if it’s probably a more satisfying virtual chat program.