Keeping Players Playing

I warned you that I’d do it. I warned you I’d wind up writing more about Final Fantasy XIV because I’m just in love with the game and I am so excited for the Stormblood expansion (and maybe I’ve devoted too many hours of my life into trying to grind my main class’ best weapon, the Anima weapon.)

But it’s that same love of the game that I’m here to talk about: why do I love this game so much? What about this game keeps me logging in and playing it, despite a plethora of other games I could pick up and play at any point in time? It’s a worthwhile discussion to have, I feel, especially because the reality of online video games in particular is they’re always trying to keep us playing them. Looking at why a game does well or why a game fails at this task helps us assess why we even play the games at all and what we expect them to do to keep our interest.

I hated the idea of gear treadmills since basically ever.

Actually, no. I hated gear treadmills in my MMORPGs ever since I grew bitter and spiteful about Perfect World International’s incorporation of pay-to-win-RNG-pachinko-shitboxes-for-broken-endgame-gear bullshit after I’d worked so hard on trying to make myself a damned respectable archer that was valuable for running dungeons with. Fuck those guys.

Basically, gear treadmills put me off trying MMORPGs for a very long time until Guild Wars 2 came out. That game intrigued me because it promptly abandoned gear treadmills at end-game in favour of build diversity and choice. I loved that! A game that said “This noise is bollocks, ain’t it?” to the Holy Trinity, scrapped it, and also said “This noise is also bollocks, ain’t it?” about the gear treadmill and then also scrapped it.

… Only to have to reintroduce it, in a form, years after release because what do you know, a gear treadmill actually gives incentives to keep on playing the game. I’ve already detailed what Guild Wars 2 did with the endgame that I didn’t like in my previous post and also went into more detail on my GW2 tumblr about the very same, so I won’t discuss it here. The important part to remember is that a gear treadmill was scrapped in design, because it has always been the biggest point of contention amongst players, and it had to be re-introduced later.

Final Fantasy XIV Online does a remarkable job, in my eyes, of making the gear treadmill both easy to navigate, easy to understand and most important of all: accessible to everybody.

“How much did you spend on that coat?!” “Our entire life savings.”

While the game isn’t very good at telling you what vendors to get your gear from, starting at level 50 you’re introduced to a very simple process: run certain dungeons or do your daily roulettes, receive Tomestones. Tomestones are incredibly important for all of your gear-getting needs, for the record, and they all have a maximum carry capacity of 2000 of each kind.

The first amazing thing about this system is that it doesn’t force you to rely on RNG to get better gear, nor does it force you to run content you don’t want to run. Of course, running additional content for the chance at some good gear for your class dropping still exists and expedites the process of gearing up, but it’s entirely optional and that is something I love about it. Don’t want to do 24 man raids for the chance at getting a drop? Well just don’t do them. You can still do other dungeons to get Tomestones and buy gear instead.

The removal of RNG as a necessity to get your gear does amazing things for player morale. Rather than players feeling forced to participate in content they don’t want to touch, they can simply choose to grind out Tomestones instead for their gear. By the same token, by providing gear drops as RNG in raids as well as Tomestones for rewards in raids, raiders feel like they’re being rewarded for their own effort and time spent learning content.

In one fell swoop, raiders are given rewards for running their raids, but more casual non-raiding players are still just as able to get their gear without feeling like raiding content is necessary, and both players are happy.

The second wonderful thing the Tomestone system does is make it very clear how much grind is required for your gear, and it also cuts out the need for crafting. Crafters can still craft their own gear if they have the skill to do so, rather than have to grind Tomestones for it, and they can also make profit by selling on the market place. Meanwhile, us non-crafting plebeians with fat fingers and a dislike of tiny almost-mini-games can plan out just what we want to do on a day and what rewards we’ll get from that. Your Duty Finder lists every Roulette available, which has a daily reward bonus of Tomestones, and lists every single dungeon and trial and raid you can do. It also lists very specifically what Tomestones you get for doing these things – which allows you to glance at your Duty Finder and say “I’m going to run these today!”

It’s blissfully easy, with no wondering involved. There’s never a question of “will I get the Tomestones I need?” because they’re just guaranteed for running the content. If you happen to get good gear you can use while doing that content, you’ve basically just gotten an extra super cool bonus and now that’s a piece of gear you don’t need to worry about.

I can’t express how much I love this system. It all comes down to the fact that Final Fantasy XIV Online makes the grind very visible – which can be daunting – but it also makes your rewards very visible too. Did I mention, by the way, that you get bonus Tomestones as long as one player in your party has never run that content before? Including you? This means that content is almost always, always, always worth doing. You never feel like you wasted your time running that dungeon; at worst you only get the base amount of Tomestones as advertised in Duty Finder. At best, you get a bonus because a player is new to the dungeon/boss fight, and you get a piece of gear you can use from a treasure chest.

The game practically drowns you in incentives to play every day for at least an hour and do a couple of roulettes. And it works, disgustingly well. I log into Final Fantasy XIV Online and do my roulettes every day because not only are the dungeons fun and well crafted, but I know the rewards I’m going to get for investing my time into the game. It isn’t bullshit nonsense like Guild Wars 2’s “Ascended” tier of gear, where there are only two semi-reliable ways to get it if you’re not crafting and where crafting costs hundreds upon hundreds of gold and if you can’t do that content well fuck you, you’d better hope the RNG falls in your favour.

Gamers are far more open to grind when the grind feels ultimately fair. When a game is open about how much you’ll need to get an item, and then provides you solid and stable ways to get those items, players are more willing to invest their time into playing in the first place. Why would I play a game where I might get 100 of what I need, or maybe I’ll only get 18 because that particular dungeon run hated me, when instead I can play a game when I know for an absolute fact I come away with a minimum of 100 of something I need and I might be able to get even more? There’s still plenty of RNG at play as far as if we get a player bonus, or if gear I can use drops; but because the RNG is basically giving me additional rewards on top of an already good reward, it doesn’t feel like the game is shitting on me when that RNG doesn’t fall in my favour. And honestly? Any gear that drops in Final Fantasy XIV is worth rolling on, because you can save it if you’re levelling the other class or you can turn it in for a different special currency. Everything is an extra reward in this game and it’s amazing just how much motivation that can give you to actually get shit done.

So that is that. I was always sceptical about FFXIV at first, because I knew it had a gear treadmill and I was forever embittered about gear treadmills in general. But as it turns out, this game has one of my favourite gear treadmills to date, because it got rid of the ridiculous random factor and the requirement to run content I didn’t enjoy. Turns out I actually really love the 24 man raids in this game too, but before I was actively running them, I was a shy and socially anxious little bean that never went anywhere near certain content (like the big raids) and I still managed to get my gear in a timely and active manner. Whoever developed the gear treadmill for this game needs a fucking promotion, because they absolutely nailed what makes gear treadmills both fun and rewarding to participate in while removing what made them absolutely bash-my-head-against-a-wall frustrating in every other game previously.