I really love FFXIV, and I’ve gushed over it quite a few times in this blog. What I am right now is frustrated with it, and while I’m going to talk for a while about why, I want to point out that it only slightly diminishes my enjoyment of an otherwise excellent game.
We’ve been playing the expansion for a few weeks now, and people fall into one of three categories: finished levelling, still levelling, or not yet in the expansion. The gaps in all of these are tied heavily with level, and to some extent, the amount of story content they’ve been able to complete. What frustrates me is that in a game that has done so much excellent work to help friends play alongside one another to the benefit of everyone involved, it has thrown a lot of that out the window for the expansion. We return to levels as a hard barrier to playing together, and the number of times I’ve seen people lament that they can’t join– despite playing the right role or being ready, willing, and capable of joining a group– simply because they aren’t the right level has been maddening.
I’ve seen and heard frustration from nearly everyone I play with on a regular basis– they can’t join a group or can’t fill a particular need because they’re held back by levels. I’ve watched people sigh and frustratedly grind, draining the fun from the game for them, simply to “catch up”, and I’ve seen a number of people try to branch out and try something new and exciting with the expansion content only to lament that they “fell behind”.
In the meantime, what is a level? Is it that meaningful that I’ve gone from level 52 to 53? 17 to 18? 59 to 60? Other than displaying an incrementally higher number next to my name, what am I *actually* getting from levelling up, other than some satisfying music and particle effects? I’m occasionally getting a new ability (except all of the abilities in Heavensward are quest-linked, and could easily be unlocked with story progress rather than levels), I’m getting a stat point every few levels (except the stat allocations are mindless for every class in the game save one, and the one where it isn’t mindless is considered a mistake by the devs that they’ve talked about wanting to fix), my spells go up in MP cost (hooray!), and I can, every so often, go into a new zone (except this, too, is linked to the main story quests).
What I feel like I get every time I level up is either a widening gap between myself and my friends, or a small bit of relief that I’m catching up to my friends. Often it’s both, as I leave some friends behind and catch up with others. Other than the knowledge that eventually the levelling process ends and the little fanfare and particle effects stop being a bittersweet trigger, levelling is a net neutral experience, other than the questionable joy of making a single, questionably significant number slightly larger.
I get the desire for progression. Opponents of level-less systems say that you can’t make people feel like they’re progressing if they don’t have a single, nice, clear indicator that they’ve become more awesome. I think we’ve long outstripped that in MMOs; levelling isn’t progression anymore, it’s either the game you’re playing until you reach max level and have nothing else to do, or it’s the chores you have to do before you really get to enjoy the game. What makes me love FFXIV is that the main storyline quests continue throughout the levelling process and into the ‘endgame’, the max-level content, giving me the distinct feeling that the main form of progression for me is through the story. I want to get better gear and progress further so that I can see more of the game’s story when it becomes available. However, the levels still block me from playing with my friends.
Every little happy tingle I get at seeing the level-up fanfare is countered by looking at a friend who I can’t play alongside, or who feels like they’re bringing the group down, or who looks at an apparently insurmountable hill to climb, who skips the story so they can catch up faster and doesn’t really get attached to it or who jumps into story instances with strangers who won’t wait for them to see the story just so they can catch up faster. I’ve reached the point where I no longer care what reasons people might have for enjoying levels, I’m tired of being forced to mediate between the people with a singular focus and (sometimes) copious free time and the people with less free time or a desire to explore and have fun, because they’re all at different points in the levelling process. I’m lucky to have a guild that’s incredibly understanding and patient, and even more painfully aware that that isn’t the norm. I’ve seen my own guildies panicking because they don’t think they can catch up in time, because they had the unmitigated gall to do something else for a day or so some weekend. I hate watching the frustration and the stress.
The game that keeps players is the game that makes it easy for friends to play with one another, and among a variety of other things, MMOs have been trapped in the past on this one, blocking friends from playing with each other for the convenience of a simple number to denote power. Levels make people feel bad for gaining them too quickly, or too slowly, or at the wrong times. They separate and demoralize and incur stress, and I’m painfully aware that when they’re fun for me, it’s at the expense of other people around me, because me getting ahead drains the fun from others who aren’t ahead and who now need to catch up.
I want those walls torn down. I want to be able to play my games without worrying if I’m behind, or if me playing is going to stress out my friends who are going to feel left behind. I’m tired of levels as a meaningless marker of ‘progress’, and an artificial gate to me having fun with friends.