Everyone has that game, the one where they’re embarrassed to admit how much time they’ve invested in it. For me, that game is Final Fantasy XIV.
For years, part of my daily routine was logging in, running through some dungeons, completing daily quests, and most importantly, spending time with friends. Recently though I stopped playing, and just the thought of that same ‘routine’ is enough to make my anxiety flare up, as I sit with my mouse cursor hovering over the login button for hours, wondering if I should return to it. Games are often proverbial comfort food we indulge in to ease the tension of everyday life. That’s what Final Fantasy XIV has been for me, and I’ve spent too much time at its buffet without trying out what else might be on the menu.
Final Fantasy XIV’s development history is a story of failure, and using the ashes to build something better. Originally launching in 2010 to disastrous results, the game was so poorly received that it had to be shut down and relaunched as A Realm Reborn in 2013. It was a herculean task for director Naoki Yoshida and his team to take over the reigns of a failed MMORPG from the previous director and make it great, but they did it. Final Fantasy XIV went from a smouldering mess of a game to not only one of the most well received MMORPGs ever, but also one of the most beloved entries in the Final Fantasy series.
“Wait, isn’t that game supposed to be abysmal?” I said when a friend asked if I wanted to play Final Fantasy XIV back in 2014, blissfully ignorant of the relaunch a year prior. At the time, my interest in Final Fantasy as a series was below sea level, and the only MMORPG I’d played before that for any length of time was World of Warcraft. Still, my friend insisted I give it a shot, so I did, albeit reluctantly. As I look back on it, I almost wish I’d not taken them up on it, because once I’d ventured into Eorzea it took years to get back out.
Final Fantasy XIV is not a perfect game, but it is the perfect game for me. It has a fantastic narrative presented similarly to that of television drama, where each expansion is like a season of your favorite show. The progression through acquiring gear, customizing your character, and completing difficult raids is immensely satisfying. Most importantly, it allows you to go on all kinds of adventures with other people, and often you’ll make new friends out of them.
Eorzea became a second home for me. When I wasn’t progressing through the latest storyline patch, I would be harvesting plants as a botanist. If being a healer in a dungeon felt like too much responsibility, I’d switch to a damage dealing job. Decorating my character’s house was a good way to wind-down, especially after a long evening of challenging group content. Every activity had a nice contrasting alternative; there’s never a shortage of things to do, and I always had an excuse to be logged in.
There’s a degree of repetition, monotony, and a massive grind associated with everything in the game. In one instance, there was what was called the “Relic grind”, where I needed to complete a series of tasks to craft a powerful weapon. Just one of these tasks involved going through the same dungeon about 200 times. When you factor in that each run through this dungeon took between 30 to 40 minutes, I might as well have taken a jerry can of gas to my spare time and set it ablaze. Too often did I succumb to a mindless grind just for the sake of improving my in-game character, rather than do something in the real world to actually improve my own character.
What always eased my mind about undertaking a huge progression treadmill was that I was never alone. I had a group of friends that I played with, and over time we became close. The intent of a MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV is to force players to work together to complete a task. Suddenly, running through the same dungeon 200 times isn’t as much of a slog when you’ve got friends with you chatting and laughing along the way. Once the finish line had been crossed and we had our Relic weapons, it meant we were better equipped to take on the raids in the game. Getting together a couple of times a week to practice, discuss battle plans, and execute a coordinated group effect was always a thrill. Those moments when I’d be standing over the body of a tough boss with my friends as everyone scooched together to take a smiling group photo with our in-game avatars—that was the sort of thing that would keep me logging in every day.
Over time, bits of our friend group would blossom into intimate relationships. Sometimes we’d use the Ceremony of Eternal Bonding (the in-game wedding system) to get married to each other for laughs; other times, it was because two of our members had fallen in love. I know several couples that met in Final Fantasy XIV and now live together; that’s just how tight-knit our group was. Whether it was the progression treadmill that aggravated us or the interesting group content that challenged us, the important thing is that Eorzea brought us together.
Every activity in Final Fantasy XIV is meant to hold a player’s attention for an extended period of time so that the developers can justify their subscription fee. The most egregious are the daily rewards from completing quests and running through dungeons. They’re a hook, because after you complete them and get rewards, they go on a timer that refreshes the next day. Most of these rewards give you currency to purchase new gear, or enhance your current gear. The better quality your equipment is, the more content you can actually participate in. With each activity feeding into the next, it becomes easy to get stuck on the never-ending endorphin rush as the game hurls congratulatory messages at you for killing a turtle for the umpteenth time.
However, Naoki Yoshida has stated many times that players should take a break if they feel burnt out on the grind, an honest sentiment for the director to have despite all the in-game hooks. Dr. Hilarie Cash, CCO of reSTART internet and gaming addiction recovery, spoke with Kotaku on MMORPG addition: “Some blame can be laid at the feet of developers, making a conscious effort to make their games more addictive. It’s analogous to the tobacco industry, trying to make tobacco more addictive. It works to their benefit. That having been said, it’s up to the individual to take responsibility for how they play.” At some point, I knew that I wasn’t playing Final Fantasy XIV because I was addicted, it was because I was trying to fill a void in my heart.
Around December of last year, I wasn’t feeling good about my life, and at least part of it was due to the amount of time I’d been playing Final Fantasy XIV. So instead of logging in, I took an extended break from the game. I assured my friends I’d be back eventually because at the time, I couldn’t imagine removing it from my life entirely.
The first thing I did with my time away from Eorzea was start Breath Of The Wild, and I became enamoured with it. I’d of course heard all the positive buzz bout it, but I was kicking myself for not starting it sooner, especially since it had sat on my shelf collecting dust as I ran through the same dungeon in Final Fantasy XIV for the 900th time. Soon after that, I started reading through my book backlog and was finishing a novel bi-weekly, which reminded me how much I love writing, pushing me to expand my portfolio and make a concentrated effort to make it my career. I even applied to university for a Public Relations degree, got accepted, and begin classes soon. The past seven months have been about me improving my life in big ways, and part of that can be attributed to quitting Final Fantasy XIV.
That’s why the game’s login screen is something I’ve come to wrestle with recently. Every time a new big content patch comes out, my friends will message me insisting I come back, and I always make up an excuse as to why I can’t join them. I miss the story, I miss the gameplay, I miss Eorzea, but most of all, I miss my friends. As much as I want to return to that world, I can’t help but think about all that I have done to improve my life and try new things, and how previously all that time was eaten up playing the game. So I’m currently stuck with this dilemma of wanting to go back to it but thinking it might not be good for me.
When Square-Enix entrusted Naoki Yoshida with the re-launch of Final Fantasy XIV, it was a tremendous risk– one that paid off for them. They could have just cut their losses and killed it, but from the ashes of failure they built a better game. That world beloved by so many could not have been made without that initial failure, and without the risk to rebuild it. Growth rarely comes without the need to drop what’s comfortable in favor of taking a risk.
So as much as I want to return to Eorzea, maybe the best thing I can do is heed the game’s lesson, and focus on building a better life rather than retreat to the familiar.