Thoughts on the design of Final Fantasy XIV in regards to its quest design. Spoilers for A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood.
As mentioned in the description, heavy spoilers for A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood follow. If you are interested in the story of any of these and not finished with it, you should really wait to read this post.
Okay, this is the second of the posts about Final Fantasy XIV and this time around we’re going to be going over the lessons they’ve learned over the course of the expansions and then also a bit of what they could still stand to learn in regards to quest design. The developers have learned from a lot of their own mistakes, and, to their credit, Square is actually going back and redoing the main storyline for XIV to streamline A Realm Reborn’s content to be less of a slog. In addition to the main storyline, though, there are plenty of additional side quests and side storylines that have improved in their execution with time as well.
First, I’m going to get a minor gripe out. Unlike XI, where the quests were solely to fill out the flavor of the world with the occaisional reward of a map or other key item, there’s a reward more often than not in XIV – including experience points. I’m personally mixed on quests giving experience, as it makes leveling a bit “too easy” in a way that is annoying when you’re trying to go through the game at the level that content was designed for and find yourself constantly passing that. Quests that take place between expansions tend to only give gil, since they were theoretically at the level cap, which makes the situation feel a bit less consistent and that much more frustrating. Large portions of XIV are level capped content, such as instanced dungeons/duties and FATEs, but it can be jarring to find yourself 10 levels above content and not feeling any danger going between your objectives.
The main thing that early quest design in XIV fails to address properly is player engagement. Crafting quests are particularly guilty of this problem, so they’re the main thing I’m going to be focusing on. A Realm Reborn crafting job quests all take place in one of the major cities, and for the first 20 levels of the job, require ingredients that you can buy from a guild supplier. After that, they start to incorporate a few ingredients that are from enemies or gathering, usually in areas across the world from where the quest originates. Sometimes it combines this with needing to perform the craft on another one of your classes. This gives you an opportunity to explore, and if you happen to be leveling them all at a similar rate, has many moments that feel pretty great (if not a bit repetitive, thanks to reintroducing materia in every questline).
If you aren’t leveling these together, however, it can be an exercise in frustration and feelings of pointlessness. Most of the quest items that are required are not locked to an individual character, and about half of them are purchaseable from NPCs somewhere in the world. It can be hard to justify the time investment for doing the quest “the right way” when the NPC in the market district will definitely have the answer, or worse yet, the market board. In both ARR and HW, the items needed for some of the recipes were regularly farmed by players when ARR/HW were the endgame–but no longer, making the raw components suddenly far more expensive compared to the resulting items since the items themselves can now be gotten as quest rewards.
To again pick on Heavensward, the basic quests for its gathering jobs ramp up the difficulty such that you need ten high quality gathers from hidden nodes that require top tier equipment for level 52. These items sell for virtually nothing on the market board, and turning in the quest provides the gear that would allow you to complete it successfully. Some of this problem is based on the massive jumps in item stats that happen between expansions in XIV, where Heavensward assumed incorrectly that everyone would have spent the past several months on collecting the endgame equipment from ARR, though Square Enix seems to have learned their lesson on this with Stormblood and hopefully Shadowbringers.
In one particularly awful example, a Heavensward crafter quest has you craft a high quality version of the top “weapon” for the job you are on… and then provides you a normal quality one as a reward. There is nothing about that quest that feels rewarding, outside of the story of what is going on. Making matters worse, Heavensward regularly sends the player to areas with no access to a market board in order to start the quests with these requirements. Sometimes the location is within a map or two of a major city, at least, but in particularly awful cases there is no nearby aetheryte to allow the player to return to turn in the quest easily.
None of this design is independently bad – but like the main storyline parts of A Realm Reborn that Square Enix has decided to fix, it involves a large number of quests that are two dialog boxes before moving to the next location, followed by more of the same, several times. The player doesn’t have any reason to feel invested in what’s happening in the region, because the most the game encourages you to see of it is talking to the NPC that provides the quest. Raw materials aren’t available, either from the overworld itself or shops in the area.
A Realm Reborn did have one later addition that shows up again in Heavensward – the beast tribe quests of the Ixal and the Moogles. Ixali quests revolve around building a prototype airship to attempt to reclaim their heritage of flight, and while there is a component that involves turning in generic crafted items, most of the quests involve an NPC giving you special key item components that craft into a key item to turn in. The Moogle quests continue this, but without the strange side effect of needing a special piece of equipment. These quests feel so much more involved, as there is no way to skip the actual work of the quest, and it’s disappointing that the main crafter quests in Heavensward didn’t shape themselves in this way.
As you might guess from the lack of mention so far, Stormblood does not fall victim to this trap. It continues to send the player to remote corners of the world, sometimes repeatedly, but the quest always revolves around the temporary key items similar to the beast tribe quests of the prior expansions. It keeps the player grounded in what’s going on in the quest’s gameplay and story. The Namazu quests, like the Ixal and Moogle quests before them, also operate on key items – though this time gathering jobs are able to also join in on the efforts.
Stormblood also avoids this in another, simpler, way as well. Whenever a quest involves following an NPC to another location, it brings the player along with the NPC instead of needing to manually teleport. I could be mistaken, but I think this change alone would remove over an hour of playtime from A Realm Reborn’s post-game content, especially if it was as seamless as it is throughout Stormblood. While it can be a little upsetting to get transported if you were planning to do a few other quests in the zone, the end result on the player experience is so much less immersion-breaking than when you need to continually menu or run your way along with the quest.
I think the main lessons here are to keep the player able to complete your quests without feeling like they have to buy their way out or without accidentally putting an unintentional roadblock when players come to the content later in the game’s lifecycle. I don’t think anyone purposefully thought that people would stop gathering the ores that made up many of the requirements for the late crafter quests, though when the created gear lost its use, those materials became more scarce. Providing the ability to complete a quest within the scope of the quest itself prevents this from being possible – and the fighting jobs in XIV have done this from the start, with instanced enemies that are only available to the player actively undertaking the quest.