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Opinion: Is  Final Fantasy XIV  a  World of Warcraft  killer? ...Maybe. (But probably not.)

Opinion: Is Final Fantasy XIV a World of Warcraft killer? ...Maybe. (But probably not.)

July 21, 2021 | By Katherine Cross

July 21, 2021 | By Katherine Cross
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One of the reasons I adored roleplaying in World of Warcraft is because the stakes felt so low. Unlike in Lord of the Rings Online, with its marble-chiseled lore and prestigious pedigree, World of Warcraft’s lore--which was always subsumed to the latest gameplay need--was considerably less serious and consistent.

And so, I always told my RP mates, “if Blizzard doesn’t take their lore seriously, why should you? Roleplay however you like!” This was a curious strength of the game. In its over-the-top ridiculousness, inconsistency, and time-traveling bombast, it was attractive to so many people precisely for its instantly recognizable world. The word “iconic” seemed made for the game’s art, and the absurd twists of its ongoing story acquired the allure of camp.

But have we reached the limit of how much ridiculousness players are willing to tolerate?

A climactic cinematic for the long-awaited 9.1 patch, which played after the Sanctum of Domination raid in the Shadowlands expansion, was hotly anticipated and, naturally, deflated with all the vigor of anything so overhyped. Its unlisted YouTube video is currently racking up dislikes; one of its top comments reads, amusingly, “This is Final Fantasy XIV's most successful cutscene.”

Complaints of an unsatisfying story, poor writing, and anticlimax clog forums, social media, and YouTube comments and thus, egged on by World of Warcraft streamers like Asmongold, a mass “exodus” has decamped from World of Warcraft to the sunnier shores of Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea. For the moment, there appear to be some numbers to back up the idea of an exodus--or at least, a cheeky summer holiday from Azeroth. On the July Fourth weekend, Final Fantasy XIV broke its all-time record when it breached 47,542 concurrent players on Steam, itself a newsworthy event. And yet, as of this writing on July 18th, at 7:22 Eastern Time, that number is 60,399--down from a peak of 67,148 just today.

Both Blizzard and Square Enix are cagey about exact numbers, but it’s becoming clear that Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft are, at least for the moment, in the same ballpark. This is an unusual experience for the game once referred to as the “five hundred pound gorilla” in the world of MMOs, but then again World of Warcraft has had its obituary written many times.

***

One of my earliest game reviews was written on my guild’s forum in 2008, when Warhammer Online launched to lofty expectations and plenty of hype. As World of Warcraft’s inaugural expansion, Burning Crusade, was dragging on towards its conclusion, burnt-out raiders flocked to Warhammer for some good old-fashioned, no-holds-barred PvP. I wrote glowingly of the experience on my guild’s forum, rather incongruously rating the game “five Hello Kitties out of five,” and enjoining my World of Warcraft friends to come on over.

In two months' time, I’d end up quitting WAR.

Every new MMO threatened to unseat World of Warcraft, before coming and going into oblivion or obscurity. Vanguard--remember Vanguard?--Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Tabula Rasa were all hyped as WoW-Killers in their day. The “WoW Killer” was a prophetic figure, foretold by so many angry forum posts, the personification of vengeance against complacent World of Warcraft devs who had wronged gamers by not sufficiently buffing Circle of Healing or something. Indeed, waiting for it truly took on the air of awaiting the Second Coming.

Thus was the revamp of a troubled title produced by Square Enix, Final Fantasy XIV, only half-heartedly presumed to be, at last, the fated game. When Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was released in 2013 as a second attempt at a failed MMO launch in 2010 there were great expectations. But World of Warcraft also continued to plod along--losing subscribers, perhaps, but not enough to cause great worry.

And yet, slowly and steadily the game evolved, accumulating its own library of expansions, quality of life improvements, and an ever-more-polished story. This glam anime turtle has, it seems, at last caught up to the hare with the huge pauldrons.

***

Is it finally happening? Has World of Warcraft, at last, suffered the fatal blow foretold by a Forsaken forum poster named Priapism who unaccountably escaped a forced name-change? Well, maybe.

To hear it told by my Final Fantasy XIV friends, the city of Limsa Lominsa is now having its own Hot Vax Summer renaissance, its streets thronging with masses of people as if the port city had just emerged from a coronavirus lockdown. The World of Warcraft transplants have, clearly, made their mark on the population. Square Enix even had to stop selling digital copies of the game for a while as the servers were overloading. One can only imagine how much worse FFXIV’s housing crisis is apt to get.

Or perhaps not. I freely confess to a certain bias here; I love Final Fantasy XIV and had some of the best RP experiences of my long career there. But Final Fantasy XIV is, like so many other “WoW Killers” before it, an MMO that suffers from all of World of Warcraft’s limitations. The fault lies, to a great extent, in the genre itself.

I can point to the climax of 9.1 and say “that’s bad writing,” but is it any worse than the retcons that gave us the Draenei or Void Elves or an entire alternate timeline for Draenor? When I watched the hated cutscene I found myself thinking it was less than ideal, but also par for the course with what has always been a story-light game. Final Fantasy XIV at least has, I think, superior writing (truly, it demonstrates why localization is such an art; right down to punny quest names, the game’s localization into English positively sings), but is it actually good writing? Sometimes. It is still a game where lots of ostentatiously weird nonsense happens for seemingly no reason, with cartoony flashes of absurdity, flecked by anime pomposity. Final Fantasy XIV is the ojou-sama laugh to World of Warcraft’s Saturday morning cartoon. Will it really be a haven for people upset by the Sanctum of Domination cutscene?

Final Fantasy XIV is, in the end, an MMO. It’s grindy, its writing can be unintentionally comical, it’s silly and colorful, it heaves under the weight of its playerbase and is situationally annoying or unfair as a result. What the old doomsayers of World of Warcraft never seemed to recognize is that their desire for a WoW Killer was a desire for an MMO that was somehow not an MMO. Eorzea is a wild and wonderful place, and there are many gems to be found in its twists and corners--of which there are many because Final Fantasy XIV has proper cities. The richness of Final Fantasy XIV is not to be missed if you like MMOs, and its unique combat and healing mechanics add spice to a fantasy realm that’s at once like no other and like every other. Final Fantasy XIV is bold, beautiful, and vast.

But it can never bear the weight of all the expectations of a disgruntled World of Warcraft player. Final Fantasy XIV has auction house manipulation, trolls, under/overpowered classes, weak writing, a housing crisis, and a myriad of other sorrows in spades. Because it’s an MMO. What I realized when I played WAR and jumped on the WoW-Killer bandwagon wasn’t that World of Warcraft was an inherently bad game; it’s that I needed to take a break from MMOs.

It is very possible that World of Warcraft has had its day. It’ll celebrate its 17th birthday this fall. There are kids in high school whose parents wax nostalgic about Scholomance. But if it does die, it will die of old age and a thousand self-inflicted cuts. Final Fantasy XIV will have merely been younger, more convenient, and just as silly. In that it would, at least, be a worthy successor.

We’ll know it’s happened when players start looking for an “FF-Killer.”

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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