Friday, March 11, 2011

Part of FFXI Folklore

For my final thesis last year, I explored the idea of culture and folklore within an MMORPG, specifically looking at Final Fantasy XI Online. While I'm leaving out 50 or so pages, I decided to post the final few pages of my paper.

To give you some context, I basically embarked on an ethnographic expedition into an
MMORPG, and used a folkloristic approach to analyze different aspects of life and culture within the world of Vana'Diel. You might be surprised how deep and rich the folklore of an MMORPG can be, and FFXI has been around for 8 years, so there was quite a bit to uncover. Over the course of my lengthy travels in Vana'Diel, I noticed a gradual change in FFXI's culture. As the game changed and evolved over the years, so did the players and their experiences...and not necessarily for the better, depending on your view.

I wrote this particular part a few months before the BETA launch of Final Fantasy XIV Online. The game was a pretty big disappointment for a lot of reasons... and maybe my prediction was part of the problem... anyway, enjoy.

Excerpt from "I Found it on a Taisai: Folklore & Culture in Final Fantasy XI Online" Ryan Moore (2010)

While many aspects of FFXI folklore survive and evolve, there are just as many examples that fade away or cease to exist. After several years of being online, the world of FFXI has lost much of its mystery, and along with it many long-time players who have left or moved on. Much like the folklore of any culture, as time passes traditions can fade, languages can cease to be spoken, legends can be debunked and superstitions can be ignored or forgotten. A turning point for Vana'Diel occurred in 2007, when the game was released for the Xbox 360. A large portion of new players were introduced to FFXI, creating an invisible divide between the old and new players who approached and enjoyed the game in very different ways.

In 2006, Square-Enix, developer of FFXI, began recording the amount of time players logged into the game, as well as how long these daily play sessions lasted. In 2006, 72% of players played for 1-3 hours; 13% played for 4-6 hours; and 6% played for 6-9 hours at a time. If these numbers are compared to the most recent census, compiled in 2009, we see that 85.68% of players spend 1-3 hours in game ( a 13.68% increase); 7.79% play 4-6 hours (a 5.21% decrease); and 3.13% play 6-9 hours at a time (a 2.87% decrease) (Square-Enix, 2010). These numbers, which indicate that a higher percentage of players are spending considerably less time in game, is a very important consideration.

Before the big change, FFXI was almost unforgiving in its level of difficulty. Missions were long and complex, with cryptic clues and instructions. High tiered monsters would fight with incredible strength and use unpredictable combinations of skills, some needing dozens of players working together just to stand a chance. Gaining experience and progressing to a higher level was an arduous task, requiring countless hours of dedication from the players. The newer players faced fewer trials and challenges, as the difficulty levels of many missions, quests and monsters were drastically lowered to cater to the new batch of Xbox players. The game became more accessible to casual gamers, allowing for more to be accomplished in less time. Gradually, more content became available that followed this model, explaining the numbers from above.

Players who played the game from 2003-2007 had several years to develop jokes, legends or traditions, which could explain why the newer players were not as comfortable or settled in to the culture as the older ones; but much of this shared folklore could be passed down to the newer batch of adventurers, disseminating in the same way that folklore does in our real world. In my opinion, what truly prevented the culture from thriving was how little time the newer players spent in game interacting with each other compared to the early players of FFXI. They did not partake in important and specific types of experiences that encouraged this folklore to develop in the first place.

Today, players are more serious and highly focused on efficiency, they are anxious to get online, finish their daily mission and sign off for the day. In the past, players would show up to a fight with whoever and whatever was in their group of friends, and victories were earned through trial and error - learning and applying knowledge each time they failed. While this method may be inefficient, it made the feelings of accomplishment much more powerful - a feeling that is not achieved if a victory is guaranteed before even leaving the city. The uncertainty and the unknown is what caused players to bond together so tightly, as every night was literally an adventure waiting to happen.

This element of the unknown is a primary reason that players enjoy and continue to subscribe to this online world. Final Fantasy XI maintains the fourth-highest subscription rate of all MMORPGs with over 500,000 subscribers.(MMOdata, 2010) Players sometimes venture out to try other MMORPGs, but a high percentage of players inevitably return to Vana'diel at some point of another.

User Shandris, after trying World of Warcraft for 30 days, said:

I tried, and enjoyed, World of Warcraft. Don't kill me as a traitor.

While I do see the appeal of the game, there was something...

different about it. Everything was so easy, I was told exactly

where to go, and how to fight... I found their version of a

Notorious Monster, and got excited when I killed it; only to see

him re-spawn immediately after. I asked if there were any

undefeated enemies or bosses, like in FFXI, and I was told

that everything had been killed in their world. What initially

drew me into FFXI was how mysterious everything in the

game world was... I didn't get that feeling there. Welcome me home,

im back to FFXI! (Shandris, personal communication, Mar 17 2010).

In my opinion, the very nature of FFXI is what greatly affected the development of its folklore. The element of the unknown helped create a lasting community that, 7 years later, continues to thrive and evolve. Some MMORPGs die off completely, like Tabula Rasa or Star Wars Galaxies, while others flounder at the bottom of the subscription charts like Age of Conan or Aion. While these games may be more recent, contain better graphics or offer more casual game play choices, there is a missing element that many developers clearly do not consider. While high difficulty// required playtime may not cater to all types of gamers, if used properly they can encourage the development of stronger communities - subsequently increasing player dedication. Based on my findings, this dedication is necessary for the growth of rich culture and folklore within the game, which in turn reinforces the desire players feel to return to this online world and adventure with their friends.

Final Fantasy XIV, Square-Enix's new MMORPG, is right around the corner, slated for a 2010-2011 release. Many players are concerned with the new direction the game might take. While it borrows from the Final Fantasy XI style and lore, the game was revealed to be considerably different in presentation, and in design. Square Enix is promising a more accessible game, a place where casual players can successfully accomplish their in-game goals without investing the time and patience that was required for FFXI. The difficult content will be aimed at 'hardcore' gamers, offering the best rewards for the more difficult challenges - an attempt at catering to both markets and luring more players into the world. This design decision will, in essence, start FFXIV at the 2007-mark of FFXI's lifespan - the time when players began leaving the game, spending less time logged in, and investing less time socializing and building relationships. While the initial launch might yield higher subscription rates, my feeling is that the game will suffer the same fate as other failed MMORPG attempts. I predict that the culture, community and folklore in FFXIV will not be nearly as deep, or as important, as those found in FFXI. Without this depth, few games will ever achieve the success of Final Fantasy XI Online.

Yes, there is a chance that players will maintain friendships, carrying over their community and folklore to the new world. There is also the possibility that players will once again return to Vana'Diel and search for old friends and companions, in an attempt to reclaim the emotions, the connections and the glory they once shared.

Or, perhaps they will simply hang up their adventuring gear, leaving behind something unique and beautiful. Many players might not enjoy the genre of game, or even concern themselves with better gear or new content; It is possible that a culture as powerful, as significant and as real as FFXI cannot, and will not, ever be replaced.

Much like fleeting memories of ancient cultures, their traditions and their shared folklore, perhaps the people of FFXI will one day be remembered only by the stories they tell, and the legacies they leave behind.

Members of the Linkshell Rebirth, August 2006. From L. to R. Apprentice, Jeremiahjak, Slug, Entreri, Zanza, Irenicus, & Eyedea. (2006)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Michael Crichton Dies at 66

Crichton has consistently been in my personal "Holy Trinity" of authors, alongside R.A. Salvatore and Bill Watterson. I've been reading his stories for almost 15 years, and hearing that he has passed away..

This man's work has always been dear to me. Since before I was old enough to understand what the words "genetic engineering" meant, I was working my way through his novels - barely understanding but thoroughly enjoying the complex situations and descriptions he was so fond of including. My first Crichton book was The Lost World, and I was about 10 years old.

After working through that one, I picked up Jurassic Park; I was obsessed with the film, and with dinosaurs, and was eager to see how the two mediums differed. I was blown away at how much better the book was.

By the way, this holds true for most films based on Michael Crichton's work; the movie versions rarely do the novels justice. The only decent films were Jurassic Park (even though it was considerably different than the original material), and The Andromeda Strain, which was actually kinda decent...a sad fact of many book-to-movie adaptations, I guess.

Since then, I've read and re-read every single one of his novels countless times; I own every single piece of literature this man has ever written, and I read a few of his books every year.

He had an incredible ability to turn science-fiction into eerily believable situations - providing concrete scientific explanations as to why these events were possible. May sound a bit strange, but I'll try to explain it.

After reading a Crichton book, you believed that resurrecting Dinosaurs was possible by discovering preserved DNA through mosquitoes trapped in amber; you believed that traveling through time could be done by manipulating quantum foam, disassembling your molecules, and re-assembling them to access alternate universes; you believed that the possibilities of an underwater alien craft bearing intelligence could be discovered, or that a deadly strain of extra-terrestrial organism could infect and wipe out entire towns and turn their blood to powder...

This man made you believe; believe in things that seem so off the wall, events too blatantly fantastical to fathom.

He was a Doctor, and as such had a distinct knowledge of medical science, something he used quite frequently in his work; he also spent an ENORMOUS amount of time studying scientific theories for every book, a fact easily verified by the overwhelmingly lengthy appendices following each of his novels.

Not only were his stories exciting, and intelligent...but also incredibly authentic-feeling. The scientific explanations, diagrams and jargon spread throughout his books actually enhanced the experience, and drew you in to the story.

That's most likely the reason his work was so interesting, because most of what he described and wrote about was actually possible. Scientifically and theoretically possible, that is. Time Travel. Dinosaurs. Intelligent, Free-thinking nano-bots. It could all "happen". The style in which he wrote also enhanced what you were reading; he'd open with introductions completely under the guise that the events to follow were fact; right from the get-go, you were sucked into a world that, as soon as you opened the book, was a real one. Often, Fact and Fiction were so intelligently and carefully woven together, you'd never be able to discern the difference.

Gripping someone with frightening, descriptive science-fiction, and then making them believe it's all possible. What a rare gem of an author...what a loss to the worlds within my bookcase.

In honor of his passing, I will now re-read each and every one of his novels in order, and I eagerly await the potential release of his last book...I check the bookstore every month or so for new releases from my favorite authors, and Crichton's section has been strangely empty...sadly, it will remain that way forever. His loss is a great one, no doubt, and I just hope that his final novel will one day see the light of day.

Monday, September 8, 2008

First Post

Until this very minute, I've never considered starting a Blog. Ever. Primarily because I'm almost positive that I do not possess the desire, nor the inclination, to update it on a regular basis; and secondly because I hardly see myself posting enough insightful material to keep even the most web-obsessed browsers interested.

Don't get your hopes up, however; I fear that my motivations are somewhat skewed, as they are driven only by my obsession with squeezing out any and every grade percentage I can.
The possibility of bonus marks in my 3rd year university course is enough motivation to at least give it a shot, So, here I am! 24 years old, slacker at heart, who enjoys video games almost as much as hearing the sound of my own voice.

Perhaps, if I'm overcome with an overwhelming desire to share my musings with the world, I will update this page. But please, don't hold your breath. You'll probably die long before anything significant comes out of this page.