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)