I love Final Fantasy XIV, something that comes as no surprise to regular readers of this column. But the game’s zone design is not its highlight. This is one of those design aspects that really bothered everyone in the world when the game launched, and it was for good cause, but I think there’s more to it than simply condemning the whole thing out of hand. There are several places where the zone design isn’t actually bad and in fact is downright brilliant.
You could say that it’s a variation on Final Fantasy XIV’s theme right there: brilliance mixed in with average and awfulness.
Obviously, zone design will be changing in a big way when version 2.0 launches, something that gets closer with each passing day. Still, it’s worth examining where we are now if for no other reason than to hopefully identify what a good revision would look like. This is not a horrible mess; this is a few great elements mixed in with several elements that just aren’t well thought out.
In a big country
One of the great problems that many MMO zones have is that there’s only space to hit most notes once or twice. A given zone has a waterfall, and that’s the only waterfall in the zone. A town has just enough room to house necessary buildings and nothing else, so your living quarters are straight out of luck. There’s a definite limit on assets and the space devoted to any given visual theme, something that weakens the verisimilitude of the game world.
FFXIV does not have that problem. The zones are huge, sprawling areas that give you a sense that these are, in fact, plausible regions of the world. Coerthas isn’t a small section of highlands but a series of mountains and plateaus and valleys that you can get lost in quite easily. Thanalan might be desolate, but there are bastions of life, caverns, tall cliffs and jagged drops, and even narrow walkways through the mesas. Each zone has space to stretch out and explore a given theme. What would be subdivided several times over in other games is a single region here, giving space to multiple small settlements and similar features over a large spread.
This goes for enemies as well. Sure, some things you see in most areas, such as marmots, but the scuttling insects and desert lizards of Thanalan don’t appear over in the Black Shroud. La Noscea’s sheep and sea creatures aren’t simply ported over to the high-level parts of Coerthas. Different beasts inhabit different regions, which helps give each individual area space to distinguish itself.
What’s awesome about this: Giving these zone concepts more space to breathe means that you really see a more realistic range of environments. Thanalan isn’t just a desert; it’s a desert that fits into the overall shape of the continent, with more water near the shoreline and more arid parts as you veer closer to Mor Dhona. There are a lot of neat corners of the environment, places seemingly designed just to be beautiful or stark or isolating, and it works really well. Even the layout is different depending on the area; Gridania has its narrow passages through the trees, while Thanalan has sprawling open regions.
What could be improved: The problem isn’t that these zones are huge and awesome. The problem is that they’re filled with more or less nothing. Outside of the aetheryte crystals at launch, there was nothing to do but look around for the heck of it. No reason was given for you to venture into more dangerous areas, and in many cases, you’re still not given much motivation to venture off the beaten path and into strange new territories. For all the grand attention to detail, a huge number of aetheryte nodes and crystals are just there for no purpose whatsoever.
You can say that these were footholds for future content, which is plausible, but the problem remains that the zones were made to be incredibly huge and then were filled up with nothing. As much as I love having a wide area that feels like a real place, there’s no real point if you’re not going to use most of it. It’s like setting up a canvas to paint and then only using one corner.
To anyone accustomed to getting from place to place in Final Fantasy XI, the maps of FFXIV are far more friendly to players. You can easily teleport about to fixed points, and getting a chocobo to ride along isn’t very difficult either. Most underground areas are filled with enemies in the same level band as well, thereby freeing you from having large chunks of the present zone you can’t access due to aggressive enemies. And there are still places that are hard to get to precisely because of this, so some of the flavor of FFXIV’s predecessor remains.
What’s awesome about this: Getting places is never a huge problem for the player, but it’s still complicated. You have to get somewhere before you can teleport there, and chocobos are not easy to come by for the general populace, which explains how isolated locations remain isolated. It strikes a balance between easier transit and the wilderness effect of Final Fantasy XI that I mentioned in the last column.
What could be improved: All of this evaporates if you run out of anima, unfortunately. Suddenly, getting places is once again an enormous pain, especially when you’re getting to regions that don’t make your life easy in the first place (Mor Dhona springs to mind). The fact that there’s no way to refresh anima makes transport still periodically dicey, which is odd when the game as a whole handles it so well.
Big and empty
The whole idea of having these enormous sprawling zones was really cool, but unfortunately the game didn’t wind up doing much with that design choice. I hope that there are still traces of that in 2.0, but I have a feeling that we’ll be looking at zones much closer to those in FFXI — very good, but not these sprawling places with absolutely enormous borders. Oh well.