Consoles and the online Final Fantasy

You could be forgiven for losing faith in the prospect of Final Fantasy XIV ever coming out for the PlayStation 3. Yes, it had been a promised platform, but it wouldn’t be the first MMO to abandon console promises. Heck, the development team is still working on fulfilling some of the promises made by the original team; it could be forgiven for putting that one on the back burner.

But it’s a real thing. We’ve seen the screenshots, and we know that two years after the game’s initial launch, we will finally get to play around in Eorzea on our televisions. (The “we” in this case refers to fellow PS3 owners.) This is sort of a mixed blessing.

This isn’t a column about console gaming compared to PC gaming; I really don’t care which platform you prefer, and it’s also not the point. This is a column about the fact that Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV are both going to be console games as well as computer games, and that introduces some interesting wrinkles.

This is what I'm basing the number on, if you're wondering.Interface woes

I’ve mentioned in the past how Final Fantasy XI has suffered in no small part because it’s tied to the PlayStation 2. This isn’t because the PlayStation 2 is a bad console, nor is it because you can’t upgrade the hardware in a PS2 without bringing it out of designer specifications. No, a lot of that weakness is because of the limitations to what you can do with a console game, starting with the interface.

One of the complaints that many people had about FFXIV right from the start was that its interface seemed to assume you had a controller hooked up to your computer. I think it was just a case of an interface designed to serve both computer and console and succeeding at neither, but there was definitely an element of making sure that things were streamlined to the point that your controller could do all the work. Some tasks, like switching pages on your action bars, almost seem as if they’d be easier with a controller than a keyboard.

There’s no real way around this. Yes, you can hook a keyboard up to a console or a controller up to a computer, but in the latter case, you’re adding a third peripheral when your hands are designed to handle two at most. In the former case, you’re adding an accessory to your console for use in an exceptionally small number of games, possibly just the one.

FFXI was designed from the start for play on consoles, which is part of the reason the game has menu-based combat and an inelegant control schematic. FFXIV clearly has caved to some of the ideas of more modern design, but therein lies part of the problem. A glance at the interface screenshots suggests you’ve got about 16 action buttons on speed-dial. That means that fights have to be designed around playing with 16 abilities on tap because otherwise console players literally won’t be able to compete.

You can say that it doesn’t affect you on the PC, but part of the reason FFXIV was designed that way was to ensure that console and PC players were on equal footing for using abilities.

Then you’ve got issues like modifiable interfaces (a plus, but difficult on a console and yet expected if it’s in the PC version) and display issues (televisions don’t have the resolution of a good monitor, even HD ones), and just playing the game on two systems concurrently becomes a hassle. A manageable one, yes, but one that requires at least twice as much testing. Every update for FFXI has to work on three completely separate systems, and that adds more steps to the testing process and more failure points into an already complex system.

That would mean a lot more if the listed parties didn't consistently fail to deliver any sort of protection.

A new order

Introducing the console to the FFXIV playerbase is going to bring some development issues. But it also has at least one major benefit for the game as a whole: making the relaunch stick.

I’ve talked for a while about how FFXIV needs to win the hearts and minds of many people who have sworn off the game for good. There are a lot of people who have never played the game, but the title is still synonymous with all manner of negative adjectives. It takes some sort of external force to counteract that, something like the launch of the game on a new platform with a whole lot of new and pretty-looking screenshots. You know, the sort of relaunch that really crystalizes the idea that this is a completely new game.

Right now, fantasy games of the sprawling baroque style have a bit of traction with the console audience. And while there are other MMOs available for the PlayStation 3, they’re currently all rather niche titles that don’t have the brand name visibility of a new Final Fantasy game. Even though the console version alone won’t repopulate the game, it will bring in new people, including those who had never paid much attention to it prior to the launch on the console.

That may mean driving more development toward appealing to console players, which means a trend toward more flexible gameplay, but I don’t consider that a bad thing. And it’s going to mean that there will be a lot of extra hurdles for the development team to jump through with the addition of the new platform, but that was always going to be the case.