My history with the massively multiplayer genre doesn't go as far back as that Neverwinter Nights thing AOL put out back in 1991, or even as far as the EverQuest addiction that still plagues a couple hundred thousand people. Still, my background with these types of games is storied. I guess you could say that my gateway drug wasn't a game at all, but instead an anime called .hack//SIGN that ran for a while on Cartoon Network. From there I moved on to the games based on the series -- starting with .hack//INFECTION -- and found myself enamored with the entire concept. I tried to dive into EverQuest from there, but my crummy computer at the time just wasn't up to snuff for such a graphically intensive game.
Unable to reach into these persistent online worlds, I sated myself with Diablo II instead while also frequenting the forums of the Ziff Davis website that pre-dated 1UP (Gamers.com). Folks there were on about this Korean MMO that was in closed beta at the time, and I kept checking in to see what they had to rave about almost every day. The game finally hit open beta, but I was on dial-up internet. I couldn't download a 700 megabyte (!!) game client without clogging the phone lines for something like two or three days. When launch time rolled around, a friend of mine ventured to his aunt and uncle's house with a blank disk, and a few hours later I signed into my first massively multiplayer game: Ragnarok Online.
Ragnarok Online was something of an oddity for its time. Before it, games like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot required players to enter into large parties and grind endlessly on monster after monster to level up. It was an arbitrary way to gain experience, but the one thing "forced grouping" instilled into games as a concept was a real and true sense of community. Ragnarok didn't have any of the forced grouping stuff, but it retained a healthy and friendly atmosphere. The genre was still in its infancy, a real niche, and Ragnarok Online wasn't exactly well known at the time. A niche of a niche I suppose you could say. The masses weren't flocking to Rune-Midgard, and so things remained civil. Even with the implementation of guild wars down the road into release, there wasn't too much butt-hurtedness going on between people. Things were good, and it was easy to make a lot of friends.
I abandoned Ragnarok Online in 2004 with the PlayStation 2 release of Final Fantasy XI. I know a lot of you just rolled your eyes and groaned, but hey, I'm going to shock you and say that it remains my favorite MMO of all time. Why? Final Fantasy XI was difficult. Many of the high level objectives were downright punishing at times, and much like EverQuest you were forced into a group of around six people to progress to any point past level 15 or so. This probably doesn't sound like fun, but it really was. Going up against a harrowing task with some friends and coming away from it victorious was so rewarding, and the game's focus on group dynamics made the forced grouping aspect worth it. The best part was, as I mentioned earlier for this kind of game, the amazing community. Final Fantasy XI is still filled with interesting, knowledgeable, and kind people. The tough learning curve drives out the trolls pretty quickly, and those that stick around are very light on the condescension. No one wants to be shunned by a server's community in a game completely centered around it.
And that's the problem I've developed with the World of Warcraft generation of massively multiplayer games. They're extremely casual friendly, which is awesome, but at the same time players are driven to accomplish only for themselves. The majority of veterans drive themselves from level 1 to 80 without ever sending or accepting a group invite. Crowds of people gather around quest mob spawns and compete for kills rather than bothering to band together for it. Trolls pollute every chat channel, and once they've exhausted the server's ignore lists, they transfer away or get paid name changes to start all over again. The random dungeon finder promotes anti-social behavior, making it nearly impossible to make new friends in the game without dedicating some serious time to a hardcore guild.
It's for that reason that I'm so looking forward to Final Fantasy XIV. Square Enix isn't shooting for the Warcraft crowd -- instead, they want the FFXI crowd. They want the folks that love to socialize and band together for challenges, level cap or not. They want the American and the Japanese to transcend language and cultural barriers to co-communicate just like in their previous online title. They want to inspire that sense of camaraderie that's been lost with the dawn of the solo-centric MMO.
I'm planning on starting a weekly Final Fantasy XIV blog when my collector's edition arrives on September 22, similar to what 1UP's James Mielke did with My Life in Vana'diel. I want to share my adventures with the Giant Bomb community, and maybe even reel a few of you in! I'm so looking forward to this game, and I hope to see you there once it releases.
I'm keeping the point of this post pretty short; I'm afraid if I go on to say too much more I'm afraid that I might break the non-disclosure agreement imposed by Square. But there's reason to be excited, and the closing weeks of September just can't come quickly enough.