Stop Having Fun Time: The FFXI “Limit Break”

So one of the games that I’ve been playing through recently is the very old, very clunky, very creaky MMO, Final Fantasy XI. It’s fair to ask “Oh, God, WHY?!” Well, shortly, the series is one of my big biases — I will forgive a lot of shoddy work to play a game with that title on it. You’ll probably see that particular brand pop up a lot on here, it’s a lot of what I play. But just because I’ll forgive it doesn’t mean I won’t notice it, and in the effort of becoming a game designer, it’ll be useful to look through and get more specific as to why some FF experiences can be really bad experiences. And to call out where, in a field of mediocrity, it might actually sometimes create pretty good experiences.

Of course, it’s easier to see the failures than to note the successes, so that’s where I’m starting, and I’m starting with a situation I encountered yesterday: I hit the level cap in FFXI. And the evils of the experience reared their head.

So, levelling in FFXI, especially with all the little bonuses the game currently has, can be very fast. There’s a lot of ways to earn bonus XP from killing monsters, and with the Trust system giving you a party of reliable NPCs to call upon, you don’t even need other people to tackle some of the harder challenges.

It is because it is so fast that I realized, at a certain point, that I had been fighting a lot of critters that gave me XP and…I haven’t levelled up in a while. I check my XP, and, sure enough, it’s one point away from a level. Go and kill another mob and…huh. Still not levelled. What gives?

I had come up against a wall. Nothing in the game indicated to me that I had hit this wall, except for the fact that I had wasted a lot of time just killing things that weren’t actually giving me XP. There was no alert, no warning, no icon that I had reached a level cap, I just *stopped levelling*. There wasn’t any indication of what to do now.

So I went to the wiki. It was a Guide Dang It moment, a time in which the only way to know what was going on was to consult sources outside of the game itself. That counts as a design failure in my book. I had to stop playing the game to go look up what the heck happened. I seriously thought something was bugged for a few minutes.

Gaidz you gaiz!
Like this, but online.

Oh, no, it turns out that level 50 is one of the game’s level caps, and that to exceed these level caps I need to talk to this arbitrary NPC and do an arbitrary quest.

All right, fine. I then embark on the quest! I am eager to get this over with and get back to the storyline plot (which, it must be said, I abandoned in the midst of one of its climaxes, totally ruining the tension of the experience). I embark on this quest only to find that it is essentially one of the game’s few “stealth missions,” mandated by having enemies in the area that are too tough for me to fight. It’s enforced, effectively, by Beef Gates.

…of course I only realize this after dying four of five times to those Beef Gates, which allows me the fun an excitement of a 10-minute clip-clop session as I return to the scene of my last demise to try and try again….

Typically, of course, the reaction to Beef Gates is to gain levels until you can bypass them, but here? I’m not allowed to gain levels. Huh. Must be a stealth quest.

The “stealth missions” themselves are problematic in that they essentially require a handful of specific spells and knowledge of how the monsters detect you — more Guide Dang It, more frustration.

This was really frustrating. I had wasted a lot of time, a lot of effort, and had the boring experience of running down the same corridoors time and time again.

Okay, but what was the Intent here?

Bad design doesn’t just come from a void, right? There are reasons people paid good money to do this did it in a way that doesn’t work for the player. They didn’t WANT me to get frustrated. What did they want? What would be the constructive purpose of the choices they made, and how could they have done it better?

So, the first problem I hit on was that there were “level caps” that you can exceed via a quest in the first place. Hard level caps are often necessary just from a processing/math standpoint, and “soft” level caps like this can be a useful way to gate off certain content — a “you must be this hardcore to pass” sign. In this case, the problem was that they were gating off core story content, and, in fact, put the cap smack dab in the middle of one of the narrative’s act transitions. Given the beasts you have to fight in the storyline missions, they could have been roughly aware of the minimum level you needed to be at to be at this point in the story, and so they should have been aware that a hard level cap was going to come just as stuff got real.

The design lesson from that?

Lesson 1 – Place Your Walls With Pacing In Mind

Like this, only they were bats and they murdered me.

If they had just bumped up the cap a few levels, I wouldn’t have hit it during a climax of the story, and brought that tension to a screeching halt. In fact, if they would’ve placed the cap AFTER the level you are expected to complete the story at, I wouldn’t have had to stop the narrative at all to do this little side-quest.

The second problem was that hitting this wall was invisible to me — I kept trying to earn XP where I couldn’t. One way to solve this that would’ve been fairly simple to implement was to take the part of code that printed out the XP earned from a fight and, if you were at the level cap, to output a message to the player like “You have reached the maximum XP allowed. To gain more, you must visit Maat (Location).” An even BETTER way would have been to put an icon on your XP bar or status bar when you hit level 49 with a character who hasn’t unlocked those higher levels. Related, the quest necessary to break this limit was opaque unless I google’d it. If you want someone to go complete your quest, make it clear that it’s necessary.

The design lesson here?

Lesson 2 – If You Don’t Tell Players, They Won’t Know

If the game had told me what to do to break that limit, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.

Now we get to the quest itself, and the Beef Gates that I must overcome to accomplish it. The game also wasn’t clear here, but I think the bigger offense here is the fact that to get past level 50, your character needs stealth abilities that don’t actually make up a significant part of gameplay before then. Invisible, Deodorize, Sneak…these obscure little spells aren’t even spells you can be sure a player HAS by the time they reach level 50.

The lesson here?

Lesson 3 – Don’t Require Optional Abilities

Why would this be a stealth section? Why would ANY of this be a stealth section?

Like all lessons, I’m sure there’s times when you’d want to break them, but these three elements would’ve vastly improved on the experience I had.