As I walked home from my local video game shop with Final Fantasy XI in-hand, I knew little of what I was getting myself into. My surplus of experience with the Final Fantasy franchise yet lack of playtime in MMOs meant that I had a poor understanding of what was to come.
Within days I was hooked.
The year was 2003. November 2003 to be exact. I entered the world of Vana'diel just four weeks after its debut in the West, following 17 months of exclusivity in Japan.
Having originally launched on May 16th, 2002, as of today Final Fantasy XIV is officially 15 years of age. Unlike many of its MMO brethren it's still playable on official servers, a testament to its charisma and post-launch support.
Final Fantasy XI is one of the most impactful games I've ever played, going as far as considering it one of my top 10 favorite games of all-time. In celebration of its anniversary, here's a look at why it was so special.
Job System: What You Worked Toward
When I first started Final Fantasy XI it had a healthy mix of jobs to choose from, including those offered by the base game as well as its first expansion, Rise of the Zilart. Each of these were familiar to those who played prior Final Fantasy games, particularly Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy V, with choices such as Red Mage, Thief, and Monk.
At first, you only had access to six of these choices. Though, upon reaching level 30 for your first time you would gain access to "advanced jobs", including the likes of the powerful Ninja and Dragoon.
Like many players, early on I was attracted to the Grim Reaper-esque scythe and evil purple and black armor of the Dark Knight. I would level up to 30 as a Warrior before quickly focusing all my attention on the Dark Knight, eventually reaching level 43 before realizing that its overpopularity was proving disastrous for my party opportunities.
I soon rerolled to a Black Mage, and never looked back.
I found myself in-love with the magical capabilities of the Black Mage, tasked with collecting scrolls to unlock new magics and learning magic burst timings during my journey. The class was highly sought after due to its high damage capabilities from range in addition to its ability to serve in a utility role. I would find groups with ease.
This significant gameplay transition on a single character was uncharacteristic of MMOs at the time, a characteristic that still holds true. Having access to every job without rerolling an all-new character was a godsend both for play value and, to some degree, immersion.
But more than anything what worked so well was how each job had personality. Playing a White Mage was completely different from playing a Bard, Paladin, or anything else for that matter. Your skill set would change, you would gain access to exclusive quests, and in many cases even unlock new gameplay opportunities, such as how the Ranger could scan for enemies nearby or scavenge materials from the ground. You would even have access to exclusive armors that established pride among the community. There was a job for everyone, they just had to search for it.
Story Emphasis: What Kept You Going
Once upon a time MMOs actually had a story to tell, or at least in a way that went beyond the "here, read this wall of text" like most games in the genre do today.
Similar to the mainline Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy XI substantiated its world and the characters that inhabited it with cutscenes that utilized animation and camera work to actively present the narrative, rather than requiring you to imagine what interactions look like while staring at a motionless screen.
There were deep and intricate stories told across several campaigns. Major characters such as Shantotto, Prishe, Tenzen, and many others would earn the adoration of players.
One such character was Maat, an old man with incredible martial art skills living out the rest of his days in the Grand Duchy of Jeuno. Players first encounter him at level 50, at which point he challenges them with several difficult fetch quests in order to unlock new level caps. Later, he is faced in the game's notorious Limit Break (a.k.a Genkai) battle. Every veteran player knows Maat well, a quality that can't be the said of many MMO characters.
There's a valid reason you don't see much active storytelling in MMOs: cutscenes are time consuming for both the player and developer. The cutscene-heavy presentation of Final Fantasy XI was a potential deal-breaker for players who just wanted to get out into the world and level, making it a risky proposition for Square Enix. However, those who gave it time and consideration were rewarded with a memorable story that gave them more than just levels to look forward to. Ultimately, this investment would pay off as it played into one of Final Fantasy XI's best qualities.
This story would be expanded through expansions, and there were plenty of side adventures to partake in. Although themes would vary, the emphasis of story would never go away no matter how much the game aged.
A Beautiful Presentation: Why You Cared About It
In 2002, when EverQuest and Ragnarok Online were the status quo, Final Fantasy XI arrived to show what a AAA MMO was capable of. Its presentation was meticulously polished, from its memorable environments ranging from the sandy beaches of Valkurm Dunes to the magical structures of Sky, in addition to an attractive user interface. Many of its races, and even enemy designs, were iconic, to a point where they would transition to a new generation in Final Fantasy XIV a decade later.
Perhaps the most important element of the presentation were the armor and weapon designs. The variety of equippable items signified progression, and made players who have traveled far stand out. This was best demonstrated with the artifact sets, of which two were available for each class. For many players, the impressiveness of these sets served as a reason to work hard and prosper, if only to one day be able to proudly walk through the streets of Jeuno.
Most surprisingly, Final Fantasy XI was originally console exclusive; its PC version wouldn't make an appearance until half a year later. But you wouldn't be able to tell it had hardware limitations by screenshots alone.
The visual experience was backed by a powerful soundtrack that was equally familiar and new. Works such as the main theme and Ronfaure would prove nostalgia-inducing many years later, while the Battle Theme remains one of the best of the series.
While screenshots of other turn of the century MMOs haven't aged well, Final Fantasy XI still puts its charm on full display.
Community: Why You Weren't Alone
During the early years of MMOs, community played a huge role in the experience. Dungeon finders wouldn't be popularized until 2009 with World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, so if you wanted to complete group content you had to find people to play with.
Final Fantasy XI was a particularly extreme case of community playing a huge role in an MMO experience. Not only was most of its content nearly impossible to complete alone, but you couldn't even level without other people, or at least not at a reasonable rate.
The community of Final Fantasy XI was tight-nit and in most cases extremely friendly. Anyone who dared stray into toxic territory would find themselves outcast from the community, unable to progress.
Thus, players would create guilds, called "Linkshells", and band together with other inhabitants of Vana'diel. While this is nothing extraordinary for an MMO, the amount of interpersonal interaction was remarkable during Final Fantasy XI's prime. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing groups leveling together, communicating on when to pull enemies to the group and execute certain skills. You didn't feel like you were playing with robots; these were clearly real players who wanted to explore and progress as much as you did.
Consequently, there were some sad stories to tell when players began quitting, effectively leaving behind a world full of friends and fellow adventurers, such as what was chronicled in the popular "A Little FFXI Story" video.
To this day, you can still find a sizable community of players who actively engage with one another.
I've played countless games during my life, but I can say with certainty that only a small fraction of them had a lasting impact on me, Final Fantasy XI being one of them.
As Final Fantasy XI turns 15 years of age, I can't help but look back and wonder how time has passed so quickly. My adventures in Vana'diel still feel like yesterday, as if I was just unlocking a new magic scroll in Jeuno for my first time
Today, I consider myself a huge fan of MMOs, and it all began in 2003.
Happy anniversary, Final Fantasy XI.