Patches

The State of Raiding in FFXIV: Difficulty Adjustments

This post is the continuation of my thoughts on raiding in FFXIV that I started last week. This isn’t normally the kind of topic I cover, but given how important it is to the game as a whole, I’ve been thinking about it a lot now that we know the final tier of Alexander is going to be easier than both Gordias and Midas Savage. Last week, I pulled together some of the numbers from the unofficial census to discuss, in broad strokes, how the raiding population has declined in Heavensward.

The good news is that although the raiding scene was smaller than it ever had been during the Gordias tier, it did grow to a degree during the Midas one, thanks primarily to the less stringent difficulty of the expansion’s second raid tier. Not all is well, though: the raiding population is still noticeably smaller than it has been in the past, and raiders are continuing to congregate on a small handful of the game’s servers (for the NA population, that’s primarily Gilgamesh). On its face, that centralization of the raiding population might not seem like a bad thing, but it contributes, in the long term, to more of the game’s servers feeling “dead,” since an active raid scene tends to be one of the pillars of a server’s community and economy. Since the most populated servers aren’t open for character creation at all times, this creates a problem for new players, too, who might be interested in raiding but for whom the game suggests servers without anything even resembling a raid scene.

The development team has, figuratively, staunched the bleed of the server’s raiding players, but the blow the scene took in Gordias is still very much visible. We know the team isn’t happy with that situation, and according to Yoshida, “For the next one we’re trying to make it easier because what we want to do is bring more people in to challenge this raid content” (source). Whether or not this is a good idea depends on a lot of things, though, and not all players are happy with the idea of making the game easier (this also extends to the current plans of the team to make the classes easier in terms of execution in 4.0).

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From the ground up, FFXIV is probably one of the most “casual friendly” MMOs on the market today. Its design followed in the footsteps of World of Warcraft: the lion’s share of leveling can be done solo and instanced content is serviced primarily by a matchmaking system (the Duty Finder). FFXIV content is, by and large, also much easier than content was or is in WoW, with most dungeons and trials having relatively lax gear and execution requirements. Even one of the game’s raid types (the 24-man ones, like Weeping City) is tuned to largely be approachable to the average player.

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For those players who enjoy challenging content, FFXIV offers very little: per raid tier, there are four bosses in the “hardcore” raid and usually two extreme Primal battles, separated by about three and a half months, on average. That’s six new fights every six to seven months, depending on how the patch schedule shakes out for any given tier. By contrast, a game like WoW (which is, like it or not, the most directly comparable to FFXIV) has often had raid tiers that have more than twice as many bosses (of course, WoW doesn’t have as many content updates aimed at non-raiders, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has a lot more on offer for players who like to raid). Throw in the fact that FFXIV’s Extreme primals are almost never truly relevant in an end-game sense to successful raiders (they offer rewards that are designed not for end-goals but stop-gaps, to make raiding easier for those who are struggling), and FFXIV’s raiding endgame looks pretty threadbare, doesn’t it?

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And if the difficulty is lowered too much, FFXIV could basically be in a state where it doesn’t really have relevant raid endgame at all for the players who want one, as the challenge is a very important component of what “hardcore” raiders want. Savage is currently the only relevant challenging content for the sorts of players who tackle Mythic raiding (the highest difficulty stuff) in WoW that FFXIV has, and changes to the difficulty are probably going to result in those players not really having anything to really satisfy their desire for content that really pushes their limits. It’s likely that, at least in the short term of 3.4, FFXIV isn’t really going to have content tuned for that portion of the playerbase, and losing one’s preferred style of content is never going to be a good thing.

There are also a number of other solutions to the problem of the shrinking raiding population. A third difficulty of Alexander (mirroring WoW, which has three difficulty tiers for each of its raids) is a common suggestion, and a related one would be creating more content in between Normal and Savage Alexander in terms of difficulty, whether that ends up being more EX Primals or takes some other form. It’s also commonly suggested that the Normal version of Alexander should be more difficult to some degree: if the difficulty gap between the two is smaller, the percentage of players who move from Normal into Savage raiding should be higher (though this one is complicated: increasing the difficulty of Normal would also mean that fewer players complete it, so any direct gains could be marginal). Another similar suggestion is to have two raiding tiers, the first of difficulty comparable to ARR’s Binding Coil and the second tuned more like the present Savage raids, and then, after the raid tier, introduce either a stripped down “story” mode for those who wish to experience the story, or allow for more generous Echo boosts to widen the number of players who can clear them. These potential solutions are by no means exhaustive, of course, but they’re some of the more commonly proposed ones.

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The trouble, though, comes down to this: at least in the short term, none of these solutions can be put into place realistically. It’s not a great secret that the FFXIV development team has limited resources with which to create content: going into Heavensward, the major patches moved from offering three new dungeons to only offering two to allow the team more freedom to create other types of content: it’s likely that our having two difficulties of Alexander at all is in part due to the loss of an additional dungeon per patch. We’re also at the tail end of the 3.x patch cycle, and major additions like a new difficulty aren’t likely to happen. And given that the present problem is that Alexander isn’t seeing enough players, making Normal more difficult isn’t likely to actually get more players raiding for 3.4, either.

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So, for Patch 3.4, I’m not sure what else the team can really do to grow the raiding population other than lowering difficulty. We already know that lowering difficulty increased participation in Midas Savage, and it’s likely that lowering difficulty yet again will have the same effect. I’m skeptical that it’s going to be enough, though: the timing is very bad for FFXIV right now to be trying to increase player engagement. Player migrations toward raid-centric servers may mean that it’s going to be too late for smaller servers whose raid communities didn’t recover during Midas. On top of that (and probably more importantly), WoW’s highly anticipated Legion expansion has only just launched, which is going to draw a lot of players away from XIV for at least the near future. Additionally, since WoW’s raiding endgame has had a much better structure for some time now (even if its content updates have been somewhat rare), it’s likely that some of FFXIV’s raiding population is going to stay there since the game does a better job of providing the endgame that they want.

Just how big is the demographic of players who are interested in raiding in FFXIV specifically (as opposed to another game like WoW) but haven’t been doing so who will perhaps be drawn back into (or indeed, drawn to for the first time) by a less difficult final tier for Alexander? That’s hard to say, and we probably won’t really have a sense of that until well into 3.4 itself. Were the WoW juggernaut not on the playing field right now, I’d say the lowered difficulty would undoubtedly result in a much healthier raid scene (with the potential for future changes to the overall endgame in 4.0 to help sustain and solidify that scene).

For now, we have to wait and see. Hopefully, the team strikes a good balance between challenge and approachability, laying the groundwork for an overall better raid structure in the game’s next expansion. We know the Normal and Savage split is here to stay (source) for the next expansion, but it’s definitely going to need some overall structural changes to succeed. The raiding endgame for Heavensward has simply not worked well to the game’s overall benefit. There are any number of changes that would be able to maintain the current structure, and tweaks in the difficulty of content are only one among those. Successful solutions are going to involve adjustments to difficulty, more content, changes to rewards, changes to classes themselves, and likely still other changes, too. Difficulty can’t be the only thing the team focuses on, but for 3.4, it’s the only thing they really have the opportunity to adjust.

Now, I’m going to get back to talking about pretty clothes—thanks for bearing with me on this digression! Wednesday is an important milestone for this blog: the 100th post! I’ll talk more about that in a couple of days, but the preview is that I’m really grateful for everyone who enjoys the site, and especially for those who “Like and Share” on Twitter and Facebook or even those who compliment the site in game!

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