Heavensward Retrospectives

Heavensward Retrospective: Exploratory Missions (The Diadem)


As we approach the final major patch of the 3.x, Heavensward series for Final Fantasy XIV (with just a few weeks to go before Patch 3.5 Part 2, if the team keeps to schedule), it’s really starting to sink in for me that we’re at “The End.” As the game’s first major expansion, Heavensward had a lot to live up to, and carried a pretty heavy burden, as far as solidifying the game’s foundation for the future goes, and now that it’s nearly over, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the expansion did well and what it didn’t. Sporadically over the next couple of months I’m going to collect some of my thoughts on various legs of the game. So far, I’ve rambled on about Anima Weapons; today, I’m going to try to say something coherent about the Diadem, from 3.1 to now (with a focus on the “Trials of the Fury” mode).


The Diadem swirls at the center of FFXIV’s latest controversy—one tumultuous enough that Yoshida headed off any questions about it at the PAX East Q&A panel by addressing it directly. Honestly, though, I don’t want to talk about the addition of i280 weapons (at least, not much). In the larger scope of things, they’re not going to matter in three months time (and if the situation remains stagnant that long—that is with no changes to the weapons themselves or something else, like a new Anima stage—I’ll be very surprised). I do want to talk about Diadem at large, though, and the place it could have filled in FFXIV’s endgame even as far back as 3.1, with the original implementation of Exploratory Missions.

For the most part, FFXIV has always seriously lacked much of a real “endgame” for players who don’t raid. Everyone has access to Tomestone gear, but it’s only raiders who have any real gear choices and a sense of progression. This was not true for the game’s first raid tier, which had end-game progression opportunities in the form of the original Relic Reborn quest, three tiered Hard Mode Primal battles, and three Extreme versions of the same trials, which had both top-level weapon rewards and top-level gear drops (accessories), affording so-called “midcore” players something more to do than just cap their weekly Tomestones.

Most of that disappeared with the raid tier beginning in Patch 2.2, and the only remnants real endgame activities for non-raiders have been the Zodiac/Anima questlines and Extreme Primals (but only one per patch, and they’ve never given top-quality rewards again) ever since. All other activities only provide sub-par gear and weapon rewards that are outstripped by Tomestone gear in all ways. FFXIV has a really strange problem wherein all content that it adds during any given raid tier is already obsolete: for every piece of gear or weapon available from say, a story mode raid, a 24-person raid, or an EX primal, there is a Tomestone equivalent that you’re probably already working toward, and since you don’t need any of that gear to get Tomestone gear (since you can get it from lowly-tuned 4-person dungeons, which themselves drop gear of such low item level I have begun to even question its inclusion), there’s not a lot of reason to really engage with most of the game’s content unless you’re really into gearing your alternate jobs.

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The addition of Diadem in Patch 3.1 brought FFXIV’s first attempt at a “third path” for end-game gearing, something almost wholly unprecedented for the game. Originally, the highest tier (there were three, with only the first two, which were useless, being anything approaching common) of Diadem gear was item level 210, the same level as the drops from Gordias (Savage) and upgraded Tomestones of Esoterics gear. The catch, then as now, was that the gear had random “aetherial” secondary statistics on top of the gear drops being fairly rare: in one two hour session of hard grinding on original Diadem’s “Dino Island,” I think the most i210 pieces I saw drop was three, with random stats, for a random job, and then dropped into the party loot pool (so unless you were lucky enough to be on the appropriate job for Need privileges, which wasn’t guaranteed, since switching jobs would sometimes be necessary as folks left the instance, you probably weren’t going to get it).

The content was also fairly difficult compared to other “casual” content like 4-person dungeons and 24-person raids, especially on Diadem’s Hard difficulty (accessible only by Free Company Airship and possessing the best drop rates for i210 gear). Monsters had high hit point totals (due to the fact that parties were 8-person, and there could be as many as 9 parties per Diadem instance), hit hard (demanding competent tanking and healing), and roaming or sometimes densely-packed enemies meant your party had to be aware of its surroundings. The content also required a lot of coordination both in the 8-person party itself, and the larger conglomeration of parties in the instance, to have real success against the rare Notorious Monster/Boss spawns. In a lot of ways, it was reminiscent of older-generation MMOs, with natural comparisons being drawn to the game to which FFXIV serves as a sort of sequel, FFXI, which had similar “open world, but instanced” content in its Dynamis and Abyssea zones, which served as pillars in that game’s endgame structure for their respective eras.

The content was also very poorly explained in the context of everything else in FFXIV: objectives were free-form and hardly communicated to the players (highlighted only in the Duty List, which most players are in the habit of filtering out mentally). On top of that, since Diadem was also intended not just as battle content but content for gatherers, every random-matched party inevitably contained players all with different reasons for queuing up, with some after quick Tomestones (since the objectives could be done rather swiftly), some wanting to grind for i210 pieces for the full 2 hour window, and others after highly sought after gathered materials. So, on top of the more difficult (again, relative to most of the game’s other content) enemies and several layers of the random number generator, your own party was often a barrier to getting that elusive, perfect i210 piece for your main job.

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Despite all of these walls between a given player and that potentially sweet loot, anger from the hardcore raiding community came swiftly, however: why would anyone do Gordias (which was, admittedly, crushingly difficult to the point of putting the game’s raid community in serious jeopardy) if they could get theoretical best gear from “casual” content? The argument was strange on its face: after all, why would anyone do Gordias if Tomestone gear could be upgraded to i210, just like Gordian armor? Why would anyone do Gordias when the Anima weapon was i210, just like the Gordian weapons? The answer, of course, was that no one was going to do Gordias—which had nothing to do with Tomestones or Anima weapons or random lucky drops from Diadem and everything to do with the fact that Gordias was an overtuned mess.

But the development team agreed (or at least, deferred to) with this criticism. Drop rates for gear from the Diadem were lowered (since they somehow missed the fact that the community always overwhelms content like this with large numbers of players when they can; c.f., FATEs and Hunts) harshly enough that the content died overnight. The special status of raid gear was maintained to please approximately 1% of FFXIV’s community, and what began as a much-needed attempt to expand the game’s endgame activities ended in disaster. The team tried to save the content in various ways, by first making it a means by which to gather materia (since starting in Patch 3.2, all gear now had materia slots on it) and then (bizarrely) adding i235 gear to it in Patch 3.4 (which, mind you, introduced i260 Scripture gear, i250 Alexandrian gear, and i250 crafted gear, on top of i225 gear available in dungeons). None of these efforts worked, and eventually, Diadem was removed from the game entirely so that it could be reworked.

And now, following last week’s release of Patch 3.55b, we have the Diadem reborn. The content has been improved in a lot of important ways: thanks to loot now being personalized, through a token system similar to Accursed Hoard from Palace of the Dead, you’re no longer fighting your own party for the loot you need. (This comes with the minor annoyance of getting a lot more gear you’re probably not going to lose, but it’s still overall an improvement). Gathering and “Hunting” instances for Diadem have been split into two separate queues, so everyone knows what they’re getting into when they queue (though, thanks to the NA localization team getting unnecessarily flowery with language as they often do, there have been some folks queuing for “Matron” Diadem with the intent of FATE farming). Objectives have been streamlined, complete with quest-like zone markers, and FATEs have replaced the old Diadem credit system (which was based on damage done, rather than enmity and generally punished smaller and lower-geared parties).

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Outside of those changes, the core of the content and its flow are more or less the same as they were back when Diadem was originally launched in 3.1. There are two major changes, though: the gear, rather than being max-level at i270, is i265, which means that, like everything outside of Tomestones and raid drops, the gear is mostly irrelevant to one’s main jobs. If the random aetherial stat rolls are especially kind, you can get something as good as or better than an i270 piece, but since those pieces have materia slots (which Didaem pieces don’t share), it’s incredibly unlikely that you’re going to get something that good.

Instead of the gear being the real carrot for the new Diadem, the content promises the incredibly slim chance that one can receive an i280 aetherial “Coven” weapon from the randomly-spawning Emergency Missions. The Missions cannot be forced spawned (in so far as we have been able to determine) and even if you stay for the entire hour of each Diadem queue (which isn’t exactly encouraged, since the content’s best rewards are otherwise frontloaded into the first half an hour since they come from the objectives), you’re not likely to see one often at all. Even if you do see one, completing the Emergency Mission requires several randomly-matched parties capable of organizing and working together (two necessities which do not seem to commonly align very often with Emergency Mission spawns as of writing). The drop rate for the weapons (which can be for any job, not specifically the one you’re on) seems to be low enough that no more than one person per successful Mission will get one, making them rather rare. Despite the higher Weapon Damage and hyperbole tossed about in FFXIV player communities, none of these weapons are by default better than i275 Anima or Alexandrian weapons: Coven weapons need at least moderately good stat rolls to compete, and impressively good rolls to noticeably surpass them.

Like Diadem 1.0, though, this new version suffers from a lack of focus and also what seems to be a recurring problem in which the development team can’t properly anticipate how players will approach content. The first half of every Exploratory Mission works fairly well, divided up into 2 or 3 assignments broken up by brief periods where you need to complete FATEs, defeat enemies, or find Buried Treasure Coffers to move on to the next stage of the assignment.

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The objectives are drawn from a random pool, which can include tasks like killing specific enemies (with potential secondary tasks like collecting enough of a key item drop or defeating them while affected by a key item debuff), gathering aspected crystals in a given location, or something of a tricky one where you have to deliver an egg on foot to a nearby location (with plenty of nasties in between you and the goal). The enemies involved are also chosen from a random pool and can range from swarms of soloable critters to more dangerous foes that you’re well advised to take on one at a time. Even the FATEs are to some degree randomized, with a number of them having set names and trappings but with random enemies included, meaning that you often have to approach them a bit differently each time.

After objectives are completed, the party is rewarded with a loot bag and then left to its own devices. The intended use of the remaining time seems to be for FATE farming (on lower, more dangerous and rewarding islands that become accessible once objectives are completed), which provides Damaged Lockboxes that can be turned in for more shots at aetherial gear. However, players can also at this point switch to gathering jobs, hunt for more Buried Treasure, or (commonly) either idle waiting for a potential Emergency Mission or leave and requeue (after the required 30 minute period is up) to do another set of objectives (which tends to be a much more efficient choice than FATE farming if one wants to farm i265 gear).The result is that while the new Diadem has much needed structure to start with, that focus dissipates as soon as the objectives are completed, and all of the original Diadem’s problems rear their ugly heads again. Since the i265 gear isn’t particularly useful for anyone who has already capped (or will soon cap) their main job’s gear, you’ll also get the occasional player who refuses to do anything (not even the objectives)—all they care about is Emergency Missions (and the i280 weapon), so they’ll just idle the entire time, which sometimes results in  animosity between players.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you probably can gather that I liked the original Diadem. I’m the sort of player who came to love MMORPGSs at the tail-end of the last generation, so I sort of have one foot on each side of the divide. There are things I like about older MMOs like FFXI and things I like about newer games that tend to follow trends originally set by World of Warcraft. The Diadem was (and largley, is) content the straddles the line between the two generations much as my own preferences do, and as such, I’ve been able to enjoy it in its new form just as much as I did in the old. I still have lots of uses for i265 gear since I do play all roles and most of the game’s classes but have largely retired from the game’s raid content, which I don’t enjoy. In particular, Diadem is a great way for me to gear up tanks and healers (not optimally, of course, but it’s better than i250 gear) and DPS classes like Bard and Machinist that I only play for a diversion on occasion. The i280 weapons are a curiosity to me, but they don’t much affect (or invalidate) the i275 Anima weapons I use for my main jobs, since they’re unbelievably rare and don’t outstrip them thanks to customizable stats—obviously, I’m not going to say no if I happen to get a nice Crit/Det weapon for Ninja, though!

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But even though I like Diadem (quite a bit, actually), it’s far from perfect. Much as was the case with Palace of the Dead when it was originally released, the content needs some refinement (probably less refinement than the original Diadem needed, though). Mainly, the back half of the “Diadem hour,” needs its incentives improved. Farming FATEs for lockboxes is rather inefficient—in the first 20-30 minutes spent completing objectives before you can leave and immediately requeue, you’ll typically earn 10 or 11 regular lockboxes (from the guaranteed loot and, often, at least one boss FATE) and enough damaged lockboxes to turn in for perhaps 1 or 2 more rolls on the lockbox roulette. That’s 12 or 13 shots at gear on average. If you then spend the remainder of your hour in the Diadem farming FATEs, you’ll probably end up with enough damaged lockboxes for 2 or 3 more rolls if your group is particularly efficient and perhaps 2 regular lockboxes (for 2 more rolls) if you get lucky with boss spawns. There really is no good reason to stay past that initial half an hour: since the Emergency Mission is just as likely to spawn in the first half an hour of your time as it is during the second half an hour, you might as well leave and requeue so you’re getting more out of that time spent.

Since players are free to gather or leave after objectives, I think the content could also use something more for players to do in smaller groups of 2 to 4 players (or even solo). Farming FATEs is already a poor use of time with a full party: smaller groups basically shouldn’t bother. Searching for Buried Treasure Coffers (which contain generous helpings of both lockboxes and damaged lockboxes) is fun (I’ve had fun making a mental log of spawn locations that I check after objectives), but the loot goes into the party pool, which means you may not end up with anything from it. They’re a bonus, of course, so that’s honestly all right, but they feel more like an excuse to kill time until you can leave and requeue than anything particularly worthwhile. Outside of the coffers, there is basically nothing worthwhile for non-gatherers to do after the initial objectives aside from wait for the Emergency Mission and hope for boss spawns (which are rare but pretty rewarding, if you’re after i265 gear).

I would suggest something be added to the handful of caves dotting the archipelago, which are inaccessible prior to the completion of objectives, but unlike the lower level islands, don’t even contain bosses, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, don’t seem to have Treasure Coffers, either. Some sort of bonus lockboxes should also probably be added to FATEs after the completion of objectives: either FATEs on the lower levels (and in the caves) should have their rewards increased, or perhaps evaluation rate (which does continue to increase after objectives behind the scenes) should come with more personal loot bags if you clear enough FATEs. Those are just ideas off the top of my head, of course, but there definitely needs to be something there to do if your group bails and you want to stick around. As of right now, there’s just really not.

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Diadem probably also needs some way to add members to your party inside the instance itself. With players encouraged to leave the instance after thirty minutes, Emergency Missions and boss FATEs that spawn after that point are often hugely lacking for players and difficult to complete as a result, but one thing that would help is for stranded players to be able to regroup, since party coordination is all but essential for most boss FATEs and straight up mandatory for the Emergency Mission.

Beyond those two problems, I wouldn’t make major changes for what the content’s meant to do. I do, though, think it should aim higher. A Diadem or (in the future) Eureka that provided a true end-game experience (including end-game, max-level rewards) for non-raiders would immeasurably improve the breadth of FFXIV’s scope at the level cap, and that’s something the game desperately  needs. It’s an unfortunate shame that the first real attempt to expand the game in a meaningful way was met with such scorn by a small fraction of the community (who are affected in no way by the existence of content outside of raids that has actual, relevant rewards, but complain anytime it appears anyway), and it’s an even greater shame that the developers caved to the overblown outrage and demoted what could have been flagship content for Heavensward to an idle curiosity.

In the lead-up to Heavensward, we were told that one of the goals for the expansion would be to expand the range of content at the level cap, and Exploratory Missions were meant to be the biggest example of that. Thanks to some design oversights and an extremely vocal minority who, in all honesty, is obsessed with gear-exclusivity, Diadem wasn’t able to ever live up to its potential. I still enjoy it, but when I reflect on it, there is an air of disappointment that I don’t think it will escape. My hope is that the team sticks to their guns on the i280 weapons this time, because if they do, it suggests they might be open to Stormblood’s Forbidden Land of Eureka becoming a real end-game zone for non-raiders the way Diadem was meant to be originally.

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For now, though, we’re left with Diadem 2.0, a decent attempt at a re-imagining of the content’s original purpose that works well in some areas and needs some tweaks to really shine. It’ll never truly be relevant in the way it needs to be (having done somewhere between 40 and 50 runs since patch day, I’ve not seen one piece of Scouting gear that is better than any of my i270 gear for Ninja), but there’s just enough incentive to keep me queuing for it.

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