Here we are on the other side of the Stormblood Early Access and the official release of the game, and what an interesting release it has been! The best we can hope for with any expansion release is a smooth, pleasant experience with minimal queue times and a redundancy of bugs of any kind. Unfortunately, the somewhat majority of feelings gauged from the community (via social media/in-game) has been that of annoyance, frustration and in some cases outright anger. Though obviously in most cases the cries of anger often resonate more loudly than those of happiness and praise. For my experience alone I have been experiencing both sides of the coin. Many players will have had both negative and positive experiences with this launch yet I can only cover my own in this article with the odd reference to those of the wider world.
When the Stormblood release date was announced I knew that I would be in a bit of a bind due to my holiday being booked only three days after Early Access began. My mission was to cram in as much content over the three days as possible, allocating about 15 hours a day to the new exploration cause. As with any expansion release I expected there to be teething problems such as queues and disconnects, surely nothing could beat the horrors of the Warlords of Draenor release, as much as I enjoyed sitting on a bugged gryphon above my garrison with thousands of others!
However, the stress levels were increased by such a tight time frame to work with. Sadly, out of the 45 hours allocated to gameplay, I managed to achieve a total of 9 hours in-game, with 5 hours of that in the queue for Raubahn Savage (we'll come to this later)! The remainder of my time was spent in queues for the server, followed by disconnects which would throw you right back to the beginning of the queue at least 1k further along the line than when you originally entered. On average 1k = 1 hour wait time. Morning queues, before 10 am GMT seemed rather pleasant yet redundant when disconnecting only 5 minutes after entering the game. On Sunday 19th my entire day was spent in perpetual loop of the queue and either getting a lobby error at about 100 players 'in front' or entering the game to disconnect 5 minutes later. My main goals were to get through the first zone, see the first dungeon and visit the first city. Luckily I managed all three.
On day 1 of playing I had the launcher up and ready from 9 am. At 10 am I waited 15 minutes to scoot through a 2.6k queue. During this expansion, SE have seemed to implement a tighter AFK timer (which many were unaware of and came back to their PC after lunch to a disconnect screen). The player base wised up to this and took to leaving their characters running into a wall or sitting with an open a crafting window, which of course resulted in longer wait times for those trying to enter the game. SE soon cottoned on to this and the route to save the disconnect began to fail as new measures were implemented. So don't forget to keep an eye on your monitor if you need a break!
FFXIV differs from many MMOs in the fact that there are no stress test weekends and no closed or open Beta to allow them to test things out beforehand. This is great in some manners as it adds to content suspense and excitement, even though we are shown certain upcoming changes through the Live Letters. However, the events of the launch have left a lot of players with a very bitter taste in their mouth. Early access should be just that, access to playable content. Not an informal stress test option.
We were updated frequently on Twitter, yet updates that didn't say much more than a sincere apology from the development team and information that most were already aware of from the very first tweet. It's wonderful that FFXIV has so many avid players wanting to partake in the exciting new content, but we also have to remember that these players pay not only a subscription, but have paid for the game as well. Regardless of product, if you pay for something and the product doesn't work as intended, it shines a very sad light on the product and company as a whole.
Saying this, I know many people from my local gaming community and the wider Twitter community that had a far better experience and their first impressions of Stormblood were wonderful.
I tried very hard to avoid any form of spoilers for Stormblood, even avoiding class changes and the Launch trailer. I find it a pleasant change that SE keep so much information close to their chests right up until release.
Our Stormblood journey begins on the other side of Baelsar’s Wall in The Fringes. There is a new UI MSQ directional helper to make sure you don't lose track of your main direction, handy! This little addition ensures a smooth transition into the Stormblood questline and keeps you on track if you ever get a little confused.
When I think 'Ala Mhigo', I think dusty desert, yet here even the dusty desert is something special. It's not a hot, sandy wasteland. We have a transition from shaded forest to arid dusty soil plains with the dust even swirling about us in the air to give added atmosphere. The landscape is accentuated with vast lakes and portions of forest patched with wildflowers. They've managed to create a zone that isn't just a different Thanalan or Gridania mixed together, the zone is something new and visually beautiful. You will not feel let down by the music either. The zone score is absolutely beautiful as can be expected.
The quests seemed somewhat uneventful, most being runaround to fetch items or assisting the NPCs with menial tasks. Sadly midway through this, you hit a roadblock when it seems things are about to get interesting!
The "Best Served with Cold Steel" duty (also known as 'Raubahn Savage') created a lot of waves, a lot of very bad, angry, rage inducing waves. There were some very creative memes springing up all over Twitter for this duty.
Image courtesy of FFXIV Forum User Elkanah
For me, it was a very negative event which will be remembered as something very positive and once again proved just how special the Final Fantasy XIV community is, and how awesome the Odin server is.
At this stage of the questline there is a two-pronged branch. Early in the day I went to see Raubahn (The Fringes) but the duty threw an error, so I wandered off down the second branch to complete this line with a mind to come back to the Cold Steel duty later. The second branch included a trip to the beautiful zone called The Peaks with the inclusion of ziggurats, sand, and ancient ruins. Needless to say, SE have stayed true to the rest of the game and created stunning vistas along with an exceptional score for the zone.
This route entailed some dark implications during some quest text and a rather unpleasant cutscene, which seemed surprising after such a short time into the game, which I won't elaborate on to avoid spoilers. Having completed my visit there, with only side quests left to do, I made my way back to Raubahn.
Upon my return, I knew something was wrong. The 'shout' text was completely spamming my chat box out, there were people swarming everywhere. It was the absolute epitome of the term 'bottleneck'. As I began to read the chat log I realized something odd was happening, something I'd never seen in over a decade of MMO gaming. There was talk of a 'line' and as I moved further away from Raubahn to the south I saw a very, very long orderly line of players patiently waiting their turn to enter the duty.
The line was so long that only some sections would load at a time. Obviously, there were those that just dived straight in at the front, but the fact that people really were lining up was just so unique and ..I can't think of a better word than utterly lovely. Having seen this I couldn't just say 'whatever' and hop in at the front (not that this would have worked!) so I took my place in the line and waited..and waited.. When the shout text said the queue was 4 hours long I thought that they were joking, but no, it was nearly 5 hours before I reached clicking distance of Raubahn. During this time I had friends come to visit me in the queue, made friends with people either side of me, and had lots of interaction with the wider FFXIV community via Twitter. I was even being sent screenshots from players on other servers of their queues (or scrums).
Various people yelled that this was idiotic and wouldn’t work, but like I said earlier there are two sides of the coin! Those that chose not to queue were well within their rights to do so, we shouldn’t be having to do any of this in the first place! I really do believe this community is amazing. The fact that people didn't have to queue, that they weren't forced into this and yet countless many did. This is something very special. Some may brand it stupidity but I say it's forethought and kindness. I've never seen a community reaction for something along the lines of this in any other game to date.
Unfortunately, as well-meaning as the line may have been, the process did not end up working for the majority as I believe three worlds are sharing the same instance server and there were just too many people. A Straw Poll done at the time showed that only about 30% were passing this point (both at 11k votes and 17k votes).
Having reached the front there was still a scrum of goodness knows how many players and having clicked repeatedly on Raubahn for 45 minutes (yes, I wish to skip the cutscene!) I finally gave up. I even went back a few hours later for 20 minutes with no luck. With my MSQ route firmly halted I spent some time unlocking the two new classes, Red Mage and Samurai. Let's not forget that now we can swim, so of course, I may have spent some time splashing about in the Costa del Sol to de-stress!
It wasn't until I went back to visit him at 4:45 am I managed to pass the insurmountable beast which was the entry to the duty, only to be faced with a rather uninspiring duty! To have a boundary gate such as this so early in the expansion (even prior to the first dungeon) seems a little blind and unfair to those who spend so long stuck behind queues, disconnects and then inaccessible content due to the server capacity. It feels a little bit like airlines overbooking seats on flights. Yes, I believe they added server migration incentives and a new world, but players should not have to move homes to play. We saw that they added more zone instances so perhaps expanding on this for duties is the way forward for the future. I would like to say that once past Raubahn Savage you are free to glide through the content at your own pace, but unfortunately there was a second hurdle to overcome. His son.
I am one of the lucky ones that didn’t get gated behind this, although making my way to it resulted in about 12 hours of disconnects and queuing. This is the second duty “In Crimson it Began” or otherwise known as 'Pipin Savage'.
As opposed to the first duty, this is much more hard hitting content and I was taken aback by such an emotional cutscene so early in the game (slight Vault flashbacks but not that extreme). I spent the first section of it hoping that I wouldn’t mess up and die (not realizing I could kill the swords, Ilberd taught me nothing!). I clawed through to be rewarded with said cutscene and the ability to continue on my way.
SE know how many subscriptions they have, they also know how many people have bought the game and will be accessing Early Access. To my mind, there's little excuse to have so much disruption, aside from 'sloppy' planning, or unwillingness to shell out on technology that would only be required for the launch period. I do have faith that SE will put in some sort of measure to reimburse players affected by this madness as they have done in the past.
Sadly the troubles for SE do not stop there as now we have reached the end of Early Access, many players are complaining of full game codes not functioning and hard copies not being received. It is truly saddening to see such a traumatic start to the expansion and have some potentially beautiful content tainted by the technical events of Early Access.
I know that I've spent a vast chunk of this article talking about one particular event, but I feel it's an important one which is testament to the integrity of the players of the game. I’d have loved to have talked more on the first dungeon and city and the new Group Pose features but this will have to wait until next article! I’m thankful to say I managed to get through to visit the stunning Kugane and the very awesomely eerie first dungeon within the time frame that I had!
I love this game, I love the developers and how much they care about the content they are providing. However, there seems to be a disconnect somewhere along the line between the care for produced content and care for the customer base, even though it’s clear that the developers do listen to the player base in terms of content feedback.