How to design by constraint
« Come on, another article on this game so soon? » I know I already talked about FINAL FANTASY XIV. At length, as a matter of fact. But I talked about it from a narrative perspective, and there’s something more to say about it. About its game design, really. We need to talk about Eureka.
Tomestones, or The Art of Wasting Time on the Eventually Futile
Each expansion that rolls around in FINAL FANTASY XIV brings its new « Relic Weapon » quest line. A Realm Reborn had Zodiac Weapons, and Heavensward had Anima Weapons. Stormblood is a bit special, in that it has Eureka. Relic weapons are essentially the very top of the crop when it comes to weaponry in FINAL FANTASY XIV, and since it’s a game where the main gameplay loop is to always try and update your current gear to increase your damage and « item level » ever so slightly, Relic weapons are hard to ignore, but they are also extremely long and arduous to get. That is, at least until a new expansion rolls around and all this gear becomes outdated.
I can fairly easily buy item level 440 gear with Allagan Tomestones of Goetia — Allagan Tomestones are, in-lore, XIV‘s Ancient high-tech civilisation equivalent of USB keys, and are highly sought after by scholars and collectors, which is why they’re used as an exclusive currency to get better weapons — and even get item level (henceforth « ilvl ») 460 gear with Tomestones of Phantasmagoria (though a player can only earn 450 of these weekly, not enough for most pieces of gear), possibly upgrading it into 470 gear with Manufactured Coins obtained weekly from the Alliance Raid, the Copied Factory. Eureka’s very best sits neatly at 405, fifteen item levels above the maximum gear that could be obtained in tomestones at the end of Stormblood. In other words: by the very nature of MMORPGs, the gear is made artifically scarce while it is relevant, and will be absolutely trivial to obtain once it is no longer, making the initial process of getting them seem futile: what the player is really doing is not just trying to get better gear, but getting good gear while it is still relevant. After all, when the next expansion rolls around, I’ll be able to get much better gear than I currently have with Tomestones of Poetics, which are the most common and easiest to get. This is obviously done to spread out the content — or lack thereof — throughout the span of several months and give the players something to do while waiting for a new update. Not the most engaging gameplay loop, and game director Naoki Yoshida actively advises players to unsubscribe if they don’t have anything to do, before the quest for gear becomes a second work shift. Alternatively, you can also clear savage, and have the very best gear of the patch within the first two weeks, then pretty much be done for the patch.
Video games have a term for doing an action so repeatedly it becomes an annoyance, a tedious chore. It is called the « grind, » believed to be named so after the colourful image of gears grinding against each other after decaying over time. Pretty much everything about MMOs these days amount to a grind, which is why the players usually have to take it upon themselves to spread it out as thin as they can. Unfortunately, the grind is almost always the most efficient way to obtain certain rewards fast. Naturally, nothing is safe from the grind: even the most fun gameplay loop becomes a grind when it is endlessly repeated and with little variation.
Death by Glamour
Now why would I talk about Eureka, then, if it is no longer relevant? Glamour, that’s why. FINAL FANTASY XIV has a system present in most other MMORPGs, being glamour, something World of Warcraft calls transmogrification. In essence, due to the nature of gear in these games being highly sought after slight level increases, one piece at a time, the player’s appearance would look very disparate: blatantly egregious with ilvl 450 Edengate gear dropped from the Eden’s Gate raids, and ilvl 460 Deepshadow gear bought in Tomestones of Phantasmagoria. The former has a Saintly white aesthetic, while the latter is black and red, with a dark gritty medieval fantasy aspect. Glamour lets players give a piece of gear the appearance of another piece of gear.
A common joke amidst the player-base is to claim that « glamour is the real endgame, » in other words, that style and fashion is more important than anything else. While of course, this isn’t entirely true (the main thing that keeps people coming are the raids) the fact that every skin (skins are level 1 gear that give very little battle benefits besides their appearance, the only purpose of which is to be glamoured) that can be crafted by players and sold on the market board can sell for upwards of nine million gils — three times the price of a small housing plot — before dropping down when it’s no longer as rare suggests that people are willing to go that far for good looks. I am much the same, as the main reason I level all the jobs is that more jobs = more outfits to create. I greatly enjoy the player expression and creative challenge that represents creating an outfit, and have very strong opinions about people who think fighting Gods in a swimsuit counts as original glamour. I even submitted a few of my designs to Eorzea Collection, a website cataloguing player-submitted glamours. In fact, my Gunbreaker « Bounty Hunter » look, blatantly inspired by the game Bloodborne, even got featured, and shared on the website’s Instagram page.
So, why go through the irrelevant Eureka, then? Glamour. Specifically, because I wasn’t satisfied with the looks of my Paladin. I wanted it to be dressed in immaculate white, and none of my armors really fit the idea. Luckily, going around town lets you see a lot of other players’ glamours, and even has a « Try On » feature, that lets you, as the name suggests, open a window that displays the gear on you — and matched with the rest of your appearance — in which you can preview the way it colours with any dye. Good news was, I had found my immaculate white. Bad news was, it was the excruciatingly hard-to-get end-of-Eureka Elemental Armor of Fending +1. The only better gear in Eureka was the +2 version, and that was a reward for completing the Baldesion Arsenal, which is so difficult it even comes with two warnings about how difficult it is before the player can unlock it. Luckily, the +1 version was more than enough for my purposes.
The Learning Curve…or wall, really
So what did it take me to get my armor? Four weeks, and three million gils — which is a small amount of money, but still the price of a small housing plot. The problem was, Eureka is very different from all the previous relics. While Zodiac weapons — although I’ve never actually went through a Zodiac relic quest because I don’t like their looks — and Anima weapons use content already present in the game, such as running through dungeons, and having you purchase materials for their creation using Tomestones, Eureka is almost its own entire game within XIV. It is named after Eureka, the Forbidden Land, from Final Fantasy III, and like in that game, is an absurdly hard zone after the end of the game. That is about where the similarities stop, as the design of Eureka is instead extremely inspired by Square Enix’s previous MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI. Eureka is an instanciated zone, meaning a place different from the default server and world that players go through, and you have to deliberately enter Eureka through its entrance point in Kugane. Worse yet, Eureka has its own leveling system, Elemental levels — though luckily they are shared between Jobs — meaning you start at level one, and have to level up all over again. It is split into four zones, each released every 4.x5 patch or so since 4.25, and each named after the elemental Aether present in abundance in the zone; Anemos is a mountain struck by strong winds, Pagos is enclosed in ice, Pyros would be a volcano if it were a mountain, and Hydatos is a gigantic lake — which is by far the least egregious zone to navigate, as it has nearly no elevation.
Each zone has its own level cap — 20, 35, 50, and 60 — and enemies in the zone can go as far as five to ten levels above that cap. More importantly, level stats are exponential, meaning a player will absolutely squash an enemy a few levels below them, but struggle against an enemy even one level above them. To complement this, Eureka has something called the Magia board, filled with something called Magicites. A player can carry five magicites at a time, and the Magia board is a wheel of every element present, which by default, can only carry five of these magicites — though they can be upgraded in Hydatos with elements that are absurdly hard to get as well. It’s essentially a rock-paper-scissors-type mini-game, where each enemy has an element displayed above their head, and you can choose to either place your elements so that you can damage them more, or so that you can take less damage from their hits; which becomes absolutely quintessential when fighting enemies above your level, and eases the process up a lot when hunting lower-levelled enemies.
Unfortunately, this is not exactly a great piece of design, as all it amounts to is the extra step of clicking the enemy’s name, and selecting the « Set Magia aspect to offensive/defensive » option in the list, and more than that, having to go back to the Magia melder located in the base camp to recharge the Aether — the Magia board has five charges of Magia Aether, and every time the board’s positions are changed, one is consumed, the board can no longer be spun at zero; and while they slowly recharge over time, returning to the Magia melder lets you recharge all of them instantly.
I forgot to mention one thing: Eureka shouldn’t have taken me four weeks. It should have taken me four times that amount. The first time I went into Eureka, was upon release, in 4.25. I unlocked Anemos, and went in for about an afternoon. Back then, Pagos, Pyros, and Hydatos weren’t even a thing. I thought the instance had its charm but I wasn’t compelled to stay there very long. Then, I went again, after completing 5.0. That also meant Eurekan gear was no longer relevant, and when I was going in then, it was for the sole reason of glamour. I hit a wall. Unlike at launch in 4.25, I was pretty much alone in the instance, and soon realized that Eureka was designed to punish solo play. I was level 8 out of the 20 in Anemos, and trying to kill enemy chains to get to level 9 was so slow and arduous that I gave up almost instantly, thinking it would be nearly impossible. Eureka was not future-proofed by its very design incentivising group play: once the content was no longer relevant, it would simply become impossible to progress in it altogether, because there was little interest for players to even try. Thankfully, Square Enix probably knew that, and since it didn’t matter all that much whether gear in Eureka was scarce anymore or not, they adjusted Eureka in 5.1 to be much easier, by giving the players the Echo, a 20% increase in maximum health, damage dealt, and healing capability, making solo combat possible, and allowing players to use their mounts before they have completed the zone’s final quest at its maximum level. Before then, players in Anemos had to rely on local teleportation which could only be achieved from one portal to another, get there on foot, or ask the help of another player who could use their mount and had multiple seats. Due to the sheer size of each region, it was usually not a preferable solution.
When getting a single half level would have taken me three hours in the previous state of Eureka, I could now go from 8 to 12 in that same time-span, and thus I seriously began my Eurekan Expedition.
A Twist of FATE
What also changed, was notorious monster spawning rates. In Eureka, the way to improve gear is by giving Gerolt, the blacksmith, certain ingredients. They usually are the zone’s crystals and Protean crystals — Anemos Crystals and Protean Crystals for Anemos, Pagos Crystals and Frosted Protean Crystals for Pagos; Pyros onwards replaced Protean crystals with another type of progression — and the final upgrade requires ingredients that can only be obtained from killing the zone’s final « boss, » — or alternatively, by buying them with absurd amounts of the zone’s crystals — Pazuzu’s feathers for Anemos, Louhi’s ice for Pagos, Penthesilea’s flames for Pyros, and Provenance Watcher’s crystalline scales for Hydatos. All of these bosses are Notorious Monsters, borrowing a term directly from Final Fantasy XI — in fact, Provenance Watcher is borrowed directly from the latter.
Notorious Monsters are at the core of Eureka, utilising XIV‘s otherwise neglected FATE (Full Active Time Event) system that has combat encounters with their own set of rules and goals happen seamlessly in the world, without — at least, it appears this way, though this isn’t true — the need for players to trigger them or launch an instance. The most the main game does with it are hidden FATEs that don’t appear on the map (the actual in-game map, not the environment; FATEs are usually displayed with a large blue circle) unless they come close to it, usually these are enormous scale battles that award players who complete them special glamour pieces or other collectibles. These are some of the most fun moments of XIV, as their « hidden » nature means the lucky player who stumbles across Odin, Ixion, Archaeotania, Formidable, or Tamamo-no-Gozen has to warn other players through in-game chat of their location so as to have enough of an army to take them down.
Odin is particularly amusing, because it is absurdly hard to take down and while it is one of the rare FATEs that doesn’t require the player to synchronise their level to it, Odin is in-lore whoever picked up Zantetsuken, his cursed sword, and has become Odin himself due to the corrupting nature of the weapon. Therefore, while not actually taking over a player, Odin displays the name, and has the level of the last player who killed him. Zantetsuken is also the name of the final move he launches when his health is low, and has the effect, if he can finish it before dying, of instantly killing anyone within the area and instantly failing the FATE, leaving a trail of dead bodies, sometimes even unsuspecting and unfortunate players who weren’t even fighting him, due to the sheer range of Zantetsuken exceeding even the FATE area.
While none of the FATEs are hidden in Eureka, the Notorious Monster concept runs with the idea of the grand-scale FATEs: they are about as large-scale as it gets, or at least they were before the 5.1 adjustments, and the rewards are much more enticing than traditional hunting — killing chains of monsters in Eureka triggers a chain bonus, which increases the percentage of experience gained, and guarantees a protean crystal drop every ten monsters killed, resetting every thirty monsters — as they are the only ones that give Anemos/Pagos/Pyros/Hydatos crystals.
Originally, as players didn’t know Eureka well enough the main gameplay was exactly that, chain killing monsters and rushing to the Notorious Monster when it appeared to take part in the fight. However, they soon enough found that the spawn conditions weren’t random at all. Some Notorious Monsters (without fail, all of the four bosses) could only spawn under certain Weathers (before then, Weather in XIV was purely for flair and lore, as most boss fights had their own Weather, such as Odin’s Tension, or even Shadowbringers having « Everlasting Light » in every zone with a Lightwarden) and once they were spawned once, they had a 120 minutes cooldown timer during which they couldn’t spawn again. However, while the number pre-5.1 was absurd, killing enough of a specific monster would essentially guarantee a Notorious Monster. Therefore, the traditional hunt party was dead, and so was the « FATE train » born — named a train, after the amusing display of players all swarming towards one location in a neat line of mounts. The FATE train essentially amounted to optimising the Eureka experience by going through the Notorious Monsters in order, spawning them by exterminating a sufficient number the adequate monster, killing them, then moving to the next. Usually, optimising the way to play a game takes the fun out of it, but not so in Eureka.
The Ride Never Ends
Even if the FATE train is, ironically, the players taking matters into their own hands, it is the most fun Eureka gets, and where Square’s game design shines the most. I forgot to mention something important about Eureka, which exists nowhere else in XIV, but is a mechanic directly borrowed from Final Fantasy XI. Above elemental level 5, when the player dies and decides to respawn at a safe zone, they lose a third of a level’s worth of experience and can even level down. The only way to prevent that is to be revived by another player. What this means is that if a player gets careless, and is swarmed by monsters, and dies, the only way for them not to lose what amounted to at least five or six hours of progress was to use the area’s « shout » chat seen by all players and ask for someone to come raise them. Usually, this entailed going out of your way to go and revive a player completely opposite your objective. Nothing really forced you to do so, but I’ve found that players were kind enough to do. However, I understand exactly what Square was trying to do here, why lower-leveled players couldn’t use their mounts, why teleportation portals were gated behind level progression and why everything in Eureka is so shrouded in mystery, requiring you to discuss with other players more advanced: it forced players to care for one another. In other words: designing by constraint. Because the players faced insurmountable odds and the game seemed to be against them, they had no choice but to cooperate.
I have a, in hindsight, fond memory of thinking that a small group of nine, which is exactly the number we were in the instance, could take down the fearsome Louhi, final boss of Pagos. Not only couldn’t we, and all but one of us died, but it was at the tail end of my timer — meaning my time in the expedition was nearing its end, and once it reached zero, I would simply be booted from the instance — and if I was dead while that happened, it would automatically lose my experience and level. Our survivor, who ran away when things began to turn sour went and picked a healer class — changing jobs can only be done at the safe boot camp in Eureka — to revive us. We began devising a crazy plan to help one another out of Louhi’s Chamber of Death, prioritising the few of us who barely had time left on their timer. Reviving a player does take some time, after all, but the more healers alive, the more people can be revived at a time. This plan was, unfortunately, not accounting for the fact that we got Louhi to half of his health, and that was when he began spawning minions to aid him. While Louhi remains neutral unless attacked, his minions attack as soon as someone enters the FATE. The range being quite large, there was simply no way for our saviour to resurrect someone at a safe distance, and we all lost our level. However, what would have happened if our plan did work out? I think it would have been one of my fondest memories of the game, and the fact that strategising how to carry out that plan in the first place was so much fun, I almost had no regrets about losing a little level.
We’re all in this together
The culmination of that cooperative spirit was a tool; a website external to the game. The Eureka tracker. Not only did the website propose a map of each area, and other useful information — namely, what Eureka deliberately kept from the player to force them to communicate — it let players track FATE spawns to know when each became available again. I’ve come to call the one running the tracker the « conductor, » as while they had the responsibility of tracking down to the minute when which FATE was spawned — though they could share the tracker ID for other players to see, and the password for other players to help them — they often took it upon themselves to decide for the train where everyone was going next. I’ve been in trains so efficient that the entirety of the instance was exterminated clean of Notorious Monsters, with sometimes thirty minutes of down time before a new one was available. With the fact that the most popular four-seater mount is the Regalia, Final Fantasy XV‘s car, modeled after an Audi R8, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine Eureka as a club of spoiled jocks going on a wildlife safari/murderous rampage.
Running the train myself once, was a lot of fun. Largely because, never seen before in this proportion, it was a very social experience, and we would often end up chatting in shout chat about things unrelated to Eureka, and really just chill out, which was a stark contrast from the usually high-intensity, focused gameplay of raids and other such encounters, which end as soon as there’s nothing to kill, and don’t exactly give players time for idle chatter. Another appealing aspect is Eureka’s non-committal nature: unlike dungeons or raids, which punish the player for leaving before the group is done, I can drop in and out of Eureka whensoever I want, join a group and leave it whensoever I want, and still progress towards something, which ironically makes it the most casual XIV experience despite being by nature one of the artificially hardest and longest.
Eureka added one of its best features with Logos actions. Essentially, by obtaining « crystalized memories » in the form of Logograms, the player could use the Logos melder to mix and match them into useable Logos actions, for example, the ability to raise or heal players on a non-healer job. What was a little more contentious was that in order to unlock the Pyros and Hydatos steps of the armor — specifically, the armor I wanted — the player had to craft at least once each of the 56 Logos actions. Due to the scarcity of some Logograms, I had to buy them for the three million gil aforementioned, largely because I didn’t want to spend time farming them.
Surprisingly, after Eureka was done, I didn’t hate it as much as I did at first. I enjoyed getting there at my pace, and that piece of armor felt even better after having it. I unlocked the Baldesion Arsenal — though I doubt I will ever complete it, and even kept the beautiful helmet, dyed black, for my Dark Knight — I had themed my Paladin after my shield, which has flowers on it, and therefore wanted to have pink flowers in my hair, which meant I couldn’t have both flowers and helmet.
Eureka shines by what it doesn’t let the player do. Because it is such a difficult thing to go through, it feels better once you do succeed — the Dark Souls of FINAL FANTASY XIV, if you will. This is, in a sense, design by constraint — I would have called it « adversity » but I feel like this is more fitting a descriptor for designing things because you can’t realistically design them another way, rather than artificially imposing adversity on your players — and because Eureka is cruel to be kind, it might certainly earn the ire of the players as it did to me first, and it certainly isn’t the experience for everyone, but I’ve learned to appreciate it for what it is. At least until the Shadowbringers iteration on relic weapons releases, and I absolutely loathe it.