For this assignment, I have chosen to analyze the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORPG) known as Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) and determine a few of the ways in which its players use it to construct identities and represent themselves through its characters (player-made and otherwise) and the jobs they can have. Additionally, I will look at how the game’s economy is defined and how players also use it to define and represent themselves. Initially released under Square Enix producer Hiromichi Tanaka, it is the second online entry in Square Enix’s list of Final Fantasy games, and the races used by the player characters are based on the ones from the first online entry known as Final Fantasy XI (Square Enix, 2002), with their names having been changed while their appearances were also improved. Though the game has a complicated history, its first version was released in September 2010 (Sainsbury, 2015) and, despite being visually beautiful, boasted several gameplay problems that caused not just lag but also frustration for players, such as menus that took too long to navigate, a convoluted battle system that made every action take a long time to execute, and a lack of variety to combat-based content, to name a few.
A game reborn
The game’s many issues were such that they could not be fully resolved by having a new team take over its production and releasing patches that addressed several of the problems, so the new producer, Naoki Yoshida, shut down the servers in November 2012 and released the second version of this game in August 2013 (Sainsbury, 2015). This was accomplished through the use of a CGI (computer-generated imagery) trailer in which the world as players knew it was essentially destroyed, paving the way for Yoshida’s team to rework the physical environment and maps of most areas.
Where the original version received an overwhelmingly negative response, this second version garnered widespread approval. Though this new version, subtitled A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013), was released a few years ago, it continues to add new expansions to its universe, with Heavensward (Square Enix, 2015) being the most recent one and Stormblood (Square Enix, 2017a) scheduled for release on June 20th 2017. Several factors combine to make Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) a consistently relevant and popular game even today: each new expansion, like A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013), is released in Japan, North America and Europe with the language options of Japanese, English, French and German available to all versions; its massive player base was last reported to be over six million players (Square Enix, 2017c); and it has a long list of awards to its name, including a Guinness World Record for “Most prolific role playing game” (Stephenson, 2017, para. 2). As such, the game fits Storey’s (2009) first definition of popular culture as ‘well liked by many people’ (p. 5).
Gaming as a social activity
A great part of the appeal of MMORPGs is their social aspect: they allow people to connect to each other through the Internet over a common interest. As humans are naturally social creatures, they have a need to interact with others around them, and this is no different in the gaming world where players rely on others for information and friendship (Grooten & Kowert, 2015). In fact, because of its online nature, online gaming allows people to interactively connect to literally anyone in ways that may not otherwise be possible for them, whether it be because of time constraints, distance, disability or simple social discomfort. Games may also allow people to temporarily escape difficult life situations such as isolation or abuse. By its very nature as a MMORPG, this game promotes collaboration and teamwork, and as such most content, such as dungeons, cannot be completed alone. There are five Data Centers spread out between Japan, Europe and North America, and each one features several servers. The Duty Finder feature, which allows a player to queue for any given duty, automatically matches up the player with others from servers across the same Data Center, giving each player the option to select which other languages they wish to queue up with. Further, the roulettes of this feature each contain a number of dungeons with a particular level or difficulty requirement: this ensures that new players who are queueing up a single duty have the chance to get help in completing it from other players, and grants those veteran players who use the roulette a special bonus for queueing it up.
There is also a wide variety of player guilds (known as Free Companies) that one can join upon reaching a certain level and where they may ask for help from their guildmates, and players are also able to add other people on their server to their friend list. On the other hand, the quests of the game mostly promote independence by making effective use of signifiers (Chandler, 2016): for example, a meteor icon above an NPC’s (Non-Player Character) head denotes a quest from the game’s main storyline, a glowing spot on the ground can be clicked on to pick up an item, and a quest icon on a player’s mini-map tells them where they have to go in order to progress with their quest. Of course, if any of these signifiers are unclear to the player, they can ask for help not only from the people they know, but also from strangers through the use of chat filters such as Shout which make a player’s message visible to every other player on the same map. The game is also very customer-focused and community-oriented in other ways: Yoshida, the producer and director, regularly stays in touch with the player base through the official forums, often attends player conventions, and is known to give several interviews. Through the forums, he also hosts contests and “question and answer” sessions in addition to regularly teasing information about upcoming content or merchandise through “Letters from the Producer”, recorded videos that are shortly thereafter translated and made into transcripts, with all of this content being shared on the official forums (Square Enix, 2017b).
Gaming as identity forming
As Grooten and Kowert (2015) point out, games allow people to create virtual identities in a digital world through their avatar, which can become part of the process of forming their own identity as the character may represent the player’s personality. The way the player’s character(s) is(are) programmed in Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010) allows for a wide variety of customization options to create one (or several) character(s) that they feel best represent(s) them: different face types with further customization options for specific parts such as the eyes, nose and mouth, a wide variety of skintones, hair colors and hair styles, and even the option to have hair highlights and heterochromia (two different-colored eyes). Part of this customization also includes choosing a voice for their character although this character remains a mute, and the voice is only heard during combat or when the character is performing some emoted actions. The fact that the character has no voice in which to speak and is only occasionally given textual choices during pre-rendered cutscenes is supposed to allow the player to feel more immersed in the game, the idea being that they can imagine themselves in the character’s shoes. When the character’s lips are seen to be moving but the player is not given any textual options, it allows for the creativity of the player to imagine how their character might be talking in their own voice and what they might be saying.
In Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010), the player’s character is an adventurer and the player chooses what city-state they will begin in by choosing which starting combat class to assign to them: for instance, an Archer will be sent to the forest town of Gridania. The player’s starting class generally leads them to a job specialization at higher levels; however, one of the advantages of this game is that it does not force the player into a single combat role per character. As of level ten, the player can, by equipping a different class or job’s weapon, immediately switch to that job or class. This type of flexibility is more suited to the modern gamer because it allows them to become fully invested in a single character without being limited by what they can try. The beginning of the story is all about learning about your first class, and the game forces you to familiarize yourself with it to a certain extent by not unlocking the ability to use other classes until you reach level ten. Its focus at this point is also not on the story: it progresses slowly and most of your questing consists of either fetching items for an NPC or killing a certain number of one or several weak monsters. In that way, the game eases the player into becoming familiar with its controls, features, and environment (namely, the local area maps) while also granting new combat skills every few levels to maintain player interest and motivation in leveling a class. The level of flexibility granted by the many classes that a player can choose to level allows them to adopt several identities on one character as the mood strikes them.
As McCloud (1994) points out, drawing an object in a realistic fashion serves to objectify it and emphasize its difference from the player. In the case of Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix, 2010), the weapons and armors are drawn somewhat realistically to reflect the themes that they are supposed to represent, with a variety of details and accessories often accentuating their otherness from the player. Given that the contests are often about designing a new outfit or hairstyle and that the winners get their entries made into content, this game can in a way be said to fit the fourth definition of popular culture outlined by Storey (2009): ‘culture actually made by the people for themselves’ (p. 5), especially since Yoshida has been known to consider and even acquiesce to certain player requests. As he is himself a gamer, Yoshida understands the importance of listening to player feedback in helping to improve the game in order to both retain their current players and attract new ones (Lin, 2015). This was what led him to develop an open relationship with players by keeping them regularly updated on the status of the game through the forums (Square Enix, 2017b). As a result, players can develop positive relationships with both other players and the team producing the game that they play.
Another way in which players can define their identity, as well as their level of power and influence in the game, is through the game’s economy. Apart from the monthly subscription fee required to progress past a certain level and keep up with the game’s updates, Square Enix does not require players to spend any additional real money. Instead, there is a Market Board through which players can sell their tradable goods to other players. Some of the jobs one’s character can choose to level up are classified as crafters, called Disciples of the Hand, and gatherers, called Disciples of the Land. The better one’s equipment is, the more easily the player can craft or items of high quality. In addition, there are certain items that are locked to the casual crafter and gatherer: to unlock them, players need to obtain specific “tomes” that in turn require a high level of skill in crafting or gathering. The materials unlocked by these “tomes” thus become rare commodities (Coleman & Dyer-Witheford, 2007) that players can sell at prices of their choosing if demand is high enough, which allows them to control the market on these items. As a result, some players become quite rich and control the game’s economy. In addition, the game has housing districts with a limited number of plots that feature three different plot sizes: small, medium and large. Each district can only have a certain number of each plot size. As demand for these is high, players are quick to grab any that become available and, if they resell, can set expensive prices in order to turn a profit, making houses another valuable commodity of this game (Coleman & Dyer-Witheford, 2007). Players can define their identity and how they represent themselves through the crafter(s) and/or gatherer(s) they choose to level up, and also through the styles and sizes that they choose for their houses, including the types of decorations they choose to showcase.
Final Fantasy XIV (2010) presents players with the opportunity to interact with peers, thus learning to work collaboratively and build friendships and partnerships. It also stimulates their creativity and imagination by allowing them to choose both their character’s appearance and the role that they will play, which in turn lets them create and present to others an identity of their choosing. Its in-game economy contributes to the identity that they choose to present to other players by giving them a certain level of power over the player market through the crafter and gatherer jobs that they can specialize in. Players are allowed the freedom to express themselves in a variety of ways that encourage them to define their own journey throughout the game.
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