WoW Realm Pops

Cause I’m a numbers guy.

This isn’t a comparions, just some analytics triggered by Bel’s recent post.  Data points are taken from WoWProgress, since the previous wowrealmpop was apparently sold.  Only for US servers to simplify things.  These are not distinct data points, only indicative.  It’s based on active characters, not players.  Still, the ratios help.  Alliance is listed before Horde for alphabetical purposes.

A few notes to start though.  When WoW launched, it had a tight focus on the Alliance vs. Horde conflict – made sense as it was a followup to Warcraft 3.  The world was more or less split in the middle, with spots in the mid 30s where both factions started meeting each other.  I won’t go into why PvP didn’t work as planned, as that’s a book’s worth of musings.  I can say that expansions alternated between the factions teaming up, and then breaking up. Feels more like a rom-com in that sense.  BfA isn’t any different – it started as a conflict and it’s now in group-hug mode.

Dev choices over the years have broken down these faction barriers, so that the world has been “shared” since MoP.  WoD is a slight deviation, given the 2 faction specific zones, but it also kicked off with a faction war…  At the game stands today, the faction split is a mechanical one.  People can’t group together cross-faction, or effect trade (the AH does work).  Aside from that, the factions are cosmetic and story based,

Why does any of that matter?  Because in early WoW factions meant something game-impacting, while today it only impacts the players you can play with.  In open world content (yes, that existed), you’d be fighting against the other faction for the same resources and no way to really communicate about it.   Nowdays, it’s about server population balances.  If you want to actually see other people and want to play Horde, you’re not going to roll on Stormrage.

Curious Data Points

Onto the stats

  • There are ~505,000 characters.  220k are Alliance (44%) and 285k are Horde (56%)
  • There are 120 servers.  The average would be 4,200 characters per servers.  The median is 2,100 due to overloaded servers
  • The highest pop servers are, with an Alliance / Horde % ratio:
    • Stormrage (PvE) – 26,000 (97%/3%)
    • Area52 (PvE) – 24,000 (1%/99%)
    • Illidan (PvP) – 22,000 (2%/98%)
    • Sargeras (PvP) – 18,000 (94%/6%)
    • Thrall (PvE) – 17,000 (3%/97%)
  • The lowest realms are all connected and around 1,000 characters each.  Except Tol Barrad (PvP) with 548 characters (62%/38%), and Garrosh, which has 864 characters (34%/66%).
  • In general, if a server has ~1,000 characters, it is a connected realm.  The connections are meant to balance the faction ratios.
  • The top 10 servers in population account for 16% of Alliance and 22% of Horde
    • 50% of the Alliance is spread in the top 21 servers
    • 50% of the Horde is spread in the top 14 servers
  • The largest imbalances, for non-connected servers
    • Alliance (all above 90%)
      • Stormrage (PvE) – 97%/3%
      • Proudmoore (PvE) – 94%/6%
      • Sargeras (PvP)– 94%/6%
      • Frostmourne (PvP) – 93%/7%
      • Kel’Thuzad (PvP) – 91%/9%
    • Horde (there are 12 above 90%)
      • Mal’Ganis (PvP) – 0%/100%
      • Area 52 (PvE) – 1%/99%
      • Azralon (PvP) – 2%/98%
      • Illidan (PvP) – 2%/98%
      • Barthilas (PvP) – 2%/98%

Analysis

While not in the list above, WoWProgress lists server ranks in terms of raiding progress.  If you value progression raiding, you do not want to be on a connected server, and you want to be on a faction-friendly server (e.g. don’t roll Alliance on Illidan).

PvE servers tend to favor Alliance, while PvP servers tend to favor Horde.  Racial abilities are the main argument for this items being created, and even if they were removed entirely tomorrow, there are few drivers that would make a dent in this balance.  BfA’s daily quests have highlighted this fact (zone zerging).

PvP servers that have large imbalances as effectively PvE servers.  Which is nearly half of all of the PvP servers.

Character volume has a direct impact on the economics of a server, in both the material aspects (gold/auction house) and players to play with.  If you want to play the auction house to trade for WoW tokens, you want to play on a relatively high pop realm and on the appropriate faction.  The highest pop servers are a double-edged sword in that regard, as you will be competing against many more people for the same resources.

High pop realms are more likely to have stability issues due to the server architecture.  These will hit during expansion launched, large patches, and on weekly maintenance cycles.

New players are better off taking a connected realm, as there’s a better balance of factions and players.  I don’t think there are too many people left on the planet who a) have not played WoW, b) don’t know someone who has played WoW, and c) would start playing WoW cold without knowing someone already playing.

Guilds are the lifeblood of any server.  They have players who are active in group content, and in the markets.  There are multiple examples of servers “dying” due to guild migrations.  This bit of info is a main reason for connected servers.

Connected realms are for all purposes but name, merged servers.  The names have not been merged in order to avoid having to rename thousands of existing characters.

Conclusion

Blizzard’s main tool to keep populations stable is to charge people to move.  For individuals, this isn’t too hefty a price (1 character per faction is sufficient, as you really only need to migrate gold, capped at 1 million).

While the data indicates that people can roll on the “wrong server”, the reality is the number of people impacted by this is minuscule.  That said, WoW could certainly do with a server recommendation based on faction/playstyle.  Or a pop up warning when rolling a new character of the wrong faction on a server.

That’s if factions even matter anymore.  If it doesn’t, then allow cross-faction grouping and a shared auction house.  Keep factions cosmetic and applied to PvP.

Frostpunk : More Scenarios

Once you get through to day 20 (of ~40) in the main scenario, Frostpunk opens up other alternatives.  Instead of starting with nothing, you have a different initial set up, different quests/events, and a different goal.  I’ve closed out two of the 3, and they are wildly different.

The Arks

You start off with a rather simple base, an Automaton, and 4 seed arks that must be kept above cold or it’s game over.  You’re limited in the number of people in the city, and the only way to get more automatons is to to exploring.  In that sense, this entire scenario is more scientific in nature, and the best choices are the most logical.  Get more scouts, increase ability to heat the arks, automate as much as possible.

If you’re able to clear the main scenario, then this one feels like easy mode.

Fall of Winterhome

In the main scenario, around a specific day, you get a visitor from Winterhome that says the city is gone.  It also triggers the Londoners arc in the main quest, which is the intro for the Purpose (Faith/Order) laws.  The Fall scenario explains what happened to Winterhome.  And whooo boy, did it ever happen.

The starting conditions are painful.  There are laws that are passed that you can’t revert, half the city is burnt down (and preventing you from building), the other half is poorly designed (freezing, no food), there 3 dozen amputees (no prosthetics), and a few dozen sick people.  Oh, and the generator is broken.

So you’re dealt an amazingly poor hand to start, barely enough resources to get things going, and at least a half dozen crises to manage every single day.  I tried at least 8 times to get this scenario started properly – and that deals specifically with the best approach to clear the crap and what to research.

I’d like to say that it went well after that.  It did not, and I found myself saving every 2 days in game, as a sort of fall back if things just snowballed downhill.  Which it did, often.

Eventually you come to realize that there’s no way to fix the generator – it will eventually blow up.  You’re tasked with evacuating as many people as possible, but that requires send fuel, food stores, and build quarters to house them.  The last one has 4 levels of success, the final 2 being extremely difficult to achieve.

Expeditions are not as useful here as in other scenarios – you’re given quite a few choices to collect or leave things.  For example, I made a choice to pick up an automaton, and it didn’t cause massive failure, but I do know it prevented me from getting the best possible outcome.

City building itself takes time, since you’re always starved for resources.  There is never a time where everyone has enough heat, or is healthy.  You need a ridiculous amount of space to heal people, which either takes engineers or cores.  The game makes both of those options nearly impossible.  That makes the Faith purpose mandatory so you can get Houses of Healing (fits 10, can be manned by anyone).

There comes a point where you’re just scraping by, things are bad, but not horrible.  Then you reach a point where evacuations start and people start freaking out (naturally).  You are presented with the best-of-a-bad-situation decision points, where they have massive consequences.  You’re pressed to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, and those decisions are just painful.  And everytime you evacuate people, that’s people no longer able to help stabilize the city.

The entire scenario feels like you’re on an out of control train, heading down a mountain, with no brakes, and certain death.  You’re job is to get as many people off that train.

When it was all over, I saved 200 people.  Nearly 100 people died before evacuation, and another 200 could not be saved.  I don’t know if I’d call that winning.

Meta

Frostpunk is a stressful game.  You’re always trying to think 2-3 steps ahead, and needing to keep dozens of plates spinning at any one time.  The game has a knack for continually knocking those plates down.  So you’re always adjusting, never quite sure what’s around the next corner.

I can’t see how anyone could “win” a scenario without first “winning” the first 3 nights.  Those are make/break milestones and have cascading effects on the rest.  That provides a TON of foreknowledge on what the real scenario is within the game.

When looked at comparatively, the Ark and Fall scenarios are just different side of the same coin.  Both deal with crisis management, but one deals with science while the other deals with psychology.  Heck of a difference…

Gamer Profile

I’ve done so many personality profiles now, I may be one of the baselines.  My work related profile is almost entirely red (get things done), with a decent amount of blue (get the details).  My green (want to be included) and yellow (include other people) barely register.  Pretty sure that puts me in the psychopathic tendencies.  The context of that profile is that my work generally deals with no-fail projects that are not progressing.  When you enter a building that’s on fire, you don’t go asking people how’s the weather.  Once the fire’s out, so am I.  Rinse and repeat.

I remember when I received one of my first complete reports.  I read through it, about 40 odd pages, and highlighted 2 sentences out of all of it I didn’t think applied to me.  Showed it to my wife and she started laughing about how accurate it was.  I can still recall people in my group highlighting entire pages.  Either they lied on their answers, or they are in a river in Egypt.

That said, I’ve found it very useful to run these tests on my teams, not so much to pin people into specific colors, but to better understand what approach works best with them.  If someone needs a pat on the back to get motivated, then for sure I’ll do that.  Also helps them understand how I work too.

 

Gaming profiles have some interest, as they are still being developed.  I’m used to seeing the 4 axis model (Bartle), where I tend to fall into the achiever/explorer type.

Quantic has a 6 axis model, and that level of added granularity makes it easier to explain.  My results here.  You can run your own report from the same link.

quantic basic

This is the basic profile view.  Given I like RPGs and strategic games, this aligns fairly well.  The social aspect is more for the online part, I like single player games more so that multiplayer.  I don’t play for PvP or explosions.

 

quantic secondary

This one is more nuanced, and therefore more exact in the descriptions. Achievement is a good example of that, where I am driving from a power increase perspective rather than getting 100% done.  I have ZERO drive to “platinum” anything.  I’m also driven by community building rather than competition.  A crystal clear penchant for strategic decisions rather than just pure excitement.

The interesting part here is that if I mixed my gaming profile with my work profile, you’d find some correlation.  The mastery & achievement align tremendously well with getting stuff done.   My focus on details at work is a blend of creativity & immersion.  I clearly like building things with people –  I wouldn’t be a volunteer coach otherwise – so that reflection is fun to see.

Quantic is onto something here, as they ask for your top recent games, and some other recent favorites.  Thematically those games help.  I picked God of War, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Outer Wilds as my top 3.  That’s certainly some variety.  The list of questions that follow are straightforward enough, but don’t really loop back on themselves as most profile tests tend to.  That exists because people’s memories are finicky – you may like blue at the start of a test, but all of a sudden another question talks about bananas, and now you like yellow.

It’s an interesting exercise to take.  Certainly made me take pause and think about the games types I do enjoy, or why I may only enjoy one part of a game but not another.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

The announcement came out yesterday.  The setting isn’t surprising, nor is the timing of the launch.

 

I am perhaps getting too old for this sort of stuff. Cinematic trailers for near yearly IP releases do not cause any rise.  Having played Origins and Odyssey, I have a darn good idea what the game will look like visually.  Horses, boats, large battles, sneaking, eagle view points.  More or less a reskin.

Where this breaks is in the actual location – Britain.  Origins was in Egypt, so there wasn’t much boat work, aside from rafts.  Odyssey was an archipelago, the large ship was a key piece of the content.  Now when you think Vikings, you think shore raids.  Boats are certainly part of it, but not in the ship to ship combat, simply as a means of transportation.  I’m curious as to how this model, and the projected base building, gets implemented.

I’ve always found the AC games focused on the nomad/explorer type.  You never stick around anywhere for long, what with all the assassinations you’re doing.  You’re a small part of a hidden faction in a larger setting.  AC3 broke that a bit, but the revenge was from inside the larger setting.  Here, it appears that you’re the invading forces which is a new twist.  You’re not set up against a bad Viking, you’re a Viking going against the king of Britain.

One of the cool bits from the last 2 AC games was the supernatural aspects. Both Egypt and Greece have mystic lore coming out of every pore. Britain in the 10-12th century didn’t really have this.  Druids maybe?  Haunted castles?  Sea creatures (Loch Ness is northern Scotland… not sure that’s in scope).  Maybe it will just be epic 1v1 battles against beefed up Brits.  Most likely it will be the Norse gods, there’s ample material there.

The last few AC games have been quite good, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this one will continue that trend.  Plus, it would be neat to dual wield shields.

 

Frostpunk

I picked up this game a while ago based on Syncaine’s recommendation / praise.  I played about 2 hours, couldn’t make heads or tails of the systems, and moved to something else.  I knew that it was a mash of crisis simulator / city builder, and what better time to play that than now!?

Premise is simple – its the 1800’s, the world is frozen over, and you’re leading a small group on rebuilding a single city.  Steampunk + extreme cold = wordplay.  The actual gameplay is a spreadsheet manager, where your pivot table keeps messing up.  But it looks pretty.

Where normal city builders have you starting small, and the only real chance at failure is a lack of funds, Frostpunk has you in a continual downward spiral of not having enough resources.   While doing A, B suffers and vice versa.  You end up doing a bit of A, moving to B before it gets critical, then back to A before that gets critical.  When you think you have a handle on it, the game throws in something to mix it up.  Either it gets so cold no one can work, a bunch of injured people show up, the population demands resources, or a long list of other items.

Resources are managed through an underlying source of heat.  The generator in the middle of the map provides heat for those nearby, and humans can’t work if it’s too cold.  There are many ways to improve this – either more heaters, hubs, insulation, overdrives.  They all consume coal, which you need to harvest.  Building / research material is a combination of wood and steel, also things to harvest.  Food you need to hunt (and a TON of it), then cook it.  You need people to do all of this, and you rarely have enough of them.

One add-on here is automatons. These robots can replace humans gathers, work 24/7, and don’t need heat.  Making them requires a core, which is a very rare resource.  If you get enough of them, and the right buildings, you can basically huddle down the humans permanently.

These things are painful, yes, but they are not game breaking.  If 90% of your population died, that wouldn’t be game over.  Instead there are two larger metrics – Hope and Discontent.  The former is how people feel about their chances of success, and there are a ton of variable to make it move.  Discontent is how upset people are with the current state – too cold, not enough food, bad laws, criminals and the like.  If Hope reaches 0 or Discontent reaches max, you lose.

Every in-game 18 hours, you can pass a new law.  Either these are Adaptation laws (thin the food, make children work, bury the dead) which have very long term consequences, or they are Faith / Order laws which primarily govern Hope / Discontent.  This part gets neat, and quickly.  You may think you are a good leader, and would try to help everyone.  But when you don’t have enoguh food for half the population and a group of 30 show up at your door… do you have everyone starve to death?  Do you make people work a 24 hour shift so that there’s heat for everyone through the night?  Do you triage the sick, so that only those with a strong chance survive and the rest pass?

Or maybe discontent is so high that you need to pass laws on protestors, and publicly execute someone.  Maybe you become a prophet for the city and simply avoid discontent altogether, as anyone who doesn’t follow you is exiled.  Are there bad choices when it comes to survival?

So that’s the real goal of the game – letting you try your hand at managing a non-stop crisis.

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The gameplay itself is generally solid.  The graphics represent the activities going on, people picking up wood, or heading out to hunt.  You get heat and religion overlays.  You get to see where people are working.  You’re presented with generally enough data to show what’s going on at any given point.  What you don’t see are the things that are about to happen.  If you’re in the day, maybe that part of the city is warm enough, but at night it will freeze the bones of someone.  Maybe half the people in a building are sick, dropping productivity.  And when people get sick, that has a cascade effect on others… production slows, other people get sick, and then woosh.

The game does a decent job at explaining what a Law will do, in the immediate sense, but doesn’t really go into the long term effects.  Child daycare may seem a great idea, but then you realize they eat all your food, live in the least insulated buildings, and don’t produce anything – ever.  Like a near permanent hole in the dam.

The game also doesn’t do a very good job explaining what the buildings do, or how it impacts the long term city viability.  Hunting huts never require heat, but you’d never know until you turned heat off for them.  Cooking huts require TONS of heat.  Mines can be rotated before building to make them much more accessible.  Roads… holy crap it took me forever to realize how to build them.  What’s the difference between a Coal Mine and a Coal Thumper?  Is a Wall Drill better than a Sawmill?  How does exploration work?

It is hard to articulate how important these items matter.  If you’re going into this cold (heh), you can’t make educated decisions.  You will fail, multiple times.  The initial 3 days have cascading effects for the rest of the game.  Passing laws before you need them has by far the largest of all consequences.  Ignoring research + related buildings focuses your resources on much better things.  Building “permanent” hot zones for residents, and working “hot zones” for gathers has a major impact on coal management.

From a gameplay perspective, it is incredibly frustrating not to have that balance ahead of time, or the information at hand.  From a simulation perspective, it makes total sense.  People managing a crisis rarely have all the facts at hand.  You can only prepare so much for a crisis, and once it hits, you realize how everything is so interconnected.   You’re going to have protestors who are thinking about themselves rather than the city.  You’re going to see really hard decisions made, based on the goals of the person making those decisions.

My first successful playthrough (I failed a half dozen times before) had over 600 citizens, 1 death, laws focused on hope (extended shifts, child shelters, amputation, soup), and a faith-based hope system, without New Faith (where hope is replaced with devotion).  I won’t lie, the mechanics and planning required to get to this point where substantial.  At the end of the scenario (~12 hours), you get a video of your city building over time.  When it was over, I felt relief and some measure of pride.  I did it, the way I wanted to.

FF12 – Post Game

I guess it’s a Final Fantasy tradition that there are post game activities to complete.  Well, not in the sense that you complete them after the last boss, but more in that the last boss is considered easy mode to the post game stuff.

The Hunting system (it’s much more than a mini-game), adds challenges at every level from the first real battle on well past the final boss.  At nearly every occasion, if you can take down a hunt when its offered to you, that means the “regular story” combat is going to be very easy.

FF12’s final boss is targeted for the mid 50s.  You can do it earlier with a bit more planning (and items), or you can do it later and destroy the bugger in a few hits.  Levels make a very big difference in FF12, damage scales tremendously well.  In truth, I think this is FF’s easiest final boss.  You’re just dealing with damage, which is easy enough to mitigate.  Status effects… those are the things of nightmares.

FF12 adds status effects to increase difficulty.  The optional bosses all make liberal use of these to make life painful.  In order of most painful to least:

  • KO/Death
  • Inverse (swap HP with MP)
  • Disease (can’t heal)
  • Reverse (damage heals, and heals damage)
  • Reflect (enemies cast on you to heal themselves)
  • Stop (can’t move)
  • Confuse (hit others, likely killing them)
  • Sleep (wake up on damage, but healers dont normally get damaged)
  •  Silence (can’t heal)
  • Drain (removes all MP)
  •  Sap/Poison/Stone/Doom/Blind

FF staple the Marlboro has a habit of casting many of these in a single attack – as a regular enemy.  Thankfully they have low HP and with a (buffed) Remedy you can clear most of it in a single turn.  Bosses… that’s different.  Let’s start with Zodiark, the “final” esper.

Zodiark

Just getting to him in the Henne Mines means you’re in the mid 60s, as it’s the highest level zone in the game.  Zodiark uses Darkja, which deals a ton of dark damage (can 1 shot) and has a good chance to instant KO.  Losing all 3 team members in a shot should be expected.  If the entire team has dark absorbing gear, then he casts Darkja twice as often.  He also comes buffed with Reflect/Haste/Shell/Protect, which if you dispel he casts a damage immunity spell.  He avoids evasion (ignoring shields).  He casts AE (Scathe) at multiple targets for very high damage.  Gravija to drop team HP to 25%.

He’s a high group damage boss, with the ability to randomly KO the entire team.

Shadowseer

The penultimate hunt requires you to clear the bottom of Pharos.  Clearing that out is an exercise in frustration, as there are multiple enemies that can cast different status effects.  And it’s more than probable that even at max level, you’re going to have a squad wiped out if they can be inflicted by Stop/Disease/Silence.  That’s a good prep for the actual boss.

The actual boss takes all of that and dials it up to 11.  He summons previous 4 previous marks, all leveled up for the fight.  He himself goes immune to everything for 2 minutes.  And he’ll keep wailing on you (combos up to 11!) during the fight.

He has high damage group attacks, he dispels, he slows you, he prevents you from moving, he inflicts disease, he removes all your mana, and he casts invert.  The math on those last 2 are the worst.  He’ll remove all the mana from your entire squad, then invert 1 character’s HP/MP.  So you end up with 2 people with no mana, and one with no hit points – and primed to die due to a fart in the wind.  Doesn’t matter what level you are – you are going to die.

Hell Wyrm

A hidden boss that you need to clear for getting the Yiazmat hunt.  He’s the first boss you fight with multiple HP bars, since he has nearly 9m HP.  Shadowseer by comparison has 300k.

He’s more of a battle of attrition due to pure damage output and liberal use of Stop. Near the end, he uses Invert and the -ga spell series to do a really good job of wiping out your HP.  If your “tank” dies, there are pretty good odds that everyone else is going to die in 1-2 melee hits.

Yiazmat / Omega Mark XII

In the original release, due to damage cap (9,999) it took about 4 hours to kill Yiazmat due to his insane HP pool, and his random KO attack.  Omega Mark XII is just pure damage – killing a maxed out level 99 character in 2 hits.

The former requires significant planning in the damage dealing departments (TZA has no damage cap thankfully, so it’s only about 2 hours now), ideally  high combo character with a darkblade (his weakness), haste, and beserk.

The latter requires a sacrificial lamb + healer + someone who can chain cast Wither – a hard to find ability that reduces enemy attack power.  You need to get those attacks to under 1,000 damage total to have a chance to get through it.

Trial Mode

FF12 comes with a trial mode, where you’re in a gauntlet of battles against tougher foes, saving every 10 levels.  Stages 51-60 are in line with the regular game difficulty.  61-80 are tough hunts.  81-90 is the difficulty of Hell Wyrm.  91-100 includes (with no pauses between):

  • Magic Pot
  • Shadowseer
  • lvl99 Red Chochobo
  • Gilgamesh
  • Ultima
  • Abysteel
  • Zodiark
  • Yiazmat
  • Omega Mark XII
  • 5 level 99 judges (this is pretty much the equivalent of the Moroes fight of Karazan in WoW/TBC, where you need to take out a crazy group of enemies with deadly AI)

That was long

I didn’t expect this to be such a long post. It does go to show that FF12 put in some big efforts to have content outside the main story line to challenge players.  Without the Gambit system, each of these battles would have been insanely tedious start/stop to get the right actions going.  The game does a really kick butt job of throwing the kitchen sink at you AND giving you the tools to deal with it.  This game scratched a heck of an itch.

 

FF12 – Closing In

FF6 pushed a lot of exposition in their cutscenes.  With no voice overs, you were reading text and listening to MIDI tracks.  Still, if you’ve played that game, guaranteed you remember the Opera scene.  I’m of the strong opinion that SquareEnix (SE) has been chasing that specific moment since then.  The plates falling in Midgar in FF7.  The Black Mages falling from the sky in FF9.  The water scene with Tidus & Yuna in FF10.  They are not moments of story expedition – because there’s no text or words.

I’m nearing the end of FF12 and realizing that the nature of the game doesn’t really allow for this, outside of the overall bookmarks (intro and outro).  There are plenty of in-game engine scenes, trying to follow Ashe’s quest to follow a ghost prince (man, that sounds so FF when written out).  There are cinematic cutscenes, which generally provide an area context shot (like a really big skyship), since those models didn’t exist in the game engine. But to say there’s a defining moment, I can’t really say I’ve found one.

That’s not say there aren’t impressive moments in the game, cause there certainly are.  The skyship that blows up is neat.  The scenes before the last dungeon are wild.  The vignettes for the first time you entre each zone are solid.  Even the tougher hunts have some cool backstory (Gilgamesh is great).  I guess I’ve come to realize that FF12’s defining mark is that there are smaller peaks and troughs.

FFX was a 5 minute custscene, then 30 minutes of RNG battles, then a boss, then repeat.  It was like watching a movie, then grinding for a boss fight.  FF12 changed that because enemies were on-screen.  It wasn’t an exercise in frustration getting from A to B.  And by putting in the AI portion (gambits), it made the “regular” battles that occur seem like minor speed bumps.

And the bosses in FFX were gimmicky, which made sense given it was turn based combat.  If you had infinite time to think, then yeah, make good choices.  The Yunalesca battle is a damn good example. With a more active battle system, you have much less time to think, and the fights become more about being prepared at the start, then reacting accordingly in the fight.  Did SE get this right?  Hell no.  The initial release had a very early “exploit” that worked for 90% of the game.  Put on a specific belt, throw a specific item, and nearly every boss got neutered with every status ailment possible.  It also made skills available really early in the game, making you effectively gods by the 1/2 way mark. The TZA release made that belt unavailable for most of the game, that item require skill investment to use, and split up all skills across classes and the game.  Very well balanced, and the combat requires a whole lot more thinking.

The last bit here is the horizontal gameplay.  Most FF games keep their sidequests for the end, with the exception of a mini-game that’s introduced at the start (e.g. blitzball, tetra master).  The mini-game here is a set of hunts for difficult targets.  These targets require specific scenarios to even get them to spawn, then a good build & gear, and finally some quick thinking to get through the fight.  You usually end up with some decent gear by the end, a new subzone to explore, or a new summon.  It is an amazing system, providing a great challenge/reward system throughout, and reason to go back and explore zones.  The Bazaar is a weird system where you sell specific items to get access to other gear.  Hell, even figuring out how to find something like Gemsteel is a major pain. This one I really don’t like since you need a wiki to really use it properly, because you can’t tell what items give what rewards.  FF13 used a similar system, but it was more transparent about it. (More props to FF13 for the stagger system.)

I’m at the last dungeon now and this game is playing better than my memory recalls. The game manages to be continually engaging, both from a system and story perspective.  Rare that time is kind to a game that’s nearly 15 years old.

FF12 – Building a Tank

FF12’s license system brought a whole lot of flexibility to character creation while leveling.  The downside was that at max level, everyone had access to everything (similar to FFX), making it a mush of character development.  Zodiac Age instead limits every character to 2 jobs, creating meaningful choices.  A White Mage / Knight is great at close damage and healing, while a White Mage / Archer can pluck away from a distance.  There aren’t any bad jobs, just less optimal ones.  A high combo character is better suited to the Bushi class (ninja) since it comes with high combo weapons.

For 80% of the game, you can run pretty much any group combo you want as long as someone has access to Cure/Cura/Curaga.  10% is bosses, and with few exceptions, all are better served with a tank to take physical hits.  The last 10% are the hunts & espers, which after rank V absolutely require a tank.

FF12 has one of my favorite versions of a tank, the evasive tank (something I think Rift did best in the MMO world, though the WoW Monk is pretty close).  The concept is not so much in padding them with extra hit points as much as it’s about increasing their ability to simply avoid damage altogether.  A few hits will get through, but sparesely enoguh so that you can heal through them.

The Shikari job works best for this since it has access to the Main Gauche, a relatively low damage weapon with +34 to Evade.  There isn’t any other weapon remotely close to this.  The best shield you can buy only has +30.  There’s a +75 evasion shield through hunts later, as well as a +90 (though that comes with poison, sap, and slow).  So a clean evasive tank would max out around 83% physical evasion.

And yeah, there’s magic evasion too!  Considering that some of the largest attacks in the game are magical, this is super useful.  It maxes around 65%.  But you can only get the tank for that, and most magical attacks are group-wide.

So the tank is stat-ready.  Next is getting them spell ready.

FF12 has Lure, which is essentially a taunt spell that sticks to a character.  It also has Bubble, which doubles a characters hit points.  The duration of Lure isn’t all that long, and during the re-cast time the enemy can certainly swap targets.  So it’s not foolproof.

The evasive tank only starts being viable once you’ve unlocked all characters.  Then it shines like crazy for the rest of the game, and turns supernova against the toughest hunts.  Gilgamesh in particular.

The general idea is – get the tank ready and a 2nd character that has access to Curaga, Decoy and Bubble (see jobs from above).  The 3rd character is a high combo character with maxed damage.  You then purposefully put them into Beserk mode (they can only attack, but with higher damage) and just let the chainsaw effect go through.  This is pretty much the model every group-based RPG works under, but it’s the only FF where the tools are presented to players in such a clear fashion.

The best part of all this is that it’s entirely optional.  You can kill the last boss without ever having a tank.  It’s less optimal, but certainly feasible – my first run proved that! If you want to play the hard-mode stuff at later levels, then you need it.  That’s some good design balance.

Final Fantasies

By this point I’ve played all of them. Only 8 & 15 I have not completed, which gives you an idea where I rank them in the overall scheme.  I see the series more like generations of games, where the break in generations is a baby-meets-bathwater event.  And often, the first and last games per generation really do something special.

I see 1 through 6 as the early wave.  7 through 10 as the 3d wave.  And 12 through 15 as the AI wave.

Early Wave

The early wave was all about building a game with very limited resources.  Most people wouldn’t be able to play FF1 as it originally launched.  Hard to navigate, limited sprites, few saves, low forgiveness, and the annoying fact that you missed attacks if the enemy was dead.  It was remastered later on to add a lot of the more modern conveniences (like inventory management) as well as some extra content.  Solid.

FF6 took all those ideas and practically perfected them.  A massive roster of distinct characters with their own side quests.  Chocobos, summons, airships.  A musical score that still gets me going, and a storyline that was epic.

Each additional game in the early wave tried some different bits.  Group sizes, jobs (!), ATB vs turns, methods of leveling, and side quests.  They all had sprites.  Chocobos showed up.  The final battles were excruciatingly long.  Cid.  And each has been remastered/remade in the years since. You can play all of them on a cell phone.

3D Wave

I still remember popping in FF7 in a rented Playstation.  The intro cinematic just blew everything I knew of console games out of the water.  I’ve replayed it a dozen times at least, and each time it still feels like the first.  Sure, the character art required imagination and the translation was horrible, but the sheer scope of the game… wow.

8 brought in minigames.  9 was a throwback to 1-6 (and is one of my all-time favs), and 10 decided to bring in voice acting and a crazy stupid long end-game.  I am sure across the years I’ve broken the 1k hrs mark on FFX play time.  I can lightning dodge blindfolded.

AI Wave

Where the 3d wave changed how we saw the game, the AI wave changed how we played the game.  Gone was the concept of turns, and instead battle was active.  Computer power was good enough to always show enemies, so no more random battles.  Other player characters could be customized to act on their own, with a rudimentary (at first) AI system on behavior.  This optimization of gameplay meant that the difficulty spike went way up.  Enemy behavior became much more complex.

FF12 took the familiar steakpunk fantasy approach that worked wonders in previous settings.  The shift from FFX to FF12 was massive, and it’s only after years that people have come to appreciate what it did to the genre.  FF13 looked amazing, but its overall lack of complexity until the way end of the game makes it a rough one to recommend.  FF15 took the Ubisoft gameplay of open world minimap icons to another level, and a much more action oriented gameplay – kind of like Kingdom Hearts.  The story removed almost all fantasy elements, and was so poorly received that extra content was cancelled.

The MMOs

FF11 is pure eastern MMO, in line with Everquest’s need for group based combat and a super punishing death mechanic.  FF14 came back from a catastrophic launch to become the gold standard in western MMOs.  Nearly every issue that exists in WoW has been resolved in FF14.  I am of the opinion that the game is so refined, that it’s not possible for the genre to “grow” outside of it.

Overall Ranking

I said earlier that everyone has their personal ranking, and I’m no different.  And rather than rank on games at release, I’d rather rank on what you can get today.  Cause frankly, getting the original FF games is not going to happen.  So, from “worst”, to “best”.  No sequels.

  • FF8 – Both story and combat never clicked for me.
  • FF15 – Driving to pad time, and minimap quests were too much.
  • FF2 – Solid story, but the leveling mechanics were insane (had to use a skill to improve it)
  • FF5 – This one is hard to play since it feels like a beta for FF6.
  • FF13 – The “Press A” mechanic lasted WAY longer than it needed to.  The game is great once it opens up, but that’s after 8 hours of corridors.
  • FF3 – The job system and the Warrior of Light & Dark are in full force here.
  • FF4 – The story does it here and is the model for a lot of other games.  Cecil & Golbez make this work.  Trip to the moon too!
  • FF1 – The remake greatly polishes some rough ideas.
  • FF7 – When you leave Midgar and realize it’s effectively only a large dungeon…that’s when you realize what FF7 did to the genre.
  • FF9 – If you took the best parts of FF1 through 8 and put them in a single game.  It doesn’t innovate – it polishes.
  • FF6 – Kefka.  Ultros.  Shadow.  True character development and a polished system underneath.  The remake’s graphical adjustments are meh.
  • FF10 – The voice acting is really bad, and the story bittersweet.  Sphere grid and Blitzball are the standard which others are measured.
  • FF12 Zodiac Age – the bug fixes and job system dramatically improve an already amazing game.  Retrospective, the gambit system is an amazing development.

Boomtown and Batman

WB has a good problem on their hands.  They have the best action melee combat system on market.  Spider-man comes close, but it’s movement based rather than physical.

If you’ve ever played a Batman game, you know what I mean.  Rarely are fights ever 1:1, instead it’s Batman vs 5-10 different goons, with different abilities.  At easier difficulty levels, you can just use your fists and generally get through.  Harder difficulties really do turn you into a walking swiss army knife of combat options.  You’re shooting batarangs, rope pulls, stuns, air attacks, flash bombs and a slew of other options.  While there’s an ideal path for each enemy type, odds are you surrounded by multiple and just creating your own dance of death.

Even goons with guns can be taken down with the right tools.  The last game in the series went a bit overboard on that, as you can’t really take out an entire squad of armed foes with your hands.  Still, the model works and it’s extremely fulfilling.

Shadow of Mordor takes this up another notch, what with the possession skill.  Most fights are against 20+ enemies, and it’s really not possible to take them all down without turning the odds in your favor.  You end up just dodging all over the place, like you’re high on sugar pops.  Still taking down an army, effectively solo, is a heck of a feeling.  Throw in a boss (or 3) and it’s a great endorphin rush.

Which brings me to Mad Max.  Early fights start off with 3-5 goons.  Then you get people who run at you.  Then some with shields.  Then some with weapons.  Then PILES of enemies at once.  There’s a gradual increase of difficulty as you go through, and in nearly all cases, it is predicated on your use of the Parry and Dodge buttons.  Parry yellow, Dodge red.  You can “move cancel” almost everything but a killer blow (ironically), so that makes for some stream of combat.  But there’s really no movement involved here – you just wait for people to attack, and hope they are near a wall for what is the only “invincible” takedown that doesn’t require a consumable.

You don’t really get more tools (shiv, shotgun), but you do get some interesting skills to help offset the enemies.  You can reverse parry an attack, using the enemy’s weapon against them.  You can break shields.  You can quickly execute.  Almost all of them require you to play defensively.

It’s an interesting twist, and one that has some merit.  The Dark Souls model of opportunistic attacks is certainly sound.  Mad Max uses a different toolkit to push that concept, and for the most part, it works.