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Final Fantasy XIV’s PvP Dilemma

When it comes to pitting player against player, all bets are off.

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“Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Once more!”

In the world of MMOs, the players are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

DUN DUN

Wait, that can’t be right. And as far as cultural references go, that has to be one that dates me far more than I’m comfortable admitting to. In reality, those two separate yet (theoretically) equally important groups have become household MMO genre staples, known most commonly as Player vs Environment (PvE) and Player vs Player (PvP). And Final Fantasy XIV is no different in that regard.

For more traditional MMOs akin to (and including) XIV, PvE content is typically the most prevalent between the two. This includes content players can choose to tackle either alone or alongside cooperative groups of other players where your adversaries and obstacles are designed encounters with AI controlled enemies and bosses. Dungeons, raids, questing, story campaigns; any situation where the enemies we’re fighting are being controlled entirely by a series of 1s and 0s.

The other camp, however, is one rife with variables. No scripted phase transitions, no predictable mechanics or specific boss strategies. In this camp, our opponent is unknown. Unpredictable. Chaotically human. Are they a seasoned top-tier Ninja or a Black Mage that’s 3 days into their free trial? How will they respond to a pull that puts them out of position? Will they dive deeper? Retreat? Panic? Will they DM me hate speech after the match? All a possibility in the frenetic realm of PvP. When it comes to pitting player against player, all bets are off.

Image: Square Enix

Of course, that dose of hyperbole comes with the caveat that most PvP in MMOs has a certain amount of structure in its balancing. In Final Fantasy XIV, for instance, a Scholar is at a distinct disadvantage against a Reaper. While player skill might alter the flow of the fight or even the result of the fight if the parity of talent is particularly scarce, it’s just an undeniable result of class design that a Reaper will stand victorious more often than not in that particular clash. Luckily, Final Fantasy XIV’s PvP seems to favor objective-based game modes that emphasize working as a team, so rarely would a support/utility class like Scholar find themselves in a position where they have to stand toe-to-toe with Reapers or Ninjas. Similar to something like League of Legends, you wouldn’t expect a Sona to capably scrap with a Rengar in a straight duel; it’s not what they were built to do.

In fact, Final Fantasy XIV seems to have always taken a good deal of inspiration from the MOBA genre in regards to balancing their PvP, but before we dive too deep into that, it’s important to understand Square Enix’s underlying design philosophy when it comes to this side of the game. One of the struggles many MMOs face is figuring out how to take an expansive kit of abilities tailored for PvE content and finding a way to balance them into a completely juxtaposing PvP setting. Five hotbars full to bursting with different abilities and cooldowns can lend well to extended raid encounters, but the unpredictable stop-and-start skirmishes of PvP can sometimes leave all those tools with little room to thrive. The fundamental basis of what works well within a PvE setting is often vastly different from what works well in PvP, so having classes that are required to viably exist in both is quite the conundrum.

So what can MMOs do to help alleviate this disconnect? Well, Final Fantasy XIV takes an admittedly clever approach to balancing PvE and PvP kits: Make them separate. When participating in PvP, your hotbars are replaced with an altered, PvP-specific set of abilities. Before the release of their 5v5 Overwatch-esque Crystalline Conflict game mode, these altered class kits functioned as what was basically a condensed version of their PvE counterparts. This, in theory, could prove an excellent solution to the issue of balancing around content for both aspects of the game. You don’t have to worry about how PvE abilities will translate if you simply make the PvP side of the game operate with a wholly separate toolkit; one more tailored to what works well within those bounds.

pvp final fantasy XIV
Image: Square Enix

Overall, not a bad plan, all things considered. Sure, the system wasn’t perfect and had its own share of rough edges, but it proved a clever, if flawed, solution to the MMO’s age-old battle of what to do with these two fickle game modes that just can’t seem to get along. Now, you may notice a distinct tinge of the past tense in this particular section; discussing what this system “had” and what it “proved.” And you have Final Fantasy XIV’s controversial release of that aforementioned Crystalline Conflict to thank for that. Along with this new heavily Overwatch-inspired game mode came a drastic overhaul of XIV’s PvP class design.

And this is where things get a little messy.

In the hopes of simplifying the PvP to accommodate this new fast-paced brawl-fest they’d introduced, Square Enix decided to condense the PvP kits of each class even further, as well as changing the fundamental function of healers specifically. Before Crystalline Conflict, healers had the ability to sustain allies in a similar fashion to their role in raids and group content. This sort of sustained healing capability lends itself decently enough to large-scale battles like the ones often seen in the Frontline game mode, but that same longevity of support doesn’t sit as well in a more MOBA/Overwatch-style game mode like Crystalline Conflict. So, what does Square Enix elect to do? Well, they dip their toes into what’s successful in the games that so clearly inspired their new game mode.

Healers have had their kits reworked in order to function more like support champions in MOBA games; they have a few tools they can use to heal in quick bursts, but they won’t be able to heal much over sustained clashes. Scholar specifically has almost completely lost its identity as a healer, save for a burst from their Limit Break, and have instead taken on a role as a utility debuffer. In addition, every class has had their PvP ability pool shrunk down to a handy 5-7 class-specific staples, all rebalanced to function more succinctly than their PvE counterparts. Everyone now receives a small set of abilities to increase self-sustain in the absence of more traditional healers. A personal shield that mitigates 95% of damage for a few seconds, an instant self-heal that can be utilized a good 4-5 times before needing to refresh your mana pool, and a potion with a long cast timer that full heals and restores all mana (used for topping off outside of conflict, for the most part).

Again they seem to draw inspiration from the MOBA genre specifically for this. Instead of having your typical MMO hotbar with an array of abilities to choose from, they instead give players a compact moveset that streamlines the combat significantly, allowing greater focus on the new objective-heavy gameplay of Crystaline Conflict. And you know what? Within the context of Crystalline Conflict, it works quite well. The skirmishes are hectic, the new burst-heavy kits feel punchy and concise, and matches tend to snowball heavily once one of the teams staggers and outright refuses to wait for everyone to respawn. If they were truly looking to recreate the frustration of playing Payload in Overwatch, they pulled it off.

Yet therein lies the issue. In the context of Crystalline Conflict, it works quite well. Unfortunately, there sits a rather large elephant in the room with the word “FRONTLINES” painted along its side. This new rebalance of the PvP is not confined to the new game mode that ushered its arrival. No, these drastic changes also apply to the large-scale 24v24v24 Frontlines game mode. And there, as they say, is the rub. Square Enix was clearly all-in on their shiny new 5v5 game mode, and so proceeded to balance their new PvP overhaul around that 5v5 dynamic. The problem is, what works well in a 5v5 environment is wildly different from what works for a 24v24v24 environment. By committing to balance changes for one game mode, they inversely unbalance the other, and thus Final Fantasy XIV’s current PvP dilemma comes to light. Since Square Enix decided that both game modes would share the same ruleset, the focus on balancing around Crystalline Conflict has thrown Frontlines into a rather chaotic state.

As mentioned earlier, the PvP rebalance following the release of Crytalline Conflict shifted the focus to a small core of impactful abilities, giving most damage classes chunkier, more bursty rotations that can be rattled off rather quickly. Again, a rather acceptable setup for a smaller 5v5 mode, but when 72 players come to clash, the more burst-heavy nature of everyone’s abilities can get out of hand rapidly. Upon the initial launch of the rebalance, Frontlines were a disaster; Hydaelyn help anyone that decided to play a melee class. In Crystalline Conflict, attracting the focus of three or four DPS classes might dispatch, say, a Reaper or a Dragoon somewhat quickly. An expected result from a 1v4 in a smaller game mode. Drop that balance into Frontlines, where melee can expect to gain the ire of 10+ adversaries at once as their class kit forces them into the midst of the fray? Not a chance in the Seven Hells.

With melee classes melting at an alarming rate, something had to be done. Queueing into Frontlines as a melee class had basically become synonymous with willfully offering oneself to the meat grinder, and ironically, there was very little “frontlining” to be done, even for tank classes. In response, Square Enix saw to implement a… controversial fix. Instead of undertaking a massive overhaul of how classes function in Frontlines as opposed to Crystalline Conflict, they opted for a somewhat haphazard catch-all that brought with it its own host of issues. Relatively soon after the deployment of their new PvP system, Final Fantasy XIV would receive an update boasting a single, drastic balance change unique to Frontlines.

All melee classes would receive a permanent 60% damage mitigation buff.

That’s… a very large number. And large numbers, in the context of game balance updates, are usually indicative of something being very wrong. So, to their credit, Square Enix saw a drastic problem and implemented a drastic solution. The problem is that kind of simplistic blanket solution rarely addresses the actual issue. Not only that, such a massive value change with such a basic, widespread buff brings about a whole host of new imbalances in tow.

Take the balance between damage classes, for instance. When balanced for Crystalline Conflict, most damage dealers should, in theory, be able to stand toe-to-toe with any other damage class. Again, in theory. For example, a bard should be able to at least put up a decent fight against a Samurai. Their kits should, in a balanced environment, give both parties the opportunity to best the other. Now, take that same matchup between the Bard and the Samurai, and give the samurai a flat 60% damage mitigation buff. Things get lopsided fast with that kind of mitigation on the table.

As it stands, if a Red Mage is caught out by a Reaper, or a Summoner by a Ninja, the ranged class basically sits at a passive 60% damage disadvantage simply for not being melee. It would be more advantageous for the ranged class to simply flee; that kind of mitigation discrepancy is outright staggering. Aiming for the backline feels necessitated by the balance as opposed to an actual tactical decision; if you want to do the most damage and have a chance of knocking an opponent out of the fight, targeting melee characters is simply suboptimal by a large margin. If you’ll forgive the simplistic vaguery, targeting melee characters in Frontlines just feels inefficient.

pvp final fantasy XIV
Image: Square Enix

And now, Square Enix has been put in a rather uncomfortable position with Final Fantasy XIV’s PvP. They have fixed the issue of melee being eviscerated in Frontlines, but in doing so, they’ve only managed to change the way in which the game mode was broken. The issue boils down to taking class design intended for a small, scrappy game mode and attempting to balance it into a significantly larger game mode without changing how any of those classes operate. It would be similar to attempting a 72-player game mode in League of Legends or DotA 2 without changing any of the champions. Slap big mitigation numbers on all you like; the kits just weren’t designed for this kind of playstyle.

So what is there to do? Where do they go from here? If we’re being realistic, they probably keep Frontline in its current state for the foreseeable future. What they could do? If they were willing to commit such a massive change so close to their Crystalline Conflict rehaul, they could revert Frontlines to its previous state, and have the two game modes operate on different PvP class profiles. This would allow the cleaner balance of both without having the balance of one effect the other. With this approach, they could re-implement the more sustained healing classes from pre-Crystalline Conflict, which would also help to keep frontliners alive. An expansion back to the old, larger movesets would also bring back tank/melee cooldowns that would additionally help with survivability. All factors that would reduce the need for a blanket 60% mitigation buff.

Sadly, the two game modes are simply too disparate to share balance in Final Fantasy XIV’s current state. There has to be some sort of division if both game modes are to function properly alongside each other. Does that mean simply reverting Frontlines to where it was? Does that mean tackling a massive overhaul to Frontlines’ class kits specifically in the same fashion we saw with Crystalline Conflict? It’s hard to imagine Frontlines seeing much significant progress without a pointed effort from Square Enix, and it seems like they’re willing to let the current balance stand as the relative status quo. So, while it’s always fun to dream, my Red Mage will simply have to be content with turning tail every time the bullies show up with their baked in mitigation.

Wait, what’s that you said? How do these changes affect… Rival Wings? What the hell is a Rival Wing? 

Gaming has been my passion, and RPGs have been my sweetheart. I learned to type playing EverQuest with my brother, and I've never looked back. While isometric old-school RPGs are a personal favorite, as long as I've got a stat screen and build variety, I couldn't be more at home.

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