Final Fantasy XIV

Final Fantasy XIV came out way back in September of 2010. Yes, when the game first launched, Minecraft was still in alpha, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim wouldn’t be out for more than a year. As a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy franchise (and someone who was just entering a career in video-game journalism), I was aware of the game at launch, but I avoided it because the word on the street was that it was bad… like, really, really bad.

The game went through some major revisions and relaunched as A Realm Reborn in August of 2013. Three years deep into my games journalism career, and excited by the prospect of playing the game on consoles, I actually reviewed A Realm Reborn at launch. I wasn’t able to compare it with the 2010 version, since I never actually played that version of the game, but it didn’t matter much, as it seemed that most players would be coming in fresh, just like I was.

As much as I enjoyed my initial time with the revamped game, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why did Square Enix put so much time and money into rebuilding this disaster of a game into something salvageable? Why didn’t they just throw in the towel?” Eight years later, we might have an answer. This was always a game with immense potential; it just took a while for them to realize it.

Final Fantasy XIV - Cid Garlond

A Realm Reborn was enjoyable when it launched, but it wasn’t deep or robust enough to really carry a community the way an MMO should. I mean, check out PC Gamer’s 2013 review to see how lukewarm the reception was (my own review, unfortunately, seems to have been lost to time).

But eight years is a long time — an eternity in the gaming industry. Final Fantasy XIV was available on the PS3 at launch (the PS4 wasn’t out quite yet), and it’s now on the PS5. This game has survived not one but two console generation jumps. To put things into perspective here, A Realm Reborn was out for a month before Grand Theft Auto V launched. This is a pretty old game.

The thing is, Final Fantasy XIV is better now than it’s ever been. Square Enix has been really good at not just updating the game regularly, but updating it in ways that don’t make its older content feel outdated (a longstanding problem in the MMO realm). This year, I’ve been able to run all of A Realm Reborn‘s pre-expansion raids without having to put together a group specifically for that purpose — enough people are still running these old raids that finding a pick-up group takes a matter of minutes.

But I would also argue that the “goodness” of an MMORPG isn’t always directly related to its success. As a community-focused piece of entertainment, any MMORPG will live or die based on its community. A mediocre MMO with an amazing community will outlive a fantastic MMO with a crummy community.

Final Fantasy XIV - Vanu Vanu

And community is a lot harder to cultivate than content. While developers have a good deal of control over the content of the game itself, their hands are somewhat tied when it comes to how people engage with that content. Oftentimes, the success of an MMORPG is based on the fact that it was in the right place at the right time. And in 2021, Final Fantasy XIV was very much in the right place at the right time.

In 2019, World of Warcraft, the undisputed king of the MMORPG genre, launched the Classic version, which returned the game to an approximation of where it was when it launched back in 2004 (more specifically, it was based on the 1.12 version of the game, so it’s maybe more accurate to say that WoW Classic returned the game to where it was circa 2006). Nostalgic fans who pined to return to the “vanilla” days were able to do exactly that, and WoW Classic seems to have made a lot of people very happy. In 2020, Blizzard released the Shadowlands expansion, which seemed like it might breathe life back into the non-classic version of WoW. And WoW certainly seemed to have benefited from the 2020 COVID lockdowns, so at the beginning of 2021, things were looking up for that rusty old tank.

But at some point in the year, the dam broke, and there was a mass exodus from WoW to Final Fantasy XIV. It’s honestly difficult to pin down one specific thing that happened to spark this exodus (people have been pontificating over this all year), but once it started in earnest, it just grew and grew and grew — the publicity from this migration only deepening it. When longtime WoW streamers like Asmongold started dabbling in the ultimate catgirl simulator, it was pretty clear that the tide was turning. Now, I’m aware that a lot of these folks (Asmongold included) weren’t intending to leave WoW behind forever, but the community didn’t necessarily understand that. And, as I mentioned earlier, community is king.

Final Fantasy XIV

If there was ever any hope for Blizzard to plug the leak, that hope vanished when it was publicly announced that Blizzard was being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for its horrendous work practices. A lot of studios have survived similar lawsuits — Rockstar and Ubisoft are certainly not innocent — but something about the Blizzard situation felt different. While I can’t say for certain why this is, there’s a part of me that thinks it has something to do with the absolutely horrifying nature of some of the revelations that came to light because of the lawsuit. Another part of me wants to blame the fact that Blizzard was classically seen as a darling among game studios. In a world dominated by EA Games and Microsoft, Blizzard was supposed to be one of the good guys. This lawsuit makes it really hard to maintain that line of thinking.

It’s important to note that the mass exodus of WoW players began before the lawsuit, but the lawsuit certainly didn’t do anything to reverse the trend.

So Final Fantasy XIV ended up in a very odd place. While 2021 is the year of the mighty Endwalker expansion, the community migration was happening way back in the first half of the year, when Final Fantasy XIV was in between updates. And the space between updates is usually not where a game community sees massive growth spurts. The growth here is something of an anomaly.

Now, I can’t actually answer the question posed by the title of this article. Not definitively. I can provide some context for what’s been happening, which I hope I did accurately and concisely. But I think the reasons for Final Fantasy XIV‘s unusual growth are vast, and they differ from person to person.

Final Fantasy XIV - Fireworks

For me, Final Fantasy XIV is the game I spent the most time with in 2021, overtaking Red Dead Online (which was my most-played game of 2020 by a long shot). So I can confirm that Final Fantasy XIV is in a really good place right now. Its systems are deep, its content is enjoyable, and it works hard to avoid many of the common pitfalls of the MMORPG genre.

At the time of this writing, I’ve completed A Realm Reborn, and I’ve seen the credits roll on both the Heavensward and Stormblood expansions. I have not yet broken into the Shadowbringers expansion, but I hope to do so within the next couple weeks.

As a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, I love this game world, with all its chocobos and cactuars (and even those damn tonberries). I think the characters are fantastic, and I enjoy logging in to spend time with them. I’ve played a number of MMORPGs, and Final Fantasy XIV has the best-realized story arcs that I’ve ever seen in the genre — In fact, I didn’t think MMORPG storytelling could reach this level of quality.

Final Fantasy XIV

So the content is really, really good. Final Fantasy XIV has aged gracefully — astonishingly so. In 2021, the game is so good that when WoW players needed a place of refuge, Final Fantasy XIV was the obvious choice. But would the game have seen this much growth without WoW discontent hitting a breaking point? It’s impossible to say for certain, but my guess is no.

2021 was an incredible year for Final Fantasy XIV. The community grew so quickly that Square Enix had to temporarily stop selling the game. As someone who spent hundreds of hours with this game this year, I definitely understand the appeal. It’s a great game, and anyone who loves MMORPGs or Final Fantasy games owes it to themselves to at least check it out.

But why did it take so long to get here, and how did it suddenly become the most-played subscription-based MMORPG in the world? I guess a lot of that was just dumb luck — the good luck of the Final Fantasy fanbase combined with the bad luck of the WoW community.

I’m glad people are enjoying Final Fantasy XIV — I know I sure am — but it’s a little sad to know that it might not have ever gotten here had it not been for some incredibly bad decision-making at its biggest competitor. The gaming realm is better when everyone is doing better, when competition drives competing brands to work as hard as they can to deliver the best possible product they can. Then again, Square Enix seems to be doing just that, in spite of what’s happening at its biggest competitor rather than because of it.

So who knows? Maybe Final Fantasy XIV is just that awesome?

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