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Feature Article

FFXIV Shadowbringers' AI Party Members Matter More Than You Think

Ludonarrative harmony.

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At first, I was one of many who were skeptical about clearing new dungeons in Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers with an AI-controlled party. Dungeons (or instances) are often pretty nuanced, requiring mastery of their own specific mechanics and putting pressure on you to burn down bosses before things get out of hand. And there's a certain comfort in taking on the challenge with a group of actual players who know what they're doing, and who are also more likely to carry or guide you if you're having trouble.

But for my first-time dungeon runs in Shadowbringers, I've gladly given that up in favor of fighting alongside FFXIV's cast--it's hard to overstate the impact of experiencing the most pivotal battles with the characters who've shared your harrowing journey.

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No longer do DPS players, such as myself, have to wait in potentially long queues to progress the main story. Despite a largely positive experience with random players, I'm not burdened with the fear of not carrying my weight (shout out to multiplayer anxiety). And I'm free to go at my own pace since I dictate when the party moves. That's all well and good, especially for getting familiar with dungeon mechanics, but those reasons aren't necessarily what make the Trust system so important.

Throughout FFXIV, it always felt a little odd that your long-time allies, Scions of the Seventh Dawn, would often conveniently show up in cutscenes once the dust settled, or they'd be fighting their own side-battle that you'd rarely get to see play out. But now, we see them participate in the consequential battles, and they are active in your success.

We wanted to make sure that we're depicting them on this journey together and with you, so that players would fall even more in love with the characters and see them in that kind of light...make them more alive in this game we play. - Naoki Yoshida, producer and director of FFXIV

Take the first dungeon, Holminster Switch, for example (see the video above); it's your first taste of the high stakes of Shadowbringers' story, with creatures of Light consuming the people and wildlife, and setting villages ablaze. This is also a resolution for a smaller, yet tragic arc for the major character Alisaie and a close friend of hers. When you bring Alisaie and her twin brother Alphinaud along as teammates, small bits of dialogue between them give insight into the struggles she's faced with. Alphinaud has been such an important character since A Realm Reborn, and finally he's actively picking up the team with his scholarly healing abilities. Similarly, we get to see the enigmatic Crystal Exarch walk the walk and take part in the fight he's helping lead, adapting to whichever role you need filled.

Holminster Switch also exudes a sense of urgency through well-scripted sequences and a powerful theme song that sets a bold tone for the dire situation. So, to overcome it with the ones who are integral to the events at hand, rather than players you probably won't see again or that don't exactly have a place in your personal journey, builds a stronger connection to the cast and narrative stakes. After all, it was one of the major reasons for creating the Trust system.

"...I'm fine. We should keep moving."

FFXIV director Naoki Yoshida himself shares the sentiment, and told me in an interview, "We had this goal of [telling a story about] trying to save the world from immediate doom, but you never really felt that sense of battling together with the members of the Scions. We wanted to make sure that we're depicting them on this journey together and with you, so that players would fall even more in love with the characters and see them in that kind of light...make them more alive in this game we play."

Yoshida-san continued, "We've manually programmed this AI so that it will bring out the personalities of these different characters, and we have spent a lot of development resources in order to bring out these characteristics."

He also spoke to the balancing act of making sure it doesn't overshadow the multiplayer aspect that's crucial to FFXIV; it's still an MMORPG. And in my experience, the trade-offs are easily recognizable. The Trust system only applies to the main story questline dungeons and is specifically designed to be less efficient than a competent party that uses optimal attack rotations and tactics. You'll also wipe and reset to your last checkpoint if you yourself get knocked out in battle. Overall, it'll take up more time to clear dungeons through Trust. One benefit first-timers get, however, is that AI-controlled teammates already understand how boss battle work--they'll telegraph and brace for enemy attacks accordingly and set themselves up for phase transitions properly so the party doesn't wipe from misunderstanding mechanics.

Finally, you can share some of those pivotal, hard-fought battles with the characters who matter most in the Shadowbringers expansion.

Accommodating different types of players is an important goal for Yoshida-san, who said, "With any aspect of it, all of our players seem to enjoy different elements of the game." And for those who rather enjoy going solo, he stated, "It's not necessarily a bad thing to want to play in an MMORPG by yourself and so, I feel that it might be nice to have a system that allows for that."

Although I'm not finished with the main questline for Shadowbringers quite yet, I do understand that the Trust system changes after the last quest is complete. The AI characters are brought back down to level 71 and must be leveled up by taking them back into early dungeons to gain EXP--they do not sync to the proper level in the post-game. It admittedly sounds like a strange choice, and I'm not sure it'll be appealing to grind dungeons to level them back up. For me, I'm content with its existence as a means to support stronger storytelling.

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Speaking more broadly, it's easy to think of the Trust system as the development team sowing the seeds for preserving the rich narrative aspect of FFXIV. In its most recent count, Square Enix reports that over 16 million players are registered with the game. But far into the future, when a player-base naturally wanes, those instanced dungeons tied to crucial story quests would become a nuisance to run if it solely relied on matchmaking or forming parties. Retrofitting previous content with the Trust system wouldn't be without its constraints, though.

Yoshida-san spoke to how ambitious of an undertaking it would be, saying, "We mentioned that it will cost a lot of development resources in order to program the AI. If we were asked, 'Will we be applying this to previous content, like areas in A Realm Reborn?' it's going to be a very difficult decision because again, it takes massive development resources. We will need to make a decision if we want to continue applying this system to contents that are coming in the future."

The world and narrative of FFXIV has spanned nine years at this point, accounting for the original launch which is the vital foundation for all that's happened in the game. Finally, you can share some of those pivotal, hard-fought battles with the characters who matter most in the Shadowbringers expansion. Admittedly, this perspective on the Trust system's importance hinges on how invested you are in FFXIV's story. But I, and many others, see that FFXIV has transcended its MMO sensibilities to become one of the great tales told in the storied franchise.

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highammichael

Michael Higham

Associate Editor at GameSpot. Southeast San Diego to the Bay. Salamat sa iyong suporta!
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Avatar image for imajinn
Imajinn

Why was the writer skeptical? I mean it works in XI just fine so why wouldn't it work in XIV?

Avatar image for seriousbeezneez
SeriousBeezneez

Running through dungeons blind with strangers is my favorite thing to do. It makes the entire situation more intense and adventurous. The elitists and people who are short on time will probably disagree, which is fine, but if you’re running with me as a SCH chances are you’ll make it out alive...

Avatar image for kagatoac
KagatoAC

I love the Trusts myself, I use it for gear farming or even Xp when I know I might get interrupted and don't want to have to tell other players I need to go Afk, I am a caregiver and sometimes I get interrupted while playing.

Avatar image for kali-b1rd
Kali-B1rd

I'm in complete disagreement here and would like to point out that the way FFXIV, WoW and the likes have gone, they may as well not be MMORPGs anymore.

Everything about modern MMORPG design has been instant-gratification and solo focused and it's no wonder the genre is no longer in spot light.... they are essentially lonely, grindy single player games with the occasional, mindless anonymous match-making based co-op games.

In an attempt to cater to EVERYBODY the genre is is a hollow shell of what it once was. Been level 80 for 2 days, and already best in slot, no challenge, no nothing. Now what? collect pets? play dress up? wait for the next drip fed piece of content with no longevity in 3 months?

No meaningful work, no built up relationships with other players out of desire or necessity ... just gimmick content after gimmick content. Teleporting around the empty hollow world. Do crafting which serves no real purpose? An economy that is essentially "can you buy this pet?"

In an age where the "in thing" is to make MP games that offer PLAYER driven experiences, the MMORPG genre has been left behind, no longer focusing on long term MEANINGFUL work, or building effective relationships with other players to achieve goals that provide any real glory or reward for the effort made.

All while serving stories that are worse than Single-Player games, everything is insta-match-made, insta-teleport ... why even have a world? Mobile phone-like daily rewards? Why have crafting? why have dungeon loot? You get full gear in 4 hours of work with tokens.

FFXIV represents the downfall of MMORPGs as does Battle for Azeroth. A genre that galvanised itself, desperate to appeal to people that don't even like the genre. (case and point HowlingFantod below)

These A.I companions of questionably likeable characters adds nothing of lasting value to the MMO itself. another fluff feature.... that completely misses the point of the genre.

And your adding to it with this puff piece.

Congrats I guess.

Avatar image for vs_shield
VS_Shield

@kali-b1rd: Agreed. I mean it's great that some things are sped up, but the reason people loved games like Everquest/Asheron's Call/Star Wars Galaxies, Vanilla WoW, was because none of these had instant gratification. Because travel was a pain, the world felt huge. Every zone was an adventure and you would explore 100% of each zone instead of zipping between questlines and "all done-ing" to the next zone. To take down bosses and raids, you actually had to befriend others and party-up instead of auto-queuing.

Some of the changes are nice, but it really does just feel like a weak-storied Single Player game nowadays where you randomly coop with some people for a dungeon. World feels far less alive then back when you actually had to meet in the taverns and ask people to join up with you.

Avatar image for JustPlainLucas
JustPlainLucas

@kali-b1rd: I understand a lot of the points you've made, and I do agree that FFXIV is being dumbed down with each expansion. However, my attitude towards these changes is more receptive because it makes the game much easier and quicker to play. I haven't played WoW, but I used to play FFXI for several years, and although I miss a lot of things about it, I do not miss at all the BS I had to put up with wasting time to do things.

You complain about instant teleports, but do you really feel like it's a good thing to spend 30 minutes traveling from one zone to another just to level? I used to waste HOURS trying to get decent leveling parties in FFXI and even then, I'd rarely level when I had a good party going. FFXIV has made the game far more accessible for people who don't want to waste an entire day doing something. You may not see it as progress, but I certainly do. Games need to feel less like work and be more fun.

I do agree that the end game grind for gear is very repetitive. I'm not sure how it is right now as I just finished the game a couple days ago, but if you get BoS gear so quickly, then it saves me time to work on other jobs or .. I dunno.. play other games... or... just go outside. I have issues with MMO addiction and if there's nothing really interesting for me to do, I view that as a saving grace.

As for meaningful relationships... that's dependent on you. I still play with friends that I made during 2.0 and even the ones that don't play anymore I still communicate with via Facebook or some other means. I will agree with you, though, that the opportunities to make friends are less than they were, because in older games like FFXI, you usually had so much downtime waiting for the party to get going that you were pretty much forced to talk to people. FFXIV's duties are so quickly done that most people don't even bother to say hi... But the decision to initiate interaction has always been on you first and foremost. Maybe it's the server you're on? I know some are less friendly than others.

I 100 percent agree with you about the Trust system, though. It effectively undermines the genre of MMO the same way the Switch Lite undermines the Switch. Players who rely on the Trust system for the first four story dungeons will most likely not be skillful enough to be of much use during the final dungeons where you can't use the Trust system. The thing about working with people is that the sense of urgency to keep moving forward makes someone a better player. It also doesn't make much sense that you can't use the Trusts during the trials and if someone isn't getting better during the dungeons, they're going to be dead weight during the trials. It's also a bit pointless to play with the Trusts if you don't want to wait for the Duty Finder, as they play so inefficiently, you're not really saving any time. So yeah, I'm really on the same page with you here.

So I get it, you're not happy because FFXIV is so dumbed down and streamlined. But my question to you, though, is why do you want to waste so much of your time on one game? I cannot imagine going back to the old style of MMOs where you need to spend forever finding people and risking your lives crossing the world in order to find a decent spot to level. That's so much time wasted when you could be doing other things.

Avatar image for kali-b1rd
Kali-B1rd

@JustPlainLucas: I do get the idea that some things should be sped up, but I can't agree on the areas. I played FF11 too, then moved to Vanilla WoW .... which was much faster, yet still had that old-school depth and reliance on building relationships with others.

Convenience comes at a heavy price. Data-Centre wide matchmaking, teleportation to dungeons, daily-rewards (economic) and daily-rewards (gear tokens) and the biggest interaction killer in WoW (flying mounts ... all of these elements were designed for convenience, and yet they killed Social interaction, knowing the the regulars on your servers, a sense of an actual world. In essence, they made the game single-player with a dash of MP.... with randomly match-made strangers over and over.

Gear Grind - is IMPORTANT. Guilds, organising, beating high end content and being rewarded for it... and remaining UNIQUE instead of everyone else getting the same stuff for simply turning the game on.

I'm full blue after 2 days of daily quests in FFXIV? Where is the effort/challenge = reward in that? .... in WoW you can be full epic from world quests... It's just absolutely shallow.

Meaningful Work , Meaningful Challenge, Good relationships...... I would happily take more time to focus on the game for those reasons, as did most. as did WoW at its prime of 15 million subs until they started destroying it.

I suppose my answer to the question outside of the above rant, "Why not?" people play MOBAS exclusively, people play shooters exclusively, battle royales etc. MMORPG's were unique "lost yourself in the world" kinda games... and they have obliterated themselves.

Why is travelling, fighting, risking your life and having to build relationships bad? Nothing wills rewarding unless it's earned and is competitive... I find my time in FFXIV nowadays mindlessly collecting pets/transmog ... its more Like Final Fashion.

Strenght, Progression, Challenge, Social interaction... FF11 was the extreme end, Vanilla WoW was nicely balanced.

Good job it's re-releasing.... 20 minutes finding a group is better than everything you do being utterly without reward or competitiveness. Just my opinion ofcourse.

Avatar image for finalcrisiscore
FinalCrisisCore

@kali-b1rd: Are we really complaining that a MMO doesn't contain meaningful work?

You are aware that this is a video game right? None of this matters. I for one, think Trusts are a great system to help learn the content so I don't have to deal with people like you when I'm trying to kill an afternoon.

Avatar image for kali-b1rd
Kali-B1rd

@finalcrisiscore: If you can't understand the point, your not in a position to make snide judgements about anyone.

Meaningful progression - Earned by Challenge and Investment. Not handed your job gear/weapons when you hit 80, then 2 days later have the full token set practically given to you for a few dailies.... it made any sort of progression redundant.

"Expert Dungeons" are easier than the ones you had when levelling.

So 2-3 days after hitting 80, you literally have two "extreme" (but puggable) primal fights for a +10 ilevel weapon ... and that's 8.0 finished....

You want a throw away game? good for you...... the clear decline in the genre from pandering to those of you that winge and just want to be patted on the back and rewarded as much as others neutered the genre.

Avatar image for seriousbeezneez
SeriousBeezneez

@kali-b1rd: The mounts didn’t kill social interactions in my opinion. People log in to accomplish different things and simply have different motivations to play. Plus the world we live in today moves at a faster pace (perception-wise), so newer gamers who have less respect for the almighty grind unintentionally create some of the social imbalance you’re referring to. Again though it’s just my 2 cents

Avatar image for howlingfantod
HowlingFantod

As someone who doesn't play MMOs much- or at all, really- in large part because I don't enjoy the multiplayer experience I get when trying to team up with random people, it can be frustrating to discover MMOs or multiplayer games that look like something I would really enjoy on almost every level, aside from the multiplayer/cooperative emphasis. I've long thought Final Fantasy XIV looks really cool but have stayed away from it because it's an MMO. Does the highly touted (in this article anyways) Trust system serve as a mechanical replacement for other human characters if you want to play Shadowbringers as a single-player game? Or, as I suspect and as it would appear, is it merely meant to complement the cooperative multiplayer experience? I guess what I'm asking is this: does the Trust system make Final Fantasy XIV more viable as a single-player-only experience?

Avatar image for JustPlainLucas
JustPlainLucas

@howlingfantod: It's basically a compliment. You still need to interact with other people, though. There are three trials that you need to do with other people, as well as the level 80 story dungeon, so the Trust system is not a complete replacement for multiplayer. It's basically just there for people who don't want to use the que and to provide a bit of insight into the story via NPC dialogue.

Avatar image for DAOWAce
DAOWAce

If only they worked on the AI enough to make them actually use AoE skills so dungeons didn't take twice as long than with actual players.

And to attack while they're dodging AoE's instead of standing there doing nothing until the whole sequence is over.

And then they reset to level 71 after finishing the MSQ, requiring you to level them up to even use them in higher level dungeons..

They're smarter than Squadrons, sure, but still suffer most of the problems of squadrons.

Basically the only good thing about them is the dialogue bits. I strongly recommend everyone play through the dungeon for the first time with the NPCs; it adds so much to the experience. If the runs didn't take such an insane amount of time with them, I'd bring along every combination of NPC I could to see the different dialogue that takes place.. but until they improve that aspect of the AI, well, can't quite bring myself to do it.

Avatar image for doremonhg9x
doremonhg9x

@DAOWAce: You know, I kinda agree with you on that. But if they are any more efficient, they will be better than the average ragtags that you can find in PF. And then nobody would queue for PF anymore since it's more efficient to just use Trust to cut down queue time, not to mention a lot of time you find some very lazy people in PF so there's a certain risk in playing with other people.

Avatar image for JustPlainLucas
JustPlainLucas

I get the point of the Trust system, but for me, I can't stand how long it took to get a dungeon cleared. Cool, they say some dialogue, but it's just not worth the time for me. Yeah, you can start the battle as a DPS immediately, but you'll probably take just as long to get through as you would if you just waited for a human party and then cleared it with them. Oh, and it's also annoying you can't just order them to attack. Instead, you have to get just close enough to aggro them, and then you'll attack. I always ended up taking a few hits before the tank got the mobs off me. Just a gameplay shortsight if you ask me.

Avatar image for DAOWAce
DAOWAce

@JustPlainLucas: In my experience the aggro range of the tank is just slightly bigger than the enemy, so they'll charge in before the enemies aggro.. but who has time to sit around, right?

Something not well known, the AI will focus on (or ignore) the targets you mark, adding some semblance of control, but it's not too relevant.

Just wish they actually spammed AoE skills instead of used them once a blue moon.. runs would go twice as fast.