Final Fantasy XIV Is Alt-Hostile As Hell

I play a lot of games where you get to make characters. Sometimes it’s TTRPGs, sometimes it’s MMORPGs, sometimes it’s single-player CRPGs, and sometimes it’s just for the other games I design. I like making characters, I think it’s a fun exercise and I like it as a way to create the elements of a story, or express new ideas or give a characterisation to mechanics. It’s something I really enjoy, and if the regular posts about different City of Heroes characters isn’t giving it away, it’s something I really enjoy doing.

Playing Final Fantasy XIV, I thought I might wind up doing the same thing – after all, it’s a world with a big creative space! There are lots of different ways for your character to look! There’s glamours that let you change your outfit and they’re tailored to interact in interesting ways! So many classes, so, similarly, so many different ways to express a different kind of character. A fighter with an axe is not a fighter with a bow, after all! There’s so much here, and you have a lot of slots so – you could make all sorts of alts!

That didn’t happen, because Final Fantasy XIV is a dreadful experience for making alts.

I guess to back that up I need to explain to you what I mean by an alt.

I don’t know the actual origin of the term per se. My understanding of ‘alts’ refers to ‘alternative’ characters that you could be playing, as in contrast to the character you would probably be playing, your default, known as your ‘main.’ I think this terminology comes from raiding, where you might want someone for a particular job they’re good at, like Rogue, but in a pinch they can fill in with a nearly-as-good character like a Priest. That’s how I understood it.

Me, I never actually got ‘mains’? Like, I never felt like ‘main’ characters were how I did things. For me, characters are usually a mix of the play experience, and the narrative they engender. Sometimes a character’s style or narrative fits really well but I don’t like the mechanics, so I’ll restart them as a different class or job. This can mean some characters cycle through a lot – Carcer, who I’ve written about, has been a Dominator, a Brute, and finally a Tanker, trying to land on the place his narrative kept working: He was a guy who punched things and didn’t die.

In an MMORPG, then, an alt system is the question, ‘can you play more than one character, and what affordances are there in place for this?’

The simplest version of an alt system is: You can make more than one character. There are a number of MMORPGs that don’t allow that, though none that stand out to me right now, because most of the games that proudly boasted not having ‘alts’ in it were the kind of thing that died back in the 2010s.

One of the gold standard MMORPGs is World of Warcraft. It isn’t to say it’s a good game or a bad game per se, but it definitely defines the way the industry looks; games get to compare themselves to how World of Warcraft handles things. So in World of Warcraft, there are features that are account-wide; when you unlock them, then all your characters will have them, regardless of if they did the thing to unlock them or not.

A good example of this is Mounts; in World of Warcraft, if I do the reputation grind with the Cenarion Expedition, beating up lots of nagas, I’ll be able to buy a Cenarion Hippogryph on the character who did that reputation grind. But then, once I have that Hippogryph, every character I have who can mount up can choose to mount that Hippogryph. This meant that when I wanted to make a new character, I could look at all the mounts I had available to me in terms of how they were part of customising the way that character got to look.

There are also weapons and armour that are designed to make it easy to level up that you can swap from character to character, on your account. You can mail money back and forth between your own characters, which seems to me to be a kind of minimal version of this effect, and there’s a huge wealth of content that each character can do to level up. These systems tend to mean that every new character gets to benefit from moving past tedious things you’ve already done, and every character gets to find new things to do. In the current system of making and levelling characters in World Of Warcraft they even split up the campaigns of each expansion and you can just chug along the plot of that one story from start to finish, then get teleported off to the new content of the current expansion. In that space, you also have systems that mean that the slow-release currency of the main plot can be caught up by alts.

That means that if you like the Rogue but you like seeing your friend with their cool animal companion and you want to try a Ranger, all that random cool stuff you’ve built up that’s account-wide may be useful to start out a Ranger. And games can be free-er with alts: In City of Heroes, almost every element of player power can be transferred between your characters from your own account, or to other accounts, and things that can’t be transferred tend to be currency that you just built up if you keep playing, and everyone is expected to play from 1-50 with a huge pile of content that’s either procedurally generated or off in wildly forking directions based on multiple possible zones. There are ways to be alt-friendly and ways to be alt-hostile, and Final Fantasy XIV

Well, Final Fantasy XIV is dreadful for alts.

In Final Fantasy XIV, if you ask about ‘alt system’ you’ll often get told ‘oh, every character can do everything,’ or something like ‘oh it has a job system.’ The idea is that for any given character in Final Fantasy XIV, you can go talk to a class trainer for every single class, ask them to train you, and suddenly, your character can level up as a different class.

There’s no commonality per se between them; if you’re a Paladin and you’re level 90, if you walk over and talk to a rogue trainer, and bam, you are now a level 1 Rogue. You can go back to your level 90 Paladin by just equipping a Paladin sword (and all the other Paladin gear) and that’s all handled very fluidly, but what it means is that you can run around doing level 1 Rogue content and the fact you’re a level 90 Paladin the rest of the time doesn’t mean anything.

Ostensibly, this means that any given character can do every piece of class content. Every single character can take on levels of every class, and can see how the game plays for each different mechanical perspectives.

These mechanical threads are also completely isolated. Your rogue abilities don’t interface with your paladin abilities. It is as if you have a completely new character, but they have unlocked the content you’ve unlocked already, and they get a bonus for experience gain based on their highest level class. If you have a level 90 class, all the other classes level faster. If you have two level 90 classes, your other classes level even faster. This is to encourage you to try out everything you want to on the one character.

It’s even aesthetically isolated. If you’re a paladin who likes how your sword looks, you can’t make your Samurai sword look the same way, because weapons are specifically isolated by type.

But what about if instead of doing a job thing, I want to play a different look? What if I like my Catboy Mage but I also want a physically strong bunny boy? What if I want to play a towering Roegadyn Lady who makes people say ‘step on me’ as I do dungeons?

The game offers a way to do that, if you ask about it. It suggests you buy a Fantasia – a character recustomisation that lets you change how your character looks. That however, isn’t the same thing as an alt. It’s not having a bunny boy and a cat mage – it’s turning the cat mage into a bunny boy. It’s the exact opposite of an alt system! I don’t want one character who does everything, I want multiple different characters.

What if I just do that, then? Make another character?

There are some things that make alts unpleasant. The first big one is the Main Scenario Quest. In order to ensure players have access to a carefully sculpted play experience, Final Fantasy XIV has a single plot known as a Main Scenario Quest. This guides you through the plot of the game, gives you a lot of experience, ensures you meet all the important NPCs, makes the dungeons, raids, and trials available, and you have to do it all in order. You have to do it.

Every single alt is going to have to go through the Main Scenario Quest, or they’re going to have to pay cash up front to skip it. The Main Scenario Quest is not a good story, it’s not an enjoyable one, and it’s full of time-wasting nonsense. What’s more, because you have to do it, you’re left with the question of ‘what other content am I going to find? What other stuff am I going to explore? There are other quests in all the zones, there’s stuff to do, but none of it can support levelling a character without the assistance of the Main Scenario Quest.’

Remember above, how World of Warcraft‘s system lets an alt avoid tedious things and find new things to do?

Making an alt in Final Fantasy XIV is a process of explicitly doing the tedious thing you already had to do. It is not only not skipping tedium, it’s also not finding new things to do.

What Final Fantasy XIV has going on is not an alt system, not really. The job system, where any one character can play every class and swap between them is an anti-alt system. It’s there to make it so you don’t need to make alts, and the in-universe Fantasia item that they give you is also quietly encouraged as a way to ‘try out’ lots of different looks. This system is also extraordinarily non-diegetic. Your character who has a sword can’t wield the same sword in a different class; every class is a purely mechanical system, not a tool for making a character. You can tell people a story made out of these pieces, but you are the person using the pieces and you are constructing a system between them.

Now, an added part of this is this that the character creation system in Final Fantasy XIV is fantastically boring: Every single character is exactly the same as everyone else with that class, at that level. There are no choices, no customisation, nothing that is not a question of what gear you have, and that gear is, typically, just a matter of numbers going up. You don’t even get to customise things like powers colours.

When I made a character in Final Fantasy XIV, recently, I did so with the quiet thought that I’d probably make one of each tank, because I like tanks, and I like different kinds of characters who can express ‘tankiness’ in their social experience. Then, it was very sensibly pointed out to me that meant if any of my friends wanted to play a tank, it forced them to play around me, so maybe I should make sure a character had a different job that filled in a different role. I like that, so I opted to go for it, so now I think of my characters in terms of ‘how does this one character express the roles of tank, damage dealer, and healer?’ What’s the common thread between them?

And that’s a characterisation thing the job system enables! That’s not bad! But it’s not an alt system. It’s not about creating characters in a universe who relate to the world. It’s about a videogame avatar that follows videogame operations. You can absolutely layer your characterisation on top of it, but it doesn’t feel the same to me. It doesn’t feel like I get to make characters for people to meet in this world, who do things in different ways with different experiences. It feels like every single character in this space is ultimately imagined as an extrusion of the same narrative tube.

My solution to this, by the way, isn’t to give up on alts, or to pay money to skip it — it’s just to complain a lot about how terrible the Main Scenario Quest is. Yes, even your favourite bit.

This is not a thing I hate necessarily. It’s a thing that does different things, it satisfies different needs.

This is, I am told, a ‘better’ system, because it means that you don’t need alts, because any character can do any job they want to do, and that ‘fixes’ the problem of an alt. Instead of making multiple characters, you can have one character who can change the job they do, meaning there’s no ‘need’ for alts. After all, if you’re here to play, and you want to do content with a friend, being able to change the kind of way you can play does represent an interesting idea.

That’s not why I play, though.

I play to exist in a world, I play to create characters.

Not to play the same character in a way that makes them more and more boring.

You might have read through this and gone ‘okay, look, sure, the system isn’t alt-friendly the way World of Warcraft is, and yes, the MSQ is a bottleneck for all alts, but that doesn’t mean the game is alt hostile.’

You can’t send mail to your own characters.

You have to go out of your way to make that kind of thing happen.

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