Cutting the Gordian Knot: Learning from Gordias

GRRRAAARRR
Pictured: The dragon that destroyed the world only to end up killed by eight random people less than a week after they met him.

Before Heavensward and its Gordias raid, Savage raiding was a footnote in Final Fantasy XIV‘s history. Extreme primals awarded unique gear and special mounts for their defeat, but their would-be counterpart, the Second Coil of Bahamut (Savage), was just a “bragging rights” achievement. There were no real incentives to do it. All players got for beating these gruelingly difficult fights was a title for each fight they defeated. Until then-upcoming Heavensward information trickled out, it would’ve been easy to assume that Savage was a failed experiment. The Final Coil of Bahamut didn’t have a Savage mode, and it was the last “real” raid of the expansion. If Coil was the judge, there would never be another Savage mode. Everything in the future would be Normal modes and 24-man raids like Crystal Tower.

But, as the story goes, players complained that Bahamut Prime was “too easy”. They pointed to how quickly the game’s top raiders cleared Final Coil in a mere five days and demanded something that didn’t cater to the “lowest common denominator”. At this point, Naoki Yoshida might’ve been replaced by a sadistic genie from a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for.

So, we got Gordias.

The Gordias Experiment

Gordias, the first of the Alexander raids, was a different sort of experiment from Second Coil. It was an 8-man raid that you could do with random groups through the Duty Finder. During A Realm Reborn, some players, especially those on empty servers, didn’t get a chance to see Coil’s story or participate in its endgame because they didn’t have people to do it with. Yoshida’s comments support this; a month after Patch 2.4 released the Final Coil of Bahamut, only fifty teams cleared the raid. Assuming no overlap between teams, that’s just 400 people out of a population of thousands. And if there’s anything a publisher hates, it’s wasting money on content that no one saw. For the sake of the game’s future, the next raid needed to be available to more players.

In a time when Party Finder was restricted to a player’s current server, a raid anyone could do had to be in the Duty Finder. Bosses got easier as a result. They were more forgiving and less punishing. Bouncing back from potential wipes was completely possible. There wouldn’t be anything like Nael deus Darnus’ meteors where a single person’s mistake would automatically wipe the whole raid. Bosses needed to be easy enough that skilled players could make up for the shortcomings of their teammates. It had to be something that a random group of players could complete. If it was too hard, the whole thing was a failure. Anyone who wanted to see Alexander’s story would be able to.

Accessible was the buzzword of the day. To hardcore raiders, it might as well have been synonymous with braindead.

Four weeks after Heavensward‘s launch and two weeks after Gordias’ normal mode hit the servers, we got the raid that was so sadistic it was summarily gutted and hung out to dry with heavy-handed nerfs. We got the raid that meant raid recruiters all throughout Heavensward regularly heard the story, “I was raiding back then, but I quit because the game stopped being fun.” We got the raid with fights that allegedly hadn’t even been tested as complete encounters because even the developers couldn’t beat their own raid.

We got Gordias (Savage).

Alexander in its natural habitat: rising from the depths of hell to torture us.

Sins of the Father

Gordias (Savage) was a culture shock to anyone except Second Coil (Savage) experts. Normal modes didn’t prepare anyone for the horrors the Wandering Minstrel would be wreaking on players’ raiding lives every week. But even the top level raid teams or people who relished the idea of the challenge struggled in Gordias’ Savage mode. The world first clear of A4S didn’t hit until August 23rd, a full thirty-four days after Gordias (Savage) launched. In contrast, the same team ended up clearing Midas (Savage) in just seventeen days, and another team cleared Creator (Savage) in only three days after its launch. Naoki Yoshida’s statement that Gordias (Savage) was “unrewarding” for its difficulty seemed to have resonated with the development team. Just like there was never anything quite like Gordias before, there will never be anything like it ever again.

Why exactly Gordias (Savage) went live the way it did is a question only its developers could answer. Gordias (Savage) was poorly designed and poorly tested on top of being difficult. Glitches ran rampant in A3S when trying to pass tethers especially. A4S had such annoying mechanics that players found it easier to just let their teammates die rather than deal with the fight as intended (the “Nisi Sacrifice Strategy”). Failing one mechanic for any reason usually meant the whole team would die and they’d have to start over. Everyone wanted shortcuts and ways to make the content easier.

Fights were so focused on having a high DPS output that players hyper-focused on the make-up of their raid teams. What jobs were and weren’t present became more important than ever. Certain jobs like paladin and astrologian were called “sub-optimal” and left out of groups. Despite Yoshida’s claims that fights were tested without tank and healer maximizing their DPS output in mind, players found themselves pushing for more and more DPS from every member of the team. Players chasing elusive clear-capable teams transferred en masse to other servers, usually Gilgamesh. This concentrated all of the North American and European raiders into one place and left other servers empty. Countless teams disbanded after months of no progress on A3S and A4S, which further reduced an already shrinking raiding population.

Gordias was more than a gameplay problem; it had become a cultural problem for the game’s community, too.

Why did Gordias do this to the game’s community, but not Second Coil? Remember that Second Coil’s Savage mode had no incentives to do it. The only people who would wipe for hours upon end in Second Coil found that kind of challenge fun, or they were otherwise masochistic enough to enjoy The Avatar’s randomly placed towers of terror in T8S. People who didn’t care for that had an adequately difficult Normal mode. After all, T9 wouldn’t have taken nineteen days to beat if it was easy like Heavensward‘s Normal raids. That, too, kept players from hating the Second Coil of Bahamut for its difficulty. The “midcore” that would later find Gordias (Normal) to be boring and Gordias (Savage) too hard had a perfect difficulty throughout Coil.

However, Gordias (Savage) was the bulk of non-Duty Finder content in the game. It would have been as though Second Coil’s Savage mode was all that raiders had to do. Between July and November, when Patch 3.1 brought Thordan (Extreme), raiders had one option: raid in Gordias (Savage), figure out how to deal with its grueling demands and complexities, or have no other endgame content to do. Developers ended up cutting that Gordian knot themselves with the release of Midas, Gordias’ successor.

Midas reconciled a lot of the problems of Gordias as the developers sought a more middle-ground for raid difficulty. While Midas’ Savage mode succeeded on that front, it wasn’t without its own problems. A6S, the second fight of the tier, was notoriously frustrating for midcore teams due to the auto-wipe-on-failure mechanics that had become iconic of Heavensward raiding and having to slog through what felt like four bosses in one encounter. A8S, the final confrontation with Brute Justice, once again saw the return of “Sacrifice Strategies” as players found ways around dealing with annoying mechanics.

Players complained again. We got the Creator. We calmed down. The world first clear came out just three days later, and it was more than just the top raiders who got through A12S. Clear rates universally went up, especially with the rise of a cross-server Party Finder that opened up new horizons for players on low-population servers. We forgot about Gordias except to to use it as a point of comparison to what we had now. With Gordias now two years in the past, there will be raiders who clear Deltascape (Savage) that never set foot in Alexander. The number of players that experienced Gordias will get smaller and smaller every year.

However, I’d argue that we shouldn’t forget about Gordias.

AAAAAAHHHH!
Even if we really want to forget about this horror of horrors.

The Genie Back in the Bottle

The development team of Final Fantasy XIV didn’t instantly conceive of Gordias as a team-breaking raid in a vacuum. It came from the players themselves. Bahamut Prime’s rapid clear rate was disappointing. They wanted a challenge that didn’t currently exist in the game. Sure, Second Coil’s Savage mode was cool and all, but it didn’t feel rewarding for the effort put into it. Couldn’t they at least get some unique gear for the work they did?

But gear creates the progression path in vertical progression MMORPGs. It makes things “mandatory”. Raiding lower modes of difficulty is mandatory because at a certain point, harder raids demand better gear. In every new patch, the lower difficulty modes offer better gear than was available from last patch’s highest content. Just look at A8S – at launch, players would die to Brute Justice’s powerful J-Storm attacks unless they melded Vitality to everything they could to inflate their hit point pools… or unless they had better gear to accomplish the same thing. Players could most easily acquire this new gear from Midas’ Normal mode. For players on the edge of clearing, this little bump in strength was all they needed.

No amount of player skill can overcome a tightly-tuned gear check. If a team is hitting the boss with dinky little weapons from an outdated Expert dungeon a few patches ago, that boss is going to kill them before they make a dent in it. It doesn’t matter if they have the best rotations or best combinations of jobs on their team. The gear check will stop them in their tracks.

So, yes, gear matters more than getting the biggest numbers. The developers structured Final Fantasy XIV this way very intentionally. New dungeons require higher levels of gear. Every new patch adds new gear. The constant gear chase is the game. At no point will you ever have a piece of gear that will last you more than a few content patches. Take away the ability to get new gear, and you’re unlikely to find much value in the game for very long. The vertical progression ends up with a glass ceiling. Gordias’ problems weren’t just being poorly designed or badly tested. Gordias was a gate stopping players from progressing their characters.

Is there room in the game for another Gordias-level raid? Definitely. The Gordias experiment never would’ve happened at all if there wasn’t any demand for it. Gordias itself does have fans who enjoyed the raid for what it was. In fact, hints point towards Deltascape (Savage) having some sort of “super difficult” challenge at the end. But if the developers want to go back to Gordias-tier difficulty, it needs to be completely optional. It can’t be optional only in the sense of not locking story content behind it. Rewards should be wholly cosmetic. Exclusive gear models, mounts, minions, titles, achievements, whatever you want, the new “Super Savage” mode could have it. Give players big rewards for overcoming big challenges, so long as those rewards don’t give better numbers.

As soon as the developers give those rewards better numbers, we get the Gordias problem. Trying to equalize gear rewards like in Heavensward‘s Diadem upsets raiders if easy content invalidates their hard-won gear. The best path of progression is the most efficient one, and Gordias was never efficient. On top of being difficult, Gordias had a limited number of item drops players could receive per week. As a result, Gordias was no longer worth it. That’s just how the game works, and it’s how players will approach it. The developer’s problem, then, is that rewards need to be equal to the effort put in, but everyone’s efforts should mean something.

Final Fantasy XIV‘s developers need to decide on what that mandatory path of progression will be and tune it to the majority of the player base. That’s the basis of the patch schedule we have now. Even patches bring new tiers with new content and gear to match. Odd patches “nerf” those tiers with access to better gear and upgrades for existing gear. Players disinterested in raiding in Savage can still progress their characters, just at a slower rate than hardcore raiders. Hardcore teams can push for clearing on the cutting edge of new content. Everyone in between has a spectrum of progression they can occupy. That’s what we learned from Gordias; everyone needs content to chew on. Everyone needs something new to do with new rewards to win.

Omega’s Savage modes, both Deltascape and beyond, will show us what Yoshida and his team have learned from Heavensward. Not only that, but it’ll set the tone for the rest of Stormblood‘s endgame PVE content. In that respect, we should be glad that Gordias happened, regardless of our views of the raid itself. It was a valuable lesson for the development team about listening to vocal minority groups of the player base. We’re seeing traces of the lessons from Gordias in our endgame content now; Stormblood Main Scenario content like The Royal Menagerie feels well-tuned in difficulty. It strikes a good medium between “doable for its target audience” and “requires trial and error if no one has ever done it before”. The Gordian genie is back in its bottle where it belongs.

But even if I feel that Gordias was an important part of Final Fantasy XIV‘s development history, I’m still looking forward to the day where I can solo all the stupid robots that gave me trouble through all of Heavensward.

(I know I talked a lot about Gordias here, but, really, Midas gave me the most trouble.)

1 comment

  • Interesting read! As somebody newer to the game it’s interesting to see some of the meta history of FF14’s development.

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