Last time in Raiding Rainbow’s review of the Deltascape, we looked at the first two encounters in Savage mode, Alte Roite and Catastrophe, and discussed if the newly-launched Deltascape (Savage) is too easy for Final Fantasy XIV’s broad spectrum of hardcore to casual raiders. There’s much more to say about the third encounter in the raid tier and the reactions to the fight’s difficulty — and how we’ve seen this exact phenomenon several times before.
The Lady of Dance
Halicarnassus’ Savage encounter is divided up into five distinct phases based on the appearance of the arena. The first four phases are effectively tutorials for the final phase, which uses mechanics from the previous phases in addition to brand new mechanics. In this last phase, depending on what panel Halicarnassus randomly jumps to, the boss reuses a mechanic from a previous phase. This requires raiders to memorize what might happen and react appropriately. Already off the bat, Halicarnassus is more mechanically dense than her predecessors, and she’s also significantly more punishing.
One death can cascade into a torrent of dead party members. In some ways, this is a “mercy rule” — the players have had too many deaths to clear, so they’ll wipe now rather than hobbling to the end only to wipe to enrage. Teams that get into the rhythm of the fight will be able to tell early on if they should cut their losses and wipe early instead of wasting more time on a bad pull. At least, that’s the optimistic way to look at Halicarnassus’ rather strict enrage timer. On the other hand, it can be demoralizing to do everything right but wipe because somebody else messed up. Throughout progression, wipes such as this will be the rule rather than the exception.
The amount of “friendly fire potential” is staggering compared to Alte Roite and Catastrophe. Someone messing up Halicarnassus’ “The Game” mechanic (mostly retained from Normal mode) will punish the whole raid with debuffs and less Limit Break gauge. One person going the wrong way during Dance of Thorns will kill, at minimum, themselves and whoever they were tethered to. Even just standing in the wrong spot can wipe out half the team if players aren’t careful. Players who aren’t used to this sort of difficulty might balk at the hurdles in this encounter compared to Alte Roite and even Catastrophe. The mechanics are creative and innovative, if sometimes hard to puzzle out without a guide, but wiping to interesting mechanics is still wiping all the same.
Every raid tier absolutely needs difficult or punishing fights. This is what Savage mode advertises in its name alone. Difficult encounters should require individual responsibility and teamwork to overcome. In that respect, Halicarnassus is a fantastic encounter. Her early phases being highly scripted with little variation between helps players learn how to react to every mechanic. In turn, this sets up the final phase, where players can’t always predict what will come next. But this does little to help teams struggling to handle the randomness that does exist in early phases or trying to manage mechanics that demand high reaction speeds. A team’s first pulls will likely leave players scratching their heads and unsure just what went wrong. Even as players get better gear, Deltascape (Savage)’s third encounter will block raid teams from progressing.
And this isn’t the first time that this exact scenario has happened. It’s a fundamental design trait of almost every raid tier in Final Fantasy XIV from A Realm Reborn to now.
The Four Boss Tier Problem
With the exception of the Binding Coil of Bahamut, every raid in Final Fantasy XIV has had four encounters. Even then, Binding Coil had Turn 3, a glorified jump puzzle with some enemies, so it’s hard to say that it had five proper raid encounters in anything but name only. Proponents of the static number of encounters argue that it helps make every encounter unique, well-designed, and, above all, released on a timely schedule. After all, other MMORPGs with larger raid tiers have longer “droughts” between patches where nothing new has come out, or their encounters might be less distinctive. A raid could have twelve bosses, but players might only remember or care about four of them. They might even choose to skip certain encounters while actively raiding if they’re able, as those encounters are just seen as a waste of the team’s time and energy. At that point, it might be worth wondering why the developers should include those less interesting bosses at all. If players avoid doing them, wasn’t that a waste of time and resources in creating the boss encounter?
Final Fantasy XIV’s approach sidesteps some of these problems, but it has its own issues as a result. If the last boss of a raid tier is, say, ten times more difficult than the first boss, a ten boss tier has a lot of leeway in difficulty curve. Each boss could be one “step” above the previous one in difficulty. A developer can even cluster more easy or simple encounters near the start to give players plenty of opportunity to gear up before hitting the more difficult encounters. If the “difficulty spike” happens halfway through the raid tier, players still have bosses one through five without their progression coming to a halt. Under the four boss system of Final Fantasy XIV, many players only have two encounters before getting stuck. Sometimes, we’ve even had the second boss serve as that wall. During Heavensward, the second fight in Midas (Savage) was nerfed less than two months after it was released, giving insight to just how many players couldn’t push past it.
What one team finds trivial could be a wall for another team and vice versa. So, asking the question of if Halicarnassus or her predecessors Living Liquid (Gordias’ third encounter) and Vortexer (from Midas’ second encounter) are too difficult isn’t going to get us anywhere. Rather, the question should be, “Are these encounters well-paced in difficulty, and does the game prepare players to meet the challenging encounters and eventually succeed?”
A raid tier with ten encounters can prepare players more easily than a four encounter tier. That’s what makes Final Fantasy XIV’s raiding difficulty a pendulum swinging back and forth between “Most players can clear this” and “Much fewer players will clear this” in adjacent encounters. When the game doesn’t prepare players to efficiently clear an encounter, they get stuck, and that can be a determining factor in how stable Final Fantasy XIV’s raiding population will be for not just a raid tier, but the rest of the expansion.
What happens to stuck players?
The first and most obvious solution to being stuck on a fight is to cross-check other guides and talk to other players. With the game’s population being as high as it is, it’s unlikely, if not impossible, for there to only be one team in the entire player base struggling on a given fight. The more people that get stuck on a fight, the more demand there will be for guides and explanations of how an encounter works. In other words, the increased demand creates more information flow.
For example, it’s rare for players to get stuck on Cape Westwind, so there is little information available about the encounter and its mechanics. Players don’t need to know all of that information to succeed, so nobody bothers sharing it even if they know it. In contrast, a lot of players struggled in Aurum Vale, even though it’s a lower level instance than Cape Westwind. As a result, Aurum Vale has more guides and breakdowns about dangerous places in the dungeon and how to handle the bosses inside.
Let’s say our hypothetical raid team consults all the guides available and understands how the mechanics work, but execution just isn’t quite there for whatever reason. Players are slow to react, they forget the sequence of mechanics, they mix things up, they tunnel vision too hard while trying to focus on something, the raid team isn’t doing enough damage to get past certain phases, or something else chronically gets in the way. Maybe they aren’t even entirely sure what is killing them and making them wipe because it happens too quickly to identify the source. Guides won’t help a team stuck like this.
The next solution is to get better gear. Gear can compensate for mistakes or lacking skill. Inflated health pools give healers more of a buffer or let players live through messing up a mechanic. Higher damage output can result in skipping troublesome boss mechanics or getting through them faster. Well-geared tanks can sometimes bypass the need for two tanks entirely, allowing an additional damage-dealer to be brought in. The problem is that this can turn into a catch-22 situation for less skilled players. More difficult bosses drop better gear, but the players need the better gear to beat the bosses. Otherwise, they have to wait to acquire tomestone gear and, if able, upgrade it with items that drop from the bosses they can clear.
Substantial upgrades like chest pieces take two weeks minimum to purchase, and getting a full set of tomestone gear takes even longer. Weapons, if a team cannot clear the weapon token-dropping boss, will take a minimum of seven weeks to obtain under the model established by Heavensward’s raids that we still use in Stormblood. Let’s say our hypothetical team raids for two nights a week and three hours each night, which is still less than the three or more raid nights per week schedule that many teams in Final Fantasy XIV use. This gives them more lockouts to acquire better gear before clearing at the cost of being on the same encounter for much longer.
If this team defeats Alte Roite and Catastrophe in two hours every new week of raiding, or even quicker once they get better gear to overcome these encounters, that leaves four or more hours every week for Halicarnassus. After a month of this, the raid team will have spent probably sixteen or more hours on a single encounter — a grueling and daunting proposition. The players less tolerant of wiping that long on a boss with nothing to show for it will be left in the weird position of only making it halfway through a raid tier.
The problem isn’t necessarily if Halicarnassus is too difficult. The problem is that there isn’t any space between Catastrophe and Halicarnassus to build up to Halicarnassus’ difficulty or to give players that get stuck on an encounter something else to do. A team that gets stuck will, in all likelihood, quit raiding, if not the game entirely. That is the problem that marred Heavensward raiding and that Stormblood has yet to fix, as demonstrated by Halicarnassus herself. Players can’t always “git gud” and overcome an encounter if the previous encounters aren’t comparable in difficulty. Asking someone to wipe on a single encounter for months on end to defeat it is an outdated design not seen anywhere else in the game.
If the answer to this problem was to just practice on the troublesome encounter itself, Heavensward’s raiding population wouldn’t have been decimated by Gordias. Stuck players gave up on the raid, often after months of trying to defeat the encounters inside. Deltascape (Savage) may be less punishing than Gordias and Midas before it, but without a better difficulty curve, there will always be stuck players that leave the game in droves because of just one encounter that was too much of a jump in difficulty.
Next week, we’ll look at some ways that Final Fantasy XIV’s development team could fix this design problem, ranging from how raiding works in other MMORPGs to bygone raid designs the game no longer uses.