One of the surprise announcements at the Sony Press Conference that just completed was Final Fantasy XIV Online. This excites me, particularly because Final Fantasy XI was a game that I still sometimes think fondly of.
Yes, most people consider Final Fantasy XI to be an unrepetant grindfest, and it is. I didn't even level past 50 with my highest job since, after completing the first limit break quest, I no longer had the stomach for insanely long camps.
But Final Fantasy XI had some insanely great features that I haven't seen replicated nearly so well in any other game. We have no details about Final Fantasy XIV, and it is a completely different game, like all Final Fantasy games, involving its own unique game mechanics. However, I can only hope that they manage to retain these successful features from their previous online endeavor, while correcting some of the more unforgiving aspects of the game.
My favorite feature of Final Fantasy XI was the job system. This allowed you to change classes at any time. I played a Paladin (up to level 50), and leveled Beastmaster and White Mage into the 30s. Naturally I had a decently levelled Warrior job as well. All of this was done on one character.
In some games, like EverQuest II, I feel like I need a stable of alts to keep playing. I get bored playing the same class all the time. But the problem with alts is, as far as anyone else is concerned, you're a completely different person. Also, you have to do the same quests all over again.
With the job system, items I earn on one character that I can't use because they are for a different class, can be used when I change jobs. Quests that allow you to access restricted parts of the game or unlock special content don't need to be repeated over and over again for each alt. And, most importantly, my friends know who I am and what I'm playing, without forcing me to keep them updated or hog up half their friends list.
The skillchain and magic burst system was also an incredibly fun part of gameplay. It allowed multiple players to combine abilities to set off a powerful effect. EverQuest II tried a similar form of interaction with its Heroic Opportunity system, but failed, because their effects weren't worth the trouble.
The auction house was also a great feature. It used a blind auction where sellers posted an item for sale at a specified price. Buyers then attempted to purchase it, usually starting at the low end and moving up. The buyer doesn't know what the asking price is. If there are multiple sellers, the seller asking for the lowest amount gets his product moved first. There is a relatively recent price history you can use to get an idea of what recent sale prices were. This system helped reduce undercutting, since people generally undercut from the last actual sale price, instead of the last ask price.
I also loved the itemization. In Final Fantasy XI, statistics were relatively rare on items. Sometimes, it made sense to earn very low level items, simply because they had a stat bonus you wanted. In most other MMOs I've played, the progression is usually pretty linear.
In EverQuest II, for example, it's pretty uncommon to lust after a level 15 item at level 80. When EQ2 first came out, most every item in the game just had a random assortment of + modifiers to various statistics. Most items felt the same. The difference was usually whether it had +sta/wis or +str/int.
In Final Fantasy XI, however, it was common to see level 75s waiting around to smush Leaping Lizzy for a level 7 drop. These items sold for millions of gil. And people would go to great lengths just to get a rare drop that was identical to the common item, except with a "+1" to some stat.
Of course, none of this mattered in the long run for this consumer. The grind eventually forced me to quit and move on, and I eventually found a new home with EverQuest II. But I think there is evidence that Square Enix will not be making yet another grindfest. Over the years, they have made Final Fantasy XI far less 'hardcore.'
They introduced Fellowship NPCs, who act like Mercenaries or Guild Wars henchmen. They have even added "solo" quests to a game known for being an unrepentant group-only grind. They also added a Level Sync system which essentially makes everyone act as if they are the same level, eliminating the penalty for grouping with higher level party members, and making it easier to find a group.
So hopefully this is a sign that Square Enix understands that the MMO playing demographic has changed. But I guess we'll find out for sure in 2010.