Crystalline Conflict represents a decades-long struggle to bring PVP to Final Fantasy

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Players duking it out in Final Fantasy XIV's Crystalline Conflict PvP mode.
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I’ll admit this before we go any further - I’ve never been much of a PvP guy. Though I’ll never forget the dread-infused thrill of going deep into the Wilderness of Old School Runescape, picking up people’s blood-spoiled Adamantite Arrows like a medieval hobo looking to afford a sandwich, the idea of actually fending off other players in an MMO has never been my jam.

It’s absolutely a skill issue. I watched my cousin become one of those Goldshire brawlers in World of Warcraft in awe, impressed, yet only vaguely jealous, of his ability to weave spells and correctly guess his opponent’s moves. It’s a talent I just can’t replicate.

Even after ten years of playing Final Fantasy XIV, I can’t say I’ve ever really had the urge to partake in its myriad player-vs-player bouts. But that doesn’t mean I’m not utterly fascinated by the team’s tenacious efforts to keep new content coming in for its fringe competitive playerbase. And, after the release of Crystalline Conflict in the Endwalker expansion, which caused an explosion of the game’s typically hot-and-cold PvP scene, I had to chat with the development team about the long journey of making PvP battlegrounds as beloved in Final Fantasy XIV as its PvE content.

Thank the crystal

On the subject of why the team believes Crystalline Conflict was the mode that finally ignited a burning passion for player-vs-player conflict, Battle System Director Hikaru Tamaki gave a few reasons. It mostly boils down to finding the sweet spot to keep it fun and rewarding enough while avoiding the frustration of losing:

“I’d say there are many factors but probably a major reason why Crystalline Conflict resonates so well among players,” he begins. “While you’ll knock others out and get knocked out more often compared to previous PvP [modes] in FFXIV, we were able to minimise the impact that getting knocked out has on the result of the match… I think it was good that we were able to make it easier for players to feel the fun and pleasure of defeating their opponents and, conversely, that we alleviated some of the stress they experience when they are defeated.”

A battle breaking out in the new Crystalline Conflict PvP map added to Final Fantasy XIV with patch 6.3 on January 10, 2022.
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A vision realised

After ten years of the developers trying either to satisfy the game’s niche PVP community or foster a growing one, we had to dive into the history of Square Enix’s push for the growth of its spectator sport.

Final Fantasy XI, for example, paled in comparison to most MMOs of the time when it came to its PvP offerings. Instead focusing more closely on its PvE content and stories, players couldn’t engage in anything close to the friendly duels Western MMOs like Runescape and World of Warcraft players loved so dearly, being locked to a duo of large-scale conflict modes that, in the words of Final Fantasy XIV's Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida “... didn’t manage to generate significant results” but “some people liked.”

And that notion was, in retrospect, enough to suggest why Final Fantasy XIV lacked any PvP system prior to its closure a year after its original 2010 launch. “I believe that PvP was planned to be added later in the original FFXIV, because developers from FFXI were in charge of its game design.” said Mr. Yoshida. But the original version of the game and its team didn’t stick around long enough to see their vision come to fruition.

Using a similarly slow combat system and much of the same team, it wasn’t until Mr. Yoshida was brought in to rework the game that player brawls were introduced in the game’s first post-revival update with The Wolves' Den.

The Wolves' Den was the first PvP area added to Final Fantasy XIV. Arriving in the first post-release patch, it allowed for arena-style duels, hosted gear vendors, and allowed players to queue for the first few PvP modes.

Always ready to boast his gamer credentials at any opportunity, Mr. Yoshida backed up his wise words by re-confirming that he’s “been an online gamer since the days of Ultima Online.” He knows a thing or two about the trials and tribulations of proving yourself in the arenas.

“The main reason [for the inclusion of PvP in FFXIV] is that I believe content where players face off with each other is extremely effective as a form of endgame content,” and his comments certainly make a lot of sense. Unlike scripted PvE boss battles, PVP is infinitely repeatable and never once the same, yet it generally results in the same sort of euphoria when you come out on top.

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Divide and conquer

“Compared to the cost of PvE development, the scale and priority of PvP tend to be inevitably lower, but ever since the start of FFXIV A Realm Reborn, we have always had people in charge of PvP and have invested a large amount of resources on development, including the preparation of dedicated zones in the creation process."

For years, the team introduced new PVP modes fairly regularly. Not nearly as frequently as the more popular story content, item grinds, and raid battles, though: which always begged the question of how the PVE/PVP push split development resources.

"As for the breakdown of resources allocated to PvP as opposed to PvE, it is difficult to give a general answer because it depends on some patch cycles and other factors.”

Between new modes and matching arenas, even the skills players used in said battles have shifted over the years. And there’s a good reason for that. “When the earliest PvP content was implemented, we used PvE actions as they were,” Tamaki reminisced. But whether that was just to let players get a taste of the in-progress PVP mechanics or not, “...we gradually adjusted the performance of each action so that they were more suited for PvP… and cut down on the number of actions themselves to make things less busy for the player.”

A new map coming to Crystalline Conflict, Final Fantasy XIV's stand-out PvP mode, with patch 6.3 on January 10, 2023.

Ironing out the wrinkles

Just as most classes have gone through multiple reworks since their inception, so too have PVP-specific skills across the board. And if you feel like your max-level class rotation feels basic when you switch to PVP, the team assured us that it’s by design as well. According to Mr. Tamaki “For starters, the reason for completely separating PvE and PvP actions is tied to the premise of FFXIV’s PvP content, in that we allow players to be able to compete on the same terms regardless of character level.”

In an effort to even the playing field and ease anyone into the fold who may be trying the game’s PVP aspect out before reaching the level cap, he explained “Since players can participate in PvP content from level 30, it would be difficult to have those still in the process of levelling up suddenly use actions equivalent to the level cap. Hence, we narrowed down to a number of actions that are easy to learn and operate, even for those who are not yet familiar with combat in FFXIV.”

He continued, “We also felt that if we continued to approach it as an extension of the PvE actions we would have reached the limits in expressing the individuality of each job. Having thought about being able to create a fun way for players to increase their skill level in each job, to counteract their opponents’ actions, and creating certain points to attract the attention of spectators, we decided on the current form, in which the individuality of each job stands out more.”

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Forward unto the future

Ten years on and multiple PVP modes later, we had to ask the team about the journey, looking back on the whole sub-section of the game now that Crystalline Conflict has seemingly cemented player-vs-player combat as a mainstay of the game.

“I thought it would take many attempts, rounds of trial and error, and much persistence from our team for PvP to become established in the FF series, which had been cultivated as a console franchise,” said Yoshida.

When asked whether there were any PVP modes he’d hoped performed better given the development time, Yoshida continued: “I believe any content that has been implemented and is still in operation is necessary for the current FFXIV. Whether or not it becomes popular is merely the end result, but it’s the feedback and hints found through that process which are necessary for FFXIV’s quality later on down the road. Basically, I have fond feelings and memories toward all the content!”

And, looking forward to the future, we had to ask the team of their plans to keep the game’s PVP golden goose, Crystalline Conflict, going far into the future. Of course, the game’s Battle Director couldn’t help but comment on the lasting appeal of all the game’s currently active PVP options.

“Players who are new to PvP content often start with Frontline or Rival Wings, which are large-scale encounters involving many combatants. My goal is to make sure that they will have fun, even if only slightly, when they play that content.” It’s worth noting that this common way into PVP, with Frontline, at least, likely stems from the miscellaneous daily rewards the game uses to incentivise playing a round. That, in effect, appears to be part of the team’s wise and wider plan, with Tamaki adding “I myself play competitive games of various genres, and I always feel that the first impression you get is important.”

He continued, saying “I want to make it so that players can transition from experiencing vague feelings of fun to a deeper sense of enjoyment as they gradually understand how to use the actions and learn the rules of the content. In addition, I’d be very glad to see more players who are willing to try out Crystalline Conflict once they’ve become used to playing PvP.”

Nurturing new blood

On the subject of teaching new recruits the intricacies of PvP play, which generally means learning a rotation that’s wholly different to the one they take into high-end PvE battles, we had to ask if the team has any other plans for teaching would-be brawlers the ropes.

Though the game has numerous ways for players to learn about PvE systems, there’s no such way for future PVP stars to learn to anticipate and counter another player’s advances. Chatty folk can party up and step into sparring arenas, but solo players have only one real option - diving into a match, swallowing demoralizing defeats and the potential wrath of the experienced strangers they’re randomly paired with.

“I understand that the experience of participating in a game with no idea what to expect, only to be knocked out countless times and lose the match can be extremely stressful, and I appreciate such situations might make players think “I never want to participate in PvP again,”” said Tamaki. And he’s absolutely right.

“I’d like to reduce the number of players who have such experiences however much I can, and it’s also our intention to create opportunities for more players to experience PvP. To this end, we’ll continue to consider the possibilities that could serve as effective solutions for a system through which players can learn about PvP.”

Following up with his colleague’s talk about the hypotheticals of being bashed around a virtual arena, Naoki Yoshida chimed in with another well-placed anecdote about his past, which ties the whole thing together quite well.

Rival Wings was another attempt at large-scale PvP combat in Final Fantasy XIV, which had an air of MOBA games like League of Legends embedded into its mechanics.
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“Well, my first experience with PvP was 20 minutes after I created my character in Ultima Online. The first thing I felt at that moment was “frustration” and hence I studied the system, but most players aren’t like that. It’s precisely for that reason why I believe we need to separate PvE and PvP skillsets, reduce the number of skills, and consider making battles as simple as possible.

“Furthermore, as Tamaki commented, it would be best if some kind of training or tutorial could be implemented. However, when it comes to how to do this, the reality is that we find ourselves torn and it’s not easy for us to make the decision about embarking on such an undertaking. This is because it’s not only PvE but also PvP that is very frequently rebalanced, meaning we would always need to allocate costs/resources to adjusting the tutorial in line with balance changes. That said, we will certainly continue to consider the possibilities!"

And, with that, our little electronic chat came to a close. With patch 6.3 coming on Janaury 10, which kicks off Season 3 of the team’s killer Crystalline Conflict content push, it’s as clear as ever that the team is still working hard to bring PVP to the masses. So whether you’re grinding out wins for unique rewards or just looking to break up all the dungeon and raid runs, there’s no better time than the present to get stuck into the myriad ways Final Fantasy XIV has laid out to let you prove you’re better at pushing buttons than someone else. And there’s clearly more to come.