I don’t think I’m alone in feeling…alone in 2020. It’s been a truly unprecedented year of economic and social turmoil brought on by the global pandemic COVID-19. For many of us, it’s not even the first pandemic of our lifetimes, not to mention the third recession; but who’s counting?
We’ve seen systems and industries collapse entirely, bottoming out our generation’s already tenuous grasp on faith in things ever being “okay.” Worst of all, we haven’t even been able to hug each other.
And so, with broken hearts and clenched jaws, we adapt. We trade in the beers at the pub, the coffees at the overpriced corner shop and the games nights for Zoom meetings. We laugh while changing our backgrounds on calls, lament the state of Australia’s still broken NBN and try to live as best we can despite the raging inferno of circumstances around us.
It’s not ideal, but we haven’t seen ideal for quite some time.
An unprecedented year yields unprecedented growth too. According to a report from NPD, a market analyst group, between April and June we have seen a 30% rise in video game sales from the same period last year. Revenue for this period capped out just over eleven billion dollars, with ten billion coming from software sales both physical and digital. Nintendo alone has reported an over 400% increase in profits during the pandemic, with major sales hits such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons indicating a trend toward comforting, community building experiences.
Final Fantasy 14 is no exception to this trend. If anything, it’s a game primed for this exact moment in history, a carefully curated space that was ready for an influx of the existentially displaced and disheartened. The game has just recently tipped over the 20 million registered users mark, a massive achievement seven years in the making and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
At face value, it’s easy to understand why players are flocking to the MMORPG. The current Free Trial mode offers an impressive amount of content, including two full campaigns and a variety of character options. It’s a whole lot of game available right off the bat, an especially appealing option during financially difficult times. But while A Realm Reborn and Heavensward serve as bait, the true hook of Final Fantasy 14 is its deeply connected community.
Final Fantasy 14 first hit my radar last year when a float for the game marched in the 2019 Sydney Mardi Gras parade. The float, appropriately dubbed “A Realm United”, was officially backed by Square Enix, marking the first-ever instance of a video game developer collaborating with the iconic queer festival. In a time when so many (too many) gaming adjacent companies and personalities withhold political statements or actions it was, and remains, a beautiful gesture to acknowledge and work with the game’s explicitly LGBTQ+ fanbase.
This move was emblematic of the wider culture surrounding Final Fantasy 14. It has a well-earned reputation for being not only a safe space for queer players to express themselves but also just generally welcoming to all. While Square Enix’s consistent communication and relationship with the fanbase is partly responsible for this environment, it’s the players themselves who have carved out spaces for those seeking a much-needed reprieve from reality.
The game’s communities have flourished in online spaces, attracting thousands of members to dozens of social media groups. For those of us Down Under there are the fine folks over at the Final Fantasy XIV Australia and New Zealand Facebook group, a private group that is pushing 8k members. Or if Discord is more your speed, the FFXIV OCE Community boasts specialised help for roles in the game and server groups for finding timezone appropriate mates.
These are just two of a number of communities, many of which operate with two basic, but crucial rules. Number one, have fun and number two, zero tolerance for bigotry and hatred. Unsurprisingly, you don’t get a reputation for a positive community without putting in the work and the enforcement of these rules goes a long way to make all players feel welcome.
The importance of inclusivity in these spaces surrounding Final Fantasy 14 has arguably never been more important. In talking with members of these groups, all avid players of the game in one form or another, a common throughline emerges – Eorzea has become a home away from home.
“Honestly? FFXIV has been my lifeline” Tam tells me, “If it wasn’t for the wonderful people I have met in Eorzea, I don’t think I would have made the progress I have made since the beginning of the year.” Tam’s experiences speak to a larger shift within the game and its community, one that sees players becoming more akin to family amid a global pandemic. “When I was at my lowest (just before the COVID-19 crisis), these people gave me a reason to enjoy life again and lifted me up…I have been playing FFXIV more and I am appreciating it more as a social outlet and enjoying time with the people I enjoy spending time with.”
I also spoke with Teddy, another player I met through the Australian Facebook group about how his time with the game has changed during isolation. “When COVID-19 hit it was a mess, from everybody being in lockdown to protestors out and about trying to fight it. However, most of my friends from Elemental and Aether Data Centers were always on and asking me to come on to help them with either mount farming to raiding in Savages or to even help decorate their houses.”
When I asked Tam and Teddy why they believed Final Fantasy 14 fosters these kinds of connections between players they both agreed that goal-orientated tasks helped people feel useful and welcome. “My friends and I all have similar interests in the game, and even though we might not be as interested or confident in one part of the game, FFXIV allows us to still give it a go with mostly kind people and even kinder friends,” Tam says, going on to note, “I also think that you can feel the love and the passion that the FFXIV team have put into their creation, and that love and passion is in turn reflected in how we engage with the game and the other people that also call Eorzea home.”
As a relatively new player myself I can attest to the kindness of strangers in Eorzea. I recently ran the latest dungeon raid with a high-level character and despite my lack of honed skills, I was supported the whole way by my squadmates. Granted, every gaming community is going to have its bad eggs but Final Fantasy 14’s player base seems intent on either weeding them out or simply ignoring them and focusing on positivity.
Speaking of new players, I also asked Tam and Teddy what advice they would give folks who were looking to get into Final Fantasy 14 for the first time. Teddy noted something Square Enix has addressed just recently about the first stretch of the game – basically, stick with it. Patch 5.3 has blessedly streamlined much of A Realm Reborn‘s content, making the ride to Heavensward much smoother for newcomers. Meanwhile, Tam sums it up beautifully.
“Play at your own pace. Be brave, try something new. Want to give the Savage tier a go? Find supportive players, who will give advice and bring out the best in you. Find what you enjoy in the game and master that.” Tam says, delivering the kind of advice I’ve come to recognise as the norm in these communities. “If you meet someone in-game who maybe not so nice, just remember that someone who is worth playing with is around the corner. Enjoy your adventure.”
If you’re interested in reading my impressions of Final Fantasy 14‘s opening you can check out my player diary here. Then, when you’re ready, head over here to read my in-depth interview with the game’s director and all-round good dude Yoshida Naoki.