Friday, December 31, 2021

What My Year-End Review Taught Me About EVE Online

This last post of the year will look back on CCP's look back on my year playing EVE Online. Every year CCP sends out a personalized video summarizing a player's activity in the game. The video showed my activity across all of my Omega accounts. I didn't play very much this year. At least, I thought I hadn't played much. Watching the video, I discovered I ranked fairly highly in a few categories. Looking at those categories told me something about the state of EVE Online at the end of 2021.

Skill points gained across 3 accounts

The first item that struck me was my ranking for the number of skill points acquired over 2021. I have 3 paid accounts that I kept training all year. I didn't buy any skill injectors or packages with skill points. I did, however, take advantage of every login event that gave out skill points. By doing those things, I wound up in the top 6% of players, not just accounts, who gained skill points in 2021.

One of the accepted truths in EVE is that most players have multiple accounts. But do they really? If someone with three accounts is in the top 6% of players, then I don't think they're are that many people with more than three Omega accounts. Of course, the flip side is also true. Perhaps so many players bounce off of EVE within the first few hours that my position is artificially inflated.

My participation in events

Next is my ranking in the category "Agency & Events". I know I mostly logged in for the events, but I really don't think I participated in eight. Four or five sure, but I took a pass on some of the faction events. So does CCP count participation in an event as only logging into the character select screen? Because I know I only did that for 2-3 events.

And a top 8% ranking in number of event points earned? I really wonder how many players actually participate in the events. I even had a higher ranking in the category than for skill points earned.

Travel in known space

Finally, my travel raised an eyebrow. I only averaged 20-25 jumps per week in 2021, which isn't a lot. My travel in low security space, with only 206 jumps, still managed to rank in the top 24% of players. We always hear about how low sec is dying, but that is an awfully low number to still rank in the top quartile of players in the category. But I don't know how to get more people to enter the space.

I've finished the Endwalker MSQ so I should have more time to play EVE in 2022. In that sense, these year-in-review videos work as they give me goals to try to surpass next year. But the data also reveals some things which I don't think are good signs. With my playtime in the game in 2021, I should not appear near the top of anything.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Cloud Imperium's 2020 Financial Statement

Last week Cloud Imperium released its annual financial statement on its website. The statement covers the 2020 calendar year. Observers had a preview of the company's performance with the release of Cloud Imperium UK Ltd.'s financial statement by Companies House in October. I did a quick review at the time, but the statement did not include information form the United States. 

Cloud Imperium had a very good year financially in 2020. For the first time since 2014, income outpaced costs.

One figure I found puzzling was the $4.8 million reduction in minority investment. The report stated:

During 2020 the group made a return on capital of ($4.8M) worldwide, ($1.3M) in the Rest of World and ($3.5M) in the US. Much of this was to pay down accelerated taxes and fees arising from the structuring of the group and some was a return on the minority investment made to date, with net inward investment to date at the end of 2020 still equivalent to $58.4M.

We know from the UK financial statement that the $1.3 million in the Rest of the World was paid out as a dividend to shareholders. I'm not sure how much of the $3.5 million in the US went to taxes and how much went to paying shareholders. I got the impression from the earlier financial release that shareholders would also receive a payment from the US part of the business. As it is, the $4.8 million in payments reduces the $7.8 million in profit down to $2.5 million for the year. Although, as the report states, "...the surplus show here will not translate into an accounting profit when applying revenue recognition and other accounting conventions".

Income generation in 2020 was the best ever for Cloud Imperium. Overall, income increased by $27.4 million, or 45.2%. The report summed up income as follows:

2020 was a record year for income with pledges up 62% to $77M and subscriptions up 29% to $4.7M. Other income was down 31% at $6.5M, owing to the end of the US incentives program that we only qualified for during our initial years of US growth.

A couple of points about Cloud Imperium's income stood out. The first is the cumulative total of the Pledges/Counter category. Adding the yearly total from 2012 to 2020, the amount of ship sales and packages comes out to $337.8 million. But the counter on the website at the beginning of 2021 read approximately $340 million. The report does contain a disclaimer about the amount of the category:

This line is taken directly from our daily published Funding Stats Counter, showing the net receipts from our backers and customers. However due to exchange differences and small items that are not included in the counter, such as collected shipping costs on physical goods, the counter does not completely represent all revenue received.

I do have to point out that the discrepancy between the total in the report and the total on the website, $2.1 million, is almost the total raised during the original fundraising effort on Kickstarter. Which would make sense from an accounting point of view. Cloud Imperium could not count the funds from Kickstarter as sales of digital goods, which is what the category actually measures.

The second point concerns the Other Income category. The report attributes the decline in revenue from the category to Cloud Imperium no longer qualifying for government incentives. The remaining total of $6.5 million lines up with the £4.7 million Cloud Imperium UK Ltd. received in 2020 in the form of the video games tax credit. With that knowledge, we can say that 89% of Cloud Imperium's profits in 2020 came from payments from the UK government.

The total income over the course of Cloud Imperium's existence through the end of 2020 was $405.3 million split into the three categories:

Pledges/Counter: $337.8 million
Subscriptions: $22.8 million
Other income: $44.7 million

With only a couple of days left in 2021, the Pledges/Counter shows over $85 million in sales in 2021. The odds are that when the financial report for 2021 is released next December, the total amount of income will reach $500 million. And that amount will not include the $58.4 million listed as minority investment.

In 2020, Cloud Imperium increased spending by over 10% for the third consecutive year. The report gave a breakdown of last year's 14.8% overall increase:

In 2020, Cloud Imperium continued to grow its expenses and company profile. Costs increased by 10% over 2019 to $74.8M and capital expenditure, at $6.1M, was 150% up on 2019, impacted by the purchase of the perpetual Company CryEngine license for use not just in our current games, but also for potential use in any future projects that CIG might develop. The breakdown of the expenditure is commented upon below. 2020 was an unusual year in which we had to transition to work from home for much of the year and be agile with our development plans. We accelerated much-needed investment into our publishing and security disciplines, in part due to the increased customer engagement but also due to the distributed nature of our operations during the pandemic.

While headcount increased 15.1% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, the increased payroll costs only accounted for $4.2 million of the $10.4 million overall increase in spending. Of course, increasing headcount doesn't just increase salaries paid. The acquisition of new offices in Frankfurt and Manchester will not show up on the financial reports until the 2021 report comes out next December.

Perhaps the biggest revelation in the report is the news about Cloud Imperium's continued use of CryEngine.

Capex spend in 2020 was significantly up on 2019, which in part was driven by the headcount increase, but in the year we also purchased a perpetual worldwide license for use of the CryEngine, which provides us greater flexibility in how we develop and deploy the engine within our existing and planned future business.

The purchase of the engine license from Crytek seems to resolve the lawsuit filed against Cloud Imperium. Observers may remember that Cloud Imperium claimed to have switched to Lumberyard and no longer used CryEngine. Apparently such reports were incorrect.

The financial future of Cloud Imperium is a lot brighter now than at the time the 2019 report was released. Not only did the company post a profit in 2020, but the amount on the pledges counter for 2021 is actually greater than the 2020 operating costs. The main question now is whether the leadership at Cloud Imperium will manage the resources at its disposal prudently as to remain operating in the black.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

CCP's War On Illicit RMT: The Winter Status Update And The Hazard Discount

Last week CCP published its "Winter Status Update" which resulted in a lot of discussion. I was asked by a few people about a claim made in the conclusion of the dev blog.

The foundations of the EVE ecosystem are strong. PLEX prices have stabilized, stockpiles are healthy, great strides have been made in the war against botting (as evidenced by the skyrocketing RMT ISK price), and there are more ways to earn a living. The foundation allows us to build with more confidence and add more sand to the sandbox. What players can expect from now on is an increase in ship production, capitals out in space, new exciting strategic goals for small, medium, and large fleets – and more.

Was the price of ISK on the secondary markets (aka black or grey markets) really skyrocketing? Not at the time of the publication of the dev blog. I blame the delay in the publication of the dev blog, as the price on the black market did rise in late October and early November. Based on the buyer reviews on the RMT site Player Auctions, the 7-day moving average price of 1 billion ISK sold rose from $6.44/billion on 12 October to $8.66/billion on 12 November. I think a 34.5% increase in price over the course of a month could qualify as a skyrocketing price. However, by the time CCP released the dev blog on 14 December, the price had declined back down to $7.18/billion ISK. 

One of the problems with just looking at the sale price of illicitly sold ISK is the wide variation of prices. Over the course of 2021, the average price of ISK sold on Player Auctions varied by $2.39/billion with no discernable trend throughout the year.

A better metric to determine whether cost is affecting the sale of illicit ISK is the hazard discount. The hazard discount is the amount of a price reduction ISK sellers must offer buyers relative to the price of ISK purchased through CCP-approved means (aka the primary market) in order to entice those buyers into risking CCP banning all of their accounts.

During the period of time I believe the dev blog referred to as having skyrocketing secondary market, the price for ISK in The Forge also declined. The 7-day moving average of the value of ISK sold in Jita 4-4 and the TTT Keepstar also declined by 5%, from $13.06/billion ISK on 12 October, to $12.40/billion ISK on 12 November. But by the publication date of the dev blog, the value of ISK sold in The Forge rose back up to $13.12/billion ISK.

Overall, the hazard discount dropped 43.4% from 12 October to 12 November. People who were willing to risk CCP suspending or banning their accounts to save $33 by purchasing 5 billion ISK on the secondary market weren't so eager to do so when the savings dropped to under $19.

The hazard discount can also take into account the percentage of savings by buying ISK off the secondary markets. In our period of interest, the percentage the ISK price was under the value of ISK sold in markets in The Forge dropped from 50.6% on 12 October down to 30.2% on 12 November. The result was a big drop in ISK sales on PA. Sales had recovered in early December but were slumping again on 14 December with the hazard discount percentage at 45.3%

Now, I didn't address the "we're doing good against botting because the price of RMT ISK went up" argument. Does that mean CCP is doing bad because the price of ISK on the grey and black markets went back down? A pretty silly argument, in my opinion. More important is whether sales are going down. If the review data I collect from the Player Auctions website is any indication, the answer is yes.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Square Enix Halts Sales Of Final Fantasy XIV And Other Endwalker News

Last night Naoki Yoshida, the producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV, issued another letter to players explaining the company's actions to address the many issues surrounding the launch of the Endwalker expansion.

First, Square Enix is increasing the amount of game time affected players will receive as compensation for the state of the login servers.

We are aware that the long waiting times to log into the game are preventing players from playing, and for this, we sincerely apologize. In response to this, we recently granted 7 days of game time, but now we will also be granting an additional 14 days.

This will apply to all players (including those with multiple accounts) who own the full version of the game and have an active subscription as of Tuesday, December 21, at 12:00 a.m. (PST), which is the scheduled release date for Patch 6.01. Further details regarding eligibility will be announced separately.

If I read the passage correctly, players subscribed to play FFXIV at the start of early access on 3 December will now receive 21 days of game time as compensation.

Square Enix is also halting all digital sales of FFXIV and suspending new players from taking advantage of the free trial.

Players are currently experiencing extremely long wait times due to the dense concentration of play hours which far exceed our server capacity, especially during the peak times, and so we have decided to temporarily suspend the sale and delivery of FINAL FANTASY XIV Starter Edition and Complete Edition. Additionally, although those with an active subscription are prioritized to log in, Free Trial players are unable to log in outside of late night and early morning hours, and so we will also temporarily suspend new registrations for the Free Trial.

These temporary suspensions will be phased in over the next few days as we work with our retail partners. We will be coordinating with them as swiftly as possible, but please bear in mind that this will be a gradual process.

Another reason for an apology is the Error 2002 bug that kicks players out of the login queue. From personal experience, the 2002 error is the most annoying bug of the whole Endwalker launch experience. The requirement to babysit the computer to ensure the ability to login is frustrating. Apparently, the end to the issue is close at hand.

In regards to Error 2002 that occurs during login queues, outside of causes related to unstable connections, we have confirmed a bug. This bug was part of a login-related program created back in FFXIV version 1.0, and thanks to the reports and tests carried out by many of our players, we were able to identify the cause of the problem. We apologize for not being able to identify the issue on our end and thank you all for submitting detailed reports regarding this matter.

Although the code for fixing this bug is already prepared, applying the fix will require patching the game client, which will be addressed in Patch 6.01, scheduled for Tuesday, December 21. As this issue occurs while waiting in the queue for a very long time, we considered releasing the patch ahead of schedule, but in the end decided to include it in Patch 6.01, as there is already a lot of new code in the pipeline for the patch and interrupting the process of verifying them may lead to other bugs. We apologize for the inconvenience and ask for your patience a bit longer.

Another issue is the release of Patch 6.05, scheduled for 4 January 2022. The major feature of the patch is release of the savage version of the Endwalker's big raid, Pandæmonium: Asphodelos (Savage). At this point, trying to release the patch without the raid will lead to other issues down the road.

We understand that there are concerns about World First races and first week progression, but Patch 6.05 will add a number of new elements, such as the addition of a new Allagan tomestone, new crafting recipes, as well as the new treasure hunt dungeon, the Excitatron 6000.

Many players are looking forward to content aside from high-end duties, and furthermore, considering the balance of the rewards and item levels from said content, we cannot withhold only Pandæmonium: Asphodelos (Savage), and rebalancing these would delay the patch release by several weeks and would affect Patch 6.1 and beyond.

Yoshida also gave an update on infrastructure updates. Earlier in 2021 he had discussed adding a new data center for Oceania and the addition of new worlds to existing data centers. Due to the world-wide semiconductor shortage, Square Enix has not succeeded in procuring the server equipment necessary to implement the changes.

We are considering adding servers to each region, especially plans for a large-scale addition in North America and Europe, and will be looking at the number of servers, infrastructure construction time, power issues, and server rack situation to see if we should do this sequentially or in one big push. Either way, the plan is to introduce a large number of additions, which we intend to carry out quickly and safely with as minimal inconvenience to our players as possible, and we will follow up regarding this matter as we progress.

Hopefully Square Enix will have a roadmap for the actions it can present to players by the end of January.

Finally, a lot of people have lost their accounts due to using some shady services to access the game.

After reviewing the details of these inquiries, we found that the accounts involved are being accessed from the same environment as those used by a group of people who are believed to be providing suspicious services. As a result, these accounts were determined to be using suspicious services that temporarily access user accounts to log in and make payments or create accounts on their behalf, and were blocked from payment and code registrations as a part of fraud prevention.

Such suspicious services may have a history of theft or other fraudulent credit card activity, and we cannot do anything other than safeguard against such activity and cannot restore those accounts.

As a reminder, we ask you to refrain from using such suspicious services, for your own good.

All things considered, a decent update to keep players informed about the issues and what Square Enix is doing to address them. I wish the issues weren't happening, though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

My Endwalker Experience, Days 11-12

I am almost at the end of the main story questline (MSQ) of Final Fantasy XIV's Endwalker expansion. Over the last two days I completed the content from the start of the journey to the edge of the universe up to the final trial in the MSQ. I attempted the final trial but the group failed and disbanded. Basically, I am almost done with the story. I just need to complete the trial and then watch the many cutscenes sure to follow. As such, this is the last post of my Endwalker journal. My next planned Endwalker post is a spoiler-free impression of the expansion.

Now for the mandatory warning. This article will contain Endwalker spoilers! I don't plan on a lot of spoilers as I have previously included, but a couple are necessary.

Login Savage: I've found that logging in around 5pm EST / 2pm PST results in around a 30-45 minute queue. While I haven't experienced errors, one of my FC mates took 3 1/2 hours to log in last night because he received a 2002 error and was not babysitting his login attempt.

Flying: I have now unlocked flying in all Endwalker zones. I do have comments about two zones. The first is on the moon. Finding the bridge to the final areas required was a pain. The second is Labyrinthos. I originally thought I had completed the unlock, but the UI hid the empty slot that I had. I picked that up last night.

Crafting and gathering: I didn't do any Endwalker crafting or gathering over the last two days. The only crafting I did was to replenish the stock I sell on the market.

The story and dungeon: The final zone was an adventure, with Scions dropping off by ones and twos to advance the Warrior of Light's progress to the end. After each character getting a final farewell, they were all brought back for the final battle. I knew that would happen once Y'shtola disappeared. Not only because of her "final" exposition, but because she wasn't going to die. She's "died" so often, I knew she would survive the expansion. So far she has.

The biggest loose end left was Zenos. He showed up between the end of the final dungeon and the start of the final trial. His appearance just reinforced my belief he's a horrible character. Even someone as talented as Natsuko Ishikawa had to resort to an immense level of cheese to fit him into the conclusion of the expansion.

Overall, I have greatly enjoyed Endwalker. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I'll write up a spoiler-free review once I reach the closing credits. The only question now is which expansion I'll consider superior, Shadowbringers or Endwalker.

Monday, December 13, 2021

My Endwalker Experience, The Second Weekend

The second weekend for early access players of Final Fantasy XIV's Endwalker expansion is now over. I have not completed the main story questline (MSQ) as I have spent time leveling my crafting and gathering classes at the same time. From Friday through Sunday I played content the MSQ from the middle of level 85 to level 89. Now for the mandatory spoiler warning. This post contains spoilers. I want to record my thoughts as I travel through the expansion, which requires some spoilers. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, because the expansion really picked up steam in the second half of the MSQ.

Login Savage: I think the login situation is much better compared to the first day or two after the launch of Endwalker. I personally have not encountered a queue over 2000 players, and have not heard anyone in my FC complain of a queue over 4000. However, the numbers do seem to tick down slower, but steadier. I also was not kicked from a queue over the last three days.

Level pacing: For those wondering, I did reach the level cap of 90 on my white mage job. I did so when I completed the level 89 dungeon. Basically, I never was more than a level and a half over the level of the quests I did.

Flying: So far, I have unlocked flying in every zone I adventured in except on the moon. I assume the moon is my next destination in the story, but I don't know for sure.

Gathering: I spent Saturday raising the leveling my gathering classes. I raised the levels from 85 up to 89 for botanist and miner and level 90 for fishing. 

The story and group content: The dungeons and trial I played through are so closely tied to the story I am rolling the two subjects into one. While I will limit the number of spoilers, this section contains major spoilers! 

From the Thavnairan capital of Radz-at-Han, the story leads us back to Garlemald. Two significant events happen associated with a single-player duty in the zone. The first is Fourchenault begins to realize Alphinaud and Alisaie are no longer the defenseless children he always imagined them.

The second goes back to my least favorite villain, Zenos. In his only appearance over the weekend, he laments the fact the Warrior of Light has no time for him. In truth, I have considered him insignificant and little more than an annoyance since the end of Stormblood. Finally, Alisaie shoves a rhetorical boot up his ass and voices my opinion of the oaf. I needed that.

In the Scions' search for a way to forestall the Final Days, the Warrior of Light winds up going back in time to the root cause of the calamity. Our journey back in history not only explains the creation of Hydaelyn, but the mechanics behind the original Final Days as well. The region's story is capped off with the Ktisis Hyperboreia dungeon. I recommend running the content at least once using the Trust system. The Warrior of Light's companions during the fight are inspired and I am glad I did so.

The Scions continued to push to save the inhabitants of all the shards and not just the Source. They ran into a roadblock and needed to consult with Hydaelyn. The only problem? The Sharlayan Forum controlled access to her. In order to gain access, the Scions needed to solve an engineering problem. After investigating the technical issues, the Scions realize the real issue involved obtaining resources, not improving technology.

Incredibly, Alphinaud managed to solve the problem with a single link pearl call. The result of the call demonstrated the influence Alphinaud and the Scions had built up over the last 8 years of Final Fantasy XIV's story. Perhaps more importantly, any resistance Fourchenault had to the Scions' plans crumbled as he finally accepted his kids were all grown up.

I concluded the weekend by running the level 89 dungeon and trial. The dungeon is The Aitiascope, notable for the return of the terrifying boss of Cape Westwind, Rhitahtyn the Unshakable. The Aitiascope is notable for finally ending the story of Fandaniel. All that is left afterward is to clean up the mess he made so long ago.

I'm not really sure the level 89 trial, The Mothercrystal, counts as group content. The purpose of the trial is to convince Hydaelyn to allow the Scions to travel to the edge of the universe to combat the ultimate bad guy. The Scions pass the test, but as a result Hydaelyn is no more.

The Mothercrystal did have a new mechanic to make completing the trial easier. Each time the player dies, a buff is placed on the character allowing the player to die that many times before failing the trial. I wound up getting the counter up to 5.

Conclusion: At this point, I believe all I need to do is complete the trip to the edge of the universe. I think I need to stop off at the moon first, but I'm not sure. The only outstanding question I have is, "what about Zenos?" Natsuko Ishikawa, the lead writer for both Shadowbringers and Endwalker, has done a great job tying up all the loose ends in the Hydaelyn/Zodiark story arc. As far as I can tell, Zenos is the only major outstanding loose end from previous expansions left to resolve.

Friday, December 10, 2021

My Endwalker Experience, Days 6-7

Instead of writing about how CCP is bad at the maths surrounding how mining barges align to warp, I will continue writing about my experience in Final Fantasy XIV's newest expansion, Endwalker. Over the course of the last two days, I completed approximately level 83 to the middle of level 85 in the main story questline (MSQ). Now for the mandatory spoiler warning. This post contains spoilers. I want to record my thoughts as I travel through the expansion, and that requires some spoilers. I have divided the post into sections for those who only want to read about certain topics. The story section, which definitely contains major spoilers, is at the end. I do use the names of regions, cities, dungeons and trials also.

Login Savage: I think the login experience is much better. The queues are still long during peak periods, but getting kicked from the login queue is much less common. Last night, I entered the queue with 3400 people ahead of me. While I had to wait 80 minutes, I never was removed from the queue. 

Square Enix performed another emergency maintenance on the login servers last night to address 3001 errors. The communication to the player base has been pretty good about the issues. Players, including myself, still get irritated though. I don't mind the long queues. What I don't like is babysitting my login attempts.

Level pacing: I am still okay with the level pacing. When I unlocked the aetheryte in Radz-at-Han, a level 85 quest, I was level 87. I figure I am about half-way through the expansion.

Gear: Closely associated with the level pacing is gear progression. The developers have thoughtfully made gear obtained from quests relevant to the level of the zone one is questing through. To get all the gear, make sure to complete all the blue icon quests that unlock flying. Most importantly, at least one of those quests will have follow-on quests. Complete those also.

For those who want better gear, rerun the dungeons and trial. Or do what I am on the verge of doing and over level the zones and craft/buy higher level gear. Yesterday I replaced the last of my Shadowbringers gear. The level 530 gear went a long way.

Flying: As far as I can tell, the final quests required to unlock flying in a zone pop up when the last MSQ quest in the zone is accepted. I don't mind. Let me run around on my favorite mount my first time through a zone and then allow me to fly around when levelling up additional jobs. I unlocked flying in Garlemald on Wednesday and Thavnair last night.

Group content: I ran into the first trial, The Dark Inside, on the moon. Since no comprehensive guides exist, I just queued up. I had no wait. I guess that's one of the benefits of doing content during the initial launch rush.

The trial had a unique mechanic. When the arrows around the edge of the platform appear, move into the ground circles. The boss will then pick up the raid and move them around the platform. Damage is only applied if a player winds up in one of the damage dealing areas.

I personally had a lot of difficulty learning the mechanics of the trial. In my first attempt, I disconnected 45 minutes into the 60 minute period. When I got back into the game, I entered the trial again and we succeeded after only a few wipes.

The next dungeon I came across, Vanaspati, is found in Thavnair after returning from the moon. I ran the dungeon using the Trust system. For those wondering, I used Thancred as the tank and Alisaie and Y'shtola as the DPS. I played as a white mage. I find following Y'shtola makes learning the dance steps in dungeon fights easier.

I had no problems with the first two bosses. The final boss had a mechanic I didn't realize for quite a few runs. When the meteors are raining down, don't enter the orange circles at all. Once I realized I couldn't cut across them, I completed the dungeon fairly easily.

The story: Okay, here be spoilers!

At the end of the second dungeon, the Scions return to Garlemald while the Warrior of Light proceeds up to the moon in hot pursuit of Fandaniel and Zenos. Players interested in the story should go with the flow and not return to Garlemald until unlocking an aetheryte on the moon. Trust me, life is easier that way.

I have to make a mea culpa where Fandaniel is concerned. After all is said and done, he reminds me of Ilberd, the fanatical villian from both A Realm Reborn and Heavensward. Complete with the dramatic backwards fall. Just as Ilberd's actions set the course for Stormblood, Fandaniel's promises to direct the plot for the rest of Endwalker.

Fandaniel is brilliant, but has a major character flaw. As great as his plans are, he can't help but do subtle things to make them not fully succeed. That occurs with Zodiark.

Fandaniel's original plan was to lure the Warrior of Light to the moon, free Zodiark, have Zenos take control of Zodiark, then watch as the Warrior of Light kill Zodiark. Oh, did I forget to mention that killing Zodiark would trigger the Final Days? 

But at the end, Fandaniel couldn't help himself. Instead of getting rid of Zodiark and being around to thwart any plans that might stop the end of not only the Source, but all the reflected worlds as well, he gets over-confident and takes Zenos' place instead. With Fandaniel now gone, I think the Warrior of Light and the gang has a chance to save all the worlds.

I consider the death of Zodiark the end of act one of the expansion. The second act will cover the conflict between those who want to save the inhabitants of the Source vs those who want to save all the worlds. The two groups in conflict are the Sharlayan Forum vs the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, thus pitting the twins against their father once more.

The return from the moon introduces the player to the beginning of the Final Days. The third dungeon, Vanaspati, shows just how bad things can, and probably will, get before the end. But finishing the rest of the MSQ in Thavnair also showed that the current version of the Final Days is different than the original one in Amaurot is subtle but important ways.

Oh, and one bit of conjecture. With Zenos no longer with someone to give him guidance, I would not be surprised to find Fourchenault Leveilleur teaming up with the deranged Garlean. I expect the Fourchenault to clash with the Scions and what better way to deal with the Warrior of Light than to unleash Zenos?

Conclusion after 7 days: I think I am halfway through the expansion's MSQ. So far, I have had a great time playing through the content. The writing is very good. The music is fantastic. The zone design, especially Garlemald, is great. The developers have introduced new mechanics and quest types. Maybe more importantly, I found some of the new content challenging and I feel good after overcoming the obstacles.

The only real downside have been the login queue issues. Not that queues exist, but that the queue system had a lot of problems. Hopefully those are fixed, or at least reduced significantly. 

At this point, I have to say Endwalker is worth the purchase price. Is the expansion better than Shadowbringers? If the quality of Endwalker going forward equals what I have played so far, I can see that debate raging into the future.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

My Endwalker Experience, Days 4-5

I decided to continue recording my thoughts about Final Fantasy XIV's Endwalker expansion as I play through the main story questline (MSQ). I do need to put up a warning that the article does contain spoilers. One of the subjects I want to jot down are my thoughts on how the story is progressing.

First of all, the pacing of the story to my levelling experience is still good. I am up to a level 83 quest, To The Moon, and I am only 2/3 of the way through level 84. In addition to the MSG, I do all the blue quests I find along the way. I also do questlines I find that start with a blue quest marker. I found out the hard way during Shadowbringers to do those quests. They usually wind up as prerequisites for other important quest lines later. I also started doing FATES, as the bicolor gem currencies are worth picking up. As long as I don't fall behind the level of the MSQ quests, I'm happy.

Next is the zone I am currently in, Garlemald. If the Garlean Empire represents a fascist regime like Nazi Germany, then the month is February 1945. The Allies, in the form of the Eorzean Alliance and their eastern allies, have driven into the heart of the dying empire. The population is torn in two, between those who wish to do their duty as they see fit and those who just want to madness to stop. Throw in the fanatic tempered troops following the Galean deity (yes, they have one) and the player is presented with a chaotic situation.

Fandaniel and Zenos make their first substantive appearances in Garlemald. My reviews on our antagonists is mixed. Fandaniel has emerged from his flamboyant appearance in the latter patches of Shadowbringers into a dangerous opponent. Just because he is a sundered Ascian does not make him harmless. Zenos is, well Zenos. A very one-dimensional villain. On who, honesty, doesn't fulfill the role very well of the big bad guy for an expansion. I had the same opinion of Zenos during Stormblood and I haven't seen anything yet to change my mind.

The one scene where I felt an ominous presence from Zenos sums up my feelings. Fandaniel executes a plan in which he begins to temper all the Garleans inside the Alliance camp. During the confusion, he not only captures the Warrior of Light, but extracts her soul and puts it into another body. The player wakes up sitting at a table with Zenos with an extensive meal laid upon it. During the ensuing conversation, Zenos talks about entering the body of the Warrior of Light, walking into the Alliance encampment, and causing havoc.

What wound up happening is, when Zenos tried to walk into the camp in the Warrior of Light's body, he was spotted by multiple people as a fake and stopped by a large contingent of both the Scions and their allies. Whatever trick Fandaniel pulled picked that time to fade and the player returns to their own body.

What struck me at the time is if Zenos is supposed to inspire awe and terror, why does he need to have Fandaniel incapacitate the hero for Zenos to succeed in acting meanacing?  Zenos did go on a monologue explaining that very point, almost as if the lead writer for Endwalker, the extremely talented Natsuko Ishikawa, realized the same point. She can only do so much with such a flawed character.

At that point Fandaniel and Zenos reminded me of Lenny and George from the John Steinbeck book Of Mice and Men. Fandaniel plays the role of Lenny, the brains of the outfit. George, of course, is played by Zenos, a big man who isn't quite 100% mentally. I plan on watching to see if the comparison carries through the expansion.

But so far, Zenos is really the only thing I have major criticisms about the expansion so far. The last major action I took in Garlemald was to run The Tower of Babel. The premise of the duty is very good. The Scions and their allies flood into the tower, then split up into three groups. The Eorzeans go in one direction, the eastern allies another, and the player leading 3 Scions heads on, just like in an alliance raid. I had problems with the first boss, but once I figured out the polarity mechanic, I breezed through the rest. Well, expect for the final boss, but that was just me making a dumb mistake in the middle phase.

I did all of the above on Monday. I spent Tuesday making sure all of my crafting and harvesting classes were at level 84 before moving on to the next zone. I decided to do the crafting levequests located in Old Sharlayan. Besides gaining three levels in each crafting class, I gained about 400,000 gil after deducting purchases made from NPCs and on the market board. I also raised my fishing to level 85.

I do have to point out the zone music for Old Sharlayan and Thavnair. Crafting in Old Sharlayan and gathering in Thavnair is so relaxing due to the music in those two zones. The music so far has not disappointed. The composer for FFXIV, Masayoshi Soken, once again delivered a wonderful soundtrack and I can't wait to hear what he wrote for our trip to the moon.

Monday, December 6, 2021

My FFXIV: Endwalker Early Access Experience

Over the weekend, I played a lot of Final Fantasy XIV's latest expansion, Endwalker. Something about having to stay active to remain logged into the game adds a little incentive to sit at the keyboard for hours at a time. Since Endwalker is the first expansion I have played on the first day of early access, I thought I'd record some thoughts.

Login Savage: I expected to have long waits to log into the game, and I wasn't disappointed. My experience seems better than a lot of players, though. On Friday, I started to try logging into the game at 3am and succeeded at 4:10am. I logged off around 2pm and played again after dinner. In the evening session, I spent approximately 90 minutes to get back into the game.

On Saturday, I logged in around lunchtime and only had to wait 15 minutes to get into the game. Sunday was normal, with a login queue length of 47 when I logged on at 9:30am. But that doesn't mean people didn't have issues. I've chatted inside and outside of the game with players who couldn't log in for 6 hours. On Friday, FFXIV producer and director Naoki Yoshida stated the peak congested hours on Friday.

  • North American Data Center: 12:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (PST) / 20:00 to 6:00 (GMT)
  • European Data Center: 3:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (PST) / 11:00 to 23:00 (GMT)
  • Japan Data Center: 1:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. (PST) / 9:00 to 15:00 (GMT)

In the letter, Yoshida announced 7 days of free game time as compensation for the login issues.

Considering that we are asking players to wait in queues for extremely long periods of time and the ongoing situation making it difficult to play normally, we have decided that during the official release of Endwalker on December 7, we will be granting 7 days of free game time to all players who own the full version of the game and have an active subscription. This also includes players who are currently playing on the 30-day free play period included when registering the full version of the game and those with multiple accounts.

Furthermore, we may give additional free game time depending on further developments on the congestion situation. The timing at which the free game time will be provided, as well as any additional extensions, will be announced at a later time. We truly appreciate your cooperation and patience regarding the congestion situation.

Stability: I was a little surprised at how stable the game was over the first three days once I got into the game. I did experience one blue screen of death on Friday, but the cause of the issue possibly was a Windows update on my computer. I only experienced the one error.

Progress: When I logged off for dinner on Sunday, I had made decent progress. I had progressed the white mage job up to level 83. For crafting, all 8 classes are now at level 81. As for gathering classes, botanist and miner are at 83 while fishing is at 82.

The MSQ: For the way I play, the pacing for the MSQ is about right. I logged off after completing the first level 83 quest, but have more than half the experience points to reach level 84.

The quests themselves are impressive. Remember all the reading required for cutscenes in A Realm Reborn? I have completed 39 MSQ quests, and I believe every cutscene was voiced so far. One complaint I can see made is that players spend more time watching cutscenes than playing the game. I know this isn't true for everyone as some people in my FC have already reached level 90. Personally, I haven't skipped any cutscenes.

As happened in Shadowbringers, the MSQ forks early on, with one group exploring Old Sharlayan and another travelling to Thavnair. I played the Old Sharlayan branch first and then travelled to Thavnair. The first duty, The Tower of Zot, is located in Thavnair. After returning to Old Sharlayan, we gathered the gang together and headed off to Garlemald where I am now.

The story so far is satisfying. The lead writer from Shadowbringers, Natsuko Ishikawa, is also the lead writer for Endwalker. Every so often she drops references to previous expansions that produces emotions, from giggles to wonder. I think the level 81 and 82 quests are designed to get players back into the world. I noticed the story started getting a little more serious in Garlemald.

The Tower of Zot: The first dungeon in Endwalker is The Tower of Zot. I played through the content using the Trust System. Either I am getting better, or the content is easier than in Shadowbringers. I only noticed one new mechanic involving the tank. The trick is to follow the NPCs to survive the mechanics. I only died once on the first boss and once on the last boss. I was only able to wear one piece of the gear, but I think the gear sets from the dungeon will look great.

Zenos and Fandaniel: My biggest concern about Endwalker was the two main antagonists of the story, Zenos and Fandaniel. For me, the way Zenos killed himself at the end of Stormbrings was a huge disappointment. Fandaniel's appearances in Shadowbringers basically made me facepalm in real life. That Yoshi-P thought giving those two prominent roles in the finale of the Hydaelyn-Zodiark saga filled me with dread. I had doubts that even someone as talented as Natsuko Ishikawa could rehabilitate the pair.

The story around The Tower of Zot has rehabilitated Fandaniel a bit. I now hate the sundered Ascian for his actions in the game rather than because his character is poorly written. I couldn't take Fandaniel seriously in Shadowbringers. I can take him seriously now.

Zenos is another story. He's only made one brief appearance, but he was still the same cringy, one-dimensional character. Just from the appearance, though, I still can't picture Zenos as a fully developed character.

Gathering: For botany and mining, I have just collected 125 of each resource I run across in anticipation of levelling my crafting. Just stopping for 30 minutes at a time during my journeys raised my level in each class up to 83. For fishing, I did two levequests in Old Sharlayan that earned me two levels.

Crafting: Except for three nuggets, all my crafting took place in the Firmament. Not only did I earn a level for each of the 8 crafting classes, but I earned a ton of scrips. I bought all the parasols and orchestrion rolls I didn't already own. I still have 7,000 scrips I can use to buy the special dyes from the vendor. 

Overall, I had a lot of fun playing Endwalker over the weekend. The official launch is Tuesday, so I'll have to see how the game and its infrastructure performs tomorrow. Hopefully everything settles down over the next few weeks and everyone can play when they want again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Preparing For My First Themepark Expansion Experience

I've had very few chances to play an MMORPG expansion at launch when I was at the end game. Sentinel's Fate in EverQuest II. Rise of the Hut Cartel in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Heart of Thorns in Guild Wars 2. And I guess I need to add The Burning Crusade in World of Warcraft. But by the time the expansions rolled around, I was off playing other games. 

Friday is different. Early access for Final Fantasy XIV's Endwalker expansion is Friday and I reached the end of the main story questline months ago. Not only am I at level 80 as a white mage, I also have scholar and summoner at max level as well. My crafting and harvesting classes are all at level 80 and my equipment, when not best in slot, is close. In other words, I'm ready to join the stampede toward the new content.

I've played MMORPGs for over 16 years and written about them for almost 13, so I know everything won't go smoothly. Spending hours in a login queue is almost assured. Bugs are guaranteed. But 12 years of EVE Online expansions has let me know to prepare as best I can for the changes in game mechanics. The best way to do that is to read the patch notes.

For example, the first thing I do won't involve adventuring. Instead, I will begin crafting. According to the patch notes:

Players above level 80 will receive a maximum of 1,000 EXP when submitting items to the House of Splendors or Ishgardian Restoration.

That means I have one more level of nice experience point gains for turn-ins. I spent Tuesday making sure I had enough materials to make 30 items for each crafting class to turn in. I'm going to stock up on the scrips from the Ishardian Restoration at the same time I reach level 81 in each crafting class. After all, the true endgame of FFXIV is glamour, and I'll be able to stock up on really good dyes.

Another trick I plan to use is using levequests to raise my fishing from 80 to 81. My retainers keep catching fish for levequests, so I plan to use up my allotment of 100 levequests on fishing. Once I ding 81, I'll stop.

I have also spent a lot of time cooking in preparation for the expansion. My plan is to have 30 hours worth of food each for my white mage, crafting classes, and gathering classes. The 3% XP and stats boosts will help a lot until I can make better food.

Everything doesn't just revolved around crafting. Final Fantasy XIV has alternative currencies players use to access high level gear. Every expansion, the expansion specific currencies from the previous expansion can be exchanged for Tomestones of Poetics. I have acquired the maximum number of Tomestones of Allegory I can carry as well as a fair amount of Tomestones of Revelation. Not only does that mean I can complete my item level 520 set for white mage, I'll be able to buy most of a set of gear for summoner as well.

I'm waiting until just before the 24-hour downtime before doing tasks that will free up inventory slots, such as manually downgrading certain high quality items and either breaking down or turning in all my belts. Then I am going to find a nice spot in Ishgard to log out in and wait until Friday.