Nobody like planes. Travelling a long distance is so far removed from being fun that even planes’ mums wouldn’t like them, but if you want to see the world then you’ve got very little choice than to pack yourself into a metal torpedo with waggly bits for far, far too long. In this instance, that metal torpedo has taken me to Las Vegas for the first of a string of three Final Fantasy XIV fan festivals, which bring together the most committed FFXIV fans under one roof for a weekend of fun, frolics and Eorzean fashion tips.
Let’s start by saying that Final Fantasy XIV has a wonderful community, and that’s so evident at these fan fests. Last year’s German leg was equal parts manic and gloriously welcoming, and while the American crowd are undoubtedly louder – you’ve not heard noise until you’ve heard FFXIV fans finding out about a new in-game job – that same friendly and approachable vibe permeates the whole event.
The first day opened up with a keynote from producer Naoki Yoshida – one of the most understatedly charismatic developers you’re likely to meet – and as we’d guessed, he announced the next expansion for Final Fantasy XIV in the shape of Shadowbringers. Dear God, the noise. Much like Blizzcon, this is obviously playing to the most entrenched members of the FFXIV audience, but when the trailer is as cool as the one we were shown then it’s hard not to get swept up in it all, and thankfully Yoshida and his team seem well versed in how to handle their community.
During the whole weekend there were only odd moments of grumbling, most evident with the announcement of the reshuffling of data centers and worlds, as well as some of the details surrounding the upcoming solo-player focussed Blue Mage job, but there’s a clear dynamic between the development team and the players which engenders trust on both sides. There’s the sense that if something unpopular is happening then it’s a necessary evil rather than an enforced one, and it’s accepted and moved on from. It helps when they’ve said players can transfer worlds for free around the time of the switchover, if they’re not happy.
Besides the keynote speeches and interviews which form the main body of both days, the Final Fantasy XIV fan festivals have a laidback and fun feel. There’s a weird mish-mash of old-school carnival games, which serve as the real-world embodiment of XIV’s Gold Saucer, and row after row of networked PCs which play host to a bunch of in-game challenges and tournament finals.
One challenge saw eight players trying to get to the top of Kugane Tower, the iconic Japanese-themed tower from Stormblood, in ten minutes, before making the jump to a lamppost below. Watching them all fail is excruciating, and in half an hour nobody has managed it, but it’s a fun little diversion for fans after a rare plushy. The fact that there’s the scope for these kind of sidelines in the game is testament to the level of thinking that goes into trying to keep players engaged for hundreds of hours, and community challenges like this are at the heart of Final Fantasy XIV’s ongoing appeal.
The continuing support sets the game apart from its contemporaries, though it goes to show what can be achieved with a monthly subscription from players, compared to the more typical retail option or microtransactions. There’s a bizarre complaint at one point about how the rhythm of patches and updates has become predictable, but when the alternative is months of fans becoming more and more disillusioned while they wait for a single huge content drop to arrive, I know which one I’d opt for.
In many ways Las Vegas feels like a bizarre home for the Final Fantasy XIV fan festival, with the overpoweringly vacuous glitz and glamour making for an odd counterpoint to an event celebrating community and togetherness. The Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino is off the strip mind you and has a bit more of a down-to-earth vibe despite the flashing lights, making it feel like a safe space for the thousands of gamers in attendance. There were still some hilarious double-takes as cosplayers mingled with the general public on the casino floor, but then seeing a Dragoon in full armour – I genuinely don’t think this guy can have sat down all day thanks to an excess of spikes – was always going to raise a few eyebrows.
The cosplay competition was a highlight of the first day, though as with last year it seems odd that the event occurs on the Friday when the Saturday had more in attendance and is easier for people who work a regular week. Of the sixty or so taking part there was an array of cosplay levels, from enthusiastic amateurs to some serious costume builders who looked as though they came straight from the game. From an Astrologian through to Sadu Dotharl, and boasting a convincing turn by Gaius van Baelsar that had the crowd roaring their approval, the community’s cosplay efforts certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
The finale of each day was handed over to a pair of very different concerts, and Friday’s slot played host to pianist Keiko playing a selection of music from Final Fantasy XIV arranged beautifully for solo piano. It was remarkable how still and quiet the crowd became – especially after their earlier excesses – but it was a perfect moment to take in some of the wonderful compositions that make up the FFXIV soundtrack. Singer Susan Calloway was given a hero’s welcome when she arrived for a couple of songs, as was composer Soken and Community Manager Matt Hilton when they joined in for a spot of synchronised dance. Yes, it was that kind of day.
Masayoshi Soken returned on Saturday with his FFXIV garage-band The Primals, and it’s indicative of his personality that he’s out on stage playing pieces of his music with verve and passion when you might expect him to be a much more serious figure. Then again, when you’ve got your translator/world-lore director/all round nice guy Koji-Fox bouncing around the stage maybe this is just par for the course amongst the FFXIV team. Hell, the biggest surprise came when director Yoshi-P turned up for a number dressed in a resplendent kimono featuring a huge white tiger! The only place they go from here is to rope in Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda, but you kind of got the impression that he’d be pretty up for that. Whoever was singing, it was a fantastic way to end the festival, and as fans held their glow sticks aloft the band rattled through tracks like Under The Weight and Locus which are well worth checking out in their own right.
With the announcement of Shadowbringers, it’s clear that this run of FFXIV Fan Festivals are going to be Square Enix’ focal point for publicising the expansion, with the February event in Paris and the March event in Tokyo liable to provide even more details for fans to pore over. There’s still plenty to look forward to, with the promise of at least one more job reveal and perhaps a proper look at the new locations coming from the DLC, before you even begin to think about the changes to the battle system or any of the other tweaking and tightening.
Whatever happens, the trio of festivals have been cemented as crucial events on the game’s yearly calendar for any Final Fantasy XIV fan, with more details of the Shadowbringers expansion set to make 2019 even juicier.