Back in the early 2000s, Final Fantasy 11 was famous for completely disrespecting players' time. Masochistic and convoluted, the MMO drew in thousands of dedicated players who traded hours upon hours of grinding for the sweet feeling of accomplishment. Fifteen years later, more player-friendly MMOs monopolise the genre. And yet, there are still hundreds of fans foregoing cleaner gaming experiences for FF11's endlessly time-consuming and punishing challenges on legacy servers.
In the early years following the release of Square Enix's inaugural MMO in 2002, it might have taken two hours to cull the game's player index for a well-rounded team, inquire after everyone's availability, and wait at a designated spot for your comrades to arrive. Obtaining choice armour could mean tip-toeing through four levels of a dungeon, with no map, before waiting three hours for the right monster to spawn. Then, probably, either another person would kill it out from under you or the monster wouldn't drop the armour. Getting to a hub city sometimes meant waiting for a virtual ferry to show up - in real time.
Over time, FF11 made some adjustments. The pace changed. What took days to accomplish in 2005 now takes an hour, max. But some players apparently long for the days of waiting and failure and, then, more waiting. One, called Nasomi, now runs a legacy server that crystallises FF11 in 2005, with but a few small compromises. Bored by FF11's smoother levelling system and its successor Final Fantasy 14's relative ease-of-play, Nasomi looked around for MMOs that brought him the same painful ecstasy that FF11 did. For him, none sufficed.
In 2013, he launched the Nasomi FF11 Community Server, a free, time-frozen and legally-grey iteration of FF11 that at any time might host a few hundred die-hard players. It's made possible by the sinister-sounding Dark Star FF11 server emulator, which has 20 active contributors, according to its lead developer.
When I asked why Nasomi craved the brutality of FF11, he cited one particular dungeon crawl. It was impossible to accomplish alone and FF11 didn't have a great party-matching system in the early 2000s, so after hearing somebody loudly soliciting damage-dealers for that same dungeon-crawl in a city, he offered his services. The three-floor crawl lasted hours.
"There was no map at all," he said. "The monsters on the upper levels were unfightable. If you tried, you died. It was dangerous, difficult and everyone had to work together or we had no chance." Death-gripping his PlayStation 2 controller, Nasomi eventually accomplished the quest. The party had bonded over the challenges they faced. Nasomi received his first invitation to a Linkshell group that day, and for the next several years, he'd help his fellow players out with similarly daunting tasks.
"When you remove the need for players to need other players to accomplish things, players stop talking to each other," Nasomi said.
In 2005, FF11 players (myself included) would toss off casual insults toward WoW players whose game, many thought, was a total cakewalk until its endgame. After a 2012 expansion, legacy server fans told me, FF11 began moving in that direction. And FF14's developers have admitted to taking cues from WoW so their game would attract more casual players.
Slowly, large-scale mainstream MMOs that required socialisation and coordination gave way to ones that offered a more drop-in, drop-out experience. No more punishingly long runs across dangerous zones with the introduction of easy-access teleporters. No more eight-hour EXP binges with five friendly randoms who'd later become your best online friends.
Other FF11 legacy server regulars agreed that FF11's difficulty is what gelled its communities. Jason McMorris, who plays on another legacy server, said that the game "forced you into the community by requiring players to cooperate together". Tabitha Cordell, who plays on yet another legacy server, explained that FF11's quests and levelling system were far more difficult or often impossible to solo, unlike other MMOs along the lines of WoW and FF14. "The people that still play it latch on to the group play and the old 'grindy' experience," she said. Legacy servers such as Nasomi's offer that sort of community feel, but on a smaller scale.
Now that WoW publisher Blizzard is developing WoW Classic, a return to the game's nostalgic early days, FF11 fans are wondering whether Square Enix will take a hint and make an official FF11 legacy server. Although Nasomi's server and those of his peers don't attract nearly as many fans as WoW's legacy servers - only about 400 people were on Nasomi's last Sunday - the people who frequent them have just as much love for the game they grew up on.
And yet, Tabatha said, whenever she describes the memory of her favourite game to friends, one thing remains constant: "I am frequently told by people, 'I wish I had time for that.'"