Ragar tries to figure out a use for the walking 8-piece meal he calls a mount
Hello and welcome to the thirteenth edition of the Eorzea Examiner, ZAM’s column on Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. For this week’s column, we’re going back to playing armchair game designer with one of FFXIV’s systems. Like every other MMO out there your character unlocks the ability to ride a mount to speed up their travel between Quest Giver A and Thing to Kill B, but FFXIV does distinguish itself by allowing you to customize your mount’s appearance as well as summon them in combat to assist you. In theory this sounds great for solo players or someone chaining FATEs – just spec your warchicken Chocobo for tanking/healing/DPS, pick out their skills to support whatever you’re doing, then ride off to battle with your AI companion. Sounds great in theory, but in reality? Not so much, so let’s see what we can do to fix that.
Why Do I Spend Gil to Summon You Again?
The basic premise behind the Chocobo companion system in FFXIV is fairly sound. You have a creature with three different stances (Defender/Attacker/Healer), each with their own skills and passive bonuses, that can summoned to aid you in combat. This isn't an entirely new concept. We've seen customizable NPC companions in other MMOs such as Neverwinter and Dragon's Prophet. When done properly, a summoned combat mount with multiple stances could prove extremely useful for solo players; it gives them a way to do more content by themselves as well as giving them some basic training in how "holy trinity" combat works for if/when they decide to delve into group content. When it comes to FFXIV's system, the Chocobo system needs quite a bit of love.
Let's start with the most obvious problem, the AI. While I was leveling my Marauder/Warrior, my preferred spec for my Chocobo was Healer to minimize downtime between fights. When I set a companion to play healbot for me, I have an expectation for their behavior. In particular, I expect that once I engage the enemy in battle, they'll cease movement unless I'm out of range and they'll just cast heals from the back. That would be smart NPC AI. What KFC here does instead is run right behind me and follow me the whole fight. Luckily this doesn't affect his healing since each of his abilities seem to be instant cooldowns, but it does lead to him getting squashed. As I'm running around trying to get out of the mob telegraphs during the fight, my Chocobo only reacts when I've moved more than a certain distance away from him and even then he'll move the minimum distance to be behind me... which is usually right in the middle of the monster's telegraph. If he'd stay put or even just stay behind my target, this wouldn't be a problem, but right now he's a very suicidal chicken and usually doesn't see all of that 30 minute summon timer.
Speaking of which, let's talk about the timer and all of the other restrictions placed upon the Chocobo. Whenever you want to use your Chocobo mount as a combat companion, you have to use a Gysahl Green to summon him. Once he's out, you have 30 minutes to quest with him, unless he dies or you dismiss him. The consumables are of negligible cost, so they're of no concern here. The problem lies with the restrictions once he's out. Needing to resummon your companion every 30 minutes is tiresome enough, but unless you're chaining FATEs, it's not likely your bird will see all of that half-hour. Dungeon queue popped? No warchickens allowed. Time for an instanced story quest? Strict "no Chocobos" policy. This means that the only times your battle companion is useful at all (when they're not dead) is if you're planning on doing Guildleves/FATEs or grinding mob drops.
The other issue I've got with the Chocobo system is minor compared to the other two, but it's something that sticks out after playing with the new Team-Ups in Marvel Heroes: customization options. While neither FFXIV nor MH provide an overwhelming amount of ability options, MH allows me to improve my NPC companion's stats with equipment drops as opposed to the entirely cosmetic equipment the Chocobo uses. I'm all in favor of making the warchicken look better, but the numbers nerd in me wants gear with stats on it, especially with how rarely the Chocobo levels to let me spend skill points.
Putting the War Back In Warchicken
We've talked about the big problems with the Chocobo system, let's see if we can figure out some solutions. We'll start with the major offender: the suicidal AI. Without completely rebuilding the companion AI, how do we keep the Chocobo alive? The tech is already there in one of the existing Classes, the Arcanist. Their pets have controls to position them as well as control their behaviors in and out of combat. We don't need quite that level of control with the Chocobo, but if we add the Place and Stay commands to the existing Chocobo ability bar, that will go a long way to ensuring the survival of Healer Chocobos. For the Defenders and Damage variety of combat companions, the only real changes you can make here without rebuilding their AI to avoid telegraphs is to add in some form of melee and area effect damage reduction. An imperfect solution, but it would make the Chocobo more useful for situations other than FATE grinding.
Next up is all of those restrictions on the Chocobo's use. First up is the Gysahl Green consumable. These consumables are inexpensive enough that it's not a major issue as a summoning expense, but there's no real reason for it to be there. Personally I'd strike the consumable cost, but if we want to keep it for the canon purpose of "it's that way in all the other Final Fantasy games", then so be it. That means we need to work on those other restrictions and issues with the summon. For story instances there really is no reason you shouldn't be able to use your Chocobo, especially considering how heavily the game relies on this type of content. As for the rest of the anti-Chocobo activities in FFXIV, how about this as a solution: instead of treating the Gysahl Greens as a one-shot consumable, why not have them place a buff on your character? Something like, "The scent of the greens attracts Chocobos to you. For the next X minutes, you may summon your companion at will using the Summon button in your skill book". Honestly if they really want to keep your companions out of the solo content, this solution would at least make it less aggravating. Overall though, the best solution would be to just let players summon the Chocobo when they please. Sure you can restrict it in group/raid content for balance as well as to cut down on system stress for low-end PCs, but for solo content there's no reason to prevent players from using their Chocobos. Personally I'd like the ability to go duo low-end dungeons with my Chocobo for alt Class gear, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.
Last but not least on the Chocobo wishlist is customization options. On the cosmetic front we have some customization in the form of all of the barding choices and the wardrobe-like feature to store item appearances for future use. On the other hand, the companion's appearance does have one major restriction: it's always going to be a giant warchicken. If my Chocobo was the only mount available in the game, I may not call them out on this, but I've got two or three other mounts in my skill book. Why should the Chocobo be the only one who can join me in battle? I'm not saying every mount should be able to level up and use the same gear; it would be kinda silly to see a Magitek mount with Chocobo barding bolted to it casting heal spells. It would be nice to see a little more variety though, and more customization options are always welcome.
FFXIV may have some decent options for cosmetic customization of companions, but when it comes to non-cosmetic, there's still room for improvement. Sure there are three paths to split skill points between, but there's not really any choice in what you're picking. Need a tank pet? Dump what you can into Tanking, with maybe some points in Damage for extra threat. Need healing? Put everything into Healer. At a certain point these feel less like perks I get to choose and more like things that should just be tied to the stance by default. Personally I'd like to see something similar to the follower ability tiers in Diablo III or the Team-Ups in MH. While technically the three stances for FFXIV's companions covers that variation, it would be nice to have tiers with ability choices for each spec rather than the current line of skills each has. For healer tiers you could have choices between HoTs and regular heals, debuff cleansing and buffs, etc. Damage Chocobos could build themselves to be focused on either AoE or single target attacks. Defenders could go heavier threat for healer players or they could pick up Warrior-style attacks that heal the Chocobo to keep them alive for DPS players. It doesn't have to be anything major and they'll still be weaker than grouping with another player, but it would help make your Chocobo feel more like "your" companion, especially if we can get them some actual gear to go with their new skills.
So how do we go about getting some stats on out Chocobo companions? We can't exactly put most of our old gear on them, short of duct-taping a weapon to each wing and armor. There are some slots that could work though: necklaces, hats, bracers (anklets on the Chocobo), and possibly one or two others could be slots where the Chocobo could use the same equipment as the player, allowing us to customize their stats without adding a bunch of new items to the database, crafting Classes, etc.
Of course if the idea of Chocobos wearing your old hats doesn't appeal to you, we can also look into companion-specific gear slots. MH does this with their Team-Up companions by having four Team-Up specific gear slot types - the gear is only usable by companions. This would still give you customization options for your Chocobo and it would make their gear feel distinct, but it would have the disadvantage of adding drops to the game that only they could use, which may annoy those players focused on content where the Chocobo is forbidden. The other question here is a matter of scaling: do we make the Chocobo equipment similar to player equipment with static numbers and a need to replace outdated gear or do we go the MH route where all gear is "+X% to Basic Attacks and +Y% to cooldown reduction"? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Static gear makes equipment feel more powerful and the numbers are easier to consider compared to your own, but they'll need replaced periodically and you'll have to swap gear when you change Classes if there's level requirements (unless they apply gear scaling like they do with FFXIV's dungeon content. Percentage gear makes scaling simple as well as making it possible for more universal equipment for those with multiple Chocobo specs, but it's not quite as satisfying to get +5% to Basic Attacks as it is to get +5 Strength.
When I heard that I could have my Chocobo fight at my side in FFXIV, I thought it was awesome. I was picturing my companions from Neverwinter with all of their equipment and abilities, but without all of the annoying bits like sending them off for training or the free-to-play obnoxiousness that is "Want your healer to get higher level? Give us a mountain of Astral Diamonds!" I was picturing decking my companion out in gear I crafted and the two of us duoing story content and some weaker dungeons when my friends weren't online. What I got however was poor AI and an unfinished system. As we've laid out in this column though, it's not an unrecoverable system. Some of the suggestions we've made would require more work than others (I recognize that adding stats to Chocobo equipment is a fair amount more work than adding a Stay command), but even if we got just a couple of these changes it would help tremendously. I want to feel like I should summon my Chocobo. As it is, I rarely bother to bring him out and that feels like such a waste.
That’s it for this edition of the Eorzea Examiner. Do you use your Chocobo very often? If not, what changes would it take to make him feel worth the consumable? What other features would you like to see them add to the Chocobo (for example, mounted combat)? Tell us in the comments below. If you've got any requests for column topics, add those as well. Until next time, see you in Eorzea.
Michael “Ragar” Branham