This weekend was the Final Fantasy Fan Festival in Santa Monica. As you all know, I’ve been an avid FFXI player for the last three years. My upcoming article in The Gamer’s Quarter is about FFXI, and I’m also providing the pictures. I think about Final Fantasy Online more than any other game I’ve ever played. FFXI is a giddy, nauseating mix of delights and disappointments. It’s a frustrating, fun, and addictive experience.
So, I was pretty excited about sharing FFXI with a community of like-minded players.
Early Friday morning, I was awoken by the loud chatter of rain outside my window. It was grey and cold in Los Angeles; the air had the cool, metallic quality of an Amsterdam fall. Considering most of my FFXI experience was in Holland, this was the perfect setting for my two days of Final Fantasy. Often when adventuring through Vana’diel from my place on the Marnixstraat, the cold Dutch wind would slip through the cracks in my windows. Final Fantasy Online feels cold to me. It feels like a foreign winter.
I threw on my newly made Gamer’s Quarter T-Shirt, grabbed my White Mage hoodie, a jacket and some thermal underwear. See, the Square-Enix planning team had set up the Fan Festival in a tent on the Santa Monica pier. I was going to a nearly outdoor event, in the coldest weather I’ve experienced since returning to LA. And it wasn’t going to stop raining. I got to Santa Monica, it was about 9:45am. I grabbed a Crossainwhich from BK, and trekked through the mall looking for an umbrella. By the time I arrived on the pier, I was freezing, anxious, and wet.
Now, I wasn’t a registered attendee of the Fan Festival. I know some of the staff from Bender-Helper Impact, the PR company arranging the whole thing. I headed past the registration booth to the media center, and met my contact.
“Hey– you’re Heather, right? The blond girl I was told to look for.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. I guess there aren’t a lot of blondes who play FFXI. “Before you give me a badge, umm … I write for The Gamer’s Quarter. Can I get a media badge?”
“Oh sure,” said my contact. “I didn’t know. Of course you can get a media badge!”
Suddenly, I was official. Mostly. My name-tag was still hand-written.
I headed down into the tent, which was larger than expected. Lining one wall was the panelist’s table and two large screens. There was a food table, a merchandise wall, a vinyl backdrop of an airship surrounded by girls in Mithra costumes. There were huge, high-resolution images of the “Seek Party” logo. Finally, one side of the tent was filled with Alienware computers running the new expansion pack, “The Treasures of Urht Argahan,” and a long line of players, some in costume, most in black, waiting to play. The whole place smelled like nerds and ice.
As I got my bearings, a big, shaggy guy came up to me and asked quietly, “Excuse me. Do you need a party?” He was friendly, approachable, and comfortably geeky. I immediately liked him, but was still a little confused.
I blinked. “What?”
He repeated, “Do you have a party?”
“No, I guess.”
“Want to join mine?”
“What’s it for?” Was this for an in-game event? Or were people forming parties at the convention to make new friends? Maybe he was just hitting on me.
“For the Live Quest.”
One of the events planned for the two-day festival was a live-action adventure. I hadn’t read anything about it other than That It Was Happening, but at least I knew the guy wasn’t using FFXI language to try and pick me up.
“Great,” he smiled. “Our party is full!”
Leader led me back to a section marked by Seek-Party signs, to join the rest of his group. Seated on the floor were two girls, two guys, in a circle. There was a wiry blond guy with bad skin, cross legged with his black jacket wrapped around him. He chewed even when there was no gum in his mouth. The second guy was a heavy-set type with a long goatee streaked with grey. He didn’t speak much, but was never threatening. Girl One was the socially awkward anime nerd who says, “Squee,” when she’s excited, and closes her eyes when she talks at you. Finally, the fourth was Kyoko, a Japanese woman with light brown contacts. From the looks of our circle, we had nothing in common.
I sat down, and Leader gave us a form to fill out. Our names, our servers, our in-game characters’ levels and jobs. And I was already having fun.
FFXI is a big, insular club of geeks. We speak a language that few understand. And the conditions of coming to Santa Monica for two days of gameing in the rain meant that we were all serious about our love for the game. Even if this circle of people looked disparate, we were all connected through Vana’diel.
“So, what do we do now,” I asked. I hadn’t had a chance to go through my Gobbiebag (full of festival hand-outs) or even read the schedule of the day’s events.
Leader softly spoke up, “We need to find an NPC and start our first quest.” Usually an NPC is a Non-Player Character; an artificial person who gives out advice or sends you on a quest. The term remained appropriate, as the only people in the tent who weren’t players were the Hot Models in costumes, sending us nerds on “adventures.”
Leader lead us over to the corner of the tent where a guy in Windurst Tunica was standing next to a model dressed like the cat-girl Mithra race. Windurst guy smiled, and gave us his rehearsed speech.
“This Mithra has lost her muse! Someone help inspire this Mithra, by drawing a picture of what she requests.”
The Mithra did her best to not look awkward, and held up a picture of a Moogle.
“Draw this for me, please. It’s my favorite.”
When I worked at Boom Chicago, the comedy club in Amsterdam, we often had satellite gigs for large companies – they were called Corporate Gigs. The hallmarks of “Corporates” include awkward, tailor made sketches, speaking intelligently about products you know nothing about, and basically acting witty and personable for the hiring company. Sometimes you even dressed up in company clothes. I wore Mexx fashion, Guess, and even a sandwhich board on different Corporates.
Looking at the Hot Model Mithra, I realized: she was on a corporate. I assumed all the Mithra were. Later, I met one who actually played. It blew my mind.
My party sat down at a table and each set out to drawing a Moogle. When we finished, we returned to the NPC and got scored on our efforts. This sort of adventuring was the through-line of the day. We had to go get sand from the beach, we had to play FFXI together on high-end PCs. It was juvenile, but still a lot of fun. I felt like I was at day-care.
After doing a couple quests, I started asking people about their play habits. I was startled to discover that I had one of the highest level characters; I’m a fairly irregular and pedestrian FFXI player. Kyoko, on the other hand, was the most hard-core of the group. Though she is a mother, and married, Kyoko plays for 8 hours a day. She has two accounts, three computers, and 15 characters (several of which are maxxed out at one job or another). Kyoko lives and loves Final Fantasy XI.
Given her play habits, it doesn’t surprise me that she’s married to Yasu Kurosawa, the North American Producer of FFXI. (And the battle designer for Final Fantasy IX.) I don’t know how they met, but I romantically imagine that they were both buying Final Fantasy 7 merchandise in Tokyo when their hands touched one another. They fell in love, and beat the game together. They bred a Black Chocobo, and then got married.
She introduced me to her husband, and Kurosawa-san gave me his business card. I asked if I could email him a couple interview questions and he said, “Yes.” I haven’t done this, yet; I know he was busy with the festival for a few more days. I don’t even know what I’m going to ask him.
My name tag, after all, was hand-written.
When we weren’t playing through the premiere of the new FFXI expansion pack, or walking along the Santa Monica pier finishing quests, we were listening to the Developer Panels. The developers of Final Fantasy: Online spent two days announcing changes to the gameplay, revealing new continents and jobs, and discussing adjustments to the economy. They pulled up powerpoint presentations, and showed graphs of what is happening to the world of Vana’diel. At the end of every sentence, the audience applauded and cheered.
On day two, I remarked to my friend Josh, “This feels like a japanese sci-fi film, or an anime. There’s a table of Japanese Men, who are announcing changes to the economy or the structure of a world. It almost feels like they’re villains.” It would have been thrilling if the developers wore sunglasses, and spoken in soft, inky voices.
Instead, these were smiling, jovial guys, who cracked jokes and gave mischevious smirks when they sidestepped difficult questions.
“Does the direction you’re facing have anything to do with crafting results,” one adventurer asked.
“Face whichever way your heart tells you. And believe,” was the impish response.
These men were proud of what they’ve accomplished, and humble about what they want to achieve. They smiled when they announced a weakening of my FFXI job class. They were so charming that I forgave them.
I had lunch with Kyoko and promised to email her my in-game gardening tips. I played a prefab online quest with my party, on Xbox 360s. I went to the second developer’s panel, handed out 100 Gamer’s Quarter buttons, and then left when it was simply too cold to be in a tent on the ocean anymore.
On the second day, I went with my non-playing FFXI friend, Josh. He’s a sci-fi enthusiast, like me, but isn’t anywhere close to a typical Nerd. Josh thinks it’s funny to have multiple, identical Star Wars posters up on his wall in his office. I agree. That is funny.
Josh and I arrived in time to watch the third and final panel together. I can’t imagine what he found interesting, but he seemed absorbed by the panel – a testament to just how charming these guys were.
The Japanese Men announced deflation!
The Audience Cheered!
Josh said, “I’m having a lot more fun than I thought I would!”
Josh and I headed into the free-play building, and I taught him how to play a bit of FFXI. After a bit of exploration, he found another in-game adventurer, an Elvaan warrior working on becoming a Dark Knight. Josh followed him, pretending to be a herald or chronicler. He cheered when the Elvaan Warrior smashed through a monster, and eventually the Elvaan was appreciative and even a bit smug. It was like this guy had been waiting for his own personal bard since he began playing the game.
Slayerr would kill a Quadav.
Josh would announce, “Great work,” and applaud.
Slayerr would bow, and add, “Yeah, I got him good, didn’t I?”
Another person wandered past, in-game, and announced, “That’s gay.”
I had shown Josh all that FFXI had to offer. Instant friendships, engaging gameplay, and the inevitable insults.
At the end of the festival was a Ballista tournament. Ballista is a Player-Vs-Player version of Final Fantasy Online. Instead of fighting A.I. monsters, you’re fighting other players on other computers. The North American championships were held live on stage, and the battle was so intense I couldn’t follow it. After the winning team was awarded $8,000 gaming PCs, they were treated to a surprise match against the Japanese Champions.
The JP team signed in, and the tent went silent as the North American team lost 40-0.
It is a Japanese game, after all.
The final event of the festival was a concert by the Star Onions. They were set to play pieces of music from FFXI, but Josh and I didn’t stay for it. We were cold and tired, so we headed back to the real world, and blasted the heat in the car all the way home.
The Final Fantasy Fan Festival was sometimes poorly planned, but nevertheless it remained loose and delightful. Whoever was running the weekend didn’t turn on the heat-lamps even once, but did hand out a limited number of blankets. There weren’t enough seats, but it was exciting to stand. The Live Quest was silly, but absolutely engaging. The shortcomings of the festival were similar to the flaws in Final Fantasy XI; sometimes frustrating, but always endearing and fun. In fact, I think flaws are what make something addictive. That being said, I'm sure to be playing FFXI until next year's festival.
Please read my piece on FFXI in This Issue of The Gamer's Quarter, coming out March 20th!