“Thirteen minutes of eight players working together in sync and maintaining their individual responsibilities as well is probably more taxing than people realize,” Layla Bell tells me. He’s one of the leaders of Elysium, the Final Fantasy XIV “Free Company” that just became the first in the world to beat the game’s hardest level. It took them more than five weeks. His primary emotion when they did it? “Relief.”
The level was “Alexander Savage,” the toughest content in the latest Final Fantasy XIV expansion, “Heavensward.” In FFXIV, players all over the world gather online in social environments and band together to conquer dungeons full of enemies, the hardest of which are called “raids.”
“Alexander” is the name of the current most difficult raid, and “savage” is the hardest difficulty mode, a new addition added to the game in a free patch over the summer. Hence, “Alexander Savage.” And after more than a month of trying, Layla’s fellow Elysium members were the first players in the world to conquer it.
“A lot of our members sort of front-loaded their responsibilities,” Layla continued. “People worked overtime leading up to the patch so they could take the time off following the patch. People spent more time with their friends and family in the weeks coming up to the patch, because contact is going to be pretty diminished. If you’re not careful, you can get caught up and be pretty hindered.”
FFXIV’s raids require eight players to form a team and defeat multiple waves of increasingly difficult bosses. Beating them isn’t just a matter of leveling up your characters; you also need to have the best gear in the game, which is often difficult to obtain, and, even more, your strategies and teamwork must be absolutely foolproof.
Even before earning the world first in Alexander Savage, Elysium was one of the game’s best-known Free Companies (FCs are player-created guilds that can work together and share accomplishments). On the surface, they haven’t been around all that long; the group formed earlier this summer. But Elysium is a marriage between two large existing clans: Death and Taxes and Collision. Layla brainstormed the merger with several players from both existing clans, and they decided to pool their resources and players because A) they enjoy playing together and B) it would give them a better chance at world firsts—like the one they just achieved. Elysium currently has around 120 active players.
“It was very hectic in the first two weeks,” Layla said. “Luckily for us, our Alexander Savage prep started many months before the idea of creating the Free Company.”
MONEY IN THE BANK
Many Final Fantasy XIV players spend their time in the game hanging out in social spaces with friends and casually tackling dungeons or other challenges. But the members of Elysium spent the months leading up to Alexander Savage’s release doing one thing: preparing.
“The biggest thing going into the new expansion is that you’re going to want to have a lot of money,” Coldey Lockes, another Elysium player, told me.
New content being released means new armor and weapons, new character classes and more to buy, learn about and practice with. The players tackling the new raid will need that new gear (plus countless potions and other miscellany) if they have any hope of succeeding. And many of Elysium’s member players—not just the ones who would ultimately be attempting the raids—helped with that preparation.
“I don’t want to give away how big the wallet was, but it was enough to get the job done,” Layla said, before Coldey interjected, “Let’s just say we still have some left.”
Layla and Coldey were on the individual raid team—dubbed “Updog”—that actually got the world first. But once the new raid was available to play, multiple teams from Elysium jumped right in, sharing intel about Alexander Savage’s challenging new mechanics among themselves as they went. The raid is divided into four separate levels, or “turns,” referred to as “AS1,” “AS2” and so on. Members of Elysium cleared AS1 and AS2 within a few hours, but AS3 took considerably longer.
“We were on AS3 the first day and spent the whole week progressing on it,” Coldey said. They came painfully close to beating the boss of AS3 during that first week, but that penultimate victory had to wait until week two—after the game world’s pre-scheduled weekly reset, which takes place on Tuesdays. After that reset they had to start back at the beginning, but with all they’d learned, they were able to clear AS1 and AS2—and AS3, finally—within hours.
“We were a bit disappointed we didn’t get it the first week since it would have been quite an accomplishment, but we got it the next day,” Coldey continued.
Then, amazingly, came the real challenge. From the point at which they cleared Alexander Savage’s third turn, it took a full 25 days to beat AS4. There were multiple sticking points where they had trouble mastering the boss’s complicated mechanics, and others where they realized they’d need better gear to progress—meaning they’d have to replay the first three turns again in subsequent weeks to get better equipment.
“We’re all stubborn enough that we just keep banging our heads against the wall,” Coldey explained.
Even when they were “gated by gear”—i.e. their progress was obstructed because their weapons and armor weren’t good enough—”you need to be squeezing out as much progress in-game for the time that you have,” Layla explained. “We could review [videos] and fine-tune parts of the fight in preparation for next Tuesday when we would have more gear. Like, how will it effect the fight when everyone has 600 more [health points] next Tuesday? What changes are going to be made?…All these things need to be taken into consideration.”
TO POOP IN A SOCK
That level of dedication can take its toll.
“On that second week, a lot of us had to go back to work,” Coldey said. “Then the next week another guy had to go to work and our hours were cut back again. So you spend a lot less time actually raiding, but you want to be productive in the downtime so a lot of that is collecting consumables [like potions] we might need and reviewing a lot of footage. You’d come back from work and there would be detailed spreadsheets for timings of the fight that people had worked hours and hours on.”
I asked whether there were any “Leeroy Jenkins” moments, referring to a now-classic YouTube video in which one player in World of Warcraft—the game that paved the way for newer “massively multiplayer online” (MMO) games like FFXIV—throws caution and his team’s plan to the wind and causes total chaos during a crucial moment.
“There were definitely times where some people’s tempers got the best of them,” Layla said. “One thing that I am pleased and proud of with our team is that we never blamed the player themselves. If someone is having trouble with something, our initial reaction is usually to look at the circumstances that’s causing them to have trouble rather than the fact that they’re having trouble.”
“AS4 is still mechanically difficult, gear or not,” he continued. “It still requires 13 minutes of complete focus and that can be difficult if people are tired.”
I find it particularly amazing that a challenge that took weeks and weeks to clear the first time can be boiled down to 13 minutes. But that’s only possible when all eight players have the best gear available and work perfectly together as a highly coordinated team.
Gouka Mekkyaku, another player in Elysium but one who wasn’t on Layla’s specific team, ran into trouble during the first week of Alexander Savage attempts, when one player on his team, Amatsu, was in a serious car accident. With one member of his team out of the running, Gouka didn’t rest on his laurels, but began coaching other Elysium teams, including Layla and Coldey’s group, Updog. “I’m not gonna sit there and be unproductive, so I’d go to each raid team and feed them information, review their gameplay and give them advice, and that’s what helped us a lot,” Gouka told me.
As one of Elysium’s co-leaders, he’s concerned not just with winning, but with making sure none of the Free Company’s members ruin their lives trying to compete. “You hear these stories about poop-socking…that’s not something we want to tolerate in our Free Company.”
“Poop-socking?” I prompted.
“Well, essentially, it’s an opportunity cost—going to the restroom takes quite a bit of time,” he answered, laughing and (hopefully) joking. “It’s fine as long as you don’t put the sock back on.”
As a highly addicted Destiny player, I fully understand the pull this type of game can have on you. When a new Destiny raid arrived early this year, my six-person team and I spent three weeks throwing ourselves at it before we finally conquered its final boss fight. And we were very, very far from being the world’s first. What Elysium accomplished is seriously impressive, requiring a level of dedication I’ve rarely applied to anything in my own life. And for all that, these players won’t get much in the way of rewards, besides a bit of recognition and that bone-deep feeling of satisfaction and relief.
“Even for the hardcore players most of us feel that Alexander Savage was tuned a little too high,” Gouka admitted. “Maybe something that takes two to three weeks is fine, but when you’re spending an entire month essentially on the same fight it gets a little bit ridiculous.”
No doubt most people can agree on that.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with leveling his Final Fantasy XIV character so he can try a raid for himself. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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