FFXIV’s Toughest Dungeons Are Here to Stay — If Players Want Them

“We will continue deliberating on the idea to satisfy as many players as possible.”

Final Fantasy XIV
Square Enix
Final Fantasy

With the release of Patch 6.25, Final Fantasy XIV introduced a wildly popular new feature, Variant and Criterion dungeons. Variant dungeons are designed around choice and replayability, focusing on puzzles and branching paths in addition to battle content. Criterion dungeons are visually similar but incredibly difficult, on par with Extreme Trials or Savage Raids.

With two Variant and Criterion dungeons now available in FFXIV, the features seem to be a hit with the player base.

“The feedback we’ve received has been positive overall,” says battle content designer Masatoshi Ishikawa. “I was especially relieved to see many players welcome the concept of Variant dungeons, which involve smaller groups and plenty of puzzle-solving.”

Following the release of Patch 6.45 and Final Fantasy XIV Fan Fest in July, Inverse spoke to Ishikawa and FFXIV: Endwalker assistant director Tsuyoshi Yokozawa about the design and philosophy behind Variant and Criterion dungeons. They also offered some intriguing hints about how these challenges might evolve in the future.

The first Variant Dungeon, The Sil’dihn Subterrane, is a level 90 activity that can be started in Central Thanalan.

Square Enix

What has the player reception been like to Variant and Criterion dungeons? How has that reception shaped your future plans?

Ishikawa: Moving forward, I’d like to keep what was well-received, while improving upon the aspects that were inconvenient. Beginning in Patch 6.4, the party list shows which variant actions your party members have equipped, which came about from that line of thinking.

Criterion Dungeons were our first high-end content for smaller groups, and we received a lot of positive feedback from players who enjoyed tackling them with a party of friends. That said, the difficulty of Criterion Dungeons is comparable to an eight-player Savage raid, if not harder, so there were also comments that felt the current rewards aren’t motivating enough to attempt the content.

The rewards need to be determined very carefully in relation to rewards for other content, but we will continue deliberating on the idea to satisfy as many players as possible.

With the varying difficulty and the branching paths of these dungeons, how much work does it take to get things “right?” How long are they typically in development?

Ishikawa: To achieve the “right” difficulty level, we followed our usual thought process for four-player dungeons but also had to remember that parties could have fewer players or lack certain roles. Since Variant dungeons were meant to feel like a typical four-player dungeon with any party composition, we built a new system in which all three roles are weighed equally and the difficulty only changes based on the number of participants. We began development somewhere between 1 to 1.5 patches earlier than usual in order to build the new system, its branching paths, and the accompanying NPC’s animations.

Building the new system was a one-off task, but future Variant dungeons still have to be balanced for one to four participants, various different paths, and more, so they’d still require a lot more work than a standard four-player dungeon. The difference is especially apparent with background design, since the additional paths directly translate to more work to be done.

The latest dungeon, Mount Rokkon is inspired by Far Eastern folklore, and Yokozawa describes the story surrounding it as “delightful and intriguing.”

Square Enix

How do you design the bosses for Variant and Criterion dungeons? How is it different from the boss design in standard dungeons?

Ishikawa: Designing bosses for Variant and regular dungeons involves the same overall process: We’re provided with the boss’s lore, which we use to rough out its main concept and then brainstorm its main mechanics. I’d say the main differences with Variant dungeons are planning out the branching paths and their associated mechanics, as well as creating mechanics that can be resolved regardless of party size.

Bosses are usually designed with only their lore in mind, so creating battle mechanics that were indirectly related to the boss, like turning a dial switch located elsewhere in the dungeon, proved to be a challenge for many of our staff. Furthermore, we had certain limitations to work with; for example, considering how players might choose to participate solo, we couldn’t use mechanics that required multiple players to stack together or spread out for targeted AoEs. Criterion dungeon bosses are even more challenging to design.

It’s somewhat similar to designing eight-player raids in that we’re creating two separate difficulties, but variant dungeons are about as hard as a four-player dungeon whereas criterion dungeons are equivalent to Savage, so the difficulty gap between normal and Savage raids pales in comparison. Creating bosses for criterion dungeons required staff members who not only could retool Variant dungeon mechanics and resources for high-end content, but also keep the necessary development resources under control.

A notable aspect of Criterion dungeons — or more accurately, the difference between four-player and eight-player content — is how there’s only one tank and one healer, and individual DPS players have more responsibility. No tank swaps meant more emphasis on positioning enemies or having tanks stand in front of the party. The healer could be a pure or barrier healer, so we had to design more for mechanics rather than incoming damage.

Furthermore, we had to place a restriction on Raises to avoid a disparity between DPS jobs with and without access to Raise. With all that said, there were also advantages; designing mechanics that require determining party member priority, and giving each player an equal amount of responsibility were easier with the smaller party size.

The rewards for Criterion Dungeons are still mostly cosmetic, and Ishikawa is aware most players don’t find it satisfying enough currently.

Square Enix

Do you have any plans to evolve or change the formula for Variant and Criterion dungeons? Can we expect Variant and Criterion to stick around throughout 7.0, and have you thought about how new jobs might work in previous Variant dungeons?

Yokozawa: We don’t have plans to change their fundamental formula at the moment, but as we release more Variant dungeons, we might find something we’re lacking or could improve, which we’d like to address with flexibility.

And of course, we plan on having the new jobs coming with the next expansion to be fully playable in Variant and Criterion dungeons, just as we’ve done with Deep Dungeons and other content.

As for the future of Variant and Criterion dungeons in 7.0 and beyond, it’ll depend on the feedback we receive from our players. So for now, we’d like to hear your thoughts and comments after playing through Mount Rokkon and the third dungeon, which is currently in development.

Final Fantasy XIV is currently available on PS4, PS5, and PC. It will launch on Xbox in 2024.

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