I did some asking around and found 3 people who could be convinced to play Final Fantasy XI with me and another one who wants to play but has to wait until May. Silly teacher type people. I figured it might help to actually say what kind of game it is to try to get more people interested. But I haven't played in something like 6 years, so I needed to do some digging myself to find out what had changed since then. It turns out, not a whole lot. Some expansions with more levels, classes, and content. Some more PvP options. And some "quality of life" improvements like getting to choose what server you play on, easier traveling between locations, and sensible changes to the weapon skill system. The biggest thing I discovered in my poking around is that I do, in fact, really want to play the game again.
What does go on in the game? Probably the best place to start is to compare the comabt system to World of Warcraft. At the simplest, WoW is about hitting buttons more often and FFXI is about hitting buttons at the right time. Player skill (and I should clarify I'm talking about PvE content - leveling and raiding) in WoW often comes down to knowing the right order to hit your buttons in but you're constantly hitting buttons. They've lowered the cooldown between taking actions below the default 1.5 seconds because people wanted to hit buttons more often than that. Being able to properly run your spammy rotation/priority system while keeping track of the environment is the key to WoW. (At least for playing a Death Knight well, anyway!) FFXI is more about being aware of what your teammates are doing and properly timing what you do to what they do. Nothing demonstrates this more than weapon skill chains.
In FFXI every character essentially has a rage bar. Auto-attacking increases this bar (TP) as does getting hit by enemy attacks. When you get up to 100 TP you can then use a special ability called a weapon skill which is based on the type of weapon you have equipped. (Anyone who played Disgaea will understand what I mean here. Swords do one thing and axes do another.) These weapon skills have elements associated with them, and when you hit the monster with a skill they get debuffed with that element for 6 seconds. Then if someone else in your party hits the monster with a skill of another element you might get what is called a skill chain. The skill chain causes the monster to take extra damage (at low levels, 50% of the damage the second attack did) and become debuffed with a different element for 6 seconds. Chain again with a different element for a 60% damage bonus and a new 6 second debuff. Work out a proper skill rotation in your party and you can get some big damage bonuses showing up.
This is all fine and good for melee, but what about casters? Well, if your melee cause a skill chain to happen you can cast a spell of the debuffed element to gain 30% damage and a huge amount of +hit. If you time it right you can get a spell in on each step of the chain for really big damage.
Ok, so we can work together to kill monsters really fast if we work together. Why does this matter? Well, in addition to gaining more experience simply from killing more things there's also a second kind of chain in the game, called experience chaining. The idea here is you kill a level appropriate monster for base experience and a timer starts. If you kill another such monster within 100 seconds you get 120% experience for that monster and a new timer starts. Kill another monster within 80 seconds for 125% experience. Then another withing 60 seconds for 130% experience. The time you get is actually based on your level (this example was for levels 11-20) and you get more time at higher levels. The bonus eventually caps at 150% experience. From what I recall when I played last it was quite hard to keep killing monsters at that pace and eventually you have to give up and start over from scratch.
The primary reason for starting over from scratch? Mana. (Either healer mana from keeping the tank up or black mage mana from casting the huge spells to kill the monster fast enough.) Mana is treated substantially differently in FFXI than in WoW where it's not really a consideration most of the time. WoW wants you to keep hitting buttons so they may give you mana efficient buttons to hit but they expect you to cast while fighting and regening to full doesn't take much drinking time at all. In FFXI how you manage all of your mana is very important since you have no mana regen in combat at all by default. If you want to get mana back you need to sit down and essentially remove yourself from combat. (You can do this while 'engaged' with a mob.) 20 seconds after you sit down you restore 12 mana. Then every 10 seconds you get 1 more mana back than the last tick. So you get 12, then 13, then 14, etc... (Cure costs 8 mana as a reference point.) As a healer you're always looking for a way to sneak in 20 seconds of rest time to try to extend how long the group can keep chaining. I remember one time I was grouped with some nice Japanese players as their healer and they had a tank with very high evasion. So the first couple fights I'd heal him with regen mostly and sit a lot. And then as we needed to burn the mobs down more I'd spend the saved mana nuking the monsters down.
A healer nuking the monsters down? Well, the class system works a lot differently in FFXI than in WoW. In WoW you pick one of 10 classes at the start and you're locked in for life. Want to change? Start a new character. In FFXI you can freely change between all 20 jobs any time you're in town. More than that, you can actually be two jobs at once. The second job is certainly less effective but it lets you branch out and grab lots of other abilities. A White Mage/Black Mage is a healer who can nuke a little. A Black Mage/White Mage is a nuker who can heal a little. (You actually only start the game with access to 6 jobs and need to do quests to unlock the remaining 14.)
Other major differences include that most of the gear doesn't bind so you can trade it away when you're done with it. Crafting is different in that you can get critical successes which result in making more powerful stuff. Combined these two make cheap gear really cheap. You can level every trade skill up to 60 but you only get 40 more skill levels combined across all trade skills. So you can be an awesome cook or an awesome blacksmith or pretty good at both.
One of the things I thought was coolest when I played is that there are challenge fights in the game at all different levels. These fights have a cost to enter (beastman tokens looted from random mobs if I rememeber right) and you use them to enter an arena of sorts with your party to try to earn loot. The cool thing is they're level capped so you can't just power level beyond them. The one I used to do is for a 3 person party at level 20 which pits you against a bunch of bats. Kill them in 15 minutes for stuff! If you're higher than level 20 you get set back to level 20 for the duration of the fight.
In general, party size is 6 in FFXI instead of 5 in WoW. Raids are 18 though I don't know that I'm even that interested in end game stuff anyway.
The final thing I want to touch on is price. If one were to start playing WoW today it looks like it would run you $64 to buy the game and 3 expansions, presumably with a free month in there. FFXI is $10 for the game and 4 expansions, also with a free month. Per month pricing is about the same with the oddity that you have to pay an extra dollar per month per character in FFXI. Since one character can be every job you only need extra characters for making money on alts, really.
So... Anyone else interested? Either starting sometime in May or earlier? (I'm not sure I can hold out for a month, though since you can always just start a new job to play with people that's not such a big deal.)