About six days after Dragonsong’s Reprise (Ultimate) went live alongside Patch 6.11 for Final Fantasy XIV, the first team in the world to clear it celebrated with jubilation and relief. It seemed as if the players in the raid group, known as Team Neverland, had a huge weight lifted from their shoulders; some were even in tears as the stunning final cutscene played. For the very first time, players witnessed the conclusion to this alternate Heavensward timeline in its entirety, with King Thordan defeated yet again.
Anyone who kept track of the Dragonsong Ultimate world race saw the incredible in-game effort by players; deciphering never-before-seen mechanics, powering through phases over and over again, and devising strategies in hopes of progressing in the toughest raid in FFXIV thus far. But to do this day-in and day-out while staying sharp for hours on end, it’s undoubtedly mentally and physically taxing.
I was able to get in touch with members of Team Neverland to learn more about the real-life commitment of taking part in a world race. From the preparation before the Ultimate went live to the rigorous demand of playing at a high-level for several consecutive days, there’s a method to the madness — beyond telegraphing AoEs, breaking tethers, and passing DPS checks — that many of us may not be privy to.
Preparing for a FFXIV World Race
To make progress in the early days of an Ultimate’s release, and even be in contention for the world-first clear, planning your life around it plays a significant role. Once the race is on, the outside world has to take a backseat, so it’s imperative for world racers to have their real-life ducks in a row beforehand.
“The preparation for me starts a month prior to the race,” said Shalfu, the squad’s Ninja. “I will try to adjust my sleeping patterns so I wake up an hour before the servers go up and try to get as much sleep as possible during the week before the launch.”
Optimizing your sleep rotation is but one aspect to it; staying healthy has been much trickier in today’s world. Amid the ongoing threat of COVID, Shalfu also mentions, “During the week previous to the race, I try to not be in crowded places to avoid getting sick.” Zeppe, who completed the raid as a Dancer, shared similar sentiments about navigating the world with caution, saying, “Roughly one to two weeks before the release, I paid more attention to where I went outside and made sure to wear a proper facemask to not get sick during or right before progression.”
Members like Shalfu prioritize having the right food on deck and ready to go, so needing to go out and stock up on proper groceries and have meals prepared ahead of time is another hurdle. As Shalfu says, “Doing groceries for the whole next week also presents a challenge because there’s nobody that would cook for me, so I have to put some thought into what I will be eating, like prepared meals or dry food.” To Narr, the team’s Astrologian, what’s important is: “Work out, eat healthy food. It helps focus for me when your body feels good.”
Getting ready for high-level raiding almost sounds like preparing for a sporting event, because it kind of is. It is competitive. And akin to an esports level with long hours of repeated and precise motions, there’s a physical component to it. Through the years, we’ve seen reports of how professional gaming can lead to injuries and physical wear that aren’t to be taken lightly.
For Reimi, who ran the fight as Scholar, it’s about mitigating the physical toll on your body with specific motor skills that the game demands. “I sort of have weak wrists, so my physical prep is actually to try not to do anything at all that would cause a hindrance during the prog,” says Reimi, while pointing to getting as much rest as possible as well.
As much as the physical demands factor into a legitimate world-first attempt in the MMO raid scene, these potentially week-long endeavors mean putting the people around you on hold. Reimi explained that leading up to a FFXIV world race, “I just tell people I know around me I’ll be MIA for about a week so don’t expect me to do stuff. By now, everyone close to me understands the process.” And Shalfu shared a similar process, saying “I visit my whole family and friends the week before and explain that I won’t be available during the next week.”
WE ARE FREE pic.twitter.com/PEUNlY6N8V
— Shalfu (@Elshalfu) May 2, 2022
Knowing What You Signed Up For
The decision to contend for the world-first is made well in advance, accounting for personal care to a greater degree in the lead up. But for a raid team of eight players (and a few others in reserve), it’s another challenge to ensure everyone’s on the same page once the clock starts ticking.
The team finalized plans two days before Patch 6.11 and Dragonsong Ultimate dropped. Once the Ultimate went live and the world race began, the team did a mixture of playing it by ear and adapting schedules based on progression. Though there was no set schedule, committing to a world race means there’s at least a tacit understanding that there’s only time for sleep and progression.
“The plan every day was to keep playing until we saw something new in the fight, or until we were extremely tired and making a lot of mistakes,” says Suki, the team’s Red Mage. While Suki was able to take some time to keep up with Better Call Saul and Moon Knight in the off-hours during the race days, there wasn’t really room for anything else. “You have time to sleep, and then time to play. If you want to do anything else, you need to sacrifice your sleep.”
You can imagine how world race progression can easily turn woefully unhealthy, so setting boundaries from the outset is a necessity. Given the intensity and complexity of Dragonsong Ultimate, sleep is as important as being a skilled and experienced FFXIV player. This content is a test of your reflexes. With long play sessions to make progress across multiple days, it’s wise to understand one’s limitations. “At the end of every raid day, we agreed to meet up in exactly eight hours from when we stopped. Everyone was okay with getting seven hours of sleep a night while using the extra hour to do anything you needed to get done,” Suki concluded.
When Preparation Meets Opportunity
Veteran FFXIV players are aware of how new instances are built upon evolutions of mechanics from previous content. Even still, the FFXIV team’s combat designers are capable of surprising and challenging us — mixing, matching, and elevating their body of work in creative and imaginative ways for incredible setpiece battles. So, knowledge and familiarity with everything that has come before Dragonsong Ultimate (especially Unending Coil of Bahamut) was an absolute necessity.
“The preparation that comes through experience,” Shalfu says. “It’s not only about the time you spend in the new instance, It’s about all the time you spend playing FFXIV or other MMOs so you can solve mechanics faster by referencing older mechanics. This aspect of preparation is what I think most people are oblivious about.”
While in the actual fight itself, every player had their own methods of staying level-headed and understanding of how to manage their energy. Zeppe, in particular, finds that “listening to soothing and calming piano music,” helped take the edge off at times. But more importantly, there’s a fine line between giving it your all and overexerting yourself mentally — tensions can get high with the world-first being the end-goal and complex, punishing mechanics being the obstacles.
Reimi stresses the significance of staying mindful of how and when you push yourself. “Honestly, I don’t stay 100-percent focused the entire time,” Reimi says. “You kind of just learn when you can or can’t pay attention during the pull.”
A specific example: the start of the Alternate King Thordan phase, which takes place in the middle of the instance. “Every single time we got there, the first 30 seconds my eyes unfocused since there are only two auto-attacks until a real mechanic happens,” Reimi recalls. “I made a couple jokes saying ‘autopilot disabled’ when we got to a Death of the Heavens pull.”
Zeppe also emphasizes the mentally taxing nature of it all and says the team had procedures for devising new strategies. So while Reimi pointed out understanding when to ease up, Zeppe mentioned how the team optimized for moments that required all their focus. “Many times you adjust strats either on the fly or right before the next pull, so everyone needs to be paying full attention to what the changes are and making sure they don’t fall in muscle memory of doing an older iteration of the strategy,” Zeppe states.
Simply trying to remember adjustments and new tactics would be too much to ask, so the team had a way of creating their own guide-like materials in the process. Zeppe says, “We always make sure that for those mechanics that do require very specific positioning we have an easily processable [diagram] ready to look at on a second monitor to remind yourself on what to do.” And as mentioned in Neverland’s interview with FFLogs, they had two coach-like support players to make diagrams and give advice on callouts and different strategies.
Having individual methods for handling raid intensity is key, but teamwork still makes the dream work. For a feat such as clearing an Ultimate, a little trust in yourself and your teammates goes a long way.
Suki spoke to the importance of strong mental fortitude, saying, “A mistake cannot bring you down, nor can it bring your teammates down. Once you start feeling bad about yourself or start getting annoyed at your teammates, progression does slow down.” Team chemistry and self-confidence are a must to stay in the race, and Suki pointed out that trust in each other is paramount. “If a mistake was made and it’s something that needs to be fixed, we’ll take a few minutes to make sure it’s fixed. If a mistake was made but it was just you messing up, then we immediately start the next pull because we trust in that person to know how to not make that mistake again, rather than make [them] feel bad about it by talking about it.”
A degree of trial-and-error is part of the winning formula — and as Suki says, “The most common phrase throughout progression was probably, ‘Go again’ immediately after a wipe.”
Achieving the ‘Ultimate’ Goal
And wipe after wipe alongside many other raid teams in contention, Neverland progressed through some of the best battles we’ve yet to see in FFXIV. Days of work went into solving the toughest, most cerebral mechanics we’ve seen in the game, but with the ultimate goal of being the first, the added pressure was ever-present.
But the split second they overcame Dragon-King Thordan’s final enrage, you could hear the immediate cries of joy. Amid the repeated exclamations of “Fuck yes!” “Holy shit!” and “Oh my god,” one member said, “I can do something else!” in lighthearted relief. The display of skill, teamwork, execution, and camaraderie was cool to witness, and their gleeful outbursts are indicative of the weight of the world race being lifted.
Since Neverland’s first clear, many other players have put in the work to finish the fight themselves, and you’ll probably be seeing more Ultimate Weapons of the Heavens out in the wild. Anyone who clears it accomplishes a great feat in FFXIV that so few can, whether it be due to the level of commitment required to run it or the skill and experience necessary to take down the game’s hardest bosses. But to be the world-first, it’s a whole ‘nother level.
Looking back at the monumental effort of clearing an Ultimate first, Reimi echoed Suki’s earlier sentiments by saying, “I think most people believe it’s entirely a time spent playing the game,” emphasizing that skill is only just one of the many factors that contribute to a success. Recalling comments from others akin to “I’d be just as good if I played all day,” Reimi doesn’t believe that to be the case at all, and concluded, “It takes a certain type of person [who] can not only play well but mesh with your teammates and be able to push your progress in a positive direction.