When I first started Final Fantasy Airborne Brigade in February of 2013, it had already been out in North America for three months and Japan for an entire year. While Airborne Brigade had a nominal theme of discovering why monsters were showing up and saving crystals, the story took a back seat to player progression, rank, and brigade interactions. I was immediately taken in by the Theatrhythm-style graphics, which gave everything from player avatars to summons an irresistible chibi look. I went on to play Airborne Brigade almost fanatically for the next seven months, when support for the game came to an abrupt end.
"Most encounters involved defeating random chibi Final Fantasy enemies, though "defeating" would imply effort and strategy."
Initial quest progression was deceptively simple. After setting up a new avatar, players would jump into a tutorial that covered questing, equipping and upgrading equipment, boss battles, and brigade battles. Quests were, by and large, little more than sets of seven stages that needed to be adventured in until a completion gauge filled up. Quests would also be the first feature that would slow down progress by requiring LP, a resource needed in increasing quantities that replenished over time. Potions could be used to restore LP, but these were only available in limited quantities as daily login rewards and as an in-app purchase. Most encounters involved defeating random chibi Final Fantasy enemies, though "defeating" would imply effort and strategy. With the exception of boss battles, no special requirements needed to be met to clear a given encounter as every monster was immediately vanquished with one strike. Bosses required preparation in the form of enough attack and defense to survive the automated battle, though this feature would only be an issue in the early levels and the difficulty did not scale with player progression. Despite the neutered format, quests provided a few key benefits. Aside from chobobo encounters, which gifted skills, and brigade buff-granting magic pots, questing granted experience for character level growth, necessary for equipping multiple and more powerful weapons and skills. Additionally, the completion of an area set would unlock one of numerous jobs, each of which had unique weapon and stat proficiencies that boosted avatar attack power. The most important results of questing, however, were the discoveries of rifts that would open up brigade boss battles.
Questing alone would certainly have been enough of a time sink if the weapon and skill rewards, along with the battle system, had a little more depth. The main attraction of Airborne Brigade, however, revolved around daily competitions between brigades and personal leaderboard standings in events. Brigades were alliances of semi-random, player-made parties. Each day, brigades would go head-to-head against each other, and scored points based on the damage done to rift bosses discovered while questing. Where questing required LP, brigade battles required BP. Players could accumulate a maximum of three BP, one every fifteen minutes. Although battles only required a single BP, expending three at once not only resulted in greater damage and scores, but would also result in a high damage summon being used if equipped and charged for use. Like LP, BP could also be restored using in-app purchased consumables. During non-event periods, competition was lazy at best and non-existent at worst. Eventually, non-event matchups would become low-score competitions to drag battles out to gain more job experience and intentionally lose the daily battles for single BP restoring ether, only available from daily losses.
"...these changes presented stark contrasts to the way Airborne Brigade had worked in the Japanese version..."
It was during events that the true game manifested. Most events involved special bosses that required special actions to spawn, each having significantly larger health pools than normal bosses. Event themes were generally interesting, if for no other reason than seeing chibi versions of classic villains like Jenova, Sephiroth, Cloud of Darkness, Chaos, and more. One particular Final Fantasy VII-themed event involved mako reactor quest zones that needed to be shut down in order to spawn the brigade boss. Additionally, events would usually also bring about special green chocobos that would rarely drop summons instead of their normal skills, as well as golden ones that were guaranteed to drop high quality abilities if fed special in-app purchased vomp carrots. Brigade event victories would result in special, though usually insignificant, rewards. Player ranking rewards, on the other hand, would very often be weapons, abilities, and upgrade items that would remain unmatched in power until the next event at the earliest. These items usually carried a damage multiplier for the next event as well, making them highly desirable as they all but guaranteed an early lead. Event rewards were usually given to players in the top 2000, though the top 10 usually received enough to have a near complete arsenal upgrade. Competition for these spots was fierce. In my peak, I was able to break the rank 150 barrier. This required attacking nearly every event boss that showed up as many times as possible. Anything higher was unobtainable, an exclusive tier reserved for people willing to open their wallets for piles of full BP restoring turbo ethers, costing a cool dollar each, and quaffing them in quick succession to get in as many all out attacks on event bosses as possible. A log on the battle screen would show who had recently attacked, and it was not unusual to see certain players attacking in excess of ten times each time a boss showed up. It isn't hard to imagine the top 10 players spending a few hundred dollars per day to remain competitive.
For most of my time in Airborne Brigade, this system was the norm. Events rewarded players willing to spend money on ethers and vomp carrots. A few months prior to my exit, however, systems started to change. More than just being new systems, these changes presented stark contrasts to the way Airborne Brigade had worked in the Japanese version during the same event. Brigade events became even more competitive with significant rewards for winning brigades and a new system for obtaining abilities from chocobos that required large amounts of vomp carrots to not only obtain abilities but also to increase overall odds of good abilities from the newly implemented chocobo roulette. Most players seemed to go along with these changes and deviations for an event or two, but eventually the call went out to boycott premium item usage. Amazingly enough, the majority of the high spending players severely cut down, if not completely cut out, their turbo ether usage. This change was immediately apparent during boss battles that would previously have taken only a minute or two to complete now taking upwards of five or ten between competitive brigades. Eventually, the developers took notice. The chocobo roulette system remained, but was tweaked to require less in the way of premium items. Player reward tiers were also eased up on, allowing for more people to obtain the highly sought after event rewards. Even with these changes, which motivated some players to start buying premium items again, boss battles, and therefore turbo ether usage, never seemed to make it back to its original consumption frenzy.
In September of 2013, players received a message stating that the current, Final Fantasy V-inspired event would be the last and that while the service would continue, no further events would be planned. For the past year, Airborne Brigade has remained a shadow of its original self. Questing still produced normal brigade bosses, but weekly rewards were limited to upgrade items and equipment from previous events. Turbo ether usage was still evident, but to a much lesser degree. Up through October, the only communication had been for a bug fix. Players logging in now, however, will find an announcement stating that Airborne Brigade will be closing its doors for good at the end of January. In the end, the English version of Airborne Brigade could be said to have been a fairly successful venture up until the pay-to-win balance was disrupted, leading to irreparably damaging the relationship between players and the developers. I don't regret the time I spent with Airborne Brigade, but I will always wonder what it could have been like if it had followed more closely in the footsteps of its Japanese incarnation.