During E3, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Masayoshi Soken, Sound Director and Composer for Final Fantasy XIV. That introduction is probably insufficient for the man who helped the FFXIV team to win one of its three Guinness World Records, with its (then) 384 pieces of music setting a record for "Most original pieces of music in a videogame."
Even so, Soken remained his calm, humble self when we spoke. I conducted this interview with fellow FFXIV fan Liz Maas, who I must thank for several of our better questions. Now then, without further ado...
We opened our discussion with a question about arranging classic Final Fantasy music. Fans of FFXIV know there's a bevy of nostalgic FF music that Soken and his team have arranged to accompany Eorzean (and Doman) adventures, dating back to the original Final Fantasy, a stellar suite from FFIII, and key songs from FFVI.
That said, there's little to no music from the Final Fantasy games on the PlayStation onward, and we wondered why.
Soken explained that arranging music is a challenging process, and the more complex the original song is, the more difficult the arrangement becomes. Arranging music from the NES and SNES era make for a "smoother" experience (an important consideration when one is putting out 100+ songs a year). These older titles utilize sounds that are more primitive compared to newer titles with complex instrumentation.
All that said, the "borrowed" music that we see in Final Fantasy XIV is also created to fit the content and storyline. Soken explained that were the development team to implement, say, a scenario or other content inspired by the likes of Final Fantasy VIII, he'd find a way to arrange that FFVIII music!
(We believe he meant basically any game post-FFVI on this one, so don't read too hard into the fact that he happened to choose VIII as an example.)
Next we went for an easy one, asking Soken about his favorite themes from Stormblood (the current FFXIV expansion). Like us, he has many favorites! After some thought, he landed on the themes for Shinryu and Tsukuyomi. He's pleased how they came together and tie into other related themes in the game. Shinryu's theme weaves in key portions of the overall Stormblood theme, which is fitting for Shinryu's place in the story. Meanwhile, Tsukuyomi's theme has motifs from the region of Yanxia, which also works thematically, as that is the location of the battle against the moon goddess.
Speaking of Tsukuyomi, Soken was proud that he had found time to clear the Extreme difficulty of the battle before coming out to E3. Oh, and he mains White Mage (how could we not ask?).
Anyone who has watched any of the panels at the FFXIV Fan Festivals has some insight to how harrowing and stressful working on the game can be. Rebuilding the game in 2013 sounds like it was the hardest, but the sheer amount of content and music in each expansion and interim patches means the teams are always busy.
So we asked, somewhat hesitantly, about the shortest turnaround time he's ever had for creating a song. We weren't sure what we expected, but it was not "1-2 hours," a timeframe he's apparently had to meet multiple times. We... felt that our shocked expressions may have been an amusing sight.
Imagine our reaction then, when Soken continued to reminisce, and told us about the time someone needed a quick little music clip for a special event, and he had to crank out something fitting in ten minutes.
I can't even fathom creating something in that short a time. The man is a miracle worker, clearly.
Going deeper into the development process, we asked for a general overview of how Soken develops new primal themes. When it comes to primal and raid boss battles, the music can be deeply entwined with the gameplay, such as musical transitions that sync with shifts in battle phases. Soken explained that the musical process is also split into two basic phases.
First, the development team brings the sound team the plan for the battle/content they are creating. This involves an overview of the environment and area a battle takes place in, gameplay style, and any other noteworthy background information. From this, a placeholder song is created. At the same time, other members of the dev team are building the visuals and mechanics. The placeholder song is then merged with the flow of battle to see how everything comes together.
This is the second phase: watching the battle play out and deciding where the music needs to change and interact with what players will be doing. Is there a dramatic shift in battle phases, or other consistently-timed mechanics that can be accentuated with music? This fine-tuning phase is why so many boss battles in Final Fantasy XIV are backed by music that works so well, because they were specifically designed to do so.
It's clear from how he spoke during this question that Soken takes great pride in taking the time to get this right. He went on to explain that, like us, he's a gamer too. He doesn't ever want music to feel like an afterthought, so he works to make sure he crafts something worthwhile, tailored specifically to a given moment and mood.
Later in our conversation, we came back to this topic a little. Look, I'll be honest: I may have been with RPGFan in a professional capacity since 1999, and I know how to conduct myself in an interview... but Liz and I both at least had to mention our love for Answers, the main vocal theme for FFXIV: A Realm Reborn. Not only on its own, but also that we noticed and appreciated the great care that went into the unique way the song was broken down to accompany the Bahamut Prime fight (hear it for yourself on some podcast we did). Not only does the song have distinct phases for each part of the battle, the final phase is timed so that the climax of Answers coincides with Bahamut's one-two punch of casting Gigaflare and a series of Akh Morns on the tanks. It's a thing of beauty.
Back to the man of the hour though, Soken said he too was glad to be able to use that song in such a defining moment. As one might imagine, making these music transitions flow seamlessly is trivial in a single-player game but much more difficult online when network lag has to be accounted for. The FFXIV sound team had to come up with a special system to make sure these transitions worked as intended across networks and distance.
(Screencap from "Locus" Official Music Video)
The more rock-style primal music themes we saw in FFXIV, the more inevitable it was that Soken would start up a band — fittingly named The Primals — to perform these songs at events. Earlier this year, Square Enix Music even released the band's debut album. We wanted to know what the future holds for The Primals.
Soken explained that as the band tours — so far, in Japan and parts of Korea — they continue to sell out shows. He hopes there will be a demand in other regions, such as North America, to bring the tour as well. (I think there is!)
Anyone who has seen Soken perform on stage knows that both he and translator/lore lead/singer/lyricist Koji Fox really give it their all when it comes to vocals. Titan and Sephirot's themes especially seem hard on the old vocal cords, so clearly, there's some recovery time built-in to these concerts, right? Nope. The next day, it's back to work on the game. But don't cry for him — Soken actually considers the concert the "R&R period," so even if he's exhausted from performing on stage, he considers it stress relief. Whew!
Just for fun — and because we didn't want 100% of our questions to be about FFXIV — we had to ask about his favorite bands. Knowing Soken's penchant for rock music, it was fun to hear he's a fan of Rage Against the Machine, Pennywise, The Offspring... "noisy bands," basically. (Liz was in emphatic agreement on this one.) When he was younger, he was deeply into classical music, but that changed in high school when he discovered Guns N' Roses. These days, he appreciates both ends of the musical spectrum, something quite evident in his work. He also loves driving with the music cranked up high... but he intentionally doesn't listen to his own music while driving because he doesn't want to think about work all the time!
Putting music aside, we knew he plays Final Fantasy XIV, but we needed to know what else he plays. I should clarify here that this entire interview was handled through Square Enix's Aimi Tokutake, who translated our questions and Soken's answers. And I mention that now because the moment we asked what other games he likes, Soken immediately and excitedly shouted, "OVERWATCH! Every day!"... so that answered that!
Being a major Blizzard fan, Liz went on to ask about his favorite characters, which are D.Va, Zenyatta, Moira, and Zarya, among others. Amused and enlightened, we planned to look to our next question... but Soken wasn't done. He went on to explain that his win rate isn't as good as he'd like, and as he was saying this, he brought out his phone and pulled up his character stats. He showed us his win ratio, most-used heroes, and other stats, and I'm not going to lie: it was one of my favorite moments in any interview. Here we are, talking to a composer for Final Fantasy, and we're chatting Overwatch and passing smartphones around.
It's one more reason we're such fans of Soken around here: he's just a friendly, passionate human being, and very approachable. If I needed any more proof, this moment was it.
There are — unless I'm counting incorrectly — eleven soundtrack albums for Final Fantasy XIV. And that's if we ignore the smaller albums released during the 1.0 days. It's so much that we feel it may seem daunting to people who want to get into it but don't know where to begin. We floated the idea out there of a series of music box sets, perhaps broken down by year or expansion, that could group some albums together in 2- or 3-disc packs.
Surprisingly, we were answered... with a question. Soken was curious if we felt fans would be interested in a "best of" album as a way to introduce people to the vast musical riches of FFXIV. We agreed with this idea, thinking it could be a good way to bring people into the fold.
This actually prompted one more question for Liz and myself, who were not fully prepared to be the interviewees... but nonetheless, we were asked if the tracklist on this theoretical album should be chosen by player feedback or by Soken himself. We felt he might be more likely to choose a variety, but the nature of these questions themselves was the real takeaway for us.
We honestly have no idea if this was a truly hypothetical conversation, or if an album and fan voting system are already in the works. If it pans out in the future, you heard it here first!
With the Monster Hunter World X Final Fantasy XIV crossover event announced during E3, we thought it fitting to ask about the music that the two games will share alongside the monsters that will inhabit each others' worlds. We got a partial answer, at least. When hunting beasts from MHW in FFXIV, music from Capcom's mega-hit will be directly carried over (no custom arrangements). The same will hold true the other way around, but we couldn't get Soken to spill the beans on which XIV tracks may make the trek. So don't worry, Yoshi-P, he isn't giving any secrets away! We not-so-subtly did try and guess, and while he couldn't confirm our suspicions that Monster Hunter players will get to hear "Torn From the Heavens," he did say the music will be something that fans will recognize.
Knowing the likely answer, we pushed our luck anyway, and at a mention of Patch 4.4 — the next major update to XIV — we asked if he could tell us anything about the music that will feature in the patch. I suppose, given that 4.4 will include a raid that likely is based on a classic Final Fantasy, it's no surprise that we got a "no comment." But you can't blame us for trying!
Soken has been living and breathing Final Fantasy XIV for years, since before A Realm Reborn's 2013 launch. While we don't want him to leave, we were still curious if there are other projects out there he'd want to work on. He seemed content with his work on XIV but would also be open to particularly interesting opportunities, were they to come up. Even during his time on the XIV team, he has managed to work on other games, though many of those have not been released outside of Japan (see VGMO's profile for more info on these).
Going a little further out from not only Final Fantasy, but gaming in general, we asked if he had interest or plans to create original music separate from games. There wasn't much hesitation when he confirmed that he's just such a fan of both putting music to and playing games that he doesn't have a strong desire to leave that space. He did add that maybe he would later, "when [he's] a grandpa." So, I hope you're patient!
We at RPGFan wish to thank:
• Masayoshi Soken, for his time and talents.
• Aimi Tokutake, for her stellar live translation, without which this interview wouldn't be possible.
• Square Enix's Adam Pelc, fortyseven's Jen Chong and Nick Evans, and everyone else at Square Enix and fortyseven that made this interview happen.