E3 2016: Final Fantasy XIV Producer/Director Interview
A chat with Naoki Yoshida.
06.23.16 - 10:10 AM
When E3 2015 took place, Final Fantasy XIV was on the verge of receiving its first expansion, Heavensward. While this year's E3 wasn't showcasing something of that magnitude, FFXIV was still on display, and Producer/Director Naoki Yoshida was still on hand to discuss what's coming next to the MMORPG.
During a group interview with RPGFan and a pair of other outlets, we asked Yoshi-P (his nickname) about upcoming features, what it's like to run a game with 5 million players, and much more. All the while, a TV sat across the room with a live view of FFXIV, and a giant cluster of players chatting constantly. In the center of the dogpile? A temporary character with Yoshida's name. During our talk it was hard not to notice the sheer excitement that people were feeling by being in his virtual presence. Many players were saying hello, some were trying to trade celebratory in-game items like red wine and food, and one was even offering to donate a million gil. The display was yet another reminder that amongst FFXIV's players, Yoshi-P is a rock star.
Not that he ever acts like one. Even when asked about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's success, he remains humble. He explained that, when he took on the task of rebuilding FFXIV, making the game a success or trying to achieve a high subscriber count was never the goal. The original game was simply not fun to play, so the goal with A Realm Reborn was to regain the trust of the players by making a game people enjoyed — an arguably tougher task.
Yoshida likes working on a title like FFXIV because there's a real connection between the developers and players. Jokingly, he compared this process to a standard "develop & ship" title, saying that the best one can do in that case is to sneak into a store and see who's buying your game and ask what they think. Between the forums, Q&A sessions in his Letter from the Producer Live, and other outlets, there's plenty of opportunity to get feedback and see how people are liking (or not liking) certain aspects of Final Fantasy XIV, and he says it's a great feeling to have that opportunity.
While most people who follow FFXIV know that new features and upcoming releases are always announced by Yoshi-P himself to the fans, there were still some questions about upcoming jobs and details on the expansion. As expected, he wasn't going to say anything to us, but we did get just a couple hints about the next expansion. Right before E3, the large Patch 3.3 was released, and the team has a solid plan up to 3.5, which is still about 6 months away. Development on and towards the coming expansion, aka 4.0, is going steady. One piece of feedback the developers heard when Heavensward (3.0) released was that some players didn't want to have to finish A Realm Reborn's (2.0) story to get access to the new areas. While Yoshida didn't say this would be any different going from 3.x to 4.0, he did say that he wants players to be able to access the new content as fast as possible, so they're looking into the best way to make that happen.
When asked about what jobs are coming next...you guessed it, Yoshi-P wasn't going to say. Instead, he explained a bit about their process of adding new jobs/classes to FFXIV. While the team is aware of players' specific requests (I've seen many a conversation online about the desire to see Samurai, Red Mage, and Blue Mage... and sometimes Puppetmaster), jobs aren't chosen purely on requests. While they do want to add jobs that Final Fantasy fans will appreciate, new additions have to be made with the jobs already in the game in mind. The team always has to keep in mind the game balance, after all. Yoshida responded similarly to a question about what nostalgic Final Fantasy content may be coming next. While these callbacks are fun and important to Final Fantasy in general, each one has to make sense within the world of Final Fantasy XIV, so they're never added purely for nostalgia's sake.
We asked about the process of working on a game like Final Fantasy XIV, in particular the art and sound design, and we learned a bit about the timeframe of these processes. Part of the reason the XIV team has to think so far ahead is because of the time needed to implement new areas, items, and characters. The art teams have about a 6 month lead time to create assets for each patch. That means about the time players saw Patch 3.3 in early June, the artists are working on materials for Patch 3.5, which is likely to release around December at the earliest. Each asset, be it new crafting items, gear, or enemy designs, goes through stages of conceptual design, and only once Yoshida approves them do they begin creating the final 3D assets. Even with the 6 month lead time, there's actually a 2-year plan at all times for the graphics teams, so it's safe to say they have their ducks in a row. Or chocobo chicks, rather.
Another interviewer asked how committed they are to their plans in storytelling and if they deviate from their plans during development. Right now, you're probably thinking the same thing I was when I heard the question, because...well, they don't. Like the visuals, this stuff has to be set in stone well in advance, especially since the main story scenes include voice acting. Voices which are recorded about half a year in advance, so they need to have a solid plan. In addition, Yoshida enjoys including foreshadowing in the story, which means they have to be sure where things are going so that they're hinting at the proper events.
On the flip side of all this? Sound design. Masayoshi Soken and the sound team can't really come up with proper music and sounds until content itself is determined. The other teams will make certain requests of the sound team, and the sound team is also inspired by the visual design elements and story beats for their work, to make sure it complements the rest of the game properly. Sadly, because of the need for other aspects to be finalized first, this means the sound team often has the shortest amount of time to get their jobs done.
Across the last couple patches to FFXIV, there has been a concentrated effort to both help newer players acclimate to Eorzea, and to bring newbies and veterans together, with things like the mentor system. Possibly to the chagrin of the guy who was literally screaming "GET GOOD" during the Live Letter as if it was a battle cry, the XIV team understands that these games really need to cater to many types of players if they're to survive. The life cycle of an MMORPG is fleeting, and if the player base becomes too divided between new and veteran players, it would be detrimental to the game's future. Features like the mentor system, and the upcoming Deep Dungeon, are designed to close this gap and get more types of players engaging with each other. It's a difficult thing, to be sure, to create content for both newbies and vets and not alienate one or the other, but Yoshida is very serious about this, declaring it "absolutely necessary" to keep working towards these goals as they move forward.
We'll talk about Deep Dungeon more in a separate article covering the Letter from the Producer Live E3 Edition, but the new mode did come up briefly during our interview. The classic blue UI used in this mode, use of save slots, and more are meant to evoke old-school Final Fantasy dungeon diving. With a minimum level requirement of 17 and the fact that Deep Dungeon progression and gear is entirely separate from the main game of XIV, anyone can jump in this mode, regardless of their progress in the main game. By negating the need to have certain stats or endgame-caliber gear, Deep Dungeon is another way to "close the gap" between players. The other point Yoshi-P made was that despite "Deep Dungeon" being the name of the feature, more locations will be added in the future, and they may not all necessarily be what you would think of as a "dungeon."
We discussed Final Fantasy XIV's international presence as well. Yoshida remarked upon how interesting it is to see how typical players engage with Eorzea around the world in different fashions. For example, North American players tend to pick and choose the content they engage with, whether it's story, crafting, PVP, and so on. Alternatively, Japanese players by and large want to do everything that's available to them. Even the times and frequency that players log in differs by region — he specifically pointed out Korea and China on this one — and the game may be balanced slightly differently in these regions as a result. The final comment on the worldwide player base was that they're hoping to expand into the Latin America market in the future.
Quick but relevant side note: if you've played the game, you know there's a dense level of lore and mythology involved across the game's world and history. So much thought is put into this that translator/localizer/world/lore master (he has a lot of titles) Michael-Christopher Koji Fox makes things like this shockingly in-depth forum post covering the origins and intricacies of the language of XIV's dragon races. It's clear Koji Fox and the rest of the team take FFXIV's lore seriously, which is why they announced earlier this year they would be releasing an official book about it.
So, for our own nerdy knowledge, the very last question we asked the man considered the savior of Final Fantasy XIV? "How is that lore book coming along?"
The answer was encouraging: There were only 7 pages left to edit! Which means there shouldn't be any reason the book won't be for sale at the various FFXIV Fan Festival events this fall. And if it's not ready in time? Yoshi-P says we can throw eggs at Koji when we see him. You heard it here first.