[In this extensive interview, the producer of Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki Yoshida -- brought onto the project to try and rescue it from a disastrous launch -- details the work ahead of him and explains why he thinks he can save the game.]
Final Fantasy XIV launched in September to massive problems. The hotly-anticipated MMO quickly became a community nightmare, with the company repeatedly extending the free play period beyond the initial 30 days post-launch and eventually removing producer and Square Enix veteran Hiromichi Tanaka from the project and replacing him with Naoki Yoshida.
The game has not been canned -- though problems are so drastic that the release of the PlayStation 3 version of the game has been seemingly indefinitely postponed and the company is working with its release partner in China, Shanda, to improve the game before it considers releasing it in that territory.
Square Enix has even changed its internal policies since the launch -- delaying the release Deus Ex: Human Revolution to improve its quality. Of course, this has created major problems for the company's bottom line, and inside sources suggest to Gamasutra that this has affected other projects within the company.
Yoshida has been candid in the past about the team's need to improve the game. In this interview, he speaks at length to Gamasutra about what form those improvements will take, how he was chosen to take over the beleaguered project, and what might be happening with the PlayStation 3 version.
He is joined in this by Square Enix's global online producer Sage Sundi, a veteran of its prior MMO Final Fantasy XI.
Well, you've been brought into the Final Fantasy XIV project to sort of... I don't know what the right word is. Maybe I'll just pick the word "rescue." Could you give me your perspective on how that came about and what your goals are?
Naoki Yoshida: XIV had many issues. There was technology trouble, in-game trouble. The game at the time of release did not live up to expectations that players had of current generation MMOs. Like, "this should be in a current generation MMO," and that wasn't there.
And Square Enix wasn't working close enough with their user base. They weren't working with them. It was pretty much by themselves. And so this whole change came about in order to address these issues. And the whole company would get together to work as one in a full company effort to get things back in track.
Not that the company didn't try hard their first time; it's just that now they realize we have to take that next step, and we want to join hands as a company to do this. In that, I took the lead.
What personally attracted you to stepping in on this project?
NY: From inside the company, the management, they approached me and asked me to be part of the project. I've worked on core game design in the past, which is another reason. I have the ability to work as a leader -- the leadership qualities.
Also, I myself am a hardcore MMO player with over 10 years of experience on MMOs. So, it's that combination of my knowledge, core knowledge of MMOs, as well as my skills as a developer that got me onto this project. They thought I would be perfect for the project.
Very often you'll hear developers in the West say that you can't recover from a bad launch. Obviously, that's not your philosophy, but I was wondering what your thoughts on that belief are?
NY: One of the reasons I believe that it's very hard to recover from a bad launch is that with many Western MMOs, because the teams are so large and they require such a large budget -- because of all the assets and all the things they have to make -- a lot of those projects rely on investment, and it can't be done by a single company alone. So, that's why if you fail, then you fail.
And then when a game, like a large Western MMO, has a large launch and it fails, then the investors start to pull back. Then the money stops flowing. And when the money stops flowing, the development teams have to make their development team sizes smaller, which means they can't get enough content for the fixes, or they have to go to a different payment model like free-to-play.
Basically the control of the development is crushed. They want to change it, they want to start over, but it's prevented by that lack of the budget.
On the other hand, with FFXIV, operations and development are all funded 100 percent by Square Enix, so as long as we decide to continue backing the project and we don't give up, we can continue to provide things to the players, see what they want, then go back and retry things, redo things. Basically, it comes up to us. We're not at the strings of the investors.
I know you weren't on the project when it launched, but obviously you must have been aware of the project at the company. Can you talk about what the company's and the developers' expectations were prior to launch, and how surprising it was to see what the outcome of the launch was?
NY: Seeing it from, well, being on another project, you could see that they were having a very hard time. They were working very hard.
And the company's timing to say, "Okay, we can give some help to you guys from our team" -- or to put out that helping hand to the team -- we realized that the timing that they offered help was probably a little too late. I mean, again, everyone has their own projects, and they're worried about their own projects, but they could have helped a little earlier, possibly.
I've noticed that since you stepped in, you've put a real emphasis on communicating with the community in a way that's quite different to how Square Enix has handled community relations in the past. So, I was wondering why you personally feel the strong need to move forward this way.
NY: This is one of the problems that I believe that FFXIV had -- this closed communication system. Because MMOs certainly, especially the more recent MMOs, it's like the world that the players go into is just as important as the real world. They go into that world, and it's just as important a world as the real world is. And so if the developers don't listen to the players that are in that world and can't provide the best service, then we're not doing our jobs.
Sage Sundi: The fact that Square Enix really didn't communicate with players -- it wasn't like an inter-company policy, like the policy was "We're not going to talk to players." It wasn't anything like that.
It just happened to be that the method that Square Enix took was -- we would always listen. It wasn't like we weren't listening to the players, but we weren't giving responses. Either the responses would come slowly, or the responses wouldn't come at all. I mean, we're listening, we're trying to do stuff, but we weren't reminding the players that, "Yes, we are listening," by telling them that yes, we are listening.
And I saw that you recently did a survey, and the survey was rather radical, I think, in that it asked players how fundamental the changes they'd like to see to the game are. I mean, how far are you prepared to go to modify the game?
NY: Yeah. It's really hard to put a number on it, but I guess you can look at it in separate areas.
For example, like the Guildleve system. We liked the Guildleve system, in that it provides a simple quest for someone who, say they have 30 minutes to play a game. They come in, they go to that counter, they know the quests are going to be waiting for them, they get the quests, they do them, and they're done.
So, that, really you wouldn't have to have a fundamental change to that. I mean, you could do some adjustments to it to make it better for the players, but that you wouldn't have to destroy the whole foundation.
Whereas the battle system on the other hand, I personally believe that the battle should be something where you get with friends, you talk over how you're going to fight this battle, doing all the tactics and the strategies. And right now, this really can't be done in the battle system that currently exists.
So, for this one, I'm saying that yeah, maybe, a 70 percent change might be necessary to get it to something that I envision as a cool battle system.
But even saying that, that's not to say that -- for example -- the Guildleve system doesn't need to have fixes as well. While it's really good for people that want to come in, play solo, and just get out in 30 minutes, that Guildleves system is perfect. But what about for people that want to learn a little more about the world? That would take, maybe, providing quests from the NPCs -- more of these types of quests where you can talk with these NPCs, learn about their lives, learn about the world. Things where you have to do a little more exploring.
And then on top of that, people that -- okay, say you have a lot of time on the weekends, so you want to get with a party and you want something a little more challenging than what the simple Guildleves offer. So, we want to keep the good things. Things that are working right now, we want to keep them. But then things that, yes, need that big change, we want to go in and drastically change those.
Has the feedback from players globally been very similar, or have there been differences in the different territories?
NY: We've had two surveys so far, and we'd say probably 80 percent of the answers have been the same worldwide. And then the remaining 20 percent, we found have been requests for other changes.
For example, in Japan, Japanese people have a really busy lifestyle, a lot of stuff to do, work. So, the Japanese players wanted us to keep a lot of the solo aspect, because they liked the aspect that you can solo a lot.
Whereas in Europe, a lot of the European users wanted more of a Final Fantasy feel to the game. They wanted airships and Chocobos. They wanted it to feel more like a Final Fantasy game that they envisioned.
Whereas the U.S. was more "Okay, we want parties. We want to have big battles where we get with our friends and put together strategies." And so, while everyone is saying that they want the changes, this 20 percent, there are some differences between the regions.
Do you feel that the different territories have fundamentally different expectations about how community management and community communication should occur?
SS: When you look at the community sites, the regions, you get lots of hot and cold. For example, America, France, and Germany, their community sites are really involved. They host a lot of things. They get really active about how they communicate. Whereas, you look at Japan, or maybe to less of an extent the United Kingdom, they don't get excited about it. It's a lot more low key. And so you have those U.S. sites and the German sites and the French sites, they'll want that hardcore communication there.
Another thing is what type of information each region wants on their posts. For example, in Japan, they just want the hardcore facts. They want to know what's going in the game, how much stuff will change, is it going up or is it going down. Whereas, in America, it's more like they want to know more about what type of person is this new director. Is he crazy? Is he nice? What is he thinking? They want to know more about him as a person. And the thing is, on the other hand, Japan, they don't really care much about that.
When it comes to the community management aspect of it, even though the regions are different in what they want, you have to keep the management the same, you keep it open, and then you get all of that data. Because if you have the community management part doing different things, then things starts getting confusing -- so you want to keep that open and as similar as possible.
Yoshida-san, you mentioned early on that you personally have been a long-term MMO player. I was wondering if you learned any lessons from your own participation in MMO games that carried over?
NY: Yeah. One of the things that I thought was really important, playing for long periods of time over a single game, is that community size is a very important factor.
Like in some of the older, I guess you could call them the "first generation" of large MMOs, like Ultima Online and EverQuest, there would be these big strong in-game communities. For example, you have guilds with like 300 people in them. But as the game went on, those communities would get smaller and smaller until they were made up of groups of people with similar play styles, people that wanted to do the same thing.
The people that are playing MMOs are now these veterans of MMOs who have gone through that first process. And now when they decide to make a guild, it's not more joining a guild with a ton of people, and then being one of the last few that remain; It's inviting people that you know that already have the same type of gameplay style that you do.
So, you invite these people that you know. And you make these close-knit guilds and these close-knit communities within the game. The challenge is how to make content that appeals to those groups, that want to do those hardcore things in those tight-knit groups. And that's one of the interesting things that I've learned and what I'm having fun with now.
The one thing that I learned from the battle systems of other games is that when you create parties, you have people of different skill levels, and some people will be really good at games, and some people might not be. So, you have the different skill levels in one party, but each person has their role, and their role is clearly defined, and that's really important.
To have the rules of a battle that are simple enough to understand, but challenging enough to get players to use their mind. You have to think and strategize -- have something that's going to challenge them in that way, but not something that's going to be complex to the point where people won't be able to do anything.
The company took a fairly radical measure of suspending charging monthly fees. I was wondering if you could talk about why that was undertaken and if it's had the effect that you hoped?
NY: It was pretty much personally because I've been a player for so long. I wanted to make sure that I would only ask the player to pay for something that once I could say, "Okay, we have this planned, and we're going to do this. This is what we're going to do, so this is the point where we can actually ask you for money." Without that, I personally, as a player, wouldn't feel good about asking the player to pay money without that information.
And coming off what I said before, if we had used investors' money to do this, we probably couldn't do this. It's because Square Enix is funding this project 100 percent. That's why we can do this. Only Square Enix can do something like this.
The reason we're doing this is we're showing the players, yes, it's still costing us a lot of money, and we're not getting that money back yet, but we're serious about making these changes. This is one of the ways that we can show players that we are serious and we are taking it seriously.
That's why right now we still haven't put out a date, because we haven't got to that point yet where we can have a date where we're going to say, "Okay, this is the point where we're going to start taking money." So, it's still out in the open.
Since you've come on, has the community reaction changed? How do players feel about things?
NY: Yeah, the biggest thing that we've seen is the community is really rooting for us. They seem to have accepted this change and are hoping that it's moving the project in the right direction. I'm very happy we're getting so many kind words from the users, and getting such a great response.
Just yesterday, I was walking down the street, and somebody approached me in San Francisco, and said, "Are you Naoki Yoshida? I'm playing Final Fantasy XIV," and thanked me for joining the team and told me good luck. That was very surprising to me, but I was very happy that happened. It made me feel really good.
SS: Again, we do realize that the people that are still playing now are people who are very loyal, so they're going to want to expect the best. But we do realize that there are a lot of people who play, but then quit. And so our next step is that we have to show them that, yes, we have this plan and we have this vision and we want to change this. And so that's our next step. That's also very important to us.
How far into the future are you looking? Is it primarily a process of addressing concerns? Or are you looking into things like how the game will fare down the road? Do you have a long-term vision?
NY: Pretty much, we've split it into two parts. We have our long-term plan, where I have a lot of ideas for things I want to do far in the future. But then again, of course, you have the development cost and like time of the developers. And so you have to have a short-term plan as well, and these short-term plans of maybe two to three month spans, where you have your short-term goals. And achieving these is important.
The things we have for these short two-month to three-month goals are things that we are releasing in the producer letters. Of course, we want to reveal what's in that long-term plan as well, and we're working as hard as we can to make sure that we can reveal this, get that solidified so we can reveal it as soon as possible.
I've only been on the project for three months. I'm still is learning a lot about the development team, what kind of resources we have, who the people are on the team, what their strengths and weaknesses are. So, yes, I have this really long plan, and I've divided it up into certain sectors, and then those sectors are divided up into even tinier sectors. But as I learn more about the team and what they can do and what they cannot do -- of course that's going to change.
Once I've learned enough about that. "Okay, I trust that this person's is going to be able to get this much done in this much time." I'll be able to reveal more and more things that are for the future. Right now, I'm still learning, and that's why we can only reveal something that's only a few months away.
What effect has this had on the PlayStation 3 version of the game? The state that the game is in, I guess. I'm sure you've re-evaluated those plans, whatever they were.
NY: Well, again, the controls could be a little different. The PS3 version, the PC version, it's going to be the same game. So, our top priority is making the game that is very Final Fantasy, something that we can be proud of and something that the players will come in and they will love this Eorzea. It's an Eorzea that we can be proud of and the players will enjoy. Once we can do this, that's when we'll release the PlayStation 3 version.