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Understanding the successful relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV

Producer and director Naoki Yoshida sits down with Gamasutra for an in-depth interview about why he took on his successful quest to reboot a failed MMO into an all-new project.

Most MMOs can't bounce back from their bad launches. Final Fantasy XIV did something even more extraordinary: Not only did it recover from a terrible launch, it recovered in the form of an entirely new game. A Realm Reborn was developed from the ground up to replace the original Final Fantasy XIV.

It has done even better than its publisher anticipated.

Gamasutra first spoke to Naoki Yoshida, the producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2011, at the outset of his journey to fix the game. He was not on the original team that developed the title, but he took charge of its revitalization efforts thanks to his expertise with the MMORPG genre.

Now, after a successful relaunch, Gamasutra speaks to Yoshida -- who also gave a well-received talk at this year's GDC that dealt with the project head-on -- about how far he, his team, and his company have come since those days. He also addresses the challenges of running a subscription MMO in an increasingly free-to-play world. 

They often say there's no way to recover from a bad launch with an MMO, but not only did you recover from a bad launch -- you made a new game. Can you explain how you had the confidence to do that?

Naoki Yoshida: This is a long story.

In terms of the original Final Fantasy XIV, I was actually not on the development staff of the original Final Fantasy XIV, and I took over that project after its original, initial launch. A Realm Reborn still didn't take shape at that time, in the beginning.

A month after I took on the responsibilities, I had to evaluate whether this is something I can just go in and make revisions to make better, or if I need to start from scratch. I had to interview the development staff and other members of the company about the title, as well as check out the forums and see what the community was saying.

After the evaluation process was finished, I went to the upper management of the company in our headquarters, and what I told them is, "We are in a critical condition right now. We would either have to, one, completely rebuild this game and build from the ground up or, two, we would continue to update for maybe three more years and shut down the project altogether."

We couldn't be lukewarm; it didn't allow for us to be half-baked. With those two options raised, I also mentioned that if we did close the original Final Fantasy XIV after three years of updating, the trust of the fans would be completely lost.

One of the best slides of GDC 2014: Yoshida's "three easy steps to failure" 

So with rebuilding this title as a completely new Final Fantasy game, you could actually take that and depict it within the story -- and destroy the world, and rebuild it into a new game. And it's very crazy, and very Final Fantasy-like.

And the priority, I felt, was that it shouldn't be about the business, but to regain the fans. Rebuilding the game and relaunching it would probably be the only way we could do that. So the company pushed for it as well, and that is how we came to the decision to rebuild the game.

I personally am a longtime fan of MMORPGs, and I know from a player's perspective, that, yeah, what you had mentioned about once an MMORPG fails in the launch, there really is no way to come back from it. So I knew I had to do something completely different, and recreate this title as a brand-new, original title. So that's why we decided to move on with that. But the development period set forth was extremely short, so it was quite a challenge.

Why was it important to stay with XIV? I think most studios would have moved on with a new title, and left behind the old title. 

NY: First of all, the MMORPG usually requires a very high-spec PC, and with the success of Final Fantasy XI, the expectation for Final Fantasy XIV was really high. There were people who went out and purchased a $2,000 high-end PC and really looked forward to the launch of the original Final Fantasy XIV. With it failing, it was such a big shock and negative impact.

Even if it was a failure -- even if we were to, say, shut down this game within a year and put out the next Final Fantasy game, that would lose the trust, and it would completely disappoint all of our fans. I'm sure there would be a lot of players who would say, "I'm never going to play Final Fantasy again," or "I'm never going to buy a Square Enix game ever again." I, too, am a fan of the Final Fantasy series. I would have said the same thing, too.

In order to regain that trust -- regardless of business or commercial success -- I think it was very important that Square Enix admitted the game did fail, but we want to regain the trust of our fans. It was very important to go back to Final Fantasy XIV and make sure that we fixed the mistakes, and go back and gain the trust that we had lost in the initial failure.

I'm sure that if you compare that with other games, you might think it's a crazy thing to do, but it's definitely important. We felt that Final Fantasy is that important, that we go back to the original game and try to rebuild it. Of course, if it were that important, we shouldn't have failed in the first place, but... Yeah, it was really important for us to build that.

The game has been really successful in its new form. Can you explain why you think that is? As you said, rebuilding it wasn't for a business reason; it was a matter of preserving the series. But it was successful from a business perspective. 

NY: I did mention that the business result was not the top priority, and I feel that it all does boil down to making a fun and interesting game to play. Now, in the short two-and-a-half-year development period, I tried to focus as much as possible to just straightforwardly design it to be fun, and let the players know the progress that we were making and be honest about what our situation is.

We performed a significant amount of alpha and beta testing, to let players know that we were on the same page about our progress and how much we're improving. So, of course, our primary focus was to create a fun game and make sure the gamers understand that. I think it all boils down to that. It just so happens that commercially, it was successful.

Of course, we did do our due diligence with the promotion and the marketing, but that's a given. We have to promote the title. I think what contributed to the success is the direct communication from us to our fans, and gaining their support in the relaunch of this title. I feel that the support from the fans has greatly contributed to the success.

Do you think this lesson that you've learned through recreating this title has changed something about the way people at Square Enix look at game development, look at dealing with the fans, or even maybe how they look at Final Fantasy? 

NY: I definitely think it has changed. I've actually been doing Producer Letters via livestream since around September of 2011. Originally, the Square Enix internal impression of those shows was like, "What's he doing on livestream? He's a developer! If you promise something to players, that means it's a commitment! As a developer, what's he trying to do?"

But now, after it has all been said and done, I'm seeing more and more projects -- every project nowadays is doing livestreams, like going onto [popular Japanese video site] Niconico Douga and doing a program. If you remember last year's E3, we had a whole broadcast booth set up, and we had livestreams going on the whole time.

Yoshida livestreaming at E3

I do see that, internally, within Square Enix, they've figured out the importance in being in direct contact with the fans, the customers. I'm sure you're seeing, from a PR perspective, that there's been a change among the developers?

David Yang, Square Enix PR: It's changed! [laughs]

NY: And in terms of the different teams, proposing ideas to implement into the games, I'm hearing people say more and more, "This is what the fans want." And also within the development staff they are thinking more about what the fans want.

Am I correct in thinking you started more on the Enix side of the company than the Square side of the company?

NY: Yes, that's correct. I've been with Square Enix for about 10 years. I did start with Square Enix after the merger happened. But my first assignment was Dragon Quest, so in that respect I am more leaning toward the Enix side. Final Fantasy XIV would be my first Final Fantasy title. But, I'm more of a lone wolf-type guy, so I'm more neutral in my stance.

I actually get this question often: "Are you more of a Square person, or an Enix person?" To me, it doesn't matter.


I was wondering if you had some kind of perspective that people who were originally working on the project lacked, and where that came from.

NY: This doesn't apply to just the team that was on the original Final Fantasy XIV, but Square Enix in general. During the PS2 generation, Square Enix had great success.

Their process involved a lot of manual, handmade processes. Once you succeed, you tend to want to follow suit with what worked. But they didn't take the time to notice what's around them, and they seemed to not notice the importance of the game experience and enjoying the gameplay. It was more about upgrading the graphics quality, and with the original Final Fantasy XIV, that was one of the failures that I wanted to point out to that team. They were concentrating too much on just trying to upgrade the quality of the graphics. But after that, Square Enix as a whole, I feel, kind of changed.

Do you keep a close eye on what's happening in the industry?

NY: I've been attending GDC for about five years now, and every time I do think, "Why is it so different?" I do personally like playing North American MMO games, and always get the impression, "Why is it so different?" The quality of the games that are made is so different.

For the Square Enix titles, it is okay if we build our games on our experience with our successful games, but now that the generation has changed to the PlayStation 3 and then moving on to the next generation, I know that process is not going to work.

Every time I attend GDC, I take what I learn from those conferences and I try to fully implement that back into the games that I work on. In terms of the original Final Fantasy XIV, I do believe that it was a sort of necessary failure, because of that Square Enix is now changing.

This is pretty nostalgic, but every time I'd go to GDC, I'd report back in Square Enix Tokyo. Of course, this is optional, but I'd get the opportunity to present my findings and people could come and listen to it. But the impression was always, "Oh, Yoshida went to America again, and he was caught by the American bug! He's talking about how you should change the way you build games!" It's really nostalgic to look back at how people reacted.

Do you feel vindicated now? 

NY: That's a tough question to answer. I'm sure all of the developers at Square Enix kind of already had that notion, and it's just that you don't know until you actually trip and fall, or your game fails.

I don't have a strong sense of feeling vindicated now. But going through this very tough experience at Square Enix, I'm really glad there's an opportunity to talk about that experience, as well as the struggles we went through, and I think it's very fortunate that I was given that opportunity to do that.

What's the next wave of changes you're observing that you'd want to tell the developers in Tokyo to keep an eye on? 

NY: I don't intend to talk about individual, granular topics when I return to Japan, but being here at GDC, everybody loves games, and there are so many indie developers. They're people who have been waiting for a great game to come out, but it never did, so they went ahead and made their own games. So I want to relay to the staff back in Japan that it is very important for us to be gamers as well. And that of course business is important, promotion is important, PR is important, but we ourselves have to make a game that we enjoy playing as well. We need to become gamers ourselves. That's what I intend to say. I touch upon this in my presentation as well, but that's what I want to relay back to the staff in Japan.

Final Fantasy XIV is a premium MMO, with a subscription, which is increasingly rare. Does the premium MMO have a future? Can only a few games do this, nowadays? Many subscription MMOs are converting to free-to-play. 

NY: There's one thing that I would like for you to take notice: All large scale MMOs never start out as free-to-play. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online is taking the subscription business model. Rift, as well as Star Wars: The Old Republic, they changed over. Those started out as subscription and flipped over to free-to-play.

Of course, with an MMO you have your loyal players who play the monthly subscription. That, in turn, allows the developer to hire very competent staff and to continuously update content. You have a sort of stability, and you're assured you will have a constant, good gameplay experience. I'm sure players and creators alike, we believe that the subscription model would be the way to maintain a game and continually update and provide new content, but of course that's the ideal.

Of course, that being said, with free-to-play, the client is free, and you can play the game for free, and it might be a great way to attract new players to join in on the game. At the same time, the developers are developing the main part of the content for free, and they wouldn't have the revenue unless they sold the items that are outside of the main part of the game. It could be an item, or it could be experience points, or it could be ease of gameplay time -- and it's not necessarily the actual gameplay experience.

The developers constantly want to provide the best gameplay experience, and they want to develop the main part of the game, but they have to worry about, "Oh, what kind of items can we create to make our revenue quota for this month?" And of course players, on their side, want to continue playing the main part of the game, but they're forced to purchase items that don't necessarily add to their gameplay experience.

There are pros and cons to both business models, of course, and you have to pick and choose what makes sense for each title. What I feel is that you don't have to restrict to just one option. Maybe, if a game decides to have the choice for being a loyal customer and subscribing with a monthly fee, and still having a freemium element added into it, that's something that is not impossible to do. But I am sure that with MMORPG producers, they want their players to be able to enjoy the game for the long term. That's why they tend to want to choose the subscription model.

Then you would wonder, "Why are games switching over to the free-to-play mode?" That's because an MMORPG requires an immense amount of funding. We usually have investors supporting the funding for the different titles. They'd look at the subscriber numbers for the first couple of months, and they'd want their money back because they'd see the decline in the subscriber numbers.

Once investors pull out, the game will not be able to update, because they don't have sufficient funding. So some titles have to make the hard decision to switch over to free-to-play and try to gain a quick buck, pretty much, and raise their ARPU, and try to gain revenue in that manner. I feel that they're not flipping over because they want to; sometimes, they're forced to go into that because they need to update.

Yoshida's thoughts on business models, from his GDC 2014 talk

When you look at the indie scene and you see games like DayZ and Rust, which are running in alpha, being developed as players play them. And yet, players are flooding into these games. What does that tell you about the audience of online games? 

NY: I think it all boils down to, if the game is fun, people will be willing to pay money for it. You earlier asked about, "A Realm Reborn is one of those rare cases in which a subscription model game is successful, and will it continue its model?" I feel that, again, people will put in the money for it if they feel that the game is fun to play and interesting to continue playing.

I bring up the example of World of Warcraft: Of course people have been saying that the subscription numbers have declined and declined, but if you look at it, it's 8 million people, and it's actually still increasing.

I don't think the business model is changing, per se. Maybe it's because in the last five years, so many games have come out, and there are too many to choose from. Nowadays the game companies that cannot produce as fun or as interesting a game would close down, and the companies that would make those games that stand out, people are going to jump on it. I welcome that change, because it means I just have to continue making a fun game to play.

There's a game that was introduced by an indie creator and they say that the hack and slash is much more fun than Diablo III. So I welcome that change. It will give us a good kind of pressure to continue striving for better.

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