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Event Recap: Final Fantasy XI Fan Festival 2007

Square Enix's multi-platform MMO Final Fantasy XI is still going strong, with 500,000 subscribers worldwide, five years after its 2002 debut - and Gamasutra was at the FFXI Anaheim fanfest to interview the Japanese developers and present a comprehensive festival round-up.

Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix's first (and, to date, last) serious assault on online gaming, is still going strong after five years. 500,000 players from around the world continue to stick with it, and some have played the titles - available on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox 360 - since the very beginning in 2002 (2003, in the West).

This week the fourth expansion, Wings of the Goddess, was released and to give hardcore fans a sneak peek, Square Enix put on the recent Final Fantasy XI Fan Festival 2007 at the Anaheim Hilton in Southern California.

Firstly, Gamasutra presents a Q&A with Square Enix vice president and producer of Final Fantasy XI Hiromichi Tanaka, Sage Sundi, and other members of the Square Enix development team, conducted at the event.

Coming up on the fifth anniversary, how does everyone feel? It's got to be a great accomplishment -- five years running an MMO.

Hiromichi Tanaka: Actually, you might know that the development for Final Fantasy XI started about eight years ago. And at the time that development began we really only had a plan for about five years, and now it's been eight years. So it kept building, but it's been a very quick eight years. The time has gone by really quickly. But everyone still has a lot of fun making it and we're sure that probably even from now the time will still keep going quickly.

Which regions would you say are the strongest throughout the global market in terms of subscription base?

HT: Right now of our 500,000 users about half are Japan, the remaining half being a combination of American and the European territories.

Are you happy with how the console versions have been received? The Xbox 360 version last year was a pretty big deal.

HT: As you probably know, the 360 is not that popular in Japan, so even though it's on sale not many people have the actual hardware to play it. But yeah, we're pleased to see that a lot of the users in Europe and America (where the 360 is popular) are players using that, and we hope to continue making stuff for that market.

So in Japan they play more PS2 or PC?

Sage Sundi: At the release, there were a lot more using the PS2 in Japan, but recently the trend has been that most players are moving to the PC versions.

HT: And then a lot of the players in America -- probably most of the people who have an Xbox 360 also have a PC -- so most of them are going to be playing on the PC rather than the 360.

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The Final Fantasy XI dev team, pictured from left to right: Hiromichi Tanaka (producer of FFXI), Kouichi Ogawa (Director of Wings of the Goddess and Treasures of Aht Urhgan), Akihiko Matsui (Battle Director of FFXI), Mitsutoshi Gondai (Planner of FFXI), Kenichi Iwao (Planner of FFXI), Sage Sundi (Global Online Producer)

Do games like World of Warcraft impinge on your market, or do you feel like it's a completely different player base?

Square Enix Team Members: Actually we haven't been affected that much by WoW. When FFXI hit its peak users was about the time that WoW was released, and when it was released we didn't see a big reduction in the players. It's pretty much been about the same. We feel that with a lot of MMORPGs on the market, players have the choice of the one they want to go to and they'll try them out and then they'll stick with one -- and we see that people who chose FFXI have stuck with it.


Do you think it's maybe almost that you've introduced Final Fantasy players to MMOs?

SETM: Yeah, one of the main concepts when we were designing it was to introduce players to the MMORPG type of world. One of the side effects of doing that was that also a lot of people who had never played an FF game decided to play this as their first MMO as well, especially probably more so in Japan where MMOs weren't very big. And this was also the first MMO on a console, so a lot of players that had played FF and had not played FF started with FFXI because it was the first MMO available.

With the expansion do you expect a pretty sharp spike again? Subscription rates have gone up in the past after expansions, so is it the case that people resubscribe after taking a break?

SS: Yeah, we've already started to see movements back in the several tens of thousands -- people have been getting ready. It goes back to what we said before where, as there are a lot of choices on the market, some people will quit and go play one thing, but they have the freedom to come back when they want to. So yes, with this expansion we've seen another jump and users coming back.

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One of two new job classes added with the Wings of the Goddess expansion, the Scholar.

You guys just announced the windowed version and everyone seemed really excited about it. How long had you guys been planning that? Were there technical obstacles in the beginning?

HT: The original FFXI for the PC was based on DirectX 8 technology and to have a windowed mode in this and also be able to run FFXI, there wasn't enough memory-wise. It just didn't work out there program-wise. So when we went to DX9 we had to basically remake the system for that and then there's also the risk of making all these remakes, and that's one of things that took a lot of time, development.

Also once we had it done, because the windowed mode -- basically it affects everything in the game -- we had to go back and do all of our technical type of checks to make sure that it wasn't causing problems anywhere. So the debugging process also took a lot of time.

We started about a year ago we started talking about developing the windowed mode. We started the actual process of building it about a half a year ago. This had a lot to do with Windows Vista and Games for Windows. They require a windowed mode for the games, so that was one of the big reasons that we had to make the push.

Do you eventually plan on a whole new Final Fantasy MMO? Or is it going to be eternally XI, the magic online number?

As you might already know, members from the current FFXI team are working on a next generation MMO, but it still hasn't been decided whether that's going to be a game in the FF series, a continuation, or a totally new game. We are working on it, but it hasn't been decided that far yet.


Final Fantasy XI FanFest:
The Event Report

Square Enix put on the Final Fantasy XI Fan Festival 2007 last weekend at the Anaheim Hilton in Southern California - and the hotel served as both venue and accommodations for many of the attendees.

Waking up in the morning, you knew you were at home with the gamers when in the next room someone was taking their shower to the Portal end theme. Straight across the second floor in another hall was a weightlifters' convention, and when a few of them wandered over to wonder what all the cosplayers were for, the contrast was sharp.

The Festivities Begin

Things kicked off for us Friday morning when producer and Square Enix vice president Hiromichi Tanaka gave an opening address, including an announcement of the new windowed mode, to enthusiastic applause.

Directly after the opening, while all the eager players were still in their seats, Kenichi Iwao, one of the planners of the game, gave everyone a history lesson featuring the two main continents of Vana'diel, Quon and Mindartia. After learning things like who first discovered magic and how Bastok won its independence, fans were addressed by Mitsutoshi Gondai, another planner, regarding the two new job classes for Wings of the Goddess: dancer and scholar.

ffxipic.jpg

A dancer was described as a frontline healer, able to both help her teammates and enfeeble monsters with various steps that stack to unlock powerful finishing flourishes. Meanwhile, the scholar, looking somewhat like a schoolgirl in the female version-- high socks, short skirt -- was explained as a strong support character who uses "stratagems" to affect magical spells her teammates cast.

What The Players Wanted

Everyone was ready to be cut loose and try them out, so after the presentation the expansion tour stations were full. Trying out the new jobs was stressful for some players, because since the game has been released on PS2 and Xbox 360 as well as PC there were at least a few people there who had never played on a standard keyboard.

Some seemed to come to the festival exclusively to play even more FFXI. The Atomos Challenge was a grind-a-thon for players who thought they could level up or collect money faster than anyone else. Groups set up a tag-team schedule for lunch and bathroom breaks, pausing only to hand over the keyboard. Two other (relatively) less intense in-game events were also available for teams to tackle. Both the Mercenary Camp and the Heroes' & Heroines' Combat quests required players to face off against extremely difficult enemies, but winning was worth some serious bragging rights.

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A hall outside the main stage became a carnival, with real-life minigames to play for FFXI prizes. Fans lined up to try out an archery range (with Nerf arrows), or try to aim their ring tosses squarely at the arms of Final Fantasy's famous cactus monster, Cactaur. Nearby the merchandise booth was doing exceedingly brisk business, selling out pretty much everything, especially the five year commemorative keychains.

Halfway between playing the videogame and playing real life games was the returning Live Quest, which was popular last year. Teams of flesh and blood players -- wearing their server and character name badges -- gathered into teams and were lead by numbered Non-Player Characters through a variety of tasks toward the goal of in-game rewards.

Another very popular event returning from last year was held Friday at 3:00 PM: The Tarutaru Marathon. Registered players were each assigned one tiny, adorable, level one Tarutaru character to send hurtling through a perilous dungeon. Monsters there could smite these wimpy Tarutaru into dust with just one hit, so stealth -- well, more so just running like hell -- played a big part in advancing the furthest. No one actually managed to cure the goal Galka character before the 20 minutes was over, but the closest three were awarded pretty sweet tech prizes. In fact, the top prize for many of the contests was a new PC.


Contests And Competitions

Friday afternoon we were treated to viewings of the finalists in the movie contest. Most of the six entries went the fanboy favorite music video route, but the ones that got everyone most excited were Machinima-style with either amateur VO (as the game features none) or overlayed text dialog. Between the Tarutaru zombie invasion starting from a resurrection spell gone wrong and the humorous, blooper-reel-esque look at what could be going on behind the scenes in Vana'diel, there were plenty of good laughs to be had.

Prizes for art entries were awarded in two categories on Saturday, drawing and crafting, the basic distinction being 2 or 3-D. Sketches, computer-generated art, a yarn doll, and a baby Chocobo figurine, among other pieces, were all displayed outside the main hall so attendees could cast their votes prior to the award ceremony.

The most exciting contest took place Saturday afternoon at about 2:30 -- costumes. Of course any time you go to a convention of fans you'll see some people dressed up, but it's always great to see how hardcore people can get with the details. Some impressed us by conjuring up fantastic costumes based on the brand new job classes recently announced, while others picked off-beat subjects such as a bulky Galka warrior dressed for the holiday season or the game's GM character -- a red knight.

costume_contest_finalists.JPG

A lot of work went into some of these costumes, but the judges' panel, made up of half the dev team, seemed to lean towards the original rather than the extremely ornate. In the end, a fellow dressed as Cid won the grand prize and was bothered the whole rest of the festival for a freeze-frame pic of the character's famous laugh animation.

For those with encyclopedic knowledge of FFXI market prices, monsters, geography, and spelling, each day featured an hour of the Vana'diel Quiz Show. Contestants chosen by drawing competed to recall as much trivia as possible. A round usually began with a quick The Price Is Right-flavored segment to determine who would get a shot for a prize.

The Developers Speak

Despite all the fun activities, probably what players really came for was to hear about the game straight from the developers, and to that end the attendees flocked to dev panels each night for announcements and answers to fan-submitted questions. The first night's session was proceeded by a huge list of tweaks being made to current job classes, such as added or modified abilities.

Then they launched into the panel proper with a discussion of new Wings of the Goddess features like the Allied Campaign, sort of a meta-game where territory is conquered by nations and different strategies and quests become available depending on the results of previous battles. Players will also be able to headhunt mercenaries to join their nation, including some well-known NPCs. Also in for the new expansion are expanded weapon and inventory slots, and plans are underway for a new seasonal lottery event, as well as a system whereby GMs can facilitate scheduled player-run events by placing objects in the game world.

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Day Two's dev panel kicked off with an update from FFXI's fan-favorite developer Sage Sundi on the "Special Task Force" dedicated to eradicating gil (gold) famers, a topic he also covered at Austin GDC during Tanaka's keynote.

The dev team has made some impressive strides and found over 47,000 guilty accounts -- even through such simple measures as monitoring chat logs. They also managed to freeze over 1.1 billion in farmed gil, so that sellers are having trouble following through on their orders. Graphs portraying the amount of certain types of farmers (such as the ones who spend all their time catching and selling in-game fish) clearly angled down and to the right, further showing the progress. Lots of programming time went into adjusting quests and item drops -- one can imagine the difficulties involved in trying to make camping certain bosses not worthwhile to farmers, while keeping the quest experience rewarding for legitimate players.

More expansion news came out, including the fact that since player housing has now been opened up for friends to visit, there are going to be ways to make your own store inside with a signboard that boosts crafting skills as a side effect. Some difficulty tweaks, some stat bonuses, adjustments to the Chocobo Racing system -- pretty much everything they mentioned was based on things that players had asked for, proving "fan service" doesn't always imply panty shots.

It does, however, imply special hidden informational tidbits and Square Enix following through sometime soon on their promise to deliver a video of the team beating the most powerful boss monster in the game, Absolute Virtue.

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The end of the festival was marked by a musical performance by The Smash Brothers doing rock covers of some favorite FFXI music -- but evidently not everything the crowd was wishing for, because there was quite a lot of shouting.

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Composers Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka were on hand, and Tanioka even sat down to a keyboard to play some more classical-style arrangements, including one new one from Wings of the Goddess.

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