AGDC: How Square Enix Hunts The Hunters
“I finally get the chance to escape Tokyo City,” began Hiromichi Tanaka, an executive officer at Square Enix, and producer of Final Fantasy XI, at his Austin GDC keynote on Thursday. Tanaka's experience includes work on Final Fantasy 1, 2, and 3, as well as Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and Secret of Mana.
Addressing wide-ranging topics, Tanaka first outlined the successes of Final Fantasy, with 12 unique installments, and 75 million in sales worldwide. Interestingly though, the first Final Fantasy only sold 500,000 copies, dwarfed by the mighty Dragon Quest from Enix. Final Fantasy III was Squaresoft’s first million seller, with Final Fantasy II at about 750,000.
On Building Final Fantasy XI
Final Fantasy XI, the company’s first MMO, was also the world’s first cross-platform MMO, according to Tanaka. “The game was developed from the start with the intention of having common worldwide servers,” he said, which presented a significant technical hurdle. “The roots of FFXI stretch back to 1999 – after Chrono Cross had been released, we had returned from vacation, and teamed up with the Legend of Mana and Parasite Eve teams.”
Tanaka revealed that there was originally a different version of the game planned: “Back in the early stages of development, we were working with Microsoft on a version for the original Xbox. However, due to a number of reasons, we were forced to abandon those plans. The main reason was that the original Xbox only came with 2GB hard drive. Currently it uses an 8 GB section of the PS2 HDD. This was to ensure that there’d be enough room for expansions,” he said, adding that mass storage is a lifeline for MMOs.
It took the company 2 years to complete the German and French translations, recently released, because of depth of existing content. “It also didn’t help that we released updates and expansions while the French and German teams were working on the game. But now, all versions are working simultaneously,” he says.
Tanaka then outlined the company’s PlayOnline service, Square Enix’s game client which runs on top of existing hardware architectures. This was originally poised as not only a game portal, but also for music and manga. While some other games have been released through PlayOnline, none were as successful as FFXI, and features such as music downloads never materialized. “It’s beneficial because it’s got a good payment platform, independent from any hardware,” Tanaka maintains, though anecdotal evidence from users shows that it can be a bit of an extra hassle.
The Final Fantasy XI population, he says, is split between 32 public game worlds, with 15k-20k unique users per world, and 200k-300k users logging in per day.
The Problems Of RMT In FFXI
Takana then brought Sage Sundi on stage to talk about real money trading, or RMT. Sundi joined the MMO industry as a volunteer for Ultima Online, then became a UO game master, than a UO Japan producer – today he works on Square Enix’s PlayOnline service.
“The original design of FFXI didn’t allow money trading, so we decided not to allow RMT in any way,” said Sundi. “A special task force was organized, and 90% of RMT related in-game activities have been removed.”
In Final Fantasy XI, RMT groups work like this: Hunter groups scour areas, some groups have as many as 300. The ‘banks’ are the people who gather up the money. Then there’s the front-end, who find users to have transactions with. Then there’s an out-of-game website where the transaction takes place.
To achieve their goal of reducing RMT, the group had two main tasks – analysis, and feedback. The team members would go over databases in a log-based investigation, looking for hacks. Initially this was done once a month, now they do it once per week, along with tips from users.
Some RMT Lessons From The Game
Along the way, Square Enix came up with a number of conclusions during the RMT battle.
1. Most larger RMT organizations are connected. With the exception of a few small independent parties, almost all of the larger RMT organizations were connected to one another. With common funds, they’ve formed a type of network.
2. Removing front-end sellers and ‘banks’ is not enough. “This is just a temporary solution, and was one of our first mistakes. It stemmed from not understanding how these groups really operated. When we did this, it encouraged the remaining hunters to work harder to compensate for losses. That’s when we switched our tactics to search databases for the hunters. This was much more effective.”
3. They’ll be back. “No matter if we ban them, they’ll create a new account and get back to work. It’s like a game of cat and mouse, with persistence being the key to victory.”
4. Maintain a good data log system. “We required the help of the development team. Their tactics change – they could be using bots, or warping to complete the same quest. “
5. Never stop modifying the game system. “With every patch, we gather feedback and fix some of the most critical problems. But we have to be careful that our changes won’t too heavily affect our players.”
6. Set fair guidelines to determine whether a player can be determined as a RMT player. “We can’t ban whole countries, or just go on tips. It’s just unacceptable and irresponsible. This guideline has to be kept internal, otherwise people would know how to exploit it within weeks.”
7. Just like in America, nobody likes working with lawyers. “But we have to join hands and fight the good fight, and sometimes lawyers can be our best ally. Once we had their support, we were able to confront RMT groups with the knowledge that a lawyer would be there if they didn’t respond.”
In terms of results, approximately 2/3 of RMT sites supplying FFXI have disappeared, and 90% of ‘hunters’ have been removed.
Onward To Wings of the Goddess
At this point Tanka returned to the stage, speaking a bit about the company’s 4th expansion, Wings of the Goddess, simultaneous release this winter for all languages and platforms – 12 SKUs in all.
Final Fantasy XI still has 500,000 players across the globe. “If they keep playing, we’ll keep developing,” says Tanaka. “We realize there are some limitations to the current foundation. In the past years, the hardware advancements have been amazing, from windows vista to 360 and PS3. Comparing these structures, FFXI looks old, due to its 7 year old architecture.”
Square Enix’s next MMO will be cross platform and cross region. “A lot has changed in the last two years,” he says, referencing the game’s first announcement at E3 2005. “Development is proceeding smoothly now, with the framework now beginning to take shape. Last year we went through a development reorganization, with the development of our own cross-platform middleware – the white engine. This is the foundation for FFXIII and the new MMO. It’s safe to say that it won’t be much longer before I’m able to unveil even more secrets about what the future holds for Square Enix.”
During the closing Q&A, an attendee asked about the possibility of a Wii port, with the technical and cross-platform challenges. To this point, Takana said: “As for Nintendo Wii it would be pretty difficult if you were to do cross-platform. First of all, Nintendo isn’t allowing cross-platform, and as you know there’s the graphical issue. So right now we’re not looking at it.”