GDC Austin: Running A Global Community In Final Fantasy XI
What does it take to run an MMO on three platforms and in three regions, with one player base? Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI requires answers to a number of questions about coordinating internationally and communicating with a diverse group of players.
Robert Allen Peeler, assistant community manager, delivered a speech on Game Developers Conference Austin's last day regarding the problems that Square Enix faces globally with a player base who enjoys the game on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and PC. The game operates in Japan, North America, and Europe, in Japanese, English, French, and German -- all on one set of servers.
And, of course, says Peeler, "we have customer service set up in every region we sell to." When it comes to patches, "for every region and every platform we use simultaneous global updates."
Though the game is run in multiple regions, "one of our problems is conveying the users' opinions in any language to our developers, who live in japan and speak only Japanese," says Peeler. "One of our biggest concerns is being able to address the thoughts and concerns of all of the players in our game."
Combining Requests And Communicating
The team has to have a more formalized method of dealing with communicating player concerns to the development team -- so they can be addressed in game. "We have multiple regions involved, so that involves speaking to players from Europe, Japan, and North America, deciphering their problems, and prioritizing them for our developers," says Peeler.
With language barriers, minimal time developers can devote to problems, and a policy of fully localizing the questions and answers for high-quality communication, the team was globally forced to rethink the way information flows in FFXI.
"We look at the ways we select the questions... We simplify. We combine questions to create one general question. We try to avoid repetition. Different regions will ask the same question in a different way. We also try to create efficient translation schedules... We can use our quick translation schedules to get questions from the players to the development team into a quick amount of time."
The community department runs large in-person events -- i.e. fan fests -- to build the community interest in the game. Says Peeler, "One of our concerns is that we always want to create a closer relationship between our developers and community, especially because they're from a different country."
Obviously, however, this is costly -- in multiple ways, says Peeler. "The costs are financial, and regards to time management of our departments working together, and getting our developers arriving." Since all regions have to coordinate and the developers have to fly from Japan, it's tough. And though it used to have smaller regional events, Square Enix now runs one large global event -- which increases cost, planning time, and requires a larger staff to run. Some locales are, obviously, left out.
Connecting The Developers, Fans
The goal is to "increase developer communication and are trying to do that with better developer interaction," says Peeler -- a challenge when a limited number of team members can participate. "We'd like to get as many individuals to speak to players," in every discipline. To do this without travel, sometimes prerecorded videos are used; developers who can act as representatives for their teams are sent to talk live.
Inviting the right attendees is also crucial. Fan sites are used to "interact with players on a more intimate level. We take player advocates who are often fansite leaders... Who come to events and interact, and report on their sites as well." This is particularly helpful in dealing with regions where players cannot easily attend the event.
Global communication coordination is not simple. Schedules are one obvious reason. Says Peeler, "Sometimes it's difficult to schedule something between one department and another, but ours is on a larger scale when we [in North America] have to coordinate between Square Enix Japan and Square Enix London." Time zones delays in communication and translation delays can cause confusion.
Peeler described a few situations where communication delays caused problems for the company.
"We released a version update, and there was an issue in which players noticed that elemental resistance effects were either ineffective or less effective. This caused a lot of concern in the players. We noticed it right away in the forums but the communication issues... It took a week to get to the developers," says Peeler.
Noticed first in North America, it was communicated via the forums; it then had to be translated into Japanese, answered, the answer translated back into various languages, and then reposted to the forum.
The problem? "It made the players more upset with each day that went on." Square Enix is very careful with its answers, which adds even more complexity. Says Peeler, "Sometimes when we address issues it takes a little longer because we have to make sure this addresses the concerns of every region involved."
The Pandemonium Effect
There was a notorious boss released in a content pack. Named Pandemonium Warden, the boss took 18 hours before being defeated by a prominent linkshell (guild) in the North American version of the game. Says Peeler, "Players reported feeling exhausted and thinking this was way too long to fight this monster."
Of course, he says, "the developers never intended the battle to last 18 hours." They never expected a team "would fight the battle for 18 hours without giving up or changing strategy." Unfortunately, however, this was such a hilarious problem for the game that major game news sites, outside of the fan circuit, picked up on it before the team could announce a resolution. This even caused international quandaries: "The Pandemonium Warden issue was almost limited to North American players, but when the problem got out the other regions started to notice the issue."
"Because of the delay while we discussed issues internally, players felt that they were not being heard," says Peeler. "This ended up being a major problem just due to issues in communication."
Developing new and more efficient means of communication is the solution, he says. "Our answer to this is our ongoing search to regularly communicate with our development team." Teleconferencing, email, messaging, and emergency reports are all ways that the community teams report back.
In fact, reports on the mood and issues of the communities help discover problems before they blow up. Says Peeler, "We're trying to prevent issues from blowing up and getting bigger before they address them."
Account Stealing Problems, Solutions
When illicit RMT groups started focusing on malware to steal player accounts, there was no immediate solution. While the Japanese team investigated the problem, the international community teams suggested that players be more careful with their computers, but, says Peeler, "the players' perspective was that we were shifting the blame for the problem to them."
The RMT groups had figured out ways to make it hard for players to reclaim their accounts, so several solutions -- including the use of a notary public to reclaim accounts and, eventually, a dongle with a password generator, were introduced.
A "strategic task force" to understand methods RMT uses to affect the game was formed; this resulted in changes to the game to remove exploits, and removal of 20 billion gil (the in game currency) and several thousand banned accounts.
Plans for Final Fantasy XIV
Square Enix plans to introduce new MMO Final Fantasy XIV next year for PlayStation 3 and PC -- and many loyal FFXI players are interested in it; many are curious about transition benefits; and many new gamers who have not played XI will probably try the follow-up -- and the community teams have to deal with all of these situations.
"We need to address the players' concern that FFXI will recieve support in the future," says Peeler. The goal is "supporting veteran FFXI players to try and experiment with FFXIV as well as support their FFXI accounts."
The community teams identify important fan sites in Europe and North America and work with them to help spread the message of the game and act as player advocates, says Peeler. "We work directly with several fan site leaders or major player advocates in contest promotions, getting the message out, and in developer Q&A."
Fan site leaders are invited to the fan fests by Square Enix (who pays for their flights and accommodations) and set up booths to show community interaction. The benefit? "The player advocates can communicate the trust they have in us to the community."