GDC: Creating a Global MMO: Balancing Cultures and Platforms in Final Fantasy XI
March 24, 2006
Originally planned as a talk by Square Enix president Yoichi Wada, instead attendees were presented a talk by PlayOnline organizer and producer Sage Sundi. The goal of his session was to examine what makes Final Fantasy XI unique and successful as an online game. Mr. Sundi began by discussing Square Enix's favorite new phrase: polymorphic content. First successfully done with their line of Final Fantasy VII spin-off games and movies, polymorphic content is the process of designing a new intellectual property with all applicable mediums in mind. So instead of, for example, beginning with a novel, then adapting it into a television/movie/comic then later creating merchandising, polymorphic content creation allows for all of these avenues to be produced simultaneously.
|Final Fantasy XI|
What this had to do with Final Fantasy XI was not made clear, but Mr. Sundi began by showing a montage trailer of game locations and characters (apparently taken from the upcoming expansion pack - Treasures of Aht Urhgan) for those who have yet to visit the world of Vana'diel. Mr. Sundi pointed out that what makes FFXI unique among MMORPGs is that it is the only one that allows players on all platforms (PS2, Windows, Xbox 360) and from different regions to play on the same servers. Doing this has been an incredible challenge according to Mr. Sundi, and one that has yet to subside as they try to continue with their two most important goals: getting new users and keeping old users.
One of the things they do to accomplish this is "ensure there is the same level of service regardless of hardware and media limitations." To do this Square created PlayOnline as a universal gateway program for their online games, and using universal servers reduces operation costs. PlayOnline requires only a single login ID for all Square Enix games and can be used on any copy of the game on any system. They also focus on making game updates as smooth as possible by having the player download only the bare minimum of files required for functioning, as they want to make sure anyone with narrow bandwidth can still play the game. For any massive updates they just make sure to include it in the expansion packs. PlayOnline updates itself in a similar way.
The reason for universal servers was not just to reduce operation costs by 66% but to create "A cross-culture world without borders. A world of cultural harmony." The key way to accomplish this was the use of an in-game translator for all supported languages. Players have a list of keywords they can use to create a sentence and then have translated by the game. Also customer support both in-game and by phone are available in all the same languages as the game, which are Japanese, English, German, French and Chinese. They also design the release of each expansion for a simultaneous worldwide release.
Since they use universal servers there is no downtime in game activity. In addition the game currently has over 500,000 active subscribers making game maintenance a hard job. The company stressed that they hire only highly-qualified people for service jobs.
|Final Fantasy XI|
Mr. Sundi then presented his audience with some statistics on what platforms were being used by which territories as well as server performance. The Japanese audience is about 55% of the entire userbase and play the game on the PS2 in a 2:1 ratio compared against the PC version. North America and European Union make up the remaining 45% and prefer the PC version, with a reversed ratio of 1:2. 1.6 million individual characters are registered in the game with around 200,000 to 300,000 active users daily at 130,000 to 150,000 simultaneous connections.
Square Enix wanted online web presence and in-game support to be seen as a single customer service package. For this Mr. Sundi says that liaising with community sites, planning and running in-game events and ensuring that there is a communication channel between the development team and fans were key to this. An example given was the recent Final Fantasy XI Fan Fest in Santa Monica, CA. Crucial to all this according to Mr. Sundi is treating the community with respect and listening to what they want from the game and to not try to force any design changes without their consent. Unlike a single-player experience, persistent online games have the potential to be destroyed by an angry fanbase.
Ensuring that content and billing systems were developed under a single corporate structure was crucial to managing such a large project. The operational teams are organized into three ranks at the NOC (network operation center) and work every day of the week at all hours. Also the development team has had daily morning meetings for the past four years discussing any issues that have arisen and/or what is going on in the game's community.
As Mr. Sundi brought his talk to a close, he reminded the audience that the Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy XI is expected in mid-April for all territories, and said that Square Enix is currently hard at work on a next-generation MMORPG which he hopes everyone is looking forward to learning about.