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Understanding the successful relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV

April 18, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

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.


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Comments


Ardney Carter
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I've said this before but I will re-iterate. The people responsible for this over at Square deserve mad props for not only attempting this in the 1st place but for actually pulling it off. To be able to recognize that you screwed up and then swallow the costs for the fans until you fix it (or however long they held off on subs. Forget off the top of my head) is laudable.

Stephen Horn
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If memory serves, they had subscriptions turned off for about a year. They also ran a loyalty program, granting reduced monthly service fees and other extras, including a custom mount, for fans who subscribed for at least 3 months before they halted service for "1.0". Anyone who had purchased "1.0" were able to freely upgrade to "2.0", and Collector's Edition owners from 1.0 got all the in-game Collector's Edition stuff for 2.0. Also, anyone who had purchased 1.0 were also able to upgrade to the Collector's Edition of 2.0 for a reduced price.

I'd say 2.0 went out of its way to try and make up for 1.0, and I'm very pleased with the result, and I very much hope the game has been and continues to be a financial success for S-E.

Terry Matthes
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I loved playing the Beta and can't say enough good things about this entire situation. They listened, I mean they really listened; they just didn't lend a paltry ear. They put into action what came out of the fans mouths.

That coupled with a complete re working of the dev team and project goals paid off. I feel that FFXIV is a true spiritual successor to FFXI and if you're a MMO fan it deserves your attention!

Tim Hanarong
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the new gameplay is ok but why downgraded the graphics? Some of the character movements in 1.0 have also been removed, why? We could lower the graphic setting in the option menu if the pc was not powerful enough. FFXIV 1.0 didn't fail because the graphics were too powerful, it failed because the game didn't have any content.

SE promised before shutting down the 1.0 server that FFXIV ARR would have better graphics. So many people were looking forward to this for over 2 years and it turned out that SE just lied, they just did the opposite thing. that's not cool.

Christian Nutt
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Actually, Yoshida did address this at length in his GDC talk. The prioritization of graphical fidelity in the development of the original version was a big, big reason for its failure -- misspent resources, developmentally speaking, that both impacted the game's performance and also meant that the developers were spending time on the wrong thing (graphics instead of gameplay). So it's a very deliberate decision.

Jim Thompson
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Understanding the successful relaunch of FFXIV is like understanding an eclipse in 1250.

We can speculate, but we don't have the tools quite yet to figure out exactly why it worked.

Terry Matthes
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I thought the article did a pretty good job of explaining why. You don't?

Iain Murdock
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Actually de constructing the success is rather easy, it comes down to some simple ideas and comparisons between versions 1.0 & 2.0.

== Simplicity ==
Version 1.0-1.23 had virtually no guidance on stepping into the world you were greeted with nothing but the ability to roam, the developers expected players to find out on their own what was needed to be done next. It could take players an entire day to figure out the simple directions needed to progress (some players enjoyed this the majority did not)

Version 2.0 from the second you entered the world greeted you with simple guidance, a stream-lined quest line which followed in a way that directed players in the way they needed to go whilst showing them the things in the world they'd need to find.

The UI, graphics, story-line, battle mechanics, abilities, item attainment, crafting, gathering, exploring, content access. All of this was simplified or done is such a way that players could immediately understand what to do, or simply enjoy it and learn from it over a period of time.


== User Interface ==
The User Interface in 1.23 although minimalistic was unwieldy and slow to use, in version 2.0 the developers took on the task of taking the elements from other MMOs that worked (whilst leaving out the bits that didn't). Leaving a modern, clean and easy on the eyes UI which players knew how to use right from the get-go.

== Graphics ==
1.23's character graphics were excellent, unparalleled for it's time in an MMO. The physical weight of the animations, the highly detailed textures and models almost lured you into a false sense of "This game is going to be awesome" for the opening cut-scene.

However, the design team made a lot of mistakes, texture detail where detail was not needed. High Polygonal objects where detail was not needed led the game to be VERY slow for even a decent gaming computer at the time.

Although this was a Final Fantasy game with a graphical standard to meet, an MMO should always be accessible to a vast array of players which 1.23 simply couldn't offer.


== Community Feedback ==
Absolutely everything that was wrong with 1.23 was voiced by the players in the Alpha/Beta stages, but were promptly ignored and the game was pushed for release with (as it says in the article) the mind-set that they could "Fix it later, our players will understand", taking the fan-base for granted leading to the game inevitable demise at the time.

During 2.0's announcement, planning, development and even early Alpha stages, community feedback was paramount to it's success. Everything players requested, wanted, loved and hated were taken into consideration. All the volumes off feedback were listened to and 2.0 became the game that the player originally wanted.

Each Letter from the Producer and Broadcasted Live-Letter from the producer would reveal new upcoming content to involved players and get them excited for upcoming content, answering players questions and concerns via a live stream.


== Content ==
The vast array of available content in 2.0 compared to 1.23 was enough to keep players hooked for months instead of days. With a large main story quest-line to guide the players from Level 1-50 and then the array of end-game content made available afterwards it was enough to keep players interested to fit into the "Major Patch every 3 months" schedule the development team had created.

Every 3 months a new batch of content is released, with each new patch players come back in their droves.



To stop myself dragging on as there's plenty more to say, and I think if I had the time I could write a 5,000 word article about all the various changes that were made in correct detail, but it simply boils down the development team listening to their players, researching the market and understanding what the players really wanted and what would keep them playing.

Iain Murdock
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It's actually very easily to see.

As someone who was there to witness the original alpha/beta right up to today, there are some clear points;

Community Feedback and Application
A simplified and enjoyable learning process
An array of casual/hardcore content
A balance between graphics/performance

I could write a 10,000 word article with ease about the various aspects of how FFXIVs transition between 1.23>2.0 was a well thought out transition that did the impossible on regaining the fan bases trust, but alas my character count is limited.

Stephen Horn
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I'm really curious what specific things you think we need to better understand.


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