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Fixing Final Fantasy XIV: The Yoshida Interview

April 1, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this extensive interview, the producer of Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki Yoshida -- brought onto the project to try and rescue it from a disastrous launch -- details the work ahead of him and explains why he thinks he can save the game.]

Final Fantasy XIV launched in September to massive problems. The hotly-anticipated MMO quickly became a community nightmare, with the company repeatedly extending the free play period beyond the initial 30 days post-launch and eventually removing producer and Square Enix veteran Hiromichi Tanaka from the project and replacing him with Naoki Yoshida.

The game has not been canned -- though problems are so drastic that the release of the PlayStation 3 version of the game has been seemingly indefinitely postponed and the company is working with its release partner in China, Shanda, to improve the game before it considers releasing it in that territory.

Square Enix has even changed its internal policies since the launch -- delaying the release Deus Ex: Human Revolution to improve its quality. Of course, this has created major problems for the company's bottom line, and inside sources suggest to Gamasutra that this has affected other projects within the company.

Yoshida has been candid in the past about the team's need to improve the game. In this interview, he speaks at length to Gamasutra about what form those improvements will take, how he was chosen to take over the beleaguered project, and what might be happening with the PlayStation 3 version.

He is joined in this by Square Enix's global online producer Sage Sundi, a veteran of its prior MMO Final Fantasy XI.

Well, you've been brought into the Final Fantasy XIV project to sort of... I don't know what the right word is. Maybe I'll just pick the word "rescue." Could you give me your perspective on how that came about and what your goals are?

Naoki Yoshida: XIV had many issues. There was technology trouble, in-game trouble. The game at the time of release did not live up to expectations that players had of current generation MMOs. Like, "this should be in a current generation MMO," and that wasn't there.

And Square Enix wasn't working close enough with their user base. They weren't working with them. It was pretty much by themselves. And so this whole change came about in order to address these issues. And the whole company would get together to work as one in a full company effort to get things back in track.

Not that the company didn't try hard their first time; it's just that now they realize we have to take that next step, and we want to join hands as a company to do this. In that, I took the lead.

What personally attracted you to stepping in on this project?

NY: From inside the company, the management, they approached me and asked me to be part of the project. I've worked on core game design in the past, which is another reason. I have the ability to work as a leader -- the leadership qualities.

Also, I myself am a hardcore MMO player with over 10 years of experience on MMOs. So, it's that combination of my knowledge, core knowledge of MMOs, as well as my skills as a developer that got me onto this project. They thought I would be perfect for the project.

Very often you'll hear developers in the West say that you can't recover from a bad launch. Obviously, that's not your philosophy, but I was wondering what your thoughts on that belief are?

NY: One of the reasons I believe that it's very hard to recover from a bad launch is that with many Western MMOs, because the teams are so large and they require such a large budget -- because of all the assets and all the things they have to make -- a lot of those projects rely on investment, and it can't be done by a single company alone. So, that's why if you fail, then you fail.

And then when a game, like a large Western MMO, has a large launch and it fails, then the investors start to pull back. Then the money stops flowing. And when the money stops flowing, the development teams have to make their development team sizes smaller, which means they can't get enough content for the fixes, or they have to go to a different payment model like free-to-play.

Basically the control of the development is crushed. They want to change it, they want to start over, but it's prevented by that lack of the budget.

On the other hand, with FFXIV, operations and development are all funded 100 percent by Square Enix, so as long as we decide to continue backing the project and we don't give up, we can continue to provide things to the players, see what they want, then go back and retry things, redo things. Basically, it comes up to us. We're not at the strings of the investors.

I know you weren't on the project when it launched, but obviously you must have been aware of the project at the company. Can you talk about what the company's and the developers' expectations were prior to launch, and how surprising it was to see what the outcome of the launch was?

NY: Seeing it from, well, being on another project, you could see that they were having a very hard time. They were working very hard.

And the company's timing to say, "Okay, we can give some help to you guys from our team" -- or to put out that helping hand to the team -- we realized that the timing that they offered help was probably a little too late. I mean, again, everyone has their own projects, and they're worried about their own projects, but they could have helped a little earlier, possibly.

I've noticed that since you stepped in, you've put a real emphasis on communicating with the community in a way that's quite different to how Square Enix has handled community relations in the past. So, I was wondering why you personally feel the strong need to move forward this way.

NY: This is one of the problems that I believe that FFXIV had -- this closed communication system. Because MMOs certainly, especially the more recent MMOs, it's like the world that the players go into is just as important as the real world. They go into that world, and it's just as important a world as the real world is. And so if the developers don't listen to the players that are in that world and can't provide the best service, then we're not doing our jobs.

Sage Sundi: The fact that Square Enix really didn't communicate with players -- it wasn't like an inter-company policy, like the policy was "We're not going to talk to players." It wasn't anything like that.

It just happened to be that the method that Square Enix took was -- we would always listen. It wasn't like we weren't listening to the players, but we weren't giving responses. Either the responses would come slowly, or the responses wouldn't come at all. I mean, we're listening, we're trying to do stuff, but we weren't reminding the players that, "Yes, we are listening," by telling them that yes, we are listening.

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Aaron Truehitt
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I'm a little skeptical of them charging a fee for things that have been free so long. Personally, I wouldn't mind paying for it if the game was improved substantially. However, wouldn't it make sense for them to keep a portion of the game free still, while the new features would cost money?

Well, maybe that would only be a problem if it was already a great game that had been free for so long.

Derek Loftis
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@Aaron I feel like you in the line of a dedicated MMO you could not have a society of players that pay and another society of players that do not pay. I say this because I feel like somewhere along the line someone would be cheated out of a fulfilling experience. Also, I believe the development would suffer because the devs would have to focus on two drastically different aspects of the game.

For the sake of progressing my ideas of how this would work, I'll ask you to brainstorm how portions of the game be free, while others are not?

I could see mule characters being free-of-charge by limiting them to be unable to leave the city they are essentially digitally birthed into, but as for any other style-of-play I feel like you would have to charge.

I think the first month being free is the kind of the golden time where you get to experiment and see if the game has to offer what you are looking for. And the only reason it has been free for this time because they are trying to fix what is apparently broken. (I say apparently because I haven't played it, but will be trying it soon).

Dustin Chertoff
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You can look at the hybrid model employed by Turbine for DDO/LoTRO. It works, but you will have pushback by the subscriber base when "convenience" items start popping up that are more "pay-to-win" than anything else (i.e. unique potions that do not share cooldowns with in-game crafted potions, etc.).

Not really sure how such a model would be implement in FF14 though, as I really haven't spent enough time with it.

Derek Loftis
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Wow, those hybrid models had completely slipped my mind. And I think there's a reason. Having those pay to win aspects in the game diminishes that deep rooted reward/pleasure core that get's us addicted, which I would say that if a MMO doesn't have that, then it probably shouldn't be played. But that's just based on my opinions and standards.

Just knowing that no matter how much time you invest into a game, someone can be way stronger than you and only because they spent some extra cash to get these "convenience" items can be a threat to your person. It will eventually lead to you contemplating purchasing the weapon, and based on, I guess your moral stance, you either do, or don't. And I don't want to deal with that kind of thinking while I'm trying to lose myself in the world of an MMO.

I'm very excited for FF14, and even more excited to watch it grow over the years. FF11 is still my favorite MMO experience, and if FF14 turns out to be anything like it, I will be very pleased.

Paul Orlemanski
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I think the days of a game company just releasing a game to the public and saying "this is what we made and you'll like it" is over. All video game companies, regardless of being Western or from Asia should look at what Valve does. They listen to their customer base. I understand that I may sound a little critical here but I beleive the next two game companies to get consumer backlashes will be Capcom ( from charing material withhold on their games) and Activision.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I'm personally not sure if that is true. I believe that trying to please your audience and doing a good game are not necessarily connected. Of course when the audience does have valid concerns about the game it is wise for the creators to hear them out. However, just bending to every single demand from the players can become a hazard to the game's ultimate direction and vision. Consumers are not game designers, and although they might think they know what they want, their preferences are normally very closely rooted upon what is available at the moment. The best thing you can do as a game designer is to surprise them with something that they didn't know they wanted, but do.

After all most people who play a game like this do so because they like the universe of final fantasy. And in the history of final fantasies, we as players don't really have a say about anything in the game ( other than FF13, I'm normally quite pleased with what square-enix does with his franchise ) players enjoy it because it comes from them, and that is an assurance in style, quality and even innovation. For example, Having played a lot of RPGs, I was used to the standard levelling system: you kill monsters, gather experience and when you level up, you spend the points improving the stats of your character. I personally had never seen a problem or any need to change it. But when Final fantasy 10 introduced the sphere grid levelling system, I loved it. And I would have never thought about it before.

It seems that their approach as to appeal everyone is a bit over-ambitious. As they list themselves playstyles of different people in different places vary greatly. Its hard to think of any game that manages that fully. Final fantasy fans are clearly closer to Japanese design decisions. And they should hold on to that demographic because it is a safe group that is very loyal as they comment on the interview. I am in favour of the Westernisation, in gameplay mechanics, but I wouldn't want their original vision to be watered down in order to create mass appeal.

Having played a bit of FF14, I must say that their real problems were not the company close-mindedness. If you know a bit about interfaces, graphical feedback, streamlining the processes to make the game playable, you cannot release a game like that. Everything in the game at the start was sluggish, slow, and overly convoluted. Combat and character movement were incredibly awkward. In many ways final fantasy 14 played a lot worse than its predecessor 11, it is one of the most poorly executed titles in the franchise, and that is a major flaw. It just didn't live up to the polished standards that the audience has come to expect from a company as SquareEnix. Maybe it will recover from its early troubled state, or maybe its too late for it, I personally hope that the game does evolve into something better.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Exactly, a good designer, not just of games, but any consumer product, does not give people what they ask, but what they need. There is a famous quote by a turn of the century entrepreneur who said it best, I am sure you've all heard that one before, and a 100 years later it still holds true.

Luis Guimaraes
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“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

– Henry Ford

Dustin Chertoff
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I'd really like to give FF14 another shot, since FF11 was the first MMO that I really cut my teeth on. I had played EQ before, but I never really grasped what an MMO could be until FF11. But there have just been so many changes to how MMOs operate between FF11 and now, that I'm not sure the old-school sandbox nature of FF14 can ever truly compete with newer theme-park style offerings. I'm sure there is a happy medium between sandbox and theme-park MMOs, but FF14 doesn't seem to be there just yet. Or maybe I'm just happier with theme-park Western MMOs that give me content to consume. This is very likely a cultural thing, since the majority of sandbox MMOs come out of Asia.