[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.