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.