I was wondering if you had some kind of perspective that people who were originally working on the project lacked, and where that came from.
NY: This doesn't apply to just the team that was on the original Final Fantasy XIV, but Square Enix in general. During the PS2 generation, Square Enix had great success.
Their process involved a lot of manual, handmade processes. Once you succeed, you tend to want to follow suit with what worked. But they didn't take the time to notice what's around them, and they seemed to not notice the importance of the game experience and enjoying the gameplay. It was more about upgrading the graphics quality, and with the original Final Fantasy XIV, that was one of the failures that I wanted to point out to that team. They were concentrating too much on just trying to upgrade the quality of the graphics. But after that, Square Enix as a whole, I feel, kind of changed.
Do you keep a close eye on what's happening in the industry?
NY: I've been attending GDC for about five years now, and every time I do think, "Why is it so different?" I do personally like playing North American MMO games, and always get the impression, "Why is it so different?" The quality of the games that are made is so different.
For the Square Enix titles, it is okay if we build our games on our experience with our successful games, but now that the generation has changed to the PlayStation 3 and then moving on to the next generation, I know that process is not going to work.
Every time I attend GDC, I take what I learn from those conferences and I try to fully implement that back into the games that I work on. In terms of the original Final Fantasy XIV, I do believe that it was a sort of necessary failure, because of that Square Enix is now changing.
This is pretty nostalgic, but every time I'd go to GDC, I'd report back in Square Enix Tokyo. Of course, this is optional, but I'd get the opportunity to present my findings and people could come and listen to it. But the impression was always, "Oh, Yoshida went to America again, and he was caught by the American bug! He's talking about how you should change the way you build games!" It's really nostalgic to look back at how people reacted.
Do you feel vindicated now?
NY: That's a tough question to answer. I'm sure all of the developers at Square Enix kind of already had that notion, and it's just that you don't know until you actually trip and fall, or your game fails.
I don't have a strong sense of feeling vindicated now. But going through this very tough experience at Square Enix, I'm really glad there's an opportunity to talk about that experience, as well as the struggles we went through, and I think it's very fortunate that I was given that opportunity to do that.
What's the next wave of changes you're observing that you'd want to tell the developers in Tokyo to keep an eye on?
NY: I don't intend to talk about individual, granular topics when I return to Japan, but being here at GDC, everybody loves games, and there are so many indie developers. They're people who have been waiting for a great game to come out, but it never did, so they went ahead and made their own games. So I want to relay to the staff back in Japan that it is very important for us to be gamers as well. And that of course business is important, promotion is important, PR is important, but we ourselves have to make a game that we enjoy playing as well. We need to become gamers ourselves. That's what I intend to say. I touch upon this in my presentation as well, but that's what I want to relay back to the staff in Japan.
Final Fantasy XIV is a premium MMO, with a subscription, which is increasingly rare. Does the premium MMO have a future? Can only a few games do this, nowadays? Many subscription MMOs are converting to free-to-play.
NY: There's one thing that I would like for you to take notice: All large scale MMOs never start out as free-to-play. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online is taking the subscription business model. Rift, as well as Star Wars: The Old Republic, they changed over. Those started out as subscription and flipped over to free-to-play.
Of course, with an MMO you have your loyal players who play the monthly subscription. That, in turn, allows the developer to hire very competent staff and to continuously update content. You have a sort of stability, and you're assured you will have a constant, good gameplay experience. I'm sure players and creators alike, we believe that the subscription model would be the way to maintain a game and continually update and provide new content, but of course that's the ideal.
Of course, that being said, with free-to-play, the client is free, and you can play the game for free, and it might be a great way to attract new players to join in on the game. At the same time, the developers are developing the main part of the content for free, and they wouldn't have the revenue unless they sold the items that are outside of the main part of the game. It could be an item, or it could be experience points, or it could be ease of gameplay time -- and it's not necessarily the actual gameplay experience.
The developers constantly want to provide the best gameplay experience, and they want to develop the main part of the game, but they have to worry about, "Oh, what kind of items can we create to make our revenue quota for this month?" And of course players, on their side, want to continue playing the main part of the game, but they're forced to purchase items that don't necessarily add to their gameplay experience.
There are pros and cons to both business models, of course, and you have to pick and choose what makes sense for each title. What I feel is that you don't have to restrict to just one option. Maybe, if a game decides to have the choice for being a loyal customer and subscribing with a monthly fee, and still having a freemium element added into it, that's something that is not impossible to do. But I am sure that with MMORPG producers, they want their players to be able to enjoy the game for the long term. That's why they tend to want to choose the subscription model.
Then you would wonder, "Why are games switching over to the free-to-play mode?" That's because an MMORPG requires an immense amount of funding. We usually have investors supporting the funding for the different titles. They'd look at the subscriber numbers for the first couple of months, and they'd want their money back because they'd see the decline in the subscriber numbers.
Once investors pull out, the game will not be able to update, because they don't have sufficient funding. So some titles have to make the hard decision to switch over to free-to-play and try to gain a quick buck, pretty much, and raise their ARPU, and try to gain revenue in that manner. I feel that they're not flipping over because they want to; sometimes, they're forced to go into that because they need to update.
Yoshida's thoughts on business models, from his GDC 2014 talk
When you look at the indie scene and you see games like DayZ and Rust, which are running in alpha, being developed as players play them. And yet, players are flooding into these games. What does that tell you about the audience of online games?
NY: I think it all boils down to, if the game is fun, people will be willing to pay money for it. You earlier asked about, "A Realm Reborn is one of those rare cases in which a subscription model game is successful, and will it continue its model?" I feel that, again, people will put in the money for it if they feel that the game is fun to play and interesting to continue playing.
I bring up the example of World of Warcraft: Of course people have been saying that the subscription numbers have declined and declined, but if you look at it, it's 8 million people, and it's actually still increasing.
I don't think the business model is changing, per se. Maybe it's because in the last five years, so many games have come out, and there are too many to choose from. Nowadays the game companies that cannot produce as fun or as interesting a game would close down, and the companies that would make those games that stand out, people are going to jump on it. I welcome that change, because it means I just have to continue making a fun game to play.
There's a game that was introduced by an indie creator and they say that the hack and slash is much more fun than Diablo III. So I welcome that change. It will give us a good kind of pressure to continue striving for better.