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Can  Final Fantasy XIV  really be 'reborn'?

Can Final Fantasy XIV really be 'reborn'? Exclusive

August 17, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Final Fantasy XIV is a strange game -- so strange that it's hard to even call it "a game" anymore. As of now it provides a particular experience, yet it's about to become an entirely different one.

Earlier this year, Square Enix announced plans to develop a new version of the game, then dubbed 2.0 -- but it wasn't so easy to understand what was in store. At Gamescom, it's clear: its producer, Naoki Yoshida -- who was brought onto the project in 2011 to save it -- put it in simpler terms. The company is making an entirely new game.

The old Final Fantasy XIV will perish in a great cataclysm, and the new game, dubbed A Realm Reborn, will launch sometime after that. The server architecture, the engine, the UI, the game design, and even the game world itself will be completely different -- in fact, there will be an unavoidable lapse in service as Square Enix converts thousands of accounts from the old game to the new one.

As is clear to those who've been watching it stumble -- the deeply flawed Final Fantasy XIII, the mysterious six-year cycle for the as-yet never publicly shown Final Fantasy Versus XIII -- the developer completely underestimated the current generation's technology. While less prominent, Final Fantasy XIV is just as screwed up as those games were; in the end, it even contributed to the ultimate departure of original project lead and senior vice president Hiromichi Tanaka, who has been with the company since the NES days.

From technology to design, Final Fantasy XIV was stuck in the pre-World of Warcraft days of MMOs. It could barely display characters on screen without grinding to a halt.

"The current version of Final Fantasy XIV, we feel like the gameplay is like some of the last-generation MMOs," Yoshida told Gamasutra at Gamescom -- a spawn-camping based game straight out of the same EverQuest book Final Fantasy XI was drawn from. Not so for A Realm Reborn; it's post-WoW -- gear and quest-based, with convenient instances and grouping, and a flexible UI.

Its engine is even more scalable than Crystal Tools, which powered the original Final Fantasy XIV; the game will work on lower-end PCs than the original did, but will also scale up to better graphics on high-end boxes than the original could. The PlayStation 3, which will finally see the game next year, fits in the lower end of its performance range, Yoshida said. It's clear he's planning for the future, too: he teased other platforms to come, once those announcements could be made.

Developing a new version of the game while supporting an old one is no mean feat. "Final Fantasy XIV is a very special case because you have both the current version and A Realm Reborn development running at the same time," said Yoshida. The team has been continuously updating the old version of the game to try and keep its fan base satisfied and paying at the same time developers have been crafting the new game.

"Considering the current version, we get a lot of user feedback, and a lot of users say, we want you to do this, we want you to do this, we want you to do this. But because of the current type of architecture that we have, and the current coding, there's a lot of things that we can't do," said Yoshida.

One way in which Yoshida has revolutionized how Square Enix treats its fan base is in moving to a complete "service" model -- the team even runs its design ideas in front of the player base before implementing them.

"The dev team will always try to get their ideas in as early as possible, and then get those ideas out to the community, to let them give feedback before we even implement it in the game, so then we can have something that's close to what the dev team wants to put in, but also something that the player wants before we even release it. And we plan to continue this in A Realm Reborn development as well," Yoshida said.

"Like I said before, this is a service industry, and listening to our fans is very important. And we found that we're getting a lot of good feedback from our players saying, 'Yeah, this is what we wanted. Thanks for listening to us on this.'"

For developers working on MMOs in the West, this may sound like a no-brainer, but it's a cultural shift for the Tokyo-based developer. The original version of Final Fantasy XIV on PC had a controller-based interface, not one geared to a PC, because that's what Japanese players prefer. It's only with A Realm Reborn that a true, customizable mouse-based UI will be coming to the game.

It's funny, because that's one of the big complaints the developer got when the original MMO in the series, Final Fantasy XI launched in the West in 2003 -- but it wasn't until Yoshida came on board that things really began to change.

If Yoshida -- who took over the game when Tanaka was removed from the floundering project -- can successfully carry out his plans to save the game, he'll be a superstar at the struggling Square Enix. Final Fantasy XI was one of the most successful games in the franchise, thanks to its long lifespan and dedicated audience.

There are big questions, though: is getting a game that's up to 2012 scratch enough? This isn't a leap forward; the company is scrambling just to get a game that feels current shipped. And will players who fled -- or who ignored the title outright -- come to it now? Will the lapse in service take a toll on the player base?

Somehow, the company didn't think about the current generation, let alone the future, before. Yoshida clearly has turned this ship around -- after it hit an iceberg. Whether or not it's still seaworthy is a very open question.

Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe and Gamescom. For more coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)

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