I had the privilege of participating in an interview with Naoki Yoshida, the producer and director for Final Fantasy XIV. We spent a bit under an hour discussing all things FFXIV including topics from the past year and topics looking forward into 2012’s implementation of v2.0. The discussion was frank and honest about past mistakes and, at the same time, excited about the game’s future.
Yoshi wanted to start the interview with a statement to fans:
First I want to say thank you to our Final Fantasy XIV players. It has been a little over a year since service began and we want to thank our fans for supporting FFXIV and for playing the game despite the rocky start. That alone is what has kept the team going.
With the release of v1.19, we have finally been able to release the vision we have for the future of FFXIV and information about v2.0. Even though this information is for everyone, new players too, it is mostly directed to current players. We want to show where we’re going and why it’s worth it to keep playing. We are committed to listening to our fans and to stay in direct contact with our players to make the game what they and we envision.
After Yoshi’s opening statement, we moved into a discussion of the past year and the progress the team has made since launch. I asked Yoshi what he felt were the most significant two or three issues that he and his team had addressed in the past year. Yoshi said he started his ‘education’ by first playing the game. There were three things that struck him immediately as features that needed to be changed: The UI, the battle system and how difficult to for new players to “get into” the game.
Of the three, Yoshi felt that reworking the UI was critical to the successful implementation of the other two. The team is focused on replacing the UI in v2.0 to allow for add-ons. The code is being reworked from the ground up with two separate UIs being developed, one for PS3 and one for PC users. The idea of a single code system simply did not work, Yoshi said. Until such time as v2.0 is launched in late 2012, the team will continue to implement changes and improvements in the existing UI. Asked whether or not v2.0 could possibly create problems if the UI is too vastly from what players have grown accustomed to, Yoshi indicated that a “legacy” setting will be available for players who want to keep the UI as it develops over the next year. The team is always evolving according to the feedback from the community. It is a fluid system.
With an improved UI, the Battle System will work as it is designed to work. Huge changes were implemented into FFXIV with the arrival of v1.19 and will continue to receive attention over the coming months.
Lastly, Yoshi felt that the ‘new player experience’, for want of a more accurate term, was not what the team wanted in place. With v1.19, a new system of tutorials have been added along with new default key bindings that bring more standard MMO controls into the game. The team felt it was critical to let players’ prior experiences in MMOs be relevant to FFXIV.
Continuing our look back, I asked Yoshi about the perception that the Final Fantasy IP had been damaged by the rough launch of FFXIV. “We believe image is important. Players expect certain quality of Square Enix and of the Final Fantasy games. They expected this quality with Final Fantasy XIV and we lost that trust. Everything we are doing now, the new content, patches, updates, are all going towards regaining that trust, not just for the Final Fantasy series, but for Square Enix as well.”
Part of regaining the community’s trust comes with the publication of the road map to 2.0. The documents are extensive and lay out in precise detail the timeline for the implementation of new features and patches. I asked whether or not there was danger in publishing such extensive plans and perhaps not meeting the state goals in the written documents. Yoshi indicated that the team is not nervous at all. They want the community to be informed, to know exactly what is happening and when it’s scheduled to happen. "This is part of transparency,” Yoshi said. “We will explain why something on the road map changes and we are confident that we can do what we’ve said moving forward. We are doing this for our players. The communication with players and keeping those lines of communication open with our community is important to us.”
And the Final Fantasy XIV team’s plans are impressive judging by the documentation they have provided the community. One of the most widely-discussed changes coming down the road is the end of the free play time period that started at launch and will end in the next several months. Yoshi wanted fans to be clear that the team wants players to try out the extensive changes that were released with v1.19 and to experience the forthcoming changes in the next patch before deciding whether or not to subscribe to FFXIV. They are gathering data from around the world and the numbers seem to indicate that players are supportive of this decision, particularly in light of last week’s revelation of the direction in which the game is moving.
Among the features set to be put in place with the next patch is a better, more intuitive, easier Retainer system, bringing it more in line with Final Fantasy XI. The team will be implementing changes to make searching for, finding and purchasing items simpler. The philosophy behind the changes is similar to the auction house system other MMOs employ without the physical auction house itself. It’s all about ease of use and usability.
In addition, a storyline began a few months ago called the Umbral Era. This particular storyline will only be available through the release of v2.0. It will never come back into the game and will usher in the major overhaul that comes with the new version. The team calls it a “yearlong seasonal event” that will set up big changes throughout Eorzea, a disaster of some kind. Yoshi said that players will see many things from the current version of Final Fantasy XIV sliding over into v2.0 but that there will also be the “thrill of discovery”. He likened it to an expansion and the excitement one can bring to a game. But FFXIV players will not simply have a limited area to discover, but will have an entire game world to explore.
With this reworked Retainer system in place, along with the new and improved v1.19 features and the new yearlong storyline, Yoshi is hopeful that players will be intrigued and want to subscribe to FFXIV.
Lastly, I wanted to touch on some of the “behind the scenes” work. I asked Yoshi about the proposed improvement in graphics for Final Fantasy v2.0. He told me that a new graphics engine is being built from the ground up. The current engine is fine but is best for offline single player games, Yoshi said. The new engine is being built for active graphics, the sort of engine that can handle many players on screen at the same time doing different things. It happened, Yoshi revealed, that Square Enix had been gathering graphics specialists to build new game engines for the company in general and that the FFXIV team was able to “borrow” several of them to build the new engine that v2.0 will utilize. Because these designers were on hand, the creation of the new engine has gone much faster than it ordinarily might have gone.
Naoki Yoshida and his Final Fantasy XIV team have set a new standard for transparency between developers and a game’s community. Not only are fans well informed but they are also well equipped to help the team implement some of the new features. They can do this through the forums by making suggestions to the team for consideration. The next year will be a telling one for FFXIV, for the development team and for the community as well. It will remain to be seen if the community is willing to hang around for the next year waiting for the game they felt should have been released in 2010. Let’s hope they are.