How do you build an expansion like Shadowbringers? If it’s for a story-heavy MMO like Final Fantasy XIV, there’s a blend of meticulous planning, intense collaboration and deep research into the rich franchise history. But don’t take our word for it - we sat down with producer-director Naoki Yoshida and lore maestro Banri Oda to get all the details.
Since relaunch as A Realm Reborn, FFXIV has gained repeated acclaim, a trend which has only improved with each expansion. High review scores has also translated into soaring subscription numbers, with the MMO now boasting over 16 million players. It’s become such a cultural touchstone that a TV series is also in the works.
During our interview, we also touched the idea of FFXIV being a Final Fantasy franchise “theme park”, and how they draw inspiration from other FF and Square Enix games. There’s also a look at building raid fights and keeping the huge amount of content accessible to newcomers. Oh, and maybe a small hint on what Hydalen might think of the Amaurotine...
Note: this interview was performed with the help of a translator and responses have been edited for clarity.
It Starts With A Plan
With the Shadowbringers launch a recent memory and the 5.x content rain well underway, it felt like the perfect time to learn how an FFXIV expansion is made. We also knew that Square Enix had taken the first steps to planning 6.0, starting a roughly 2-year development cycle to the next expansion. But what’s involved? Yoshida-san explained how it starts with a central push to shape the expansion, before farming it out to teams that jump between current and future content.
“For prepping for 6.0, the tasks that require the biggest resources are creating the map and zones. Those graphics need to be done beforehand. But in order for them to create that, we need to decide where the adventure will take place, and who will be the main antagonist. With that, we kick off the creation of 6.0.”
From there, the workload on each development team depends on where they are in the expansion’s cycle, but early on it requires some initial preparation from the core team to define an expansion’s core factors. “Once we complete that task, we can request each different team like artwork or graphics to work on their own area. Then we put our 6.0 related tasks on hold and go back to 5.x series content creation.”
“While we’re working on 5.x tasks, the artwork teams complete their first design, and then send it back to me. I then remember, ‘oh, I need to also work on 6.0 and not just 5.x’. We have this dynamic workflow here, depending on where we are at a moment. The ratio of work will depend on where we are in the timeline. Currently our focus is on 6.0, then back to 5.x, but the ratio will gradually shift towards the expansion as release approaches.”
It sounds complex, but planning and coordination ensures that everyone knows what each team is doing. “We have this plan mapped out beforehand and try to follow it as closely as possible, but maintaining this workflow is very difficult and requires everyone’s contribution and understanding. It was quite chaotic before this workflow was established, but it’s getting easier as everyone gets the rhythm.”
For development that sits outside of the traditional expansion cycle, a different approach is needed. One example is the World Visit system, which took 1.3 years from planning to release. Part of that is because of the piecemeal approach taken, which uses pockets of development time between patches.
“Before we take on this project, first we need to estimate how long it would take if we only have six programmers. If those six programmers came back to me saying ‘if we want to do this, we need a six month window, but we cannot start immediately because it would impact the 5.x series.’ That’s why we need to dissect the timeline”
The Narrative Backbone
Having a framework plan is one thing, but Final Fantasy XIV has become known for its rich and epic saga. Putting together the story of an expansion happens alongside developing other content, feeding into that meticulous plan. Banri Oda, the lead responsible for FFXIV lore and co-author of two Encyclopedia Eorzea sourcebooks, explained how it works.
“First off, we would have a meeting with all the main scenario writers, and lock ourselves in a meeting room for three days, During this session we come up with the area where the adventure takes place, the overall plots, and the kind of enemies that the Warrior of Light will be facing. We build up this concept first. We dio this for each patch, creating two years’ worth of content up-front.”
“Once the basic concept is mapped out, what happens next is that the team digs deeper and explores more. We prioritise the scenes, cutscenes and quests that need to be voiced over. The reason is that FFXIV is available in four languages, and we need to prioritise those that require recording voiceovers. Commissioning the story doesn’t go by the timeline, we need to prioritise this first, then we work on non-voice next.”
Yoshida-san added that because everything is meticulously planned out long-term, the story doesn’t change in response to player feedback. “And also it’s easier for the team to plan foreshadowing here and there as well.” He feels that this planning is one reason why the story receives great praise.
For Shadowbringers, one particular character dominated the storyline: Emet-Selch. From the earliest moments of FFXIV players are trained to loathe the Ascians, and yet many are now crying out for Emet’s return. Was this an intentional part of Yoshida-san’s plans?
“Through 1.0 to 4.0, there has never been an opportunity for players to know what kind of people these Ascians are. They probably had the impression that they were just a villain group. But apart from that, they were not explained in-game, and players must have felt that because Ascians are so enigmatic and mysterious, any storyline involving them would probably be more interesting.”
“The Shadowbringers storyline touched upon the core of FFXIV, which means we need players to understand who the Ascians are, how they are motivated, what their mission is, and why the Warrior of Light needs to fight them. In order to make this happen, the team meticulously planned it out so that it hits players. Seeing this result and this kind of feedback and emotion, the team feels it went over well.”
“If you just think about it without Emet-Selch’s humanised side, the Ascians have done these atrocious things seven times now, sacrificing so many lives. But the players are saying ‘we’re so sad, we want him back.’ That said, we haven’t heard what Hydalen has to say, because they’re two sides of the same coin, so we have to tell something about that as well.”
Oda-san went on to add what happened when they asked the players what kind of minion they wanted to see next. Cries in response were unanimous: “Emet! Emet! Emet!”
A Final Fantasy ‘Theme Park’
Beyond the story, Final Fantasy XIV stands out for the number of influences and homages it takes from other games in the franchise. According to Oda-san, this is a deliberate intention, but it has to be done carefully.
“When the team decided to rebuild FFXIV from the original, we received so much feedback that the original didn’t feel like a Final Fantasy title. And also, one of the important parts of MMORPGs is the strong community. We wanted to encourage conversation amongst the players, because not everyone has played all FF titles. By adding these essences in FFXIV, we wanted to give the opportunity for them to talk about the ones they know, encouraging players to integrate together.”
“It’s not the case that we wanted to throw in any idea from the legacy titles. I’m a fanboy of the FF series and have played everything, [but] I think that protecting the memories that you had playing the game is very important. Not everyone has played the previous FF games, and the [XIV] storyline has to be digestible by anyone regardless of FF experience.”
Yoshida-san added that despite these influences, FFXIV had a main story in its own right. “That said, we have this concept within XIV to be the theme park for the Final Fantasy series. We want it to be a platform, so that people from different generations and backgrounds can get together and share the same universe in-game. We are doing that deliberately.”
“The other part is about historic enemies that we want to add their essence into FFXIV. The story is the core for FFXIV, so just because we have these historic enemies it’s not the main focus.”
That influence isn’t just about reusing heroes and nemeses from other Final Fantasy games, but also about rediscovering political themes and applying them in new ways. An example of this is the calamity of Amaurot - a more complex tale than the standard heroics we’re used to. For Oda-san, moving in this direction is essential.
“Even though I was a fan of past games on the Super Nintendo and stuff, the core demographic of players in FFXIV are now in their mid-20s to mid-30s. We need something more mature and major in the game to make it interesting for them.”
Yoshida-san added “Speaking about people, they always have a good side and a bad side to them. But they all come from a different background. Because the background is jarring, that leads to conflict and that makes real-life very complicated. I want to bring that to the game and make it more real.”
When looking at the wholesale massacre caused by the Amaurotine and later the Ascians, Oda-san mentioned that he was greatly influenced by the brutality of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. According to him, it “has this essence of ethnic cleansing, and that greatly influenced Oda to bring those issues to our game to make it more realistic.”
Like a Boss
Influences and ideas aren’t just about stories, but also extend to raid and dungeon bosses. For Yoshida-san, it’s about making sure the fight feels like that particular boss, whether it’s taking inspiration from another Final Fantasy game like Bahamut Prime, or recreating Titan and Leviathan for the new Eden raid introduced in Shadowbringers.
“Taking Bahamut Prime as an example, when we put that monster in as an enemy we tried to research everything, [including] what kind of attacks the monster should have so that the player feels ‘OK, this is bahamut.’ So we did thorough research before creating it and that is what game designers would be working on.”
“This establishes the legacy attacks. From there, the game designers then explore how to make FFXIV’s bahamut special. Perhaps we should have a special attack that shares damage among the players, or a crush that knocks all players off a cliff. This goes for any primals or battles that FFXIV has, and is the basic flow for creating a monster.”
“When game designers created Eden and rebirthed Titan, they researched the original mechanics those primals had, and then how to tweak each in their own way to bring more excitement to the players, which is how the Eden Titan and Leviathan came about.”
After six years and three expansions, there’s a huge amount of content available in Final Fantasy XIV’s current state. For new players it can seem a little daunting, especially when friends are at the top playing with all the shiny newness. It’s something that Yoshida-san and his team are aware of, making small tweaks that encourages players to enjoy the game together.
“For example, the amount of time that you may require to level up from 50 to 51, compared to the original, currently you can go through it 3 or 4 times quicker. We also try to streamline it for players, by updating the system backend, and to adjust rewards. So we are trying to support those new players to get to the forefront as quickly as possible.”
“Another point is that if we create content targeted for entry level people, then we also get feedback from veteran players that they don’t want early easy content, they want more robust and difficult content. To avoid those kinds of voices, we implement the kind of content where anyone regardless of level can enjoy it together, such as the Deep Dungeon series - you didn’t need to worry about what level you are. By adding this, we are helping to create a platform where everyone can enjoy it together.”