Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a very good game – in large part due to the reorganization of the XIV team and the leadership of Naoki Yoshida – but for many who played the original it had an extremely rocky birth. Yoshida gives the world a sneak peak at what it was like to take over for FFXIV at a talk at this years Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. He does this by addressing three key issues: Why did 1.0 fail? What did they have to do to fix it? And what’s next?
Why did 1.0 fail?
The original Final Fantasy XIV, which many of us “fondly” refer to as 1.0, began service September 30th, 2010. That’s over 3 years ago for those of you who are counting, but it was a whopping 8 years after the release of Final Fantasy XI. But as Yoshida began to speak at the GDC session, it became more and more apparent that while 8 long years had passed between FFXI and the soon-to-be FFXIV 1.0, Square Enix as a company had not quite adapted to the MMO marketplace that World of Warcraft had created.
Surely, that does sound a bit strange. How could a company such as Square Enix not recognize what World of Warcraft introduced into the world? This was one of a few reasons that Director Yoshida reasoned that lead to the ultimate downfall of 1.0.
What it really is, is this – Square Enix was stubborn. It was stubborn in the sense that they had built a culture where graphics was paramount – where how pretty something looked took precedent over content. For example, Yoshida presented the “loveliest flowerpot in an MMO”, aka the flowerpots one would see spread throughout Limsa Lominsa. Granted, upon close examination it looked good – they contained over 1,000 polygons and comprised over 150 lines of shader code – but what this meant was that it took just as many resources for a player’s PC to render one flowerpot as it took to render an entire player character. Just imagine – one screenshot with 5 flowerpots and one player character took as much rendering power as having 6 player characters in that screenshot. In order to keep the game running with this level of detail, they limited the number of player characters that rendered at any one time to 20. This idea of graphic quality permeated throughout the entire asset creation process during 1.0’s development. It lead to sparse landscapes and not a lot of actual content.
Another reason for the original Final Fantasy XIV’s failure was the state of the market of MMO’s in Japan. Bluntly put, Yoshida put forward the fact that MMOs aren’t huge in Japan. Certainly not to the scale they are in Korea, the US and Europe. Because of that, not many developers had the skills nor the experience to create MMOs and even less so the kind that required the huge amount of resources, time, and innovation required to make a modern MMO to compete with giants like World of Warcraft. This meant that despite changing expectations from the consumer, they had little else to do besides sticking to what they already knew – Final Fantasy XI.
In Final Fantasy – and indeed Square Enix in general – this meant that teams were comprised of “meisters” who “crafted” each component of the game. Much like how a master smith carefully nurtures a blade for a sword. This is what produced the flowerpot from above – incredibly detailed and consuming painstaking amounts of time to make. As you can probably imagine, this meant that artist had their hands tied “perfecting” their craft – which means that had to hire more artists to make other items. In effect, the size of the team required to make Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 was enormous with each one fixating on one thing instead of looking at the player experience as a whole. Additionally, as many of the team members carried over from the PlayStation 2 days, most if not all of them had no idea how to incorporate the new technologies now available to them and stuck to the old ways further elongating development times.
Yoshida argued that this component was a primary reason for the game being so sparse – they couldn’t create content players could actually play in the timeframe they had set for themselves. The lack of experience and lack of willingness to change lead to a cascading effect of longer development times, which lead to fewer assets, which lead to less content, and so on and so forth.
Finally, Yoshida’s third reason for Final Fantasy XIV’s downward spiral was a classic outlook of procrastination. “Oh, we can always patch that later” was an all too prevalent excuse when flaws were found within 1.0 and the folks running the show honestly believed that as long as people were playing the game they could fix any problems that reared its ugly head. This lack of planning, according to Yoshida, lead to a game and a framework that wasn’t properly planned out. It was never really “designed” and was more or less just slapped together to get it up and running.
What did they have to do to fix it?
And now we arrive at the part that most of us here are familiar with. 1.0 was doing so poorly that Square had to arrange for an entire restructuring of the team. Not only that, they had to commit to fixing the mistakes they had made during the original XIV’s time online – an essential part, said Yoshida, to restoring the trust of the fans. Naoki Yoshida was made Director and Producer at this point in December of 2010. He was given a pile of scraps and was told to make something of it.
The total development time for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was only 2 years and 8 months. That is nearly half that of other similar games. Not only that, they decided that they were going to do it while also keeping the original version online. This meant that they needed to move quickly.
As Yoshida took the reigns of the Final Fantasy XIV team, it was shortly pointed out that if they were going to save the title at all they needed to start from the ground up. To ensure that it was successful, he adapted a workflow that would reduce the amount of time spent iterating and making sure it was properly put together before they started doing anything to resemble a game. He also committed to making more than 400 key decisions in terms of game design, essentially eliminating time lost waiting for approvals. He gave trustworthy designers and managers lead positions to also make decisions independent of any other input to further streamline the process – all to get the game up and running in the most efficient manner possible.
They also identified a list of must haves for an MMORPG. Of course, Content was King, but also identified was match making (Duty Finder), Player Customization, Battle Gameplay, Stable Servers, Login Servers, Server Expandability, Customizable UI, Graphic Options, Guild options (Free Companies), Graphic Quality, Accessibility (language options, etc), interoperability (for the PS3, PS4 and PC) – you see where I am going here. The list is long and to make sure all of it was considered meant that even more work had to be put into planning.
They spent over 8 months of designing and planning before letting any programmer touch a single key or write a single line of code. They instead tasked them with maintaining 1.0 while designers, project managers, and others slaved over the process that would bring us A Realm Reborn. Included in this phase was active incorporation of player feedback. While it may seem hard to believe, Yoshida mentioned that he would log on every day with over 20 other forum specialists to read the forums and aggregate player feedback as he actively made decisions on ARR. This connection with the fans soon lead to the Letters from the Producer we all know and love as well as opening up development of the game to the public through live streams. Yoshida commented that this interaction with the fan-base was absolutely essential to ARR’s success, and he plans on continuing with this as long as the game exists.
An example of the difference between 1.0 and 2.0, emphasized by combat, made by a fan from YouTube…
Yoshida also gave an executive order – all staff must play the game everyday, over and over again. This to me is fairly hard to believe but it turns out it wasn’t standard practice. This was a philosophy that Yoshida held close to his heart: if you’re going to make a game you should remember that it’s a gave that even you would want to play. This meant an emphasis was put on gameplay and overall feel over graphics.
So What Next?
Yoshida closed out the presentation with a look into the future. Quoting plenty of industry firsts accomplished by the FFXIV team, chief among which was that it was “the first MMO to ever be rebuilt and relaunched,” Yoshida first wanted to offer advice to aspiring MMORPG developers. He warned that developers of future MMOs that they will always be compared to the yardstick that is World of Warcraft but also, half-jokingly, mentioned that they shouldn’t lose hope. “Comparing A Realm Reborn [and other MMORPGs] at launch to [the 12 million subscriber, eight year old game that is] World of Warcraft is like comparing a child entering elementary school to a college student.” You’re going to lose on many fronts. But looking forward its apparent that he no longer considers that a valid comparison. He urged that those looking to the future learn from the mistakes of Final Fantasy XIV 1.0. Proper planning, community involvement, streamlined development – all of those are essential to the success of a good MMO.
“Managing an MMO is like managing a country,” said Yoshida. “What’s the point in the country if even you [the ruler] doesn’t want to live there.” Appealing to new entries to the market, Yoshida mentions that it doesn’t matter what kind of game your making – it’ll do well if it really is fun. He also implored that its important to for developers to pay attention to the community. “If players are complaining, it means they care.” Community interaction and gaining their understanding is incredibly important and for a game involving so many players and so much resources – it’ll certainly help.
Yoshida wrapped up the session saying the Square Enix learned a lot of its lessons – the hard way in many cases – but that he continues to carry forward what he learns in nurturing A Realm Reborn. Sure, the original wasn’t very good but it was a good wake up call. It allowed Square Enix to modernize – at least partially if not entirely. Of course, that’s not to say that its the end. There is still much to learn and much to improve on and Yoshida plans on getting right back to it when he lands in Japan. Only a few hours after the session, Yoshida will be hopping on a plane and when he gets of at the terminal on the other side of the pond its right to another Live Letter – and just as well as the next major patch is just around the corner!
“I hope many of you take a look! There is much to look forward to!”