Final Fantasy XIV’s development timeline is one of the most fascinating in video game history. The man who’s largely responsible for turning the original game’s ship around is Naoki Yoshida, who now acts as A Realm Reborn’s director. What was originally considered one of the weakest games in the Final Fantasy franchise has now become one of the best and most popular MMORPGs around.
With the release of Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, Shadowbringers, we sat down with Naoki Yoshida at E3 2019 to talk about the long journey since A Realm Reborn first released back in 2013. During our interview, Yoshida-san and I talked about fan requests as well as modernizing Final Fantasy XIV’s graphics, and introducing new players to the game in 2019.
Jordan Boyd: When you reflect back on your time developing A Realm Reborn, what memories stick out the most to you?
Naoki Yoshida: Among so many memories I think there are a couple that I won’t forget anytime soon. This particular one happened during our first fan festival in 2014 when we first announced Heavensward our first expansion, we had our event in Las Vegas. We got up on stage and hearing that massive cheer is something I will not forget to this day. The fact that so many people are cheering for a game I and so many created, the history of it having such a rough start, being able to rebuild it, and have the game be enjoyed by so many is unforgettable.
Another instance might have been during the same event. There was a teenager that came up to me, 16 or 17 years of age, they said you are my hero. Up until that point, I felt that saying such a line is directed towards an actual hero in some kind of work of art or comics books or something like that. It reassured me that we continued to work really hard. Those things come to mind.
JB: With the entire development team for Final Fantasy XIV, it almost seems unbelievable what you’ve all done. What is the culture like for you and your team? How do you keep everyone going at the same pace as back then and delivering great content consistently?
NY: When speaking about trying to keep the motivation up for our developers, I think we never want to force them. It’s not something where you can make them get motivated. So, we try and encourage them through quantitative things. An easy example is the number of subscribers we have, or feedback, comments. Our project managers collect these things every time we release a patch. For example, comments on players social channels or screenshots. They compile it as a report to show the development team. I make sure that I show the developers the results of their efforts in a way that they can tangibly see.
Also, in terms of each individuals career, of course, every developer may have an idea of where they want to take their career, so we want to provide an environment where each developer can be proud of the work they do and the results that they bring to the game and constantly get their feedback and input on whether they want to continue on that path, if they’re okay with where they are, or if they want to move elsewhere. If they want to move somewhere else, like a standalone game, we would support them and see if there are ways we can help. We take all of that into consideration and see if we can support them. We can recommend them to different departments in Square Enix if that’s where they want to go in their career. We want to provide an environment where our developers are stable and comfortable in their work environment and career path.
Another element that we are very mindful about is the salary and the opportunities for advancement within the team. I’m in charge of not just Final Fantasy XIV but the overall division of Square Enix, which we call Creative Business Unit 3, so I have many different members that contribute to different projects from that department. So this doesn’t only apply to Final Fantasy XIV but with any project. If certain individuals are contributing in a very significant way we want to acknowledge them, praise them for their efforts, help let them advance. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been with the company you have the opportunity to showcase your work and the contributions that you’ve made will be recognized. Even if that’s a staff member that has only worked at Square Enix for half a year if they worked really hard that half a year, we do recognize it. Sometimes it’s in the form of a bonus salary or things like that, we try to offer a dynamic so that the developers would be motivated. We do want to recognize those who excel and we do want to identify our stars so we properly acknowledge them so the other team members are motivated and excited, look up to them in a way and say ‘Oh, I would love to achieve as much as they do.’
Another thing is that a lot of our developers are experienced Final Fantasy XIV players, so they’re really passionate about the title. They’re just so many who play the game and have that desire to join the development team, wanting to do something related to Final Fantasy XIV. Those kinds of people tend to grow in their careers very quickly. We’re always excited to see how they’ll grow.
JB: Can you talk to me a bit about healing classes. You’ve heard a lot and I’m sure you’ve responded a lot to fans who want to see a new healing class. Can we expect that down the pipeline? What challenges do making a new healing class present to you and the team? Why hasn’t a new one come in some time?
NY: So I’m not sure if people just don’t remember it or just don’t bring it up, but in Heavensward we introduced a new healer so it’s not like we’ve never introduced one. And so, some people actually do comment to me saying ‘It’s been six years where is the new healer?!’ and I go ‘Wait that’s not true!’
Of course, with healers, yes, we do admit that there are difficulties in balancing different jobs in that category. It was a struggle over the years maintaining different jobs. We do see that Scholar has the ability to cast barriers and the fairy they can summon, they’re very mobile. On the other hand, it was lacking in pure healing capabilities. We do see players utilizing the Scholar to just have barriers set up and the rest of the time they’re mainly attacking. Healers who utilize other jobs may look at the Scholar and think, they can do everything else, why can’t we have that? We do understand that concern, it was quite a struggle seeing how we can balance all three jobs including the White Mage and Astrologian against each of the healer jobs.
We have been continuing to tweak and make adjustments. As of patch 4.4-ish, there may not have been complete balance yet. We haven’t gotten ourselves where we want the balance to be. At the brink of the new expansion, introducing yet another healer before we’re able to achieve a satisfactory level of balance would complicate things further. We’re very hesitant to say we could maintain balance amongst four [healer] job titles. That’s why we’ve held back on adding another.
The other reason is, looking at the different roles and maintaining the balance. If you remember the number of roles as of Stormblood 4.0, we have three in the tank category, five in melee/DPS, three in magic/DPS, three in the healer, and only two in the ranged/DPS category. Looking at the numerical standpoint of what jobs we have available, it was only natural to bolster the ranged/DPS category. We were very surprised that there were so many players expecting a healer to be introduced.
JB: I just read a post from you on the game’s forums where you addressed a lot of fan requests, what you guys are putting into the game for the fans. How do you kind of balance out the demands, new costumes, a healer class – how do you balance what the team wants to do versus what the fans want to see for years and years.
NY: We look at it from a standpoint where we’re not exactly striking a balance between the two, looking at what the development team wants to do and looking where player feedback comes in and seeing where they match. That’s sort of the direction I take when adding elements to the game. It only makes sense to see what aligns together and just execute those. For those that don’t match at all, when it’s too different from what we want to do and what the players desire, we can’t implement it into the game.
What’s important about player feedback is, we don’t literally listen and feed everything back as is into the game. We need to discern which things do mesh with what we want to accomplish from a development standpoint and what matches the demand and what we’re able to provide. There are some things we just cannot address and there is a deliberate reason behind that. We always provide a reason and an effort to explain why there’s a reason we can’t do this. I think that’s very important when looking at player feedback. We try and be very thorough with that process. That’s what makes it Final Fantasy XIV, and my own policy with the communication between the development team and community. Through that dialogue that allows us to have a good relationship.
JB: In terms of the visuals of Final Fantasy XIV, and the only reason I think of this is that World of Warcraft Classic just came out, it sounds crazy to say but Final Fantasy XIV is getting older now. Has the team ever thought of upgrading the visuals, is that an issue that you feel you’ll have to address in the future?
NY: Of course, I understand that with the different MMORPGs some of them have become old. We see many titles that have released in the past and some that reflect the graphics depiction in sort of updated ways as time goes. I’m sure people do want to see the graphical quality improve in the game. I totally understand that. From that perspective, yes, we would love to eventually update the graphics so we can continue to claim that Final Fantasy XIV has world class graphics while being an MMORPG. The simple answer is, yes, there’s always that desire.
That being said, there are two major issues with it. Even now, we strive to have high-quality visuals. It is very detailed, very vivid, we made sure the quality’s already high. When we think of rendering this to still look beautiful on a 4K monitor, making sure that the texture doesn’t become degraded, adding more polygons in our models, of course, it’s not impossible to do but we currently have a patch upgrade cycle. We release a major patch or update every three and a half months or so, and all of the gear we design and the content we build is part of that cycle. It is quite aggressive even now so if we add on top of that the workflow for making our graphics depiction advanced will add to the cost that is required. We would have to add to the workflow as well and not just cost in terms of bandwidth, time as well, it’s not a matter of just adding additional people who can resolve this issue. It is quite a tough predicament. If we were to start considering upgrading the graphics into our normal development schedule, I’d be very worried about our cycle.
The other issue is that the machines the players use. People play on PC and PS4. With PS4 we are already seeing our next generation on the horizon. We may be able to accommodate those. With PC machines, once we raise the quality of the graphics, some people might not be able to update their PCs to meet the requirements of that graphical depiction. Of course, we do allow players to change the configuration and cut out some of the options so we may accommodate a wide range of devices. By raising the quality a bit higher we may unintentionally exclude people by having such an increased quality. Which is completely defeating the purpose, we want people to enjoy the game.
We can’t plan for it on a whim, we have to be very meticulous. We have to make detailed plans for it, including: How are we going to set up our workflow? How are we going to have our pipeline set up? How are we going to code based the deadlines we need to meet? How do we create a pipeline to make a massive amount of assets in the game? Of course, I’d love to be able to upgrade the graphics at some point but it will require a lot of planning. We’re exhausted from Shadowbringers so we want to launch that and maybe then we’ll consider our options.
JB: Final Fantasy XIV has had many collaborations with other games from the series. Can you hint at or talk a little bit about anything coming down the pipeline that might involve Final Fantasy VII Remake?
NY: I’m a very big fan of Final Fantasy and my favorites are III and VII. It would be amazing to have an opportunity. That being said, whether or not we should approach the VII team to talk about doing a crossover or collaboration is not something we want to do at this point. Only because, I’m sure everybody desires this, but we want Final Fantasy VII Remake to come out as planned on March 3 at the highest quality possible.
If we were to approach that team after I make a plan for some sort of collaboration, it would burden them so to speak. The team would need to review the plans and once we decide to move forward, the XIV team would create say a model of Cloud to represent in the game but we’d have to show it to the Remake team for them to review which would take away from their time. If we wrote a story we’d have to draft the text and then translate it. Then it would require them to review it and make sure everything checks out.
Doing the work on our side is not an issue but we’re worried about burdening and taking away from the time and resources the Final Fantasy VII Remake team has on their work. I think it would be unfair to do so since it’s taking away from their costs and bandwidth in providing a very polished game. I feel that approaching the team right now to make that sort of request is going to take away from what fans are hoping to see, Final Fantasy VII Remake in its best state. Doing something at the launch timing of VII is not optimal. I think it’s a better celebration to have them concentrate on releasing the game. Maybe after release, we can talk about some kind of collaborative effort. That’s the type of thinking that went into bringing Noctis to the world of Final Fantasy XIV.
JB: For every expansion you guys do, how do you prepare for new players looking to try it out. Is Shadowbringers a good place for newcomers to jump in?
NY: That thinking actually doesn’t just apply to launches of expansion. Actually, we continue to market and promote the game constantly. We continue to see new players joining us. We surpassed record numbers that we’re bringing into the game even before we launch Shadowbringers. We always need to think about players joining us.
With each patch update, we’re very mindful of those people who may have hesitation in joining an MMORPG midway so to speak. We do have a massive amount of content and it’s a relatively longrunning MMORPG. People might worry that there’s just too much to play through or it’s too complicated. With each sort of update that we make, we make sure players eliminate that hesitation and that it’s no different from any other Final Fantasy title. As long as you’re following along with the main storyline, you will catch up before you know it with those playing the latest content. We look at the existing content and make adjustments accordingly so that everyone may make progress accordingly. We do this constantly.
With Shadowbringers, there will be an influx so it does allow for you to jump in that way because we have many additional players coming in who are at a similar starting point as you. There are more people you can team up with on different things. People get to play the newest content in the game so friends can invite other friends to join, We’re doing a lot of promotions and different activities, discounting previous expansions so everyone can jump into the game even quicker. We try to make sure that the game itself and the promotional activities allow players to jump in anytime and catch up with the latest content fairly smoothly. We take that as something that’s very important.
JB: When do you know that an expansion is ready versus a large content update or patch. How long after Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers did you start developing the next big expansion? Are there different teams that do that?
NY: Speaking from an overall perspective, we don’t divide up the team when planning for an expansion. The initial sort of work that’s done on each expansion is done alone. I work on it by myself. For example, from Stormblood to Shadowbringers, Stormblood was released on June 28, 2017, and from there the process of creating the sort of base design for Shadowbringers or 5.0 expansion actually started in late August of 2017 and that was done by me.
After that, the base design is created so we take the developers, so like, leads of battle systems, game designers, content designers, main scenario writers, and I make a presentation of what I’m thinking for the next expansion. What kind of world the adventures take place in, what jobs, gameplay experiences do we want. We deliberate then agree once it’s in a good state. By late September I write the script for the launch trailer. The overall narrative is sort of finalized at that point.
Up until around April of 2018, nobody worked on anything expansion related at that point. We may ask our visual team to start working on the trailer footage but other than that we continue on our other tasks. Once April hit, we sort of started a story boot camp with our main scenario writers. We plotted out the final patches of Stormblood, 4.4, 4.5, and then 5.0 is the expansion.
After the plot has been written out, the following of month of May we have our leads or partial members of the level design and environment design discuss the field and world ideas for Shadowbringers. We request concept art and start moving on scenery designs and what not. During this time we are also working on patch 4.x series in parallel but we’re assigning more and more people gradually on the expansion. Patch update work is being done at the same time. By October of 2018, we see about 80 percent of the developers doing tasks related to the expansion while the rest are working on patches. By January 2019 most if not all of the people have moved to do tasks related to the expansion. We then ramp up to finalizing the master build. That’s kind of a rough schedule of an expansion.
That means today is June 13, 2019, so in about a month in a half, I’ll need to start thinking about the game design of the next expansion… probably.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is available now on PS4 and PC. You can buy it right now over on Amazon if you’d like.