by John Robertson
There’s a difficult balancing act involved with any expansion to an already established MMO. On the one hand, expansions are supposed to incentivise new players to take the plunge and become part of the world. On the other, they must also meet the more detail-orientated, precise needs of the current player pool. Focusing too squarely on one side can alienate the other, while focusing on both equally has the potential to result in a direction that serves neither particularly well.
"If I answer that question and tell you that I'm more focused on attracting new players or pleasing current ones then, as my role as producer, I'm not really doing my job very well," laughs Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s producer, Naoki Yoshida. We’re talking about Heavensward, his game's first major (and paid) expansion.
"I don't want to say that either group is more important than the other, but our initial priority is getting the current players to continue to enjoy our content,” he says. “If we do that then they will spread the word about how much they're enjoying the game and that will attract new players".
Relying on word of mouth to grow the player base seems like a smart idea. Not only do current players act as champions outside of the game, but their role as personal recruiter means new players are going to have a friend to rely on when they first step into Final Fantasy FXIV's initially daunting world and systems.
With the release of Heavensward, those systems are only becoming more complex and larger in scale. The staple upgrades of new areas and classes are flanked by the ability to ride flying mounts, scale a higher level cap, learn new limit breaks, understand an extra playable race and (for Free Companies) create custom airships. Oh, and there are new Primals. If none of that means a whole lot to you, then you might want to sniff around for a veteran player before jumping in.
A Realm Reborn was originally conceived as a wholesale replacement for the disaster that was the original Final Fantasy XIV, so much of the new content represents ideas that Yoshida didn't have time to implement the first time around. Anyone that plays this game regularly will be well aware of how many free updates are applied to it, a symptom of the tight development schedule that Yoshida and his team were originally under. With Heavensward and future expansions, though, the opportunity to make good on the master design plans reveals itself.
"Honestly speaking," says Yoshida, with one eye on the PR chaperone overseeing our interview, "there were many different elements that I feel like I wasn't able to achieve in A Realm Reborn.
“In some cases I decided that certain things that I wanted to do just didn't fit with the game when it was first released, either because we didn't have the time to do them properly or because they simply didn't work for a game that was essentially a re-launch.
"I do want to continue to add a lot of those elements that I wasn't able to at first. Some of these things might not fit with the tastes of today's generation of players, but I'd love to resurrect some classic MMORPG elements and apply them to Final Fantasy XIV. It would be good to include that retro-but-modern approach.”
Entering the world of Heavensward seems to back up the ‘abundance of content in the pipeline’ claims. Three new job types (Dark Knight, Astrologian, Machinist) might not sound like a lot, but combine that with the raised level cap, new limit breaks and intricate ways the classes interact with one another and there’s a lot to learn.
In the two hours or so that I spent with it, I gleaned little idea of the Dark Knight’s intricacies above and beyond the fact that it works well as tank. Its high damage stats and ability to absorb punishment makes are obvious, but the class also buffs those around it in complex ways. That’s the kind of thing that makes this expansion interesting: the addition of things that can potentially impact and change what’s already here.
Yoshida admits that while there might be plenty of ideas for things to add, selecting it and presenting it correctly is no easy task. This, after all, is a Final Fantasy game, part of a series that includes 50-year-olds with experience of every game in franchise, as well as 15-year-olds that have only ever played Lightning Returns or even Theatrhythm. How do you appeal to such a diverse audience?
"Okay... This is a very tough question," Yoshida smiles. "That does really raise the bar in terms of how difficult a game like this is to make. Even though this is a Final Fantasy game, it is an MMO. The fact that some Final Fantasy players are choosing to play a game in this genre does show that this is a fan base that does want to play an MMO.
"Keeping that in mind, rather than considering the wide range of ages that make up the Final Fantasy fan base, our primary focus is how do we get this game into the hands of Final Fantasy fans that have previously refused to play an MMO. After that, though, you're right: we do have a lot of different age groups to try and satisfy."
One of the ways to attract a player that has traditionally avoided MMOs is to rely on Final Fantasy's vast history to create a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that you're part of the 'in crowd'. Including the likes of chocobos, moogles, magitek armour and certain boss and class archetypes is a good way of creating that nostalgia.
Whether you've played one Final Fantasy game or 20, these are icons that you're going to know and understand to some degree. Few MMOs have this luxury of pre-existing expansive lore and powerful visual signifiers. Within minutes of loading up Heavesward I’m taking to the skies in a flying chocobo, evoking memories of past games and triggering me to work out how I can gain this status symbol as quick as possible (before my friends, at least) when I’m playing with my own character.
What you can't do, however, be tokenistic with these Final Fantasy series throwbacks. "It can't just be a shallow addition," elaborates Yoshida. "These things have to be incorporated properly, in a way that does justice to their original inclusions in the series. We must make sure to embrace a lot of the lore and history behind these things. It's not enough to just show them on the screen and think players are going to be happy with that.
"Hopefully, when we include them properly, it's this sort of thing makes people familiar with Final Fantasy raise a smile. First and foremost I'm a fan of the Final Fantasy franchise," says Yoshida, who, by the way, is sat on a couch next to a moogle plushy. "I have a lot of very high and particular expectations when it comes to what a recognisable Final Fantasy element is.
"There are times when other people will tell me that I don't have to be so picky about how a certain element is done in the game, but I think I do have to be that picky because I want to protect the history of the series and make sure that I'm keeping the integrity of whatever it is that I'm incorporating."
Otaku-grade Final Fantasy fans: ready yourself for this bit of inside info from Yoshida: “I was at one point thinking about including Red XIII from Final Fantasy VII in Final Fantasy XIV as a ground mount. However, I realised that Red XIII is part of an endangered species - so it would be weird and wouldn't make sense to see multiple Red XIII's running around the world. It just wouldn't work with the history of that character and that game."
Heavensward, despite its many Final Fantasy references, doesn’t feel like a throwback. It has a strong sense of identity and its dungeons are designed to provide a significant challenge to the most experienced of players. Me and my group of four didn’t manage to complete the dungeon we raided, our attempt cut short by a mid-level boss that was too powerful for us to overcome with our lack of experience using the new job types.
The dungeon itself is typical MMO fare, but executed with great craft and an intimate sense of how to balance a challenge. The Final Fantasy reference points create a familiar aesthetic. That has always been A Realm Reborn’s great trick: do the basics right, and then add the series familiarity and nostalgia on top. With Heavensward, the future of this once-troubled game is looking bright.