by John Robertson
Upon its initial launch back in September 2010, Final Fantasy XIV was a sight to behold, and not in a good way. It was characterised by bugs major and minor, entire design pillars that felt woefully underdeveloped and a general sense that the game had been released unfinished. Needless to say, the players weren't happy - not least those that had grown up with the Final Fantasy series holding a special place in their hearts. Hopes were destroyed.
Over the four intervening years, however, Final Fantasy XIV has transformed completely. It has been a watershed moment, not only for this most revered of franchises, but for Square Enix as a whole. By standing up, admitting their failure and setting out to fix it with honesty and lack of ego that is near-unprecedented, the publisher has managed to regain the trust of most of its disaffected player base, and welcome new players too.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, a wholesale re-launch and rebuild of FFXIV, arrived in August 2013 and demonstrated to players that Square Enix is dedicated both to the MMO space and to upholding the quality of the Final Fantasy brand. Far from a quick fix, A Realm Reborn is an entirely new game with a new storyline that takes into account the destruction and shutting down of the original 'Version 1.0' Final Fantasy XIV. Its previous iterations have been embraced and used as a catalyst for change.
Changing of the Guard
Following the Version 1.0 release, in response to the subsequent negative player feedback, FFXIV’s development team was reshuffled in an attempt to bring a fresh perspective and a new direction to the project. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka stepped down and resigned from Square Enix entirely. Naoki Yoshida took up the new role of director/producer and was immediately tasked with fixing the game and repairing the damage to Final Fantasy's reputation. It was a big ask.
"I'm an extremely positive person, so I never thought that our reputation had been damaged to an impossible degree," Yoshida tells me. "Really, I thought that nothing could be worse than the situation we found ourselves in when Version 1.0 launched. I always thought we could improve. Almost anything I did would make it better, it was so bad [laughs].
"A Realm Reborn was based on fixing the huge mistake we made with FFXIV. It was us asking for a second chance to do things the right way and regain the trust we lost by giving players a completely new project.
“Really, I thought that nothing could be worse than the situation we found ourselves in when Version 1.0 launched”
"Yes, 1.0 version was a disaster. However, it has given us the chance to learn a lot about our players and what they want. Sometimes I can't help but think that the initial mistake was less of a disaster and more of an opening into this opportunity we have now to make things better than they ever could have been in the past."
Understanding Your Audience
Understanding what people want from the type of ongoing experience offered by an MMO is essential to producing long-term success through retaining a core player base. That much is surely obvious, but it wasn't given much attention with Version 1.0. The thinking at that time revolved around the notion that any shortcomings or missing elements could simply be patched in at a later date, which is why Version 1.0 felt unfinished.
For A Realm Reborn, Yoshida understood implicitly the importance of engaging with the players, understanding their wants and needs and fulfilling them from the outset. Without that engagement and open conversation the re-release would be doomed to repeat the original’s failure.
"Throughout the process of doing this I've made a point of talking honestly to the players and the media about what we're doing and why," says Yoshida. "As part of that the players have been giving us their honest opinions of what they think of Final Fantasy, not only this game but the whole series. We need to listen to everything they say.
"Sometimes I do think that my approach and level of communication is a bit extreme, but considering this is an MMO – an ongoing service – I think it's absolutely essential to show players who is making this game for them and to be open about everything. Without knowing who is making it, how can the players understand whether or not they can trust their time with it?
"Striking that balance between reacting quickly to feedback and having a long term vision for the project is so important. It's one of the reasons A Realm Reborn has become a success for us, I think."
This is an MMO!
Bringing A Realm Reborn to fruition in a form that Yoshida believed would satisfy the players required a complete rethink about the way the game operates, both in terms of the player experience and how it operates under the hood. Yoshida is justifiably proud of some of its technical achievements.
"We have the Crystal Tower in A Realm Reborn," Yoshida says, "that is a 24 person dungeon available after you've finished the main story. With the Version 1.0 system design this would be impossible to do because you couldn't have more than 20 players on screen at once.
"That kind of strange design choice is exactly the kind of thing we knew we had to get rid of. This is an MMO! It's incredibly important we make sure people can enjoy everything together as a group. Also, the Crystal Tower has you fighting against the boss of Final Fantasy III; it's nostalgic moments like this that Final Fantasy fans want to experience as a group and we want to give them that.
“The Version 1.0 user interface was terrible. I think it was the world's worst user interface”.
"I'm so happy to see people enjoying this kind of large-scale interaction, it's exactly what we wanted to achieve. With the A Realm Reborn 2.3 patch we even have 72 person PvP battles, with three teams of 24 fighting each other. That's so different to what Version 1.0 could offer and it's so nice to see Final Fantasy fans enjoy this kind of content. It has taught us so much about what they enjoy."
As I attempt to move on from discussing what Yoshida is proud of, he politely interrupts (via his translator) to explain one more part of A Realm Reborn that is close to his heart:
"I'm not sure I should be saying this, but the Version 1.0 user interface was terrible. I think it was the world's worst user interface, so we threw it away and started designing something completely new, which is the approach we took with the whole project, actually.
"Our new interface is something we're incredibly proud of and we think it is genuinely world class. Being playable on consoles [PlayStation 4 and 3] and PC you can use either a mouse and keyboard or a control pad and both options work great. It really opens up the game and allows more people to enjoy it easily."
Not Lost in Translation
Getting the in-game content right is one thing, but promotion and marketing play a huge role in any game's success. Open communication with players around the world brought its own rewards here, too, with the game's promoters able to dial into very specific areas of the game when targeting different regions. This targeted approach has resulted in greater understanding of the game as a service.
Tastes change depending on the region. In Japan, for example, there's not much love whatsoever for PvP. There are players there that enjoy that side of the game, but proportionally many fewer than elsewhere in the world. Yoshida even goes as far as to say "if we launched a campaign in Japan promoting A Realm Reborn's PvP content then it could actually negatively influence the country's view of the game."
By way of contrast, China, where the game has just launched, demands excellent PvP content. As such, advertising campaigns for the launch of the game have concentrated heavily on the high number of players that can appear on-screen simultaneously in PvP areas.
"We spend a lot of time understanding these differences and then thinking about how to use that understanding to present the game in the best way possible to each region," continues Yoshida. "The game is the same everywhere, it's just that we highlight different sections more or less depending on the region."
One of the more interesting promotional differentiations involves France and Germany, the former being easier to handle than the latter. "Japanese culture is very popular in France," Yoshida smiles. "People there know a lot about it and I see a lot of people that really love a lot of traditional Final Fantasy elements, so it's quite easy to communicate those to them.
"When we show the game to a French audience there's no point showing them the very hardcore, very difficult end-game content as they might be put off and think that that isn't the kind of Final Fantasy style they enjoy. For the French audience we focus more on the event scenes, the dialogue scenes and these epic moments that very much embody a Final Fantasy game and which we have lots of in A Realm Reborn.
"On the other hand, the German audience doesn't really like the Japanimation/anime style art so much. They like things to be more realistic looking, or maybe something with a darker fantasy style. We have to consider very carefully how we approach Germany and how we make the game appealing by focusing on the many other things that players might enjoy in the game."
For years the debate has raged over whether or not Japanese game developers truly understand Western audiences, and whether or not they actually care about satisfying them. Yoshida, however, is not shy about stating succinctly that A Realm Reborn could only be considered a success if it managed to speak to a Western audience – in particular, an American audience.
"We were especially determined to be successful in America. It was in America that the MMO started life and, because of that, we didn't think there was much point in developing an MMO unless we were successful there. Reaching out to that American audience was something we were always thinking about during development, we never forgot that,” says Yoshida.
"The need to be successful in America and the West isn't just because this is an MMO, though. This is a 'true' Final Fantasy game, it is a numbered title; it is not a side project or a spinoff game. Therefore, it was always crucial that the game was a big success across the world, not just in Japan. We can't just focus on Japan with a Final Fantasy game anymore, we must always reach out to the rest of the world."
One of the specific reasons Yoshida was brought in to right the wrong of Version 1.0 was because of his understanding of the Western market and of Western game design. "To tell the truth... I'm more of a Western game fan," admits Yoshida. "I prefer Western games to Japanese games. Recent Japanese games, in particular, I am not very keen on. I'm not sure if I should even be saying that...
"Therefore, I think my understanding of video games is not a typically Japanese one. I think I understand what is good about Western games and what Western players are looking for. Being a hardcore Western MMO player before working on FFXIV, I have had so many opportunities to talk to players inside the game, to talk to them about what they like and what they don't like and work out which elements are essential. I have spoken to players from across the world when it comes to that, which has been really helpful in understanding MMOs from a global perspective.
"At that time at Square Enix [when Yoshida was asked to be a part of the FFXIV project] I don't think there was anyone else that knew as much about the global MMO market as me, which maybe created some of the reasons for Version 1.0 not being so great."
The 18-Month Plan
"FFXIV: A Realm Reborn has a very long-term schedule, we're always looking at what we're going to be doing over the next 18 months," Yoshida explains. "That means we're always very busy, not only with building new things but coming up with ideas to keep progressing the game into the future. That future vision takes up a lot of my time.
"One of the main focuses at the moment, however, is working with the admin team who listen to all of the feedback we get from the current players, which is a lot right now as we have so many players. What we work really hard on doing is reacting to that feedback and making sure we implement new features quickly enough to satisfy them and make sure they understand we're listening to them. Balancing that immediate response with the long term plan is something we work hard on".
Now that A Realm Reborn is an established MMO that enjoys positive reactions from press and players, Yoshida's job has changed from re-design to sustainability – arguably a more difficult task. "Now that the game is successful we're in a really, really happy and positive place as a development team... even if we're busier now than we were before A Realm Reborn launched,” laughs Yoshida.
“But it's certainly not a relaxing experience, to work on an MMO."