Final Fantasy XIV, Designing Success and Future Thinking – Naoki Yoshida Interview
Last week, before attending the fan event where a potential PlayStation 5 version of the Final Fantasy XIV was mentioned, I was able to have an extensive chat with Naoki Yoshida - the director and lead producer of the game from A Realm Reborn onwards. During this fifty-minute conversation, we spoke about many things, from the beginning of when he first took over the project to the way that future content and even crossovers are decided upon.
Yoshida is often attributed as the person who rescued Final Fantasy XIV following its disastrous launch. For this first piece, I'll cover Final Fantasy as it was told through the conversation, the direction the game took and the reasons behind it, including the simple point that with Final Fantasy XIV, the developers are also the players.
Final Fantasy XIV, A Realm Reborn and the Way to Success
One of my very first questions was a simple but loaded question. After thanking Yoshida for the opportunity (a huge one for myself because I've openly been a Final Fantasy fan for over two decades - literally a fanboy up until XIII) I asked him what he sees as the driving factor behind the success of Final Fantasy XIV, which now has more users and subscribers than ever before.
His response covered several aspects, particularly touching on the game design of Final Fantasy XIV and how it's made to suit the players, giving them the freedom to come and go as they need and ensuring that those who do take a break aren't penalised.
Chris Wray: I suppose the first thing I want to talk about is the growth of Final Fantasy XIV. It's bigger than it's ever been before. You've got more users, more subscribers, than ever before. What do you see as the driving reason behind this success?
Naoki Yoshida: That's a difficult question because so many different elements have combined. You may think it's been more of a natural thing given you're talking about an MMO title but what we're trying to do with Final Fantasy XIV is releasing a major update every 3.5 months. It's hard to keep up the pace, releasing a great amount of content with a wide range of features, with us also working on releasing a major expansion every two years. We are trying to give out lots of different type of content, lots of different ways for players to play.
On top of that, it's how Final Fantasy XIV as game design is established. It's not about forcing players to keep playing the game consistently. If you just consume everything with each major patch then you've played everything, then you can play other games, you can spend your time and plan around your timing. If you want to come back to Final Fantasy XIV, you can come back and catch up easily. Everybody has different hobbies and ways they want to spend their time, they're quite busy.
Thanks to the game cycle we've established, it's easier to accommodate the players, to let them use their own time which is kind of unique to Final Fantasy XIV. By keeping that up, it's brought the world of Final Fantasy XIV to the stage that we're in now.
During our conversation, Yoshida also spoke about the original release of the game and the driving factor behind A Realm Reborn. Within this was both the complaints of fans and how they drove the development team, but also the support of those who stuck with the game even during the initial launch. This also tied into the question of what has made Final Fantasy XIV a success.
NY: You may know that the original release was a massive failure, but we came back to the market because of the players who are so passionate about the game, who have love towards it and were so supportive. That really helped us and we wanted to create really great content for them.
They saw that and it created a synergy with them, they brought in new players through word of mouth and they brought in more. We saw the really great circulation of this synergy, we're all working together: The development team, community and everybody, so I think that's the biggest reason that we have succeeded with Final Fantasy XIV.
Talking more on A Realm Reborn and particularly the development of this major update, Yoshida spoke of his position around when the game released, original fan complaints and the effect they had on the team, how it shaped A Realm Reborn and the future of Final Fantasy XIV.
CW: So how exactly was it that you came to move from the original to what we see now and what primarily did you focus on?
NY: Looking back to when the original Final Fantasy XIV was released, I was more in the development team, I was outside and looking at how they were trying to manage the situation. The feedback that the development team received from players was that even though they had different functions, there wasn't the core element that let people have fun. That was the biggest complaint and led to players doubting the original development team.
We really thought it was important to establish a comeback to the market by creating A Realm Reborn using our theme park idea. So the development team does have their own wishes and ideas, but there has to be a lot of elements and factors within an MMORPG. We wanted to create the new concept of making this game more story-driven, which let us reach A Realm Reborn.
Live-Service, Working with Others and the Theme Park of Game Design
Speaking with Yoshida, I was left with no doubt that one core reason that Final Fantasy XIV has proven to be one of the most successful live-service/MMORPG titles is the fan-focused approach to game design. Not only do the developers of Final Fantasy XIV have a major passion for the game they're making, but the person heading up the project also seems to first-and-foremost focus on what would be best for the fans, not the bottom line. An aspect that has helped the bottom line better than most could have expected.
This is where I personally see live-service, as well as a number of non-live-service titles failing. Content is created for the sake of padding the game out with content. It's laborious and simply not fun. In keeping with this thought, we spoke about live-service games and this approach.
CW: I see Final Fantasy XIV as a prime example of a live service game gone right. With some others, it seems that the games are simply dropped or the right content isn't released. Do you see the path to success is from content that makes players want to come back, not just content that's simply there to do?
NY: There are different types of games out there. One is the offline title - just release it and that's it - and the other type is live service like an MMORPG. Having worked on both, I think the type of service is different. Of course, we create both the offline and online titles so we want players to enjoy the games. That kind of thinking works into the development of both types of game.
Speaking about the console game, we refer to it as the rollercoaster cycle. You build up the excitement quickly, starting to play it and get to the peak of it quickly, but then it starts to tail off. You can still have this excitement in a short amount of time but it still generates excitement.
What's different in an MMORPG or online title, which can also be said for battle royale games, is that we're creating a theme park. For the online title, it's important to have different types of activities so that people will want to come back to the gameplay - because I did a rollercoaster last time, this time I want to try out a merry-go-round. That's the basic mindset we have for an online service so that it repeatedly engages players.
In respect of working with the players and understand what they want from a game like Final Fantasy XIV, Yoshida also spoke about the research the developers do by looking at competing 'theme parks'. With this, as earlier mentioned, the development team are also a part of the audience and with developing content, the direction off fun starts with having fun when brainstorming.
NY: All we are doing is offering those services to players. That's why we need to understand what the players want. It's very important, even in such as the food industry, where if you own a restaurant and you may want to ask your customers what they like and what they want to have on the menu. It's the same for a game service as well. So since we are giving a service to players, it's important for us to understand what they like and don't like.
So Chris, if something is like a theme park and somebody builds another type of theme park next to us, it's really important for us to go in and research what they're offering. This is also because the players have the freedom to do anything. They may come to us but they could also go there and naturally start to compare them. It's really important for us to see what we can offer, to make us unique, but also to research and study our competitors. It's crucial to have the mindset where we see our surroundings and help raise us to the next level.
CW: As somebody who bought the game when it was released I think that's where you've succeeded - getting fun to the players, consistently adding variety and value. The MMO market is full of failed titles, a pitfall you avoided by focusing on getting fun content to players. Is it partly you having fun when designing developing it?
NY: So yes, we want to have fun when creating content in our games. When we do our brainstorming session with our developers, everybody's eyes light up which is cool to say. If we can make these ideas real, maybe we can have the players feeling like that too. I think it's my responsibility to reach out to possible parties and speak to them. At the end of the day, we want the game to be fun but also want the development process to be fun as well.
Looking back at how it was for MMO titles where some development teams were seen in conflict with the community, they'd be seen as trying to control the players. Here, we have this common thing we love and we are all like-minded people. We want the players of Final Fantasy XIV to see it as their own title, something they can take pride in. Ultimately, we want to create an environment that is happy for everybody.
It can be difficult to do but if somebody wants to create a large-scale online service in the future, I think this kind of mindset is really important and a great factor for success.
For more from my conversation with Naoki Yoshida, including the cool ideas and hopes of future crossovers as well as the general future of Final Fantasy XIV, turn over the metaphorical page!