A Focus On Graphics Killed Final Fantasy XIV. Here’s How Square Enix Revived It
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn producer Naoki Yoshida began his GDC panel this afternoon by sharing a little bit about himself with the audience. Yoshida, who serves as both director and producer on the game, says that he was a Final Fantasy fanatic, and that his favourite games in the series are Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy VII.
(He also mentioned that his favourite job is the Black Mage.)
Yoshida shared that he’s a hardcore MMORPG player. As the panel went on, he proceeded to explain why the original Final Fantasy XIV failed and how Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn came about.
Prior to Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix’s horse in the MMO race was Final Fantasy XI. While XI is seen as a mid-scale game, the title earned Square stable profits, Yoshida said. The game still continues to be played today. Eight years went by before Final Fantasy XIV was developed, and during that time, the MMO market changed, especially in terms of player psychology, after the release of World of WarCraft and user interface (UI) improvements.
Unfortunately, said Yoshida, Square Enix’s culture of achieving the best graphics hurt Final Fantasy XIV’s development process. Square’s tendency to focus in graphical improvement put the game at odds with the rest of the MMORPG space, in which most games were focused on content rather than visual fidelity.
During the PlayStation 2 era, Square Enix were able to produce graphics that their competitors couldn’t. This, Yoshida said, was done in the style of Japanese swordsmithing, where everyone on the team mastered their craft. During the PS2 era, Square Enix employed teams of highly-talented creators to create graphics for their games. This approach worked when the company had to make a small number of swords, Yoshida said, continuing with the swordsmith comparison, but Square felt the need to extend this approach to Final Fantasy XIV as well.
The thinking was that fans would be disappointed if Square Enix didn’t continue to push graphics as they always had in the past. From Square Enix’s perspective, that made sense. After all, Yoshida said, if you’ve found success one way, it takes a lot of courage to change. Unfortunately, change is precisely what was called for, and when Final Fantasy XIV failed, it had an impact on other MMORPG developers in Japan, too, in that it was a discouraging message being sent out, due to the massive risks involved in developing a game of that scale.
Final Fantasy XIV’s failure was bad for Japan’s MMO industry in general, was the point Yoshida was trying to make. If the number of Japanese MMOs drops, a gap is formed between developers in Japan and actual players in the west, which is something he used the chart you see above to illustrate.
Yoshida then moved on to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. He stated that Square Enix kept the “Final Fantasy XIV” name in order to regain the trust of the game’s audience. Development, he said, was a race against the clock, as interest was waning in FFXIV, but Square Enix had to keep updating that game while developing A Realm Reborn alongside it.
The usual amount of time it takes to develop an MMORPG is 4-5 years. However, A Realm Reborn was completed in merely 2 years and 8 months, all while maintaining the design values that Square Enix felt needed to be in the game. Since it was Final Fantasy, you needed a fantastic story with high production values in the graphics and sound department. As a result, Square Enix updated Final Fantasy XIV’s graphics system to that of A Realm Reborn’s, so they could work the new game and on updating Final Fantasy XIV at the same time.
To speed the development process up, Yoshida came up with 400 fundamental design decisions for the team to follow for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. This would mean less approval time and more time for the game’s developers to fill in details more easily. Standards were emphasized over optimization, and tried and tested features were actively implemented. Yoshida personally studied and implemented elements from other MMORPGs into the game to minimize risk.
Two months went by until programmers started building the game. At this point, the majority of programmers were still working on updates to the original Final Fantasy XIV. Yoshida revealed that he wouldn’t let people program on ARR until systems were completed, and programmers that weren’t building familiarized themselves with the design. Training the company’s staff was important because the developers didn’t have MMO experience. A plan was drafted and a workflow created to bring Final Fantasy XIV to A Realm Reborn, and all the while, the team, faced with harsh reviews, kept updating the original game for fans that believed in the rebuild.
Eventually, the team was shifted over to A Realm Reborn. While story was viewed as important, Yoshida says that the development team only started working on it during the latter half of development. The staff would make map mock-ups on paper to test them. Finally, on October 11th, “Final Fantasy XIV Version 2.0” was announced to players. This was prior to the game being renamed to A Realm Reborn, and the staff livestreamed upcoming updates and changes and used social media to interact with fans. Even Square Enix’s former president, Yoichi Wada, stepped in to help this process. You may recall seeing Wada in a some of the livestreams for the game. At this point, the game had been in development for about 9 months.
Finally, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was released on August 27th, 2013. Yoshida compared developing an MMORPG to running a country, which he illustrated using the slides below.