Final Fantasy XI is 18 years old, and it’s still going strong. The team over at Square Enix is doing things a little differently, in making a big deal out of this 18th anniversary as a countdown of sorts to the big two-zero. It’s incredible that, even through Square Enix is running a much more contemporary (and super successful) sequel, FFXI is trucking along and even growing in some ways. To celebrate, we got the opportunity to talk to Director Yoji Fujito and Producer Akihiko Matsui about, well, a game that has been active and maintained for nearly two decades. For me, this Final Fantasy XI interview was a chance to revisit a world I haven’t seen in years. For you all, I hope it’s a good read.
Lucas White, Siliconera: While I have not played FFXI recently, I remember so much of it vividly. I played in college, and while I had a hard time grasping what to do or focus on [in game], my seasoned friends carried me through it. My ultimate goal was to save enough gil to buy Dandy Sunglasses from the auction house, and I spent some time in prison for having a slightly inappropriate username. My current PSN username is the edited version of my FFXI name to earn back my freedom. Being laughed at by my friends for doing time in Mordion Gaol is a precious memory. This is my experience with your wonderful game.
Yoji Fujito: It seems you had a priceless experience (laughs). I’m glad it has stuck with you as a strong memory.
Akihiko Matsui: In FFXI, it seems the more the players face challenges and ultimately overcome them, the more likely they are to talk about the game with a smile on their face, even today.
I can’t believe FFXI has been running for so long! I’m 30 now, and still remember how scary it was to set up the PS2 HDD! What does such a long life mean for a game like FFXI?
Fujito: I can’t quite believe it, either. Today, these types of games have systems designed in a way to endure long-term operations, and adjustments are made along the way to meet any given situation that might come up. Truth be told, we didn’t initially plan on operating FFXI for such a long period, and as a result we find ourselves walking the tightrope when it comes to a number of different aspects of development.
Matsui: When FFXI initially launched, I honestly felt there were many things that I had left unfinished from a development standpoint, and while I was trying to get those things done, I missed the opportune timing to hand over the torch to someone else. As long as the developers keep up with maintenance and development with the same passion we have always held, and as long as the game keeps receiving the company’s support, I believe that MMORPGs can continue their operations.
What are some of the most notable ways work on FFXI has changed over the years?
Fujito: We tried to streamline many areas throughout the years, such as the implementation of new graphics and programming elements to assist in the team’s work. We made this decision so that our engineers and designers could utilize the latest technology to challenge newer titles.
On the other hand, for the operations side, we transitioned to put more emphasis on the community and created more opportunities for outward exposure with the help of our community planners, utilizing such platforms as our official forums and FFXI Digest videos. We reshuffled our staff allocation to put more focus on the operations side.
Matsui: There were two major changes. The first was when the FFXIV team was set up and many of the initial FFXI members left the team. In their stead, new employees started to join our team. Although I say new employees, many of them were hardcore FFXI players, so they grew to be core members that supported the team.
The second was when FFXI‘s service ended on the PS2 and Xbox. When thinking about cutting down the number of staff on the team, we decided to ask members who could handle work in multiple areas, such as planning and implementation, to remain. We weren’t sure what the operations would be like at that point, but they were all happy to stay on the team for FFXI.
And what were some of the most important lessons learned over FFXI‘s lifetime?
- It may be common nowadays, but it’s important to have a “customer service” mindset, even on the development side—this is integral if you are to continue operating a live service title such as an MMO.
- Player satisfaction isn’t usually expressed with words. It’s usually in the complaints that the players’ true feelings are hidden.
- Doing a sloppy job at creating the premise will lead to headaches for the scenario writers.
- There are no projects that are delayed because of people who are lazy; but there are many projects that are delayed because of people who are too hardworking.
- If you yourself aren’t satisfied with the game, the customers won’t be either.
- No charm outweighs honesty.
- Your mind is always working—even during your commute or when you’re at a get together.
- Not many people know the right answer, but most do know if there is an issue present.
What’s the state of the game in 2020, from your personal perspectives?
Fujito: I personally feel we are in a very difficult state. First and foremost, making updates to the UI is very challenging, and we aren’t able to change our rendering engine. In addition to this situation where we can’t alleviate these frustrations related to fundamental development, the COVID-19 situation has made it difficult for us to make progress in development. These have all contributed to a very big setback.
However, even in this kind of situation, the number of people playing FFXI is increasing. The least we can do as developers is to deliver the best gaming experience to our players who are enjoying FFXI as adventurers, so we plan to do as much as possible within these limitations.
Matsui: Just as we started our progression towards the 20th anniversary, a grave situation that poses a threat to the entire world arose, which has left me rattled. At the moment, all members of the staff have come together to form a new working structure in this situation so that we can continue to operate FFXI. It will most likely will be a tough year, but I’m certain that we can overcome it.
What does the FFXI audience/playerbase look like right now? Can you share any interesting trends, or surprising statistics?
Fujito: With the core audience largely comprised of people in their 30s and 40s, FFXI tends to be enjoyed by people in older age groups. In a show called “FINAL FANTASY Grand Poll” that NHK (Japan’s national broadcasting network) aired recently, a poll was conducted to see which titles are the most popular within the series. In that poll, FFXI ranked 9th amongst all the titles, and when you look at the demographics of the people who voted, FFXI was the only title whose majority of the voters were males in their 30s and over.
I was expecting the results to be lopsided to a certain extent, but I didn’t expect it to be so extreme (laughs).
Matsui: I don’t have the relevant data of other titles to make comparisons, but these are some of my personal impressions.
In terms of the age group, it seems we’ve just gone up 18 years, aging along with the game since its launch. In a TV show about the FF series that was broadcast in Japan, the results showed that the large majority of FFXI fans are male, but when you look at real-life events or community livestreams, I get the sense that the ratio of women that participate in those events is high.
Another distinct point about the game is that some people play with their real-life partners. And even though FFXI was a PlayStation 2 game, I have the impression that many of our players’ favorite FF titles were from the NES or SNES era. During one of the FFXI community livestreams, one of our guest hosts that came to promote another Square Enix title mentioned that they were moved by the fact that FFXI players are very gentle. This is something I’m very proud of as well.
Eighteen is an intriguing anniversary milestone to pair with an interview; we usually see this for multiples of five! Is there anything particular that led to this current opportunity? Perhaps some fun anniversary plans?
Fujito: This time around, in order to strongly recognize the 20th anniversary as just another stepping stone and not an end goal, I consulted Mr. Matsui and created a mid-term plan outlining what to accomplish in the next few years. As such, it’s not that the 18th anniversary by itself has a great significance, but it’s part of our mindset to consciously celebrate and hype up the anniversary as they come along each year!
Matsui: We originally started with a mindset of wanting to create hype for the 20th anniversary, but since the FFXI anniversary is on May 16, we won’t have enough time to plan out the anniversary if we start making arrangements at the beginning of the fiscal year in April. This time around, we were given special approval for a three-year plan, which allowed us to feature the 18th anniversary as a way of starting our countdown (count-up?) to the 20th anniversary.
Is there a relationship between FFXI and FFXIV from a work perspective, or would you say the two projects are very separated? Any friendly competition, shared ideas, or anything else fun to share?
Fujito: Generally speaking, FFXI and FFXIV are two completely separate projects, so we both have our own unique policies and direction. That said, there are former FFXI developers—who showed off their prowess on the FFXI development frontline—that are now on the FFXIV team. Also, though it was temporary, Producer Matsui was part of the FFXIV team for some time, managing a group of developers. It’s safe to say that we do have a kind of working relationship with FFXIV in some way.
Matsui: It’s not as if we were put in a corner and isolated (laughs). I was part of the FFXIV team at one point, so I do talk a lot with the FFXIV members over drinks when we go out together. We talk about games in general, with no limitations at all. I do get consulted about collaborations but never about work on a personal level. Since FFXIV is already in operation, I believe the feedback from the players has the most to offer.
Sometimes, FFXIV developers who were former FFXI players would ask me about the intent behind the implementation of a certain element and whether we were able to achieve the results as intended. Of course, they are my comrades, so I’ll tell them the honest truth.
As for fun anecdotes—I’m not really sure if this qualifies as fun, but when I speak with developers who were former FFXI players, we end up talking about who had the most difficult time in FFXI, or who had the worst luck when it came to their in-game job, and the only thing I can do is give a wry smile since I was in charge of battle design.
What are some changes to FFXI in just the past couple years that you and your team feel the best about? Conversely, what have been some recent challenges to overcome?
Fujito: I feel like we’re just barely getting over these high hurdles for each update. One of them was the revamping of the installer and the configuration menu. Being able to update just these elements made it much easier for players to be introduced to FFXI. I feel like we’ve finally been able to “clean up” the beginning portion of the game to about the same level as other titles. Another point that we get a lot of feedback on is the storage system. This is another high hurdle, but we are starting considerations so that we can somehow get this resolved.
Matsui: This is more than a couple of years ago, but I’m glad that we implemented the Trust system. The reason being, the debug process became much easier with the Trust system for battle content that followed, such as Ambuscade. It was a system that helped out the development as well.
Ambuscade was a system that we pursued in order to alleviate the issue of exhausting the number of IDs for monsters, their special attacks and special effects. Having monthly updates for this content wasn’t the main objective, but it did allow us to implement new content in the system to our heart’s content without worrying about the IDs running out.
What can you tell us about the future of FFXI? 20 years is coming soon; does the team have any goals or plans driving the potential next few years of work?
Fujito: Slowly but surely, we plan to tell a small-scale narrative in the game. It may be one step at a time, but we plan to ask the players to help us again in saving Vana’diel in different ways. Also, we are making plans surrounding Reforged Empyrean Armors as well, so I hope you keep an eye out!
Matsui: As Director Fujito mentioned, moving forward, we are hoping to implement in-game events in which players can enjoy a more narrative angle, so I hope you stay tuned.
As always, I’d like to thank Yoji Fujito and Akihiko Matsui for their time, and the opportunity to pick their brains on such a fascinating point on the Final Fantasy timeline.
Final Fantasy XI remains available on the PC, despite the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2 versions no longer running.