Final Fantasy XIV’s director justifies subscriptions, and explains why he couldn’t fix a broken game
Naoki Yoshida wasn't part of the original team that developed Final Fantasy XIV. He's taking over where former producer, Hiromichi Tanaka, and director, Nobuaki Komoto, left off. Yoshida, now in the director's seat, had no hesitation in criticizing what he found when he first came to work on the game. “What I found were two things,” he told me through an assigned translator. “The first one was us as a company being too comfortable in the Final Fantasy franchise. We took it for granted. We thought, 'Whatever game we make, players will play it.' I think that was a very big mistake we made.” “The second was lack of knowledge of the current MMO. We really should have studied more about the competitors in order to make a game that could win the competition in the MMO market.” Yoshida is an MMO veteran. He frequently cited EverQuest and Ultima Online as major inspirations in his early days in the genre, and in more recent times he's played games like Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft, TERA, and The Old Republic.I criticized FFXIV for feeling too par-for-the-course, too standard with its user interface and quest system. Yoshida's background helps explain why. When he moves from one MMO to the next, he wants to feel comfortable. Scratch that: Yoshida told me he needs to feel comfortable. Hence, it makes sense that FFXIV would feel so familiar. “The user interface is something we really focused on. When someone plays another MMO, the user interface must be really, really comfortable to use. Same as in an FPS; any FPS game, even in a slightly different FPS, the user interface is the same, so you have less stress trying to move to a new game. So I thought it was very important to have a global, standard interface.”
A PlayStation 3 version of the game has been long in the making, but the numerous problems present in the 1.0 version of Final Fantasy XIV on PC held it back. Yoshida revealed the PS3 control scheme for the first time last week, and the results were intriguing. FFXIV's control scheme on PS3 has four “cross bars” laid out at the bottom of the screen, as opposed to the standard, single hotbar design of many MMOs – including FFXIV on PC. The individual buttons can be assigned to just about whatever you like, from combat skills to social actions to custom macros. You activate these buttons by shifting the control scheme to one half of the cross bars or the other via the shoulder triggers. So let's say you have all of your social interactions assigned to the left-most cross bar, and your buffs on the cross bar to its right, while all of your combat skills are assigned to the two cross bars on the right.Hold down the left shoulder trigger and press a button on the d-pad to perform a social action, or any of the PlayStation's face buttons to activate a buff. Hold down the right trigger and press any button on the d-pad or face buttons to activate a combat skill. The layout, in other words, is as though you have two controllers side-by-side, and holding the trigger dictates which controller you're using; no triggers, no special changes. Yoshida was clearly excited about the prospect, and it definitely seems original and intuitive. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test it out for myself, but the closed beta starts on February 25, and PS3 users will be able to join come the third phase of testing.
Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 had such a strong outcry from fans that Square Enix extended the 30-day trial indefinitely, and players weren't charged the planned subscription fees until January 2012. A lot has changed since then; we've seen the implementation of microtransactions into games we'd have never imagined them in before, and free-to-play seems to dominate the market. So, I asked Yoshida: would Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn ditch the subscription model? No. When Final Fantasy XIV returns to the market, so too will its monthly subscriptions. Yoshida argued that FFXIV needs stability. “With the free-to-play model, you'll get huge income one month, but the next month it depletes,” he told me. The more predictable nature of subscriptions makes it easier to keep the game updated, the team paid, and Square Enix's lights on.“Most MMOs have investors in the background, and the company uses the profit and splits the profit with the investors. But, if the game's not successful, and it doesn't reach the target, then they have to switch to free-to-play to try and get just a little profit from it,” Yoshida said. “Among the MMOs in the market, only Blizzard and Square Enix are making money without investors in the background.” I asked Yoshida about the public perception of such a model. Square Enix has tried hard to win over players and overcome negative attitudes; wouldn't reintroducing a subscription model just further that negativity? “I don't think there's a right or wrong for having a monthly subscription model or free-to-play model. Games like The Old Republic and The Secret World, I don't say those games would've been more successful if they had been free-to-play, for example,” Yoshida said. “The subscription model was unrelated to the success of the game.” Yoshida seemed confident people will see value in A Realm Reborn.
Built from scratch
I told Yoshida that my father, who was a teacher, had a metaphor he kept handy for situations like this, where you're asked to complete or revise someone else's work. He looked at it as a house, I told Yoshida. Either your house had a good foundation that could be added on to, or it was broken from the beginning, and the best you could do is put up some nice curtains to cover broken windows. I asked Yoshida which description fit Final Fantasy XIV the first time he saw it. Yoshida laughed. “I was amazed at how it could sustain itself without any columns,” he told me. “The previous version, the maximum number of players displayed was 40, and even to do so, you had to have a really high-spec PC, so it wasn't something that anybody could enjoy.” “Over these two years, I have been updating this house. What I did was like adding pillars, to start with. There were some trees in the house that I had to remove and replace to make it a proper structure.” Yoshida explained that, as he worked on the game, it became clear a simple overhaul wasn't going to cut it. The game had to be reworked from the ground up. “I was starting to build a new house from scratch,” he said.Although Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn shares an identity with the 1.0 version of the game that shipped in September 2010, it's almost entirely new – a new UI, new combat animations and effects, new areas to explore, new engine optimization to make the game run on lower-end PCs and support more players per area. A Realm Reborn looks like the Final Fantasy XIV that bombed hard three years ago, but Yoshida's work has resulted in something that can stand apart as its own creation. He's worked hard to escape the tainted history. “I don't want to do it again, but it was interesting in its own way,” Yoshida told me. I complimented him; it sounded like he was confident he'd built a good house. “Otherwise I wouldn't have made it!”