the triumph of Yoshida Naoki's Final Fantasy XIV

by Josie Sone

Most people think video and online games are not only a waste time, but are also a fine way to waste your life. Yet, there are video games and then there are video games, and I want to talk about the latter and Final Fantasy XIV is an excellent example of it. It might not change your thoughts about gaming, but you’ll have to admit that it is far from a waste. One of the hallmarks of great art is that it actually anticipates its audience. In other words, it thinks about the needs of the people who use it and then shapes those needs. FF14 is especially sensitive to its audience and goes much further than other video game in establishing a compact between user and game.    

The reasons for this are interesting and have everything to do with the way the game was initially conceived. The first iteration was a disaster. The development of the Final Fantasy series began in 2005. It was developed and published by Square Enix in Japan in 2010. It is a role-playing game, which means you can invite players in to perform various actions with you. Almost as soon as it came, it was clear that this was a highly flawed and expensive game. If the producers were going to save their huge investment, they were going to have to make major changes. And that’s when they called in Yoshida Naoki, our hero.

Yoshida Naoki, our hero!
Naoki was born in May 1st, 1973, grew up in Japan and became a Japanese video game producer, director, and designer working for Square Enix. Naoki joined the video game industry in 1993 and started his career at Hudson Soft, where he was assigned to the creation of PC Engine games but later participated as scenario writer in the Far East of Eden. He was a chief planner on Dragon Quest X, and he is now a new director and producer of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

Yoshida joined Square Enix in 2004 and became the head of the Dragon Quest: Monster Battle Road series as well as a game designer of Dragon Quest X. In December 2010, he was taken off the Dragon Quest team and placed in charge of the Final Fantasy XIV. The company president Yoichi Wada attributed this decision to Yoshida's experience, charismatic leadership skills (of course, he’s our hero), and passionate will to satisfy customers.

If you satisfy them, they will run to you -- Plato

Yoshida was an outsider and had to gain the trust of a beleaguered team who had grown cynical to what was becoming a high profile failure. One of his strengths was listening and he paid attention to the ideas and concerns of individual developers. Yoshida’s long-lasting enthusiasm for MMORPGs—Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, gave him the insight necessary — now recognized by reviewers and commentators — to save FF14.

As a result of the poor reception of FF14, when the new version came out—Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn—, the public was nervous and excited. The game garnered largely positive reviews and was praised for its solid mechanics and progression, commending Yoshida for turning the project around. Square Enix executives attributed the company's return to profitability in part to the game's strong sales and subscriber base, reaching a total of 6 million players as of July 2016.

FF 14 takes place in a high fantasy setting. The main location is Eorzea, a continent on the larger planet Hydaelyn. Eorzea is broken up between three main countries: the forest nation of Gridania; the desert-based Ul'dah sultanate, and the sea-born empire of Limsa Lominsa. The players can choose which city they are going to start from. There are two different types of quests: story quests—the main storyline of the game—and side quests. This was Yoshidas most basic and important change. By simplifying the story into two quests, he was able to end the original story and expand the new one.

Another important improvement is “Letter from the Producer Live” a show that allowed the producers to communicate with the players and announce to them upcoming events and updates. In attempting to improve FF14, Yoshida quickly discovered a number of key tasks. First and foremost, he had to restore trust in the player base while bringing the original release up to a playable quality. Again, this is a Yoshida triumph. He is acutely aware of the need of gamers to feel part of the world, almost as if it is real. The live producers communication allows this and makes it easier for a game as complex as FF14 to navigate all the twists and turns that were sure to happen. Again, Yoshinda is making complexity simpler and more direct.

A prevailing design philosophy for FF14 was to simultaneously appeal to hardcore MMORPG players while reaching out to new players and FF14 fans who had never experienced the genre before. As a consequence, Yoshida held optimizing gameplay for controllers as a top priority. Yoshida made about 400 fundamental design decisions that eliminated time lost to getting approvals, with a focus on implementing standard features of the genre first. Throughout this process, Yoshida emphasized that communication with players and restoring their trust was key, even admitting that sales were secondary compared to redeeming the reputation of the series. Therefore, “Letter from the Producer Live” became a major element of Yoshida's player outreach strategy.

Yoshida, our hero, getting close to the fans
The music in FF14 is incredibly important to the game’s success. Yoshida directed Masayoshi Soken, the music director, to “give us something straightforward that anyone could identify as Final Fantasy, with an easy-to-understand, expressive orchestral sound.” Masayoshi was allowed to do what he liked for the boss's battle theme and he sang the vocal work for some tracks in many of them. A good deal of the reviewers and the players praised the soundtrack in FF14, saying it was wonderful, complex, and satisfying. The album of FF14 soundtrack appeared at position #10 on the Japanese Oricon album charts for its release week, and remained in the charts for eight weeks.

Overall, critics were satisfied with the new FF 14's incremental improvements and saw them as a solid foundation for future content to be added. It was a return to form, and the players were glad. Yoshida commented that “The most important attribute is not giving up; never give up.” But it is more than just persistence. Yoshida points out that people who get into MMOs expecting to make a fast buck, who rely more on marketing than on game design, rarely stick around to fix their game's problems. That is not Square Enix's way.

FF14 stands as a defiant subscription holdout in an MMO market quickly adopting the free-to-play model as the new standard. Yoshida is a different man now too—while his enthusiasm for the game has not diminished, he is much more calm and confident. Then again, with what he has accomplished, that confidence is well earned.

©Josie Sone and the CCA Arts Review

No comments:

Post a Comment