In just a few years, Naoki Yoshida did the impossible. The Square-Enix director transformed Final Fantasy XIV—a trainwreck of epic proportions—into a thoroughly fresh and playable experience, and one that feels right at home on consoles (where most MMORPGs fear to tread). In fact, the kindest thing I can say about FFXIV is that it eased me into a genre that I never thought I'd enjoy, let alone pay for monthly. At this year's E3, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Yoshida, who wasn't shy about sharing the reasons Final Fantasy XIV is finding so many fans who typically never dabble in MMOs.
USg: I never played an MMO in my life -- but I recently started playing FFXIV and was hooked immediately. How do you grab people that aren't necessarily interested in MMORPGs?
NY: When you look at MMORPGs in the market today, one of the biggest problems for a new MMORPG is trying to get new users to come to your game. So [developers] create their games geared to players that are currently playing on a different MMORPG—trying to get those [players] to come over to their MMORPG. Because, again, the way games are designed, a lot of MMORPG players will play for long spans of time—they'll play one game for two or three years, or even more. What we decided to do was instead try to tap into a new type of audience, an audience that had never played MMOs before, and try to get those people to come over to our game. And knowing that the Final Fantasy series has always been, for the most part, console-based, and a lot of the Final Fantasy series' fans have only played games on consoles, and haven't been MMORPG players.
And so to bring those fans who have never played an MMORPG into our game, we had to make a game that was easy enough for those players to get into. So we introduce complex MMORPG mechanics in a way that inexperienced players can easily get into the game. But we also mix that with the type of story that Final Fantasy fans expect from a Final Fantasy game on a console. At the beginning of the release we got a lot of feedback—especially in beta—from veteran MMO players that played the game, and at the beginning said, "Wait, this is way too easy. This is way easier than what we expect." But the thing is, we had done that on purpose. Because we wanted to make the game easy to get into for those new players.
What we decided to do was instead try to tap into a new type of audience, an audience that had never played MMOs before, and try to get those people to come over to our game. - Naoki Yoshida
USg: This may seem strange to a lot of people, but I play FFXIV on the PC, and I use a controller. And I never expected it to work, but it does. Was that your goal from the beginning—to make FFXIV completely playable with a controller? How much work did that take to get right?
NY: So when you think of how MMORPGs are played with a mouse and a keyboard, you target with the mouse, and then on the keyboard you have something mapped to each key—so [everything is] usually done with one click and one press. But when you think about games controlled with a controller, up until now, it's all been about pressing a button to open a menu, then toggling through the menu, and pressing a button again to select something. This was a lot of work—it [involved] a lot of steps—and we realized that all of these steps would put controller users at a disadvantage. So we needed to come up with a way you could do targeting with one press and also do an action with one press of a button. So when thinking of how to do that, we came up with the cross-hotbar method. And this actually came to us very quickly. It was one of those things, like, "Okay, this is it!" And from there, we pretty much had it implemented in about a month.
Then, after we came up with the idea, from there it was polishing and trying to get into something perfect. And that took about a year and nine months to actually perfect. And we had our user interface team working on not only the interface for mouse and keyboard, but at the same time, working on this separate interface independently—this controller interface. They were working on both at the same time. So, in the world, we think there's no other game that spent this much time just working on the UI.
USg: The dungeons are my favorite part of FFXIV so far -- they really remind me of console games like Monster Hunter and Borderlands. Were you trying to create a console-friendly experience with this element of the game?
NY: You have an online game, and again, you're going to have thousands of players online at the same time, and maybe more than 10,000 on that same world. But when you look at the play styles of a lot of people, a lot of people are really busy and don't have time to spend a lot of time looking for party members. So they need something they can get into easily and get out of easily and have fun in the short period of time they have. And we decided to design these dungeons to be that way—you can get four people together really quickly using the Duty Finder, get in there, do your leveling in a short amount of time, and get back to what you need to get back to.
USg: I really appreciate all of the references to past Final Fantasies in FFXIV. I'm just curious, though—is there a balance you try to draw just so people don't think you're trading in nostalgia and pandering to fans?
NY: It comes down to "Is Final Fantasy Final Fantasy without moogles and chocobos?" No, it's not. Some things players expect to see in the series. It's like, "Is Disneyland Disneyland without Mickey Mouse?" Of course Mickey Mouse is going to be there, because it's Disneyland. As for a balance, it's not like we say, "Okay, we're going to put in 50% past Final Fantasies and 50% original content." It's not as clear-cut as that. As a player, myself, I want to go in and say, "Okay, I had this experience when I was younger—I wonder what it would look like in crystal-clear HD?" Or, "I remember when I was playing the Crystal Tower back on the Famicom... How would it be if I could do that with 24 of my friends?" Things that I want to experience, I want to put in the game as a Final Fantasy fan myself. However, that's not to say that the FFXIV main story shouldn't be original. It should be original, it should be something you can only experience in FFXIV.
I've also read those comments that say, "Oh you're just throwing in random Final Fantasy stuff to get players to come into your game." But we think that a lot of the people saying that haven't actually gotten into FFXIV and seen how much original content we have. It would be a lie to say we haven't put some Final Fantasy things in to get new players to come and take a look at our game. We think of it as a way to get new players to say, "Oh, wow! I'm a Final Fantasy fan—this has some Final Fantasy stuff in it." And [they] use [those familiar elements] as a way to get into the game. But then once they get into the game, they say, "Oh, it's not just a copy of old games, there's all this new content in there." And that's why the game is interesting [to them].