Final Fantasy XIV's Neverending Story: Three years on from A Realm Reborn's release

Final Fantasy XIV's Neverending Story: Three years on from A Realm Reborn's release
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

August 30th 2016 at 11:55AM

Three years ago, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn achieved two impossible feats: it reversed the critical failings of its 2010 predecessor and proved that the MMO genre is alive and kicking. Producer and director Naoki Yoshida retraces the title’s evolution to discover how the studio perfected things second time around

Very rarely in the world of games is the subtitle ‘Reborn’ anything other than empty hyperbole. In the case of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, however, it’s almost an understatement.

The original FFXIV – the second MMO in the storied RPG series after 2002’s FFXI – was launched in late 2010 after five years in development. Despite climbing the charts, critics and players slammed the game for its technical issues, clunky design and poor story, resulting in subscription fees being dropped and its PS3 port being delayed indefinitely mere months after release.

Producer and director Naoki Yoshida was called in to overhaul the title, and cut no corners in his efforts to restore the legacy of its namesake.

“With the release of A Realm Reborn, we changed literally everything about FFXIV,” he recalls. “The game itself changed but other elements, such as server stability, convenience in forming a party and storyline, were altered the most. With all the alterations, FFXIV became the title that can meet the expectations of being the latest title in the Final Fantasy series.”

The work paid off; when it hit shelves in August 2013, A Realm Reborn gathered praise for the very aspects for which its predecessor was lambasted and by 2015 had propelled the title’s audience to beyond five million paid subscribers. Regular patches and last year’s major expansion, Heavensward, reinforced that FFXIV was here to stay.

“If we just wanted to change partially, we wouldn’t have chosen the option to recreate the game from scratch,” explains Yoshida. “Our intention was to change the game completely. We put a lot of focus on making it a story-driven MMORPG, so receiving huge amounts of positive feedback on the Heavensward storyline as well, was one of the happiest things we experienced. Therefore, the storyline will continue to be our key focus.”

"With the release of A Realm Reborn, we changed literally everything about Final Fantasy XIV."

Naoki Yoshida, Square Enix

The first FFXIV was developed using Square Enix’s in-house Crystal Tools engine, which also powered the FFXIII trilogy and Dragon Quest X. While it was lauded for its visual fidelity, it proved to be overly resource-hungry for many FFXIV players. It was this balance that Yoshida and his team strived to equal.

“A Realm Reborn and Heavensward are operating on the game engine which was specially built for FFXIV,” he observes. “For an MMORPG, it’s necessary to render as many characters as possible simultaneously. Also, being a title from the Final Fantasy series, FFXIV is expected to meet the quality of the franchise. In order to materialise these two goals, the exclusive game engine was built.”

During the three years it took FFXIV to be rebuilt, the latest generation of consoles were quietly gearing up to launch; A Realm Reborn would not only need to leapfrog its forerunner’s achievements on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, but also make the technical leap to PS4 and Xbox One.

“To ensure smooth gameplay on PS3 and lower-spec PCs, we made the rendering options highly customisable so players can adjust the settings to their likings,” says Yoshida. “These elements are something unique to FFXIV. The team also kept updating it to make the game compatible with DirectX11, which was released at the same time as the new hardware. The same DirectX11 coding was recently applied to the PS4 version of the game.

“One of our goals is to minimize the gap in players’ experience between different hardware. Being able to enjoy a full-scale MMORPG smoothly with a gamepad is also a feature unique to FFXIV. The freedom of the user interface customisation is one of the largest among the games in the current market.”

MMO is in many regards the ideal genre for Final Fantasy to explore, as a franchise beloved for its sprawling worlds, in-depth levelling systems and iconic cast of characters and creatures. Equally important to so many fans are the games’ stories, from FFVII’s environmental message to the father-son relationship at the core of FFX. Yet MMOs are rarely renowned for their narratives, as repetitive tasks and a sheer quantity of objectives often usurp characterisation and dramatic impact. 

“The dev team is putting a lot of effort in creating the main storyline,” Yoshida insists. “This is because FFXIV is the latest game from the Final Fantasy franchise and we wanted to show that an MMORPG can deliver a rich story. That being said, it’s not possible for players to complete levelling by simply following through the storyline, so it’s true that there are repetitive quests. I guess that ends up balancing the content after all.”

Yoshida reveals that key to A Realm Reborn’s interwoven quest and narrative design was his team’s decision to approach the title as if it were a core instalment in the series.

“I personally like games like Ultima Online and Eve Online where players are the ones to run the worlds,” he explains. “On the other hand, there’s a risk that new players may get lost not knowing what to do.

“FFXIV is developed with the concept in mind that as long as players follow the storyline, they naturally get to grow up and learn the system almost as if they are playing an offline RPG. There is battle content while following the storyline. Housing, the Gold Saucer, crafting and gathering are laid out outside the storyline. There are some restrictions until the main scenario is completed for players to get used to the game but, after that, they can enjoy freedom and do what they want to do.”

He laughs: “Of course, you can put the story aside and spend time fishing if you wish.

“The difference between standalone Final Fantasy games and FFXIV is whether or not you have your internet cable plugged in. What we aimed for with FFXIV was to make you feel like as if you are just playing a traditional Final Fantasy game – we think we accomplished this.”

"The difference between standalone Final Fantasy games and FFXIV is whether or not your internet cable is plugged in."

Naoki Yoshida, Square Enix

In recent years, it’s become a common story to see a high-profile MMO launch with a subscription model, only to struggle to maintain a player base and turn free-to-play sometimes mere months later – if not going offline altogether.

It was a fate suffered by the original incarnation of FFXIV, so when A Realm Reborn launched with a similar setup, you’d have been forgiven for expecting the worst. Three years on and the game hasn’t just survived, it’s thrived, avoiding the free-to-play fate of titles such as WildStar and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

“It’s not that we are obsessed with the subscription model,” states Yoshida. “The reason why we have been applying this model is because FFXIV is a game from the Final Fantasy series and an MMORPG with many console players, we decided that subscription model has been suitable for players as well as dev and operation teams.

“An MMORPG needs an enormous amount of development cost, staff and stable, regular updates. In order to make sure the development teams are paid and we can secure the development cost for regular updates as planned in a long term, the subscription model can bring stable revenue which is more suitable than a microtransaction model for a large-scale MMORPG.”

Yoshida is clearly a staunch believer in the traditional model of the genre, but does that mean he wouldn’t embrace free-to-play in the future?

“If the vast majority of players wished the game to be a microtransaction-based free-to-play game, we’d need to shift to this option,” he accepts. “I personally think, though, rather than making a lot of vanity items just for the sake of increasing sales or needing to make players to pay per content, I’d prefer to stay with the subscription model for a while and spend money on developing content which offers more fun features to players. I think this is a common wish for all other MMORPGs – that’s why they are trying to succeed with the subscription model.”

In fact, much of FFXIV’s ethos harkens back to the game that made the MMO mainstream. But unlike so many of the titles that have attempted to mimic World of Warcraft’s winning formula over the past decade, A Realm Reborn has carved out its own sizeable portion of the market.

“The MMORPG genre has had a huge change in the last ten years before and after the World of Warcraft era,” recounts Yoshida. “Our approach is to regard FFXIV as the last MMORPG from the WoW era.

“The first generation of MMORPGs were heavily based on battles with other players so once you were away from the game, it was hard to come back. Because it was difficult to return, people from around the globe immersed themselves really deeply by spending their time playing in the game world. But there was one title that came into the market to break this trend and change the trend from ‘too much enforcement and dedication’ to more casual, optional solo play with a smooth matching system and a theme park-like environment. That was WoW. In order for MMORPGs to grow further, I believe we need more radical changes in game design. But I also think this will take another ten years.”

As the MMORPG has largely faded in prominence, its legacy has lived on in the massive success of multiplayer-centric sub-genres from collaborative creation games such as Minecraft to human-populated survival titles including DayZ, Ark: Survival Evolved and The Division. Meanwhile, single-player open worlds are flourishing in success stories like The Witcher III, Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid V. Could the MMO reclaim its position as the best of both realms? Yoshida is doubtful.

“As we know from the cancellation of EverQuest: Next, which aimed to be a sandbox game while providing freedom in user-created content, it’s impossible for an MMORPG to bring creativity and freedom like Minecraft offers or to make a story-driven open-world game like
The Witcher III,” he retorts. “Rather than saying it’s impossible, it’s more to do with no-one willing to take a chance as it requires a huge amount of development resource. It’s sad to say, but as gaming is also a business, this is not something we can get away from.

“Looking at FFXIV, the level of graphics quality is one of the best among the MMORPG genre, but this is because we put a tremendous amount of resource into creating graphics assets. If we wanted to bring the quality up to the level of The Witcher III and keep our three-and-a-half-month regular patch update cycle, we’d need a huge amount of revenue to support the development.

“Considering this balance, you will probably decide to make an open-world standalone RPG first. Then, if you can generate massive revenue with it, you might think about making it into an MMORPG. However, it’s more likely that you’d create an offline sequel. I personally like this genre, so if possible I’d like to work on another MMORPG next, but I’d need to be fully prepared and ready for that.”

"In order for MMORPGs to grow further, we need radical changes in game design."

Naoki Yoshida, Square Enix

In a culture increasingly focused on shorter playing sessions on smaller screens, FFXIV’s epic universe asks players to invest tens – to hundreds – of hours. It’s a challenge that Yoshida admits is more and more at odds with modern trends.

“An MMORPG requires players to spend a lot of time,” he says. “They’re not like MOBAs or first-person shooters, which can get players really excited within a couple of minutes.

“MMORPGs can offer deeper game experiences compared to other genres – though it takes a tremendous amount of time to get to the point where players can actually experience unique factors, and that doesn’t match current demand.”

Yoshida outlines the tug of war to attract players to invest more time in MMOs, without diminishing the very factors that established the genre as a powerhouse in the first place.

“We’ll need an instant matching system and fast-paced content, but if we put too much focus on these areas, we’ll need to be making more solo content than World of Warcraft or FFXIV already have,” he continues. “This would lead to the loss of MMO elements, such as playing with thousands of other users. I’m still torn about whether or not this is the future of MMORPGs.

“MMOs will face a tough time in the next decade but, after that, there’ll be a time when new types of MMOs will be wanted by players. We are developing FFXIV as if it’s the last title in the current MMORPG generation. The next generation will bring a completely new type of MMORPG.”