FF14 is about to expand again - we play, and catch up with its director.
Back in February I spent a weekend at Final Fantasy 14 Fan Fest. While the modest event was hardly the spectacle of Blizzcon or the insanity of EVE Fan Fest, for FF14 director and producer Naoki Yoshida it must be something else.
He arrived at the event as a silhouette against a red, pulsing light. Fans were screaming having just witnessed the newest trailer for Stormblood, the new FF14's expansion which is out this month. When the lights came up he was dressed as a Samurai, one of Stormblood's new character classes. The crowd ignited like he was a pop star.
By rescuing Final Fantasy 14 from complete disaster, Naoki Yoshida has made it. He's one of video gaming's superstar directors.
By rescuing Final Fantasy 14 from complete disaster, he's made it. He's one of video gaming's superstar directors. It's no surprise that many fans are wildly theorizing and hoping that he'll one day take on a non-MMO FF title.
I first met Yoshida in 2011. At that point he hadn't long taken over the train wreck that was FF14's original release, and Square Enix basically deployed him on an apology tour. He spent it explaining his plan, since work hadn't really begun. I was skeptical, but even back then his passion impressed.
"I can't believe it's six years since that first interview," Yoshida laughs when I bring it up. I joke (truthfully) that I didn't have any grey hairs back then and do now.
A lot has changed, but Yoshida still gives detailed, multi-part answers to every question, even the dumb ones he has to answer repeatedly, such as "why did you decide to avoid free to play?" I get the impression he likes the media tour gauntlet even less than most, but he works bloody hard to answer well all the same, even in the often difficult group interview scenario.
"I do remember that first time we met and did that interview," Yoshida muses, "and I mainly remember that I mentioned that I wanted to make something good so that we can regain the trust of the fans.
"I wouldn't go as far as saying that was my mission, but that's something that I strongly believed in; I thought that if I worked hard, I would be able to regain that sort of trust from our players. I just believed in that, because of course there were no results to show for it yet."
What followed that mission statement was a complete game overhaul that was practically unheard of. FF14 was rebuilt and relaunched from the ground up - and that relaunch was so successful that the game has now seen over 6 million players. Where most MMOs would've lurched towards free-to-play to keep players engaged, FF14 stuck to its original subscription plan. It's hard to believe it worked.
The fame this achievement rewarded is clearly trying as well as gratifying for Yoshida, but he sees accepting it as an absolute necessity.
"When we did the transition from 1.0 to 2.0 there was a lot of criticism," he recalls. "I did feel that I needed to stand in front of the development team so I could take the damage, so I could be their shield so that they could be relaxed while developing the game."
He and his team are now slowly working to change that, he says. Fan fest was one example where eccentric and hilarious characters like musician Masayoshi Soken were as much a part of the festitivites as Yoshida. Now that the game is good and going from strength to strength, Yoshida doesn't have to worry about protecting his team so much.
"I want to show that there are just so many developers behind me that pour in their heart and soul, their effort into building this game. By recieving the reaction from our fans it will motivate them as well, and encourage them," he explains.
"The changes that we're making with Stormblood are actually looking at the big picture, our future. This is so that we can expand FF14 even further." - Naoki Yoshida
"We're happy that the fans are so welcoming of the developers too. But that actually leads to one problem," Yoshida laughs. "Japanese developers are very shy people!
"We don't want to make it stressful for our developers, so unless the developer him or herself speaks up and says I want to be in front of people, we don't demand them to stand in front of people. We're really thankful for the positive reaction we recieve from fans."
FF14's latest expansion Stormblood introduces the Samurai and Red Mage character jobs, boosts the level cap, adds swimming both above and below the water surface (with hints that FF10's Blitzball may appear later as a minigame), plus a bunch of new story content and the new world locations to go with it. It feels like an amibitious expansion of the FF14 universe.
I haven't had time to really throw myself into FF14 proper since the original release of A Realm Reborn, the rebooted version of the game. I did get several hours to try out Stormblood, however, and walked away impressed. The Red Mage is my sort of class, a dynamic-feeling DPS beast that is primarily based around combo magic attacks but that can also rush in close with a rapier to deal close-quarters damage before using a move to jump back to a safe magic-casting distance.
"After doing a bunch of typical Western fantasy castles and cities, the FF14 creative team has been unleashed on creating the FF14 version of the far East.
My favourite of the Stormblood additions is the new nation of Doma and the surrounding regions. After doing a bunch of typical Western fantasy castles and cities, the FF14 creative team has been unleashed on creating the FF14 version of the far East, leading to Japanese style fantasy cities that are gorgeous to look at and explore.
"The changes that we're making with Stormblood are actually looking at the big picture, our future," Yoshida explains.
"This is so that we can expand FF14 even further in the future. I feel that's a big challenge to take on. Of course change can always be scary, but this is something that we just have to believe in - we have to believe in the future process. As long as we're creating an interesting final game to play, we believe that players will try it out. They will take it into their own hands when they play."
Whatever you made of the ambitious but stumbling FF15, FF14's stock only seems to be rising, and much of its power seems derived from that initial failure. When I ask Yoshida to reflect on what has changed since he was drafted in to fix the flagging project, he chuckles.
"There's all of these staff members that I've worked with, and being able to accomplish so much with their help, I feel that I've regained and almost strengthened the belief that even if you hypothetically make a mistake in a certain area you can work hard to communicate and make sure that you work hard to rectify.
"If you continue to make good games, you can eventually get back and succeed. Back then that was just a belief, but now... actually experiencing all of this made it more real. It actually took away the fear to challenge new things - in a good way, of course."