Things get distorted when you're at an E3 conference. One minute, Microsoft is making weird imaginary children feel guilty about not doing their homework. The next, Nintendo is introducing the Wii Thimble, for extreme virtual crochet. Then, up pops Sony, with an exclusive new Final Fantasy game, which won't be appearing anywhere else, anywhere. At the short-notice press conference called by Square Enix, that's the first thing Senior Vice President, Shinji Hashimoto wants to clear up.
"I want to emphasise that it will be available for PS3 and PC - and we are considering all our options for other hardware - including Microsoft." This makes sense. They did, after all, decide to make FFXIII available across PS3 and Xbox 360 in the noble cause of reaching more people.
The press conference is without ceremony - that one statement is the only introduction we're given, before the floor is opened to questions. It's the safest way to do it - if they were to talk without prompting, they wouldn't have any questions to avoid, and might end up telling us something.
First clarification: all those characters in the trailer looked pretty similar to FFXI - but this isn't the same world. FFXIV's director Nobuako Komoto makes it clear that this is a completely new world. "The reason we made it similar, was so that the players of FFXI can choose a race that they've become accustomed to." It's implicit, then - but no-one would admit to it at this early stage - that people will move from XI to XIV. You won't be able to port your characters, but you will be able to create a similar one.
Which brings up the odd relationship between FFXI and FFXIV. Will FFXI be phased out? Isn't there a danger that the new game will split the Final Fantasy online crowd - which is already fairly modest?
FFXIV's producer, Hiromichi Tanaka, assures players of FFXI that their game is safe - for a year, at least. "The development team of FFXIV started four to five years ago, and have worked alongside the new content for FFXI. There's no reason for that to stop now. We have a year plan of new content, and no plans in the near future to stop providing that."
FFXI struggled quite publicly with solo play - with an early emphasis on party play that underestimated the public desire to feel individually powerful. Over the years, Square has adapted the game to make solo play possible, and made grouping and levelling less punishing with features like Level Sync.
But still, a lot has happened since FFXI first came out, in 2002. Not least of which, Azeroth. Will the new game reflect the more populist, less grindingly difficult world of MMOs? "We do want to put some of that more casual appeal into XIV, but we don't want to copy that," explains Hashimoto. "There will be play modes to suit people who want to play for 40 minutes a day, and people who want to play all day. Solo play will be possible from the beginning of the game, and so will party play."
Square listens to its players, and it's also acknowledged the outside world. "Our plan from the beginning was to make the best Final Fantasy game. And we thought the best way to do that was through the medium of an MMO." Let's hope no-one mentions that to the FFXIII development team. "However, we are trying to implement a lot of new systems that MMOs have not used in the past." And what might those be? They're not telling.
There's a lot of vague language flying around at this early stage; it's incredibly frustrating to be stuck in a room with a hundred journalists, where it'd be considered rude to shout "hang on, what you just said doesn't actually mean anything". Take this statement, in response to a question about what's important in the new game:
"We want to say that for XIV, the keywords are the growth and development of the character. We'd also like to expand on the in-game systems. The player will be able to grow in a more natural way. We are also going to develop the job system, and expand it into something that is quite different." It's like listening to mist.
So why a sequel, instead of taking the XI universe into the next generation? A mean-spirited cynic might suggest that two games means twice as many potential subscriptions without gaining a single new player - or that XIV would have been a less explosive announcement at the Sony conference than FFXI arriving some years late - but Komoto gives the well-rehearsed official answer.
"FFXI was originally made for the PS2. Then it was taken to the PC, then the 360. A lot of people have asked why we don't just port FFXI to the PS3. But to do that, we'd have to remake everything. We decided we'd use that time to make a new game." It's an explanation that makes some sense - although the leap from 360 to PS3 can't be anywhere near the chasm between the PS2 and 360.
Servers will be run the same as the FFXI servers - with players able to choose from the full global palette of servers and languages. The current system works well enough - territories come together on certain servers organically, thanks to word of mouth.
But what you really want to know, having got this far, is beta access, right? You want to know whether, as a valued FFXI player, you'll be granted early access to give your feedback, and given a weighted voice in the way things develop. Sadly, they're not talking about that, yet. Sorry to waste your time.
Final Fantasy XIV Online is due out for PC and PS3 in 2010.