It's a general rule that Japanese developers are nowhere near as effusively forthcoming about their games at preview stage as their European or (especially) American counterparts. But for the world's first showing of Final Fantasy XIV, we might have expected slightly more than producer Hiromichi Tanaka and online director Nobuaki Komoto sitting in a room and waiting for questions whilst the game ran in the background, showing an immobile Elvaan mage standing in front of a building.
Square Enix seems to want FFXIV to speak for itself. The alpha build is playable on the show floor, giving attendees 15 minutes with the game without explaining how any of the combat or skills actually work. The result is party after party of confused adventurers wandering around in FFXIV's world clicking on random things to see what happens, and altogether failing to kill the five somethings that the demo quest demands of them.
From such a brief glimpse it's difficult to discern too much about the game except a distinct visual similarity to FFXI. Partly to tempt XI subscribers into XIV's world, the game's five races bear a huge resemblance to XI's - you can't carry over your old character into the new game, but the developer wants it to be possible to create a very similar visual approximation.
But Nobuaki Komoto doesn't necessarily see a mass exodus of FFXI players abandoning hundreds of hours of painstaking effort in order to jump right into XIV. "If the player wants to stay with FFXI, that's fine with us," he says. "And if they want to go to XIV, or play both, that's also fine with us. What we want to do is provide [FFXI players] with a new experience, and we would like to reach a wider audience at the same time."
In the interests of reaching that new audience, FFXIV abandons two of the cornerstones of the MMO - experience points and levelling. Characters also aren't tied to a particular class or profession, but are free to put time into anything they like. As with Monster Hunter Frontier, the popular online version of Capcom's world-beating social PSP game series, your skills are defined by your equipment. You can have as many equipment sets as you like and change between them at will, even mid-battle.
The same goes for skills. If you want to craft, you equip crafting tools. If you want to go fishing, you equip a fishing rod. You don't have to level up those individual skills - instead the equipment levels up naturally as you use it. It's rather like an equipment-based version of, say, Oblivion's learn-through-doing philosophy; you can play exclusively to your strengths, or spend time creating a more multifarious character. Square Enix calls it the Armoury system. Weapons and equipment level up the more you use them, rather than your character. Within this system there are four basic disciplines (crafter, mage, gatherer and warrior, broadly categorised), but there's no need to commit to any of them.
It opens the game up to solo players more, as you can build characters that both fight and heal themselves, or a magic user that can also whip out a battleaxe when necessary. "FFXI was really party-focused game design, so you'd always be working in a party to defeat a monster and you had to have your own role within the party," explains Hiromichi Tanaka, "but for FFXIV, because we have this armoury system, you will be able to fight on your own. Only when you encounter a higher-level boss and need to team up with other player will you need to define your role within the party. You can play it both ways."
There are faint echoes of Guild Wars in the flexibility of this system, but Monster Hunter is the more likely source of inspiration. As Tanaka reminds us, though, it's not a system that's entirely new to the MMO world. "What we wanted to achieve this time was for users to not be restricted to one job or a small number of jobs, but to provide them with flexibility; when you look at MMO history, in the beginning games like Ultima Online were skill-based systems, not experience or levelling-based systems. It's not new in MMOs, even though it's not standard these days after World of Warcraft. Thinking about Final Fantasy titles, FFII was skill-based not level-based, so we have seen this system in the past within the FF series as well."
Like every Final Fantasy, XIV is set in its own independent universe, with threads of series tradition running through it - the magic naming system, the familiar monsters, the inevitable appearance of chocobos. This one is called Eorzea; the look is cartoonier than XI's Vana'diel, but it's undeniably similar; isn't Square-Enix in danger of fracturing its two-million-strong audience of subscribers with XIV? The market can clearly support one successful Final Fantasy MMO, but two might be pushing it.
"Because FFXI is seven/eight years old now, changing the architecture of the game would cost a lot of development time and manpower," says Komoto, asked why Square Enix had decided to make the step into a new MMO rather than build upon its existing one. "Instead of doing that we wanted to put the manpower into a new game, so that people can have a totally different experience. We didn't want to just improve on FFXI, we wanted to create an entirely new game."
The radical changes to the class, hobby and general progression systems are testament to that - however, these are all things that will take time to understand, and in 15 minutes of playtime it's obviously impossible to plumb the depths of the system. Being an alpha build, the gamescom version of FFXIV is glitchy and obviously incomplete; combat and skills haven't really been implemented properly yet, and characters walk through each other and enemies during attacks whilst inscrutable numbers pop up all over the screen.
A 2010 release date is still on the cards for PC and PS3, and the possibility of an Xbox 360 version has in no way been ruled out - it's just a matter of reaching an agreement with Microsoft. "Of course, for an MMO, our main platform is going to be PC," explains Tanaka, "and because the PS3 has a similar internal network policy to the PC, it's very easy to work with. Xbox 360 has a completely different internal policy about how the network should work over Xbox Live. That's something we're still talking over with Microsoft."
The Armoury system and broadly appealing art style make this a better fit for cross-platform play than XI, assuming it works as intended. Our first introduction to FFXIV leaves us with more questions than answers; nonetheless, an MMO that doesn't restrict you at all in terms of combat skills and hobbies, and bases your effectiveness on which skills you've worked hardest on rather than the number beside your character's name, has tremendous potential.
Final Fantasy XIV is due out for PC and PS3 next year. Discussions about an Xbox 360 version are ongoing.