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.