It's been six years since the successful relaunch of Final Fantasy 14 and almost an entire generation of consoles has passed in that time. With over 16 Million players and its most recent expansion, Shadowbringers, being critically acclaimed the game has never been in better health, but with a new wave of tech on the horizon, how do aging MMOs stay relevant?
Director and producer Naoki Yoshida is no stranger to being able to turn things around having successfully destroyed the previous disastrous iteration of FF14 and completely remaking it. I was recently able to sit down and talk to him about what's in store for the next generation, some secrets of development and what the future of MMOs might look like.
What are your plans for PS5 and the next Xbox?
Naoki Yoshida: So we're not at a stage where we can make any official announcements. It's too early to make that kind of announcement at this time. You can safely assume that we are taking it in a really positive way for the next generation.The biggest policy that we cannot give up on for FF14 is to make sure that cross platform play is available for any device possible. Having the discussion with Microsoft, of course we have different sets of policies and conditions on our end and their end as well. So there actually has been a lot of conflict but for the last one year, Mr Phil Spencer himself took a little bit of time to talk to any section team within Microsoft to remove all the roadblocks so now on Xbox, we feel that our path is clear. You can think positively.
When you were making the jump from PS3 to PS4, what lessons did you learn that you'll take with you for the next generation?
Naoki Yoshida: Talking about this particular aspect of hopping from the older console to the newer one, it's been the case from PS3 to PS4 that upgrading the specs is easier for us to accommodate. What is difficult for us to do is making sure that the game works on the lower spec console. It's also this natural thing that the specs evolve and become greater for the console to evolve. It's easy for us to accommodate. When the new console is out it takes a lot of manpower to make ourselves ready and upgrade the graphics side of things. The reason is that the graphics engine pipeline is different so we need to upgrade our end as well. It was the case for the PS3 to PS4 upgrade so when PS5 is out we'll update our game with major patch updates and then we'll gradually release the function that is compatible for PS5. It may not be the case. It's not as hard as people may expect.
In what ways does FF14 compensate for its tech aging over time?
Naoki Yoshida: So by hearing your question, probably our basic understanding is different. Your understanding is a different perspective to what we have. There's a big difference. When we're looking back about the time when PS2 was out and PS3 was out in the market, they have specific unique characteristics to those consoles back then. But after any console released after Xbox 360 - so Xbox One, PS4, PS5 and Scarlett in the future - you can see them more as a PC. There might be a difference in memory size or GPU or CPU but we can safely assume that they are kind of PC. We are working on the PC version of Final Fantasy 14 as well. They have different names of course - some say Xbox One, PS4, PS5 - but they are all the same with different names. It's more like a reiterating thing. But also we have to make sure there's a minimum requirement for FF14 for the game to run on console or any machine. As long as we can keep that threshold, it's easy to scale up and down within that limit. It's easy to make it dynamic in an upgrade.
FF14 has changed a lot over the last three expansions to the point where it's starting section (A Realm Reborn) feels old and misrepresentative to new players. What kind of revisions can we expect to keep new players interested?
Naoki Yoshida: Speaking about the development of A Realm Reborn, normally when you create an MMORPG title you would need to spend four to five years but our development team crammed and did that work within two-and-a-half years. The dev team is fully aware that there would be some functions that were missing or that the storyline was forced to look like a sequence from the 1.0 ,so there was a glitch here and there as well. That's how it was created. Because we know it might not be in perfect shape, we're really torn. Even the battle content team wishes they could recreate all the dungeons that were there it came out because they are not 100 per cent happy with how the current situation is.
Just looking back at the development timeframe, the original objective was to start with one city state but because there's this link from the original FF14, we needed to use the resources from that older version. The starting city needed to be three city states in order to recreate that and to rework that we would need to use another meteor and hit the world to break everything. We don't want to do that again! What we can do is change it gradually. It might not be drastic changes, though. That's why we are aiming for the changes happening from 5.3 onwards to improve player experience, especially for new players.
How much work is involved in adding jobs and upgrading classes with every expansion, and do you think you'll be able to keep adding two jobs each time?
Naoki Yoshida: The current jobs class available for FF14 is a lot compared to other MMOs out there in the market. As you said, there's a lot of work involved. The work the team is putting in to adjusting jobs is really mathematical - handling 0.1 per cent, 0.5 per cent... it's a mark of detail to make sure that the balance is there. To tell you the truth, frankly speaking, the dev team doesn't want to add any new jobs because it's so hard! But because players and the community and everyone is expecting new jobs, that keeps them going forward. You can safely assume and expect new jobs in the future for a while.
You make a lot of quality of life changes with each patch but I don't think players understand what's involved and what a big project that is. Can you talk us through what's involved on your side of things?
Naoki Yoshida: From a player or community perspective, just increasing the inventory space might sound like a simple thing but from the technical side of things, it's quite complicated. What is happening in the backend is because we cannot lose any items or anything that the player owns, we're continuously monitoring what they have and if necessary they move those items from one place to another depending on the contents and where the character is. That's what's happening on the backend. Just looking at one character and what they have, you might think that the data is light but it's not as there are hundreds of thousands of characters. And also the game is live 24/7, 365 days a year, so the server needs to watch and monitor their movement and data. That means that consistently there is a communication data transmission back and forth there. Even if we increase the communication, it could be dangerous. This could lead to causing lag or higher ping. We need to closely monitor that.
We can't do any tests while players are in the world, so what we do is have another world set up as a test server and we do this load test for a month. We also use bots to create the peak timing when a character all of a sudden, a connection can be this amount of characters in-game and there you can move about changing fields and zones. We keep doing the test for almost a few months and make sure there's no lag or issues. We really seriously care about that. This requires a massive amount of time and resources. When we can finally warrant that it will be safe then we can finally move it onto live servers. We actually take a lot of time to make sure there's no issues.
The sheer amount of work is a complicated process for us. Players may feel that increasing the inventory size is an easy thing to do but it's actually not. You may feel that the inventory doesn't increase because Square Enix wants to make money from extra storage but that is not the case. Even though it may look easy, we need to tread very, very carefully, especially for quality of life improvements of any functions that require such serious care. Each expansion seems to be the only time when we can actually improve the quality of life. But as I said, we are totally aware that probably the weapons space and the rings space in the armoured chest is also hitting the limit. I feel we need to do something about it.
Games like Fortnite and Overwatch are vying for dedicated, online audiences like MMOs do - as a traditional MMO creator how does that make you feel?
Naoki Yoshida: This is happening because the video game industry continuously evolves. Just taking this example, traditional JRPGs are based on turn-based games. and especially for the youth, they feel that it's quite outdated, they don't really understand.. Talking about the younger generation, someone up to the age of 25, because prior to the time they were born, there was relatively high-spec hardware for their gaming experiences - their character is rendered very realistically and they can actually control the characters directly - by pressing one button, the character will punch the enemies or fire the gun...
That's why we don't feel those types of games are a threat because the basic game is designed completely differently. Because the audience that's playing Overwatch and Fortnite are probably in their 20s, they're a younger audience. If that younger audience becomes our main audience for FF14 or our current MMORPG, then we may need to cater to that new audience and create the excitement that they want from a game. We feel that FF14 doesn't really need to play that role. It should be the next generation of MMOs. But if we want to make an MMO which doesn't require targeting, that would be really difficult. We'd probably need to make some drastic changes to the game where there are text chats, but people are using voice chat and you can choose your play style, you can quit anything, you can come back any time... That kind of generation and time will definitely come, but personally speaking it looks very difficult so I don't want to do it!