It's been almost seven years since the release of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn, a game whose story has been recounted countless times, after putting Naoki Yoshida in the director's chair, who since pulled the game from the brink of disaster with the release of A Realm Reborn. Fast forward seven years, with a few critically-acclaimed expansions under their belts, the Final Fantasy 14 team looks back at older content, and introducing the game to new players with patch 5.3.
"There isn't any time to relax, or chill out at the moment," producer and director Naoki Yoshida tells me over Zoom. Final Fantasy 14 has just hit 20 million registered players, but according to Yoshida it's still not enough for Square-Enix's President and CEO, Yosuke Matsuda. "We have to continue driving this forward, so there's really no time to relax, or lower our guard."
The latest patch for Final Fantasy 14 was delayed by a few months, due to disruption no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, as announced via a live stream from Yoshida in May. "The situation has affected us heavily these past months. It's really hard for us to get back on track." With schedules out of the window, just what is it like to run an active MMO with millions of players during a pandemic?
"Even through this situation, the FF14 team is in a good workflow, there's a great team with a high sense of responsibility... At the moment, 90 per cent of developers are working from home currently, and they're starting to get familiar with the change in environment. As for the mentality and psychological perspective. I'm confident that we're all quite stable, and we can focus on the work. We're getting back to normality."
5.3 is due to be released on the 11th of August, and Square-Enix has since released a mini site for all the new additions to the game. However, just underneath the surface more significant changes are being made to the game in order to accommodate new players, starting with a complete overhaul of the content released in the original game, which was created in just two and a half years, according to Yoshida.
"We needed to create really tight guidelines for creating quests. For example, they have to make each quest 9 minutes long, including all the text and all that. Because we had the concept that we want the players to spend a lot of time on those quests, that's why we made that kind of guideline for each quest. With that, as a result, it kind of revealed so many quests that may be unnecessary, or lots of excess steps which you don't really need, so we wanted to revisit and remove all the excess quests and unnecessary bits, because we thought that the focus has to be for players to enjoy the storyline."
Yoshida's words ring true. The first hours of A Realm Reborn are rough, and can be a significant turn-off for many newer players of Final Fantasy 14, but this streamlining does not come without its own challenges. "If we just take out some bits from the existing storyline, then we have to take out the NPCs that may be playing the key role, or really important role, and it could also affect the lore of the world and everything. We listed all the quests that are included in ARR, and then we figured out the priority, and the necessity of the quests existing in the game or not. This removal of the unnecessary quests, took up a third of the entire workload."
But if new players still want to experience all of the content that was in the vanilla release of FF14, Yoshida has words of reassurance. "Those quests that are decommissioned, we didn't really remove them completely," he says. "We moved them to side quests. For anyone who has the time and wants to dig more for lore and stuff like that, then they can spend time on it."
Exactly how many quests have been removed or altered? "We didn't really count, because if you do that then it will be so disheartening, discouraging," says Yoshida with a laugh. "So many quests are there, so we didn't track how many quests we needed to work on."
Regardless of just how many quests have been removed from the game, it'll make the game significantly easier for new players to get into. But as a seasoned Final Fantasy 14 player, I had some bones to pick. In the base game, there is a location that you need to repeatedly return to, with no fast-travel links nearby named The Waking Sands. What's the deal?
"It's a hideout, so it feels so cheap, so easy. (to put a fast-travel location there) We don't have any intentions to implement an Aetheryte (fast travel point) near that location. That said, we totally get that this is a really time-consuming journey, where you have to come up any time Minfilia calls you to come over. That's why... This is kind of new information that we've not really revealed to anyone yet. We actually have a new item, a kind of teleport ticket you can use to teleport to Camp Horizon straight away. You might be wondering, even though there isn't an Aetheryte 'How come Teleportation is possible here?' Anyway, it's a special item for easing the travel burden. Please don't be angry at Minfilia."
But, I wasn't quite done yet with the list of sorely-needed quality of life changes to the base content of the game. There are two infamous dungeons in A Realm Reborn, Castrum Meridianum and The Praetorium. Both are pretty lengthy, with unskippable cutscenes every time they might come up during a daily dungeon roulette where you can get extra bonus XP. It's not uncommon in these dungeons for some players to be AFK, and just wait for others to complete it for them. What's going to be done with these now-archaic dungeons?
"We came to the conclusion that it would be easier just to create those two eight-man dungeons from scratch, rather than tweaking the existing content," says Yoshida. "We totally understand that those two dungeons are very time-consuming, so we have discussed it, but we let go of the idea. We were looking into it, and we thought that it would be best to create new dungeons, but kind of separate out the battle against Ultima Weapon as kind of standalone content outside of those two dungeons. When we do that we will make sure that it will be trust system compatible."
The trust system has been introduced in the latest expansion, Shadowbringers. This allows you to go through dungeons with a party of capable NPCs, instead of other players, for those looking for a more single-player experience."We cannot say when it's going to be happening, but it's something in our mind, and we want to do it at some point in future."
From Yoshida's responses, it's clear the team is dedicated to a significant rehaul of content to make the game more friendly to new players. This is assisted by a hugely expanded free trial, which now includes the base game in addition to its first expansion, Heavensward. However, this free trial does exclude some key community features such as being unable to trade using Final Fantasy 14's market boards in addition to restricting chat and the ability to party up with friends. "We're not considering changing the current business model of subscriptions, it helps us maintain the quality of the game," says Yoshida. "There's a risk of RMT, real money trading, and stuff like that, so once they can use those tools, they'll just use it and it'll rise to uncontrollable levels."
Yoshida also gave a lengthy explanation as to how subscriptions essentially protect Final Fantasy 14 against a higher influx of RMT in the game, which is an incredibly costly endeavour, but it remains to be seen how many players of the new expanded free-trial will be turned off by the lack of community functionality.
However, there is still new content to look forward to in 5.3 for existing players in the form of a new raid, in addition to other side content. But, there's still one key beloved Final Fantasy 14 character seemingly missing in action. Fan-favourite Hildebrand is a rubbish detective, with an incredibly fun quest line that players experienced five years ago. But, since then he's been missing in action.
"I don't currently know the whereabouts of Hildebrand. I don't know where he is. I can't go into more details here, but in 5.3 you may or may not find him, not as himself, but more like a tip or a clue as to where he might be. I would like you and all players to join together and search for clues that'll be dotted around in-game."
With a slew of crossover content in Final Fantasy 14, such as the Nier raid series that's due to be expanded, or the Ivalice raid series, which contains winks and nods to Final Fantasy 12 and Final Fantasy Tactics, or even the FF15 content released several years ago, we wondered about the absence of some high-profile games that the team could have collaborated on.
"We've had lots of feedback and lots of hopes that with the FF7 Remake that we'll do some crossover with them. It's just part one of the journey, so we need to kind of nail down all the details and flesh it out, so it may take a while, it will take time to actually make something great. That said, we are positively looking into it, and we have hope that we want to do something with this at some point in the future. As for a Kingdom Hearts crossover, for this idea, one of the troubles is that we have to coordinate with Disney, and so I feel that there would be so many hurdles and challenges around working with them, so I try not to think about a crossover with Kingdom Hearts."
Patch 5.3 of Final Fantasy 14 signifies the end of the current bigger patch cycle for their latest expansion, Shadowbringers. Since it's been almost ten years since the original release of Final Fantasy 14, just how long does the game have left.
"We haven't set any goal for how long the game will continue. As long as players enjoy playing the game, then I think we will continue delivering the great content. We don't really have any sense of time set yet. FF14 is the game that we've created, with not only the people on the development team, but with the players around the world. Even though my life may end at some point, I hope that the game will continue after that, that someone will succeed me and continue. That's my hope."
Before our time with Yoshida was up, we asked Yoshida if there was any event where he would personally stop working on Final Fantasy 14. With swirling rumours around another project in the works at Square-Enix's Creative Business Unit 3 and Yoshida himself having to actively deny that he'll be the director of Final Fantasy 16, could he potentially be taken out of the directors chair anytime soon.
"The possibility would be that either I fell ill, died, or if the CEO fires me. It's okay, you don't need to worry about it."
With Final Fantasy 14's player base continuing to grow, allowances for new players, and a charismatic director at the helm there seems to be no end in sight for Final Fantasy 14. Patch 5.3 drops on August 11th - and it should contribute to what continues to be one of the strongest MMORPGs in recent memory.