With Final Fantasy XI due out in Europe this week, we sat down with Square Enix senior vice president and Final Fantasy XI producer Hiromichi Tanaka and the company's lead translator and localisation director, Richard Honeywood, to discuss the European launch of the game, the new expansion pack Chains of Promathia, and Square Enix's future online plans.
Eurogamer: The new expansion pack, Chains of Promathia, is reintroducing things which were originally seen in the first introduction movie. Does this mean that you planned this expansion pack right from the outset?
Hiromichi Tanaka: We focused on [Chains of Promathia] after the Rise of the Zilart expansion pack was finished, and that's when we really got into the storyline. The general idea that it was going to be a continuation of the story was there from day one, but how we fleshed it out was decided after we finished Zilart. We set up all the elements there, thinking that we'd probably use them in one way or another.
Eurogamer: What size is the Chains of Promathia pack? How much does it add to the game?
Hiromichi Tanaka: It's about the same size as the Rise of the Zilart expansion pack. The original storyline, because it's been going on for so long, would be say two - in a scale of things - and then Rise of the Zilart would be one, and now Chains of Promathia would be one as well. So it's two-one-one, in size proportions.
Eurogamer: So the game - including both expansions - is now about twice the size it originally was?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Yes, that's right.
Eurogamer: The game has been a major success in Japan and then in the USA, and now it's coming to Europe. What size of player base does it have now, overall?
Richard Honeywood: Currently, our registered PlayOnline users are about half a million - we've definitely gone over half a million now. If you want to know how many characters there are... Last time we did a check there were 1.2 million, but we're expecting it to be between 1.4 and 1.5 million characters right now. A lot of people have two or three characters. So that's just the general population of the world at the moment.
Eurogamer: That's spread over how many different servers?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Over about thirty servers now.
Eurogamer: How does this compare to Square Enix' expectations for Final Fantasy XI? It's your first move into online games - is this better than you had expected to do?
Hiromichi Tanaka: It could have gone either way. It could have been a massive failure, it could have been a massive success. However, the general idea - the general plan that we had, of how it would work, has lived up to expectations. It's almost miraculously kept to the expectations that we had.
Eurogamer: One of the problems with a massively multiplayer game is that you can keep upgrading, but it's hard to release a sequel. What are your intentions in that respect? Do you have more upgrades planned, are you working on a sequel... Where is Final Fantasy Online going?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Of course, we intend to keep the original Final Fantasy XI going. Although we're releasing only the PC version in Europe, in Japan and America we've already released the PS2 version, and of course the PS2 won't be around forever. Within a few years the PS2 will probably be phased out for PS3, and you'll also have the Xbox 2 arriving and things like that coming on to the scene. We've got to keep that in our sight. We're still preparing, and looking into perhaps even changing platforms, because once the PlayStation 2 is phased out, that population will have to move somewhere. We've got that in mind - we're just keeping it at the study stage at the moment, just looking into it.
Eurogamer: How did you find bringing the Final Fantasy series online? Did you find that it was difficult because of the expectations that people have for Final Fantasy; or did the background of the series make it easier to create an online game?
Hiromichi Tanaka: The hardest part about it was actually that up to now, the packaged versions of Final Fantasy have been showing the storyline and the general drama to just one person. But taking it online, where you've got multiplayer, and there are thousands of people playing at the same time... In order to present the storyline and the drama and the emotion to multiple people, who are playing perhaps at different levels of the story at the same time, is really hard. We had to come up with a unique system to deal with that. So, that was one of the hardest parts about bringing it online. Because we're story-based, we needed to keep the story in the core of it.
Eurogamer: How did developing an online game compare to Square Enix' normal games? Was it more expensive to start a completely new undertaking in this way?
Hiromichi Tanaka: The cost and actual time in production of a Final Fantasy game didn't really change that much. However, the difference is that we didn't use as much FMV in this title, and of course, that's very expensive to produce. What was expensive this time was the servers - having to set them up and maintain them constantly is of course a huge running cost. But when you look at the overall cost compared to, say, creating CG, it comes out to be fairly balanced.
Eurogamer: In terms of the European market, what are your expectaions for the game? Does the wide range of different languages present a problem?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Of course, as creators we wanted it to be in every language that we could possibly release it in, but at the moment we had to release it in English only. This is because even though we could prepare different language versions of it, communications between the players worldwide - between Japanese and French and Germans, say - would probably end up being in English anyway. We thought, if they're going to be speaking English to each other, then we may as well just start off with the English version and see how it goes, and then maybe look into French and German in the future. Originally we were thinking of doing all the languages, but we just thought we'd see how the English goes first.
Eurogamer: Have you given any thought to putting French and German support into the auto-translation feature of the game?
Hiromichi Tanaka: We'd love to do it, but our thinking is that first of all we'd need to translate all the NPC messages, the menu system and all that type of stuff into French and German. Once you have the vocab stabilised and set there, then perhaps you'd add that feature in. Otherwise, that might not match the actual translation of the rest of the area, if you just put the French or German translation in first. It would confuse the market if you did that.
Eurogamer: Presumably that's a big translation task.
Richard Honeywood: I can tell you exactly how much dialogue there is in there - it's bigger than the Bible now, text-wise. The text at the beginning of this year was three-quarters the size of the Bible, and of course we've just added a lot. Er... I guess that's just a reference I use. I don't want to compare the game to the Bible! That gives you an idea of how much text is in there. So yes, is is a huge undertaking.
Hiromichi Tanaka: English and Japanese was planned from day one, and we're translating them all the time, constantly. As soon as they write the Japanese text, we write the English on the same day basically. In order to accomplish that for French and German as well, we'd have to have Japanese to French and Japanese to German staff on standby. We couldn't go via English - otherwise it would become like Chinese whispers. Not only would the information change each time it was translated, but also the speed would slow us down and therefore slow the development of the Japanese version down. We'd have to get that type of staff in-house, and it's very hard to find that type of translator. Even for English, it was very hard to find good translators for the title. We've got fantastic Japanese to English translators now, but trying to find French and German ones is quite difficult - particularly since we've got so many other titles too.
Eurogamer: How important is Europe for online games in general? It's a less developed market than the USA and Japan, so where does it figure in your plans?
Hiromichi Tanaka: We look at Europe as being just as important a market as Japan and North America. However, the big problem with being an online game is that we have to have the infrastructure there, and we have to adjust our product to match all the different countries and different formats. It takes a little time to get used to. We've finally got the European version of FFXI up to the point where it's playable in all the territories that we want to release it in. Now that we have that experience of releasing an online game in Europe, we can take the experience on to the next titles that we are planning.
One interesting thing that we found because of releasing in three different territories is that there's an eight hour time difference between each territory. Even when we released the American version, we didn't have to suddenly bring up 20 or 30 new servers because the time was different. So you have the Japanese peak time, then you have the American time which is spread over a four hour timezone - they really didn't conflict with each other. What we've seen so far with the testing in Europe is that they won't conflict again, and the peaks will just be shifted away from each other. So at the moment, we're actually filling up the time of the current servers, and that's what's keeping our costs down, because we're utilising resources that were already there without having to invest further.
Richard Honeywood: One other thing I'd like to add is that in Japan, originally when we released Final Fantasy XI, it wasn't a big market at all, Japan itself. The popularity of Final Fantasy, particularly for the PlayStation 2, really pushed online games in Japan. So for Europe, too, even though it might be regarded as a lesser market for others, there's always the chance that it could light fire, and suddenly become a big thing here.
Eurogamer: You mentioned using your infrastructure on future online titles. Are there more online titles in development?
Hiromichi Tanaka: PlayOnline is, as you know, the gateway into Final Fantasy XI. Already in Japan we have - well, even in this we have Tetra Master as well, which I guess you'd look at as sort of a minigame type of thing. But on top of that, in Japan as well we already have a mahjong type game on that as well, and we're currently doing beta testing of Front Mission Online. We do have other plans, at the moment particularly for Japan, to release more online games on PlayOnline. We'll see how it goes basically.
Eurogamer: Will you be focusing on releasing online versions of existing franchises, or developing new franchises purely for online?
Hiromichi Tanaka: We do have plans for new titles and new series specifically for online content. Of course, we can't divulge those now.
Eurogamer: Square Enix talks a lot about "polymorphic content" at the moment, and a lot of your games are tying together more than before - for instance, Final Fantasy XII is set in the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Will Final Fantasy XI be tying into an offline game in future, say? Or are you looking at ways to tie it into a mobile phone game?
Hiromichi Tanaka: The beauty of being an online game is that we can keep adding content to it, so rather than having other games try to tie into us, we can tie into other things. The main thing for us is to keep versioning up FFXI, and perhaps integrate other elements into it. Beyond that, we can't say at the moment. There are plans of course - we're always looking at different business possibilities, but we can't give any definite details of what we intend to do.
One thing I would say, though, is that some of the rest of the FF series and other games are actually starting to copy elements from FFXI - such as having the game driven by small missions or quests. FFXII has borrowed a lot of those elements from FFXI. So, the games do take elements from each other in that sense.
Final Fantasy XI is due out in Europe this week. You can read more about it here.