Final Fantasy XIV Interview with Producer/Director Naoki Yoshida - Round 2

When we spoke to Final Fantasy XIV's newly appointed Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida in mid October he struck us as one of the most honest, interesting and in-depth interviewees we've ever had the pleasure to sit down with - so of course we didn't say no when Square Enix offered us a second chance to chat to him - a round 2, of sorts.

Final Fantasy XIV has been openly branded a failure by Square Enix, but Yoshida is embracing the challenge of turning that failure into a success story once again with a smile - and talked to us in depth about his game development philosophy, where on earth he came from and his personal history with Final Fantasy as a franchise.

We could write forever about how Yoshida left us impressed with his candid, realistic explanations of plans for the future and what went wrong in the past, but it's best to just let him speak for himself. If he'll succeed in rebuilding Final Fantasy XIV is something only time will tell, but he certainly seems to be a very good choice indeed for fixing the game.

RPGSite: There's a saying that "you never get a second chance at a first impression." With Final Fantasy XIV's launch being so flawed, I'm wondering how you're planning on getting past this saying and getting the game out to a wider audience again. Will the game be entirely re-launched, will the personal interaction continue - what's the plan?

Yoshida hopes to relaunch FFXIV completely - even the story.

Naoki Yoshida: Essentially, we'd like to do both of the things you mentioned - they're both very important to us. Even though the first impression was so bad and had such a negative impact on the community there's still a huge number of players worldwide who love Final Fantasy and are still supporting Final Fantasy XIV.

I think - well, there's several tens of thousands of players supporting this game and still playing, so I don't think any other MMO has such a kind community. So, first of all, I think it's really important to answer that community and make sure they're happy and approach them and let them know what we're aiming for.

Then of course for the media side we gave them a very negative impression as well and of course got quite harsh reviews and everything, so we want to re-launch and have this re-launch of the game - make sure the game is different from what it used to be. The quality is very important, but not just the quality of how you see the game, but I really feel the quality of the gameplay is very important.

Last time we saw lots of reviews that said the person actually playing the game got a very bad impression. This time I want to make sure that the hands-on experience is really important so that the player understands and when they touch the game they feel very comfortable. So, user interface, of course, and the actual game excitement is there. I think those two are very important.

RPGSite: From a business perspective, we got the impression off you in our last interview that this was almost a matter of pride - about restoring a tarnished name. Final Fantasy XIV was already a very expensive endeavour, and this rebuild will only make it even more so. Is the aim here to make this as successful revenue-wise as XI was, or is it more about removing this 'scar' from the Final Fantasy name?
Yoshida: After all, I am a businessman - I'm part of the Square Enix group - so I do understand this project has cost us a lot of time and money, but that being said I think that the most important thing to us is ensuring that the customers feel once again that the Final Fantasy franchise is amazing, and making sure that they understand - well, feel - that Final Fantasy is a great game.

To do that with XIV is going to relate to the future of FF titles as well. So it's very important to make sure that our current players feel that Final Fantasy is amazing again, and that's going to sort of make - the numbers - the number of sales revenue and customers - will follow in future titles.

Of course, I have a responsibility to make sure this business will work, so once 2.0 comes out I want to look at more business opportunities for this and make sure that the business will make sense from the profit point of view as well. But, to do that, recovering the trust from the players is the most important thing - then the business will follow.

RPGSite: Doing research for this, there's not too much information on you online. I know you worked on Dragon Quest a bit, but I'm just wondering where you came from and what you worked on to find yourself in such an important position at Square Enix working on restoring this game?
Yoshida: (Laughs) First of all, it's been 18 years since I joined the game industry. First I joined Hudson Soft and started working on PC Engine titles. The well known title in the West is probably Bomberman but there's also the Tengai Makyo series - which is a very popular title. Those are some of the titles I worked on.

Then I moved on to smaller development studios and prepared ideas and plans for games to appeal to different people and made money out of working on those games - that was about five years.

The reason why you couldn't find much of the information on me probably is because I tried to avoid any kind of media interview previously. It's not because I hate the press or anything like that! (Laughs) Personally, I get over-excited when I have this kind of thing and when I'm in front of the media. I thought I may go crazy and out of control if I started doing that. That's why I rejected any kind of interview request and tried to stay behind the scenes and concentrate on what I was doing.

With this title I have the opportunity to talk to different media and community worldwide, but I'm really telling myself that I'm not a celebrity or anything - I want to be modest, otherwise I might get crazy. I'm being very careful to control myself!

Since I joined Square Enix as you mentioned earlier I've been working on Dragon Quest and other titles. As always I've been working behind the scenes and concentrating on what I was doing, but at the same time I was in the position to make suggestions and tell my opinions to the upper management of the whole company; also, probably a lot of people thankfully - kindly recognized my work and what I was doing, so that was part of the reason.

At the same time - this is coincidentally - I really like online games too and have a long history as a player. It seems like everything matched and aligned at the same time - and that's why I got this opportunity.

World of Warcraft is one of several major inspirations to Yoshida.

RPGSite: What are the online games you have a history with?
Yoshida: The first game I played was Diablo 1. I then moved on to Ultima Online, Everquest, then Dark Age of Camelot - that was the longest one I've played, actually - also I've tried out World of Warcraft. Recently I've been trying out RIFT. As well as that, I play a lot of free-to-play Asian games as well. I just love online games.

RPGSite: Coming back to the celebrity comment - the fans have a nickname for you - they call you Yoshi-P. You seem to be different, treat different and are treated differently to almost all the figureheads at Square Enix. Tetsuya Nomura has fans, but because he is quite secretive people don't have that level of personal affection they have for you. Do you think this has helped the process in terms of the healing of the game? Should others embrace this style of interaction more?
Yoshida: Actually, personally, I don't think I'm treating anyone differently - the players, the dev team, the operation team, or the staff I met in this trip to Square Enix Europe - I think I'm sort of facing everyone equally in the same manner.

Especially when I talk to the community, I think I'm more reacting as a player because I have such a big online gaming experience - I really understand what they feel like, so when I talk to them I feel I'm talking as a player as well. Of course, I am careful what I say and what I don't say as a member of Square Enix staff. I don't think I'm doing anything special. Maybe it's better to ask my colleagues what they think (laughs) - if I'm doing anything differently.

RPGSite: Participating directly by talking to the fans on the message boards is a very inclusive process. While Final Fantasy XIII-2 has clearly taken fan feedback from XIII on-board, its development still feels like a very exclusive process for the fans. XIV is already out, so it is different, but do you think that the single player games and other games in general - at Square and elsewhere - could benefit from having a more inclusive process?
Yoshida: First of all, Final Fantasy XIV is an MMO, so I think it's very important that the players know who actually is developing the game. That will give them the comfort that they can really trust them and won't worry unnecessary things.

For example, if they don't know who is making the game they might worry what will happen with the next version update, with their class or job, for example, so I think it's very important to talk to them and to the media. That's one of the reasons I decided to accept these interviews, even though I previously rejected all the offers.

When I accepted this job Sundi [Sage Sundi, Global Online Producer, Square Enix Community & Service Division] told me that this position meant I was going to face the press and the media, and I understand that, and that's why I'm here today.

Sage Sundi: It's a very important part of his job!

Yoshida: Talking about offline titles, probably it's the case that the time, the era is changing now - so it is okay to give out more information to the players because it's going to take a long time to develop games these days, and giving out little by little information and listening to what the players are looking for can give us very interesting ideas and even make a better game.

Especially spending the amount of time and cost we do now, making a great game is even more important for the offline titles as well. I do understand surprise and exclusivity is very important, though - exclusivity for these offline titles, so it's difficult to find the balance. I think more information can come out - personally that's what I feel like.

RPGSite: You've got Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV running concurrently - two MMOs at once - and then you've got Dragon Quest X. While for the Wii and Wii U, it's also an MMO. Even Blizzard only will have two - they have Warcraft now and are working on another which will run concurrently and presumably eventually replace Warcraft. Is there any worry about having three MMOs on the market running concurrently, potentially eating into your own user base with other Square Enix titles?

With Dragon Quest X, Square Enix will have three MMOs running concurrently.

Yoshida: First of all, you might want to know that I have been working on Dragon Quest X as well up to a point at an early stage, so I think it's quite different. In general Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are quite different - Dragon Quest is more casual and easy, accessible.

Of course, I do understand that at some layer there will be the same players enjoying both, but usually the motivation behind playing each game and the game design behind each are quite different. So, I think the idea of them taking or getting each other's customers isn't a worry.

For Final Fantasy XI, it already has a strong community, so we want to keep on updating the game and showing a bright future to that community as well. For XIV we're trying to make a new community, especially for those who want to enjoy an MMO with high-end graphics.

I think each online game has a different type of audience and they shouldn't really affect each other, especially if you look at some of the companies in Asia like in China and Korea, there are several companies who have a lot of MMOs - more than three - so I don't think Square Enix are doing anything special in having three.

Also, an online game is a new service that can continue for a long time, so it's great to have lots of different variations for the audience as well. That being said, personally I think more than three is going to be quite challenging for the company - so I don't personally think - I don't recommend having more. I think having three - I don't see any problems there.

Because I'm an MMO player, I do understand that some MMOs can continue for even ten years - and that means that the generational change between those 10 years has an effect. A newborn baby on the release of the game can be ten years old while it is still being played. That means there will be a new generation of players enjoying the game.

For example Final Fantasy XI has been running for nine years now - so of course we have new players, but some players may have been around since the fourth year of Final Fantasy XI, so I think the generation can continuously change. For XIV, as well, I think there will be a new generation who is looking for different graphics - and that's why I don't think they'll affect each other that much.

I do understand people might compare - 'I can do this in Final Fantasy XI, why can't I do it in XIV' - I do understand we'll receive that kind of feedback as well, but we do want to use our experience and make the most of our experience.

RPGSite: You mentioned other MMOs - one thing that's happening is that a lot of other MMOs are experimenting with different subscription models. You're bringing back the traditional subscription fee for XIV, but I'm curious as to if you're going to look at other subscription models in Final Fantasy XI or XIV?
Yoshida: For Final Fantasy XI I can't answer that question - you'd have to speak to them directly - but for XIV as I mentioned earlier I'm a businessman, and so I have been looking at subscription models others are using, particularly in the Asian market.

Based on what I've seen and studied, I think that we shouldn't change the billing model for Final Fantasy XIV yet. A lot of MMOs that failed in the launch time then transition into the free to play model, and I think that's the impression everyone's getting. For XIV we made a promise at the beginning that it would be a traditional monthly subscription model and I think that we should re-launch the game with that model - that should be the standard way of doing things.

When 2.0 comes out and everyone is happy with the game, maybe then I can start thinking of different business models and looking at different options, but until then I don't think we should change it. Especially those micro transaction model-based games - it tends to be a short game life cycle, because the game design is more geared towards users consuming all the content quickly in order to sell more. For XIV, I want to stick to the monthly subscription for now.

You asked earlier if it was pride or business to recover Final Fantasy XIV - as I said then, keeping the promise and making sure that players are happy with Final Fantasy XIV is the priority. We should be proud of ourselves for building this new Final Fantasy XIV. Once everyone is happy with it, then we can start thinking about business.

Version 2.0 is going to look very different if Yoshida gets his way.

RPGSite: Your predecessor was quite open in talking about having a game plan from launch with an eye to the future - the PS3 launch, expansions to the game, things like that. Do you have any specific plans for XIV in mind for after Version 2.0 hits?
Yoshida: Recently, I don't think a lot of people - or at least less people than before - are turning on their PC or playing games on a big TV - especially after work. You can be very tired, especially in Japan, where everyone loves working! We don't have as much time to play games when we come back home.

So, I really want to widen the options - not only playing from the traditional console or PC, but also for example through smart phones. So, players can see what is going on in the realm of Eorza, or raise their Chocobo, or trade items in the game while elsewhere.

That idea is something I think I really want to look into once 2.0 comes out. That's another reason why when we made this restructure of the server system we designed it so devices from other areas could connect into the servers - that's something we have in made. Once the game is ready, we'll look into those different options.

RPGSite: We asked some fans what questions they'd like to ask that weren't specifically related to XIV, and a number of people wanted to know if you'd personally ever have the ambition, the thought or the interest to be involved in a single-player Final Fantasy title. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of fans have really fallen in love with you in a big way.
Yoshida: Well, first of all, thank you to those who asked that. Final Fantasy XIV is a very big challenge to me, and being a Producer and Director for this kind of a huge project is quite unusual - so it's very challenging at the moment. Once we reach the 2.0, I can start, as I mentioned earlier, doing some of the things I have in mind like smart phones and doing the things I really want to do - bringing more to the game.

Once 2.0 comes out, I probably want to enjoy a bit more of a normal life! (Laughs) Even if the company kindly asked me if I wanted to undertake the challenge of working on a Final Fantasy solo - single player - experience, maybe I want to enjoy more of XIV first. Especially as a player - I love PVP - so I want to PVP with the Final Fantasy XIV players. Once I've had enough, maybe I'd consider it.

If I do work on a single player entry in the Final Fantasy series, I can't imagine myself creating a game without any online essence. If I do work on a single player game, there'll still be an essence that you can compete with others - through a ladder system, maybe, or having communication with other players. I think those elements would be important.

Of course, I'd make sure you could play in a solo way, but I'd want to have more of a new challenge in these kinds of games as well.

RPGSite: You seem to have quite an affinity for the series. Reading the Version 2.0 road-map, you expressed a very specific desire several times over to add more traditional Final Fantasy elements - starting with Chocobos and Airships, just recently added. What is your personal history with the series?
Yoshida: Well, my favourite Final Fantasy title is Final Fantasy VII. I've said this in previous interviews as well, but VII is my favourite one. The reason behind this is I can feel a huge power from the game - it's a really powerful game.

Yoshida says he loves FF7 the most because he feels a "huge power" coming from the game.

At the time I wasn't at Square Enix, but when I joined the company I heard that all the creators provided a lot of interesting ideas and tried to make the game really exciting - that's why VII has so much to it and so many different ways of enjoying the game. I think that's similar to an MMO - there's a lot of content that you can enjoy in a lot of different ways. That's why I love Final Fantasy VII.

The unique theme of the Final Fantasy franchise is of course that every entry is different and very unique. That being said, you can still realize Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy because you have Chocobos, Airships, Ifrit, Shiva, Ramuh - those kind of elements are the essence of and key to the game.

I think that makes it really interesting and relates to the player the Final Fantasy series. I really want the players to enjoy the difference of the games while having the same key words and essence to them. That way they can talk about 'this time Ifrit is like so-and-so, whereas here Ifrit is like that. The Chocobo is different now, I can't believe that is a Moogle' - that kind of excitement is something I really want to keep - something special to Final Fantasy. That makes it interesting, I think.

With this 2.0 announcement maybe some of you noticed that we'll be reintroducing Crystal Tower. Of course we want to add unique elements to Final Fantasy XIV, but at the same time Final Fantasy XIV is part of the Final Fantasy franchise, and the previous Final Fantasy is all part of this franchise.

So, I think especially for the players who have experienced all the titles and came through this long history together with us, its great fan service I think. Those who have nostalgic memories to the old essence of those previous titles will see it as a very interest fan service to have certain elements in XIV in a new style.

I think this also helps the new generation of Final Fantasy fans and the old generation of Final Fantasy fans to talk to each other and communicate with each other. Old generation fans can tell them, 'You know, Crystal Tower was in Final Fantasy III and was a huge dungeon, and you couldn't even save your data' - they can share that kind of experience with the new generation.

That said, the great thing of making Final Fantasy into an MMO is that it's going to allow all different generations to get into this one game and share the experience. If they can share and come close to each other that makes it an even happier experience to everyone - and to me.

RPGSite: You've mentioned twice now that you're a businessman. We also spoke about the development length and cost of this game twice before. Final Fantasy XIII took a long time to come out, and we won't even mention Versus XIII! (Everyone laughs)

Almost a full generation in the making.

In general, development times are getting longer. It's hard to believe now that Final Fantasy IV, V and VI all came out in 4 years - as did VII, VIII and IX. As a businessman, as a developer - do you think that development speed is possible anymore, or is it a thing of the past?
Yoshida: Personally, I think that the technology, the way of thinking and experience should all solve this problem. I think, especially for Western-developed games, they are having a quicker pace of releasing titles, and I think from the Tokyo side we should do that as well.

It's true that XIII took a long time to develop, but XIII-2 is coming out quite quickly, so as long as we use this kind of technology and experience more efficiently it is possible to do things much more quickly.

Of course, compared to previous platforms like the Family Computer (NES) or PlayStation 1 the efforts required to create assets is much, much more, so you can't develop games in the same timely manner of course. That said, we still need to think about how we can bring more titles to market in a more timely manner.

When I'm at work we do hear the jokes like 'When I started on this project I didn't have a child, and now it is finished he is already five years old,' and that's true - and I really think that is too long. You can't spend an entire generation on just one game, so we at Square Enix - especially the Tokyo side - need to make sure we make changes and try to become more efficient. I think XIII-2 is a good example of how we can do that.