Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Interview with Producer/Director Naoki Yoshida

When the RPG Site bat-phone rang and Square Enix asked me if I'd like to come and interview Naoki Yoshida about his work on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn again, I almost said no. We've spoken to him so many times - fivetimessince he tookover the game in 2010 - that my first question internally was "damn - what the hell do I ask?!"

I couldn't say no, though. Not really. Yoshida is one of the most fascinating Japanese producers I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing - right up there with the Luminous Studio team and the giggling Street Fighter and Tekken producers in terms of being both fun and interesting to chat to. Even now, with me as the very last interview at the end of gruelling week-long press tour, the first time we get to go hands-on with the game, he's smiling, happy, and jokey. 

He jumps up from his chair when I enter the room, dashing over to shake my hand. He remembers me, and excitedly points to his new job title - he's leveled up to a Corporate Executive since I last saw him. He also thanks me for waiting, in English. Already that's streets ahead of many other interview subjects I've encountered, many of whom you can find on this very site.

Because we've done so many interviews with Yoshida, I was happy to be able to take a different tack and spend my time with him focusing on a few specific elements rather than broadly trying to spread our time across the scope of the entire game. If you want deep gameplay specifics, I highly suggest you check out our other interviews - liberally linked above and on our FF14 game hub. Here, instead, we look at development philosophy, fan service and the future of the FF series. Enjoy.

RPG Site: Here we are again! I’ve been watching the last few months with interest, and you’ve continued your previously discussed open approach to dealing with fans throughout development. How do you feel that’s been? Would you be more or less open next time?
Naoki Yoshida: If we became more open that’d be too crazy; people would start asking “when’s the schedule, when’s the release date?!” and things like that! [laughs] I think this is probably about as open as we can be at the moment.

Interestingly, in the last year or so, the other Japanese online games are starting to follow a similar route. The producers are starting to make comments, sharing their updates, status, road maps and so on... so I think people are seeing what’s happening here and are following it. That’s good, but being more open than FF14 could be very difficult.

FF6's Magitek Armor is one of many nods in A Realm Reborn.

RPG Site: This game is now ram-packed with fan service and nods to every title in the series. However, one of the great strengths of Final Fantasy is that each game is incredibly unique. Do you ever worry about FF14’s identity potentially being damaged by leaning so heavily on fan service?
Yoshida: I’m not too worried about people thinking about that. Being an FF and also having the challenge of making it an MMORPG, plus it being the latest numbered title – that in itself is very unique.

Having all the nostalgic elements from other FF titles in this game is also unique – you don’t really see that in other numbered FF titles.

Of course there’ll be original, deep and interesting FF-like characters, the storyline, the world itself, the many cutscenes... there’s a lot of very unique identity we’re bringing into this title. At the moment we have the beta version, but please look forward to the beta phase 3 and even open beta – as we add more elements people will realize both that this is really FF but also very unique.

RPG Site: How conscious has injecting the fan service been? Is it part of your checklist for FF14 – ‘okay, what is the nod in this area’ – or do these nods just get inserted more organically?
Yoshida: Well, there are some more hidden aspects of the previous FF titles that we’ve bought in just for those who really love that particular title. It’s hard to realize, but imagine a hidden hint, nostalgic stuff –we have hidden this stuff all over, and yes, very deliberately.

Because this is an MMO, we have a great opportunity here. Those fans who love the classic MMOs can play together with the new generation, teenagers. Maybe, for example, they may be talking together and the young fan may comment “Actually, I really like this background music,” and the classic fan will be able to say “Did you know, actually, this particular phrase is from FF6?” That’s how a conversation can start. The new player, even if he hasn’t played FF6 before, may get interested and might think of listening to that soundtrack some time and so on. 

We have 25 years of heritage – and that is very unique to FF. There are so many generations of fans out there, and it really provides us a good opportunity to let them join in the MMO world together, to share their experiences, share their favourite memories, get excited. That’s a very good reason to do this, and that’s why we’ve hidden these hints everywhere.


RPG Site: Without getting into trouble, can you give us any examples of the more hidden stuff? We all know about Magitek Armor, Gilgamesh and such – what about a smaller example?
Yoshida: [laughs and leans back in his chair, thinking] Of course, in the presentation I mentioned the keyword ‘Warriors of Light’ – and that is of course from the ‘Warrior’ of light in FF1, 2 and 3. There’s a meaning behind us having the ‘S’ added to that. It is very clear, but also if you haven’t played those classic FFs it will be something new to newer generation players.

Even further than that there will be more comments in the dialogue in the game that will make you smile if you know the old FF titles. I wish that those who really know those old titles will notice those nods – it would be great if they would make them smile.

RPG Site: In the presentation, there was a striking slide that said “Square Enix is putting everything into this project,” which leads me to be curious about the number of people working on the game – you previously said 250. How does that number sit now?
Yoshida: About one year ago, in an interview I said there were more than 250 people working on the title. Square Enix has never actually revealed the number of people working on the project, so the company told me not to reveal any further information! [laughs] I can’t really say anything more than this, but, yes, I can say there are more than 250 people working on this.

[During the course of this answer, the translator misspeaks, saying ‘250-hundred’ before correcting herself. Hearing the massive number, Yoshida leans back in his chair and exclaims “My god!” in English, laughing.]

Of course, there’s more than the development team – there’s the PR team, the localization team, the community team... and also, this is a global title. There’s people working through Europe and lots of people working through America... but if I consider all of them, it’s a huge number. When I think about it, it sort of starts to hurt my stomach.


RPG Site: Another slide that caught my interest was the one saying “Square will never give up on Final Fantasy” – and you also said that if you hadn’t rebooted FF14 it would’ve been the end. Do you feel the success of this game is absolutely imperative to the future of the series?
Yoshida: I don’t think the numbers are so important. More than the numbers, the most important thing is to have as many players as possible enjoying the game, saying that the game is actually very exciting and that they’re enjoying it.

I know there are people out there who haven’t even played FF14 who think that it’s just a rubbish game and it’s not fun and they’re not going to try it out... but if the people who actually play it say that it’s fun and a great game, then they will look forward to the next FF title. I think that’s how it will bring back the trust.

Making sure that people enjoy the game is more important than the numbers or the sales or anything like that. That’s how I think it will affect the next title and the future of the FF franchise.

RPG Site: Today you revealed the three key story ‘beats’ of the game, as such – the rebirth of Eorza, the battle against the empire, and the later content battling Primals. Have you thought about the story beyond that launch content?
Yoshida: As far as the Primal battles go, that is something that will probably never end – at least not in the near future, because there’s so many Primals [Summons/Eidolons] out there. We will constantly update, bringing out updates so people can battle many, many Primals.

At the same time, from a story side, there are areas that may have been mentioned that the players actually haven’t really explored yet., such as Ala Mihgo and Ishgard. For Ala Mihgo we could build a story where the players could take it back from the Garlean Empire, who is currently conquesting that area. There could be a storyline to bring that back or also Ishgard, the country of dragons. At the moment Ishgard has been attacked by dragons, but we could make a story where we give back Ishgard to the people as a place they could live.

There could be storylines to explore those areas – there’s many potentials and we’re definitely thinking about it.

Gamepad controls were a problem in FF14's original release and FF11 - no longer.

RPG Site: The console controls seem quite a clever system, considering FF11 was a nightmare on a pad. [Yoshida understands, and laughs.] How long did it take to build that system and get the mechanics right?
Yoshida: Actually, there are two points that were quite obvious to me as needing to be kept in mind when thinking about the gamepad interface. First of all with the mouse and keyboard, the mouse is a pointing device that can target things very quickly and easily.

If you’ve played FF11, or FF14 1.0 as well, when you select a target you have to go through different menu options to choose. I thought that just doesn’t make sense – it’s not good for the MMO, it is just nonsense. If it’s a keyboard you can just press 1 or 2 and an action happens straight away. With the previous version, you had to go through and select it – and that’s something I really didn’t want to do with this gamepad mode.

I really wanted to make sure that there are less steps in order to get actions happening. Those are the points I already set as a goal – and then the director from FF12, Mr. [Hiroshi] Minagawa came up with this idea of having normal console-type gamepad usage while not pressing L2 and R2, but while you’re pressing, you can have an action happening straight away.

When he came up with this idea, I thought ‘Well, that’s really good, and I’m really comfortable with that idea’ – and from then onwards it only took around one hour to make the decisions to get to the stage we’re at now.

We were not sure until we actually had the chance to try it out. We were uncertain as to if this would really work, but myself and also Minagawa tried it out and we were very pleased and happy with how it’s working – and so that’s very satisfying.

RPG Site: We previously spoke of additional expansions to the game – the potential for mobile apps, or the full game on future platforms. Do you have any updates on that?
Yoshida: First of all, about the smart phone application – we’re developing for both iOS and Android. At the launch timing we should be able to provide you with something. It’s on schedule, it’s good, and it’s moving smoothly. Just the same as the game, we will be updating this application as well.

Yoshida wouldn't rule out the chance of seeing the beautiful Eorza on more platforms.

About the hardware, we are finally at the final stage of PlayStation 3 optimization. That’s something that we’re really focusing on, especially because we made an announcement over 3 years ago that this game would come out on the PS3 – so that’s why we’re focusing there for the moment.

Of course we do have a high-spec PC version, so when the next generation comes out or if the spec goes up in the hardware market we can definitely consider that.

Because we are working on such a large project and taking a lot of risk, I would of course like to have as many people as possible enjoying the game and have this game running on as many consoles and platforms as possible.

Whenever the time comes, perhaps one day we can talk about this with more news in the future. 

RPG Site: One thing that a lot of people have been curious about is your influences. I remember you mentioning Diablo before – what are your influences both for FF14:ARR but also personally, as well?
Yoshida: Talking about Diablo – that is one of the first games where I really felt how exciting a multiplayer online game can be. Especially with the difficulty Hell – that’s something that I really, really enjoy. It really showed me how exciting party play can be – especially when the balance has been adjusted so carefully. Diablo really had a lot of impact on me.

Also, Ultima Online – that was really what introduced me to the MMO aspect, and the freedom that you could do anything in the game was so... shocking, in a way. You could really role play in the game, and that was something that I found interesting and I felt a lot of impact from that.

RPG Site: Based on those two, you seem to have quite a reverence for Western RPGs. Have you been keeping up with more recent ones?
Yoshida:Skyrim. Skyrim is one of the most shocking games I’ve played recently. Definitely.

RPG Site: What is it about that game for you?
Yoshida: Freedom. [Yoshida pauses for some time, thinking.] The freedom... and also the fact that the world is living, the world itself is breathing. What they achieved is something that Square Enix really should try to aim for. It’s something that Square Enix should be challenging; I really felt that we have to join this battle – this battle to be competitive in making these kinds of games.


Thanks to Yoshida for his time and Square Enix Europe for setting this up again. Be sure to check out the Media Vault for FF14 Screenshots and Artwork and read our hands-on impressions hereFinal Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is in closed beta now, and will now gradually ramp up to open beta before its release on PC and PS3 later this year.

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