"Honestly, it couldn't get any worse."
I've just asked Naoki Yoshida, director on the resurrected Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, what he thought of the original game when he took over the project. Initially released in 2005, Final Fantasy XIV was a pretty terrible game, seemingly ignoring the years of refinement the MMO genre had undergone in favour of a clunky, unintuitive interface and boring content, it arrived to a torrent of negative press. It even made Wikipedia's page for video games that received a notably poor reception, alongside such extraordinary dog shit as Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing and Superman 64. Then Square Enix president Yoichi Wada declared that the game had "greatly damaged" the Final Fantasy brand. It was, by all measurements, a complete fuck up.
"Before I actually got my hands on the original, I saw people criticising it all over," Yoshida-san says. "But this is a game made by the same people that brought Final Fantasy XI (another online Final Fantasy game) into this world, so maybe they're just issues when compared to that.
"Once I'd been assigned to FFXIV, I had it set up so I could play it at my desk. I'm a heavy MMO player and play mainly using a mouse and keyboard, and this was unmanageable. You couldn't target objects or enemies, open menus or access inventory. It was just a mess!"
I'm surprised by Yoshida-san's willingness to throw the original development team under the bus a bit. He likely still works with a lot of the people who he believes made a terrible video game. Legend has it, and by "legend" I mean "an entry on the official FFXIV record-keeping site, the Lodestone", that Yoshida only logged into the original game for four minutes and 50 seconds. Less than five minutes was enough for him to see that a simple fix wasn't going to cut it – this was going to take a lot of work.
"Instead of looking at the original and working out what parts we want to fix, it was more of a matter of, 'Okay, if we don't have content we can't play, if we don't have a good interface it isn't a good game, and if we don't revamp the battle system we won't be able to do party play.' So it was more about how we could keep the base system but fix each part, each component. We were trying to keep the original game running, while we built A Realm Reborn in the background. After a month and a half of trial and error trying to fix FFXIV, we realised that we needed to rebuild. We needed to start from scratch. That's when I went to upper management and told them that if we were to win back the trust of our fans, we needed to start from scratch."
A Realm Reborn was released in August 2013. The difference between it and the original FFXIV is night and day, and it quickly established itself as one of the world's leading MMORPGs, a feat that seemed impossible upon its initial launch. And the title's an entirely appropriate one, as Yoshida-san really did bring Final Fantasy XIV back from the dead.
"Around the launch of A Realm Reborn, I remember being asked by members of the media, 'What is your definition of success, what is your numbers goal?' I didn't set up a numbers goal – it was about winning back trust. The original FFXIV ended up in failure. A lot of players left due to their disappointment with the game, but there were also players who continued to stay with us, so we took our time to make sure we regained their trust – not only for the game, but for Final Fantasy and Square Enix as a whole."
The future of the game is Heavensward, the ridiculously named first major expansion since the realm was reborn. A sizeable new chunk of game, it includes three new character classes, flying mounts and the ability for you and your "free company" to build your own airship – something that should get the loins of any self-respecting Final Fantasy fan going wild. The new areas are significantly bigger than those in the main game and are full of the quests, huge bosses and world lore that are a major part of what makes A Realm Reborn so compulsive.
I ask if things are different now, years on and with A Realm Reborn being a success; if Yoshida-san's goals had changed now that he wasn't just trying to win back the faith of the lapsed fan.
"A game isn't made by one single genius," he smirks. "I don't feel like there's any pressure to raise the bar, so to speak. That being said, we did have the failure of the original and it was unheard of. I understand the abilities and talents of my team, as well as my own strengths. Each time it is about doing our best and being able to incorporate as much as we're able to do into the game. I rotated staff to keep those motivated who were working on the original game. We couldn't just power forwards, drinking energy drinks!"
There's actually something resembling a time-honoured tradition when it comes to MMOs that get hammered by critics at launch – they die off, very quickly. It is very rare that a game like this gets another chance, never mind actually making it on its second attempt. With a huge, highly anticipated expansion about to launch, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is about as successful as an MMORPG can be in 2015 – quite the turnaround from a game that "couldn't get any worse".
"We were fortunate that this was Final Fantasy and Square-Enix," Yoshida-san concludes. "We don't give up."
Heavensward is released on the 23rd of June. More information at its official site.
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