Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida on Stormblood’s release, AI issues, and MMO history

    
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After all this time, I’m sure some of you forgot that my original E3 2017 interview with Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida was supposed to have a part two. That’s OK, since, well, the team’s been a bit busy since then. With the expansion out and some fires smothered, the much loved game director finally was able to get back to some of my questions.

Naturally, the first question I had to ask was how Yoshida is feeling about Stormblood following early access, launch, and the release of the first content patch updates. For now, he said (through translators) that he’s relieved but that the expansion had “an unexpectedly high number of new and returning players [who] came back to the game, which caused some issues and frustration.” One of them was the DDOS attack, for which he again offered apologies.

YOOOOOOOOOOOOO

In fact, Yoshida said that the team’s “considering further preventative measures against potential DDOS threats” for future expansions. He doesn’t want the team’s success with the expansion to cause it to lower its guard. “We as a team need to discuss the negatives that came from this experience and work to change the workflow and how we check things,” which Yoshida believes could “lead to even better stability in [the team’s] service going forward.”

I found this interesting since Square-Enix has done some creative problem-solving in the past. In fact, some adjustments to login flow and the addition of instances for field zones that we saw in Heavensward were brought back for the launch of Stormblood. I asked Yoshida if he felt that the measures were successful, and he said that he felt the use of “login queues, instancing field zones, and splitting server loads (via instances) were very effective on a functional level.” Apparently, without these methods, Yoshida said some players wouldn’t have been able to login or there would have been “large-scale zone crashes.” Still, Yoshida wants to “continue refining these processes to ensure the smooth operation of the service.”

I’m not a technical expert, but I was curious whether SE tried anything different this time around and whether Yoshida might make any changes for future expansions based on the results seen in Stormblood’s launch. Here’s what he told me:

“We have heard feedback about making zone instances selectable [when teleporting], and I understand that desire, but if we allow that, it counteracts the original intention of spreading out users, so I think it’s a difficult situation. Moving forward with future expansions, this is something we will revisit, and hopefully we can further improve functionality of the system.

We’ve also greatly bolstered our world transfer initiatives in an effort to spread out our players and prevent congestion problems. In the future, we plan to implement game features that in essence create a worldless game experience – we will soon be adding a cross-world friends list and linkshells.”

As the game seems to have a good amount of storyline involved, I asked Yoshida how long did he expect most players to take to complete the main scenario in Stormblood and whether what he’s seeing lines up with his expectations. Yoshida mentioned that for Heavensward, SE “made adjustments based on estimates that it would take about 57 hours to complete the main story content, including leveling.” However, that model had some “stagnant periods around level 58 to 60 where quest experience was lacking,” so for Stormblood, the team “calculated and allocated all experience points with the assumption of 50 hours of gameplay.”

Players who read all of the NPC dialogue and watched the cutscenes “ended up very close to the gameplay time [the team] had estimated.” Of course, there are always players who don’t read quest text, skip cutscenes, and finish the game’s main storyline as quickly as they can, and Yoshida didn’t plan on doing anything to stop them from doing so. That being said, Yoshida laughed and noted that this is “the main story of the latest Final Fantasy game, so it would make [him] happy if people would take their time to enjoy it.”

Since I had had a second opportunity to talk to Yoshida, I also got to pose a few questions from Massively OP’s Final Fantasy columnist Eliot Lefebvre in the follow-up. The introduction of the Lupine characters in Yanxia as a kind of off-hand reference seemed to catch his attention, so I asked Yoshida if players will learn more about them. For example, are they considered beastmen, or maybe a different sort of spoken race similar to the Hyur and Au Ra?

Yoshida said that “there is actually no difference between the human races and beastmen; the human races designated certain races as beastmen on their terms. That being said, you may already be aware from interacting with the people of Yanxia, but it seems they do not think of the Lupine folk as beastmen.” At the moment, the team has yet to determine how deeply it wants to delve into the Yanxia’s backgrounds, but there’s some good news: “It may be dependent on feedback [the team] receives from players,” so make your voices heard!

Eliot, like many of you, also noticed that in Stormblood there are no new levequests for combat jobs. A portion of playerbase seemed to enjoy them, so I asked whether battle levequests will return later on in the expansion or the was team focusing on levels as gathering/crafting content from this point onward. Yoshida said that
battle levequests “require a large amount of variation for each level tier, and the text requirements for each of the levequests is extremely extensive.” SE also looked at its play data from 3.0, and it turns out that the play rate for levequests was very low. Players were leveling their characters through instanced dungeons and quests instead. Because of this, the team ended up removing battle levequests for 4.0 to focus on improving other content. Yoshida said, “I’m afraid to say it probably won’t come back in the same form; however, we plan to continue using those freed up resources to improve on other content. I’m sorry!”

Yoshida on the MMO genre

I’m not a Final Fantasy junkie, though I am that rare duck who loved FFVIII more than FFVII . That being said, Yoshida is a director who talks like a player, and while I may not be playing his game, I can respect some of his decisions as an outsider looking in. Again, on the ground floor of E3 2017, one of the FF mobile game booth assistants noted that people were saying FFXIV was their favorite in the entire series, which speaks volumes in terms of quality.

Finally I got to follow up on my last question from E3 2017. I asked Yoshida what are some of the aspects of MMOs he felt single player games struggle with in relation to his comment about FFVII “having a powerful feel similar to an MMO”? He felt the question was “philosophical,” which certainly showed in his response:

“Personally, I think the biggest thing would be having the majority of characters that exist within the world move and talk as if they were actual human beings, not acting as if AI is controlling their actions. It’s true that by thoroughly refining the AI, a character may react like a human, but adding a personality on top of that is an even more difficult task. Wouldn’t you agree that having thousands of those players come together at the same time is the biggest appeal of an MMORPG? I love that kind of world, and I believe that’s why I can continue to work on FFXIV with such enthusiasm.”

I agree that having at least many, if not thousands, of players coming together at the same time is one of the biggest appeals of the genre. That being said, it’s also gotten smaller. The illusion of how big it is, with NPCs being able to engage players as guards or refusing them service if they’ve done something that gives them a negative faction standing is interesting, but the moments when we interact with real people are a core aspect of the MMO that seems threatened every time we speed up human processes (like assembling raid groups through a button click rather than real dialogue). As Yoshida had experience with a different Square-Enix IP’s MMO attempt, I decided to ask him, as either a developer or player, if he had any personal or “historical” MMO moments that have really inspired him. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting Yoshida to say, but he laid out his MMO street-cred quite neatly:

“The big one for me was Ultima Online, where I started out by participating in the beta test – my first experience with an MMO. One memorable moment of the beta was when Lord British’s character appeared in game, but was actually being controlled by a person. He ended up being assassinated by a Fire Field spell, and having been there myself during that moment was a very impactful experience in a number of ways (laughs). After that, I learned much from my time playing EverQuest, and I also played Dark Age of Camelot for a long time. Going even further, I learned aspects of game design that resonated with a more modern audience through World of Warcraft. These three titles were big for me. Once I came on board to FFXIV 1.0, I re-familiarized myself with the ‘shock’ of Star Wars Galaxies.”

I mean no offense to other game developers, but sometimes their lack of player experience explains why they don’t “get” players. They can be quite intelligent and good at practical design, but without knowing their genre’s history, they often are doomed to repeat it due to their ignorance. In retrospect, these two paragraphs and Yoshida’s history inside the genre as a player and developer explain a lot of why Yoshida feels on the mark in terms of player attitudes, as well as why he seems to focus on player engagement so much.

Finally, prior to E3 2017, I’d seen an interesting tweet from a sentient slice of salmon named Kirimi-chan. Later,  Square-Enix Assistant PR Manager Adam Pelc pointed out that Yoshida was wearing an interesting shirt at the recent FATE event in Hamamatsu, so I had to ask Yoshida about his feelings on Kirimi-chan’s excitement about Stormblood. Yoshida’s normal style is not quite one that makes him seem like the type to associate with the likes of the Hello Kitty company (Sanrio), but “having the adorable Kirimi-chan play Final Fantasy XIV made [him] feel much closer to the character!” I was also jokingly notified that Kirimi-chan “is playing ‘Salmonal Salmontasy XIV.'” It was a good reminder that games and fans can transcend genre boundaries, a fact I often forget when I can’t see the people behind the screens.

Thanks to Naoki Yoshida and everyone at Square-Enix who took the time to make this followup interview possible!

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Sariel

Despite all the mishaps and hiccups on the way to where we are now, Yoshida-san always reminds me that there are very real human beings playing and creating the game we play, and he is always ready and willing to admit his and their mistakes and offer solutions and updates to issues. I’m hoping that FFXIV lasts a very long time more!

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François Verret

That’s some MMO cred! I wasn’t too aware of Yoshida as a person before those last two interviews, but now I think I love him.

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Dagget Burmese

The instancing really needs to allow for teams to warp in together. Numerous other games have that capability, it should not be hard for SE to do it. Nothing more frustrating to teleport a team to a zone and then spend 5 mins for some members to find a zone border by which to switch instances to be with their buddies. Also should allow for instance swapping without zoning out and back in at a border. Good example of instance management done right would be Age of Conan, where teams always enter the same instance and individuals can change instances from any rez pad.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah not being able to get into the same instance by default bothered me greatly. In general I’ve barely bothered with hunts or camping special fates because the instance system is a massive turnoff.

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Danny Smith

“i’m not a final fantasy junkie”

You go and play FFV right now!

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Sariel

I love the feeling the older FFs bring, and even parts of 7 and especially all of 9. The whimsical, super high-fantasy, magical charm that 4, 5, 6 and 9 in particular are like no other, and many parts of Stormblood have brought me back to that, especially the Deltascape raid (for reasons other than just the FF5 bosses)!