Wisdom of Nym: What will a new producer mean for Final Fantasy XI?

    
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Finding even a halfway decent screenshot of this game is a mathematical impossibility, I swear.

So we were pretty surprised yesterday when Square-Enix announced Akihiko Matsui would step away as the producer of Final Fantasy XI after a decade working on the title. It’s a far cry from what happened the last time we had a new producer on the game; that was when Tanaka stepped away from the game and from Final Fantasy XIV after the latter’s disastrous launch. You know, the equivalent of Square politely offering him a tanto, a cloth, and a friend with a katana before expecting him to do the honorable thing.

Of course, it also makes sense that some fans of the game might be more than a little… let’s say apprehensive in the wake of this announcement, especially as the game’s first post-maintenance-mode story content winds down. So let’s talk a little bit about what we know so far, what we can expect from the game moving forward, and Matsui’s stated reasons for departing alongside Fujito’s plans for the game. It’s probably less bleak than you might think. Relax. Take a deep breath.

Let’s start by acknowledging something that can easily get lost when discussing FFXI at this point: The game has now been running for more than 20 years, and it has long since made its development budget back and then some. And it seems clear from what Matsui has to say on the matter that while the game has a lot of people who have been responsible for the game’s continued operation, he seems to think that he could have been more willing to look to the future for the game rather than playing it safe.

Matsui’s comments are weirdly juxtaposed with Fujito’s letter, since the latter then goes on to talk¬†about how he’s planning to reduce the size of the development team and shrink the scope of the game’s version updates. These two things do not naturally go together! What’s going on here?

Obviously it’s hard to be certain about what is happening behind the scenes, but there seem to be a few elements at play here. The first is the simple reality that’s been mentioned before: FFXI is built on now-ancient PlayStation 2 development kits. Since the game remains a PS2 game first and foremost, it’s not like FFXIV where new hardware can keep moving as upgrades happen. Something needs to be changed if the developers want to keep updating the game.

At the same time, the game has been in “maintenance mode” while still having monthly updates for several years now – since 2015! We’ve all made the jokes about how the game updates more frequently than many non-maintenance-mode games, but it’s easy to get used to that cadence, even though the odds are pretty good that FFXI is not exactly bringing in many new players at this point.

DUDE

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Fujito also talks about people on the team bringing learning back to FFXI, though. All of these things taken together seem to imply that the goal is less to reduce the staff on FFXI forever and more to just… avoid a situation where you have Square-Enix staff members who know only how to work on an ancient PS2 game and thus have nowhere to go once that game finally shuts down.

“Wait, does that mean FFXI is shutting down?” No! But also yes. Look at what I just said about development kits. Sooner or later that hardware is going to die, and two of the initiatives that Mastui specifically cites Fujito as being responsible for are the renewed installer and the chat filter function. Taking all of this into account paints a clear picture: Matsui can see that whoever takes the reins must be willing to move the title at least enough into the future technologically that it has a shot at seeing 30 years of operation.

You can also see it implied by Fujito mentioning having the team members work on other projects and then return to FFXI. It seems clear that there’s a push in the medium term, at least, to move FFXI out of the hole of technology that it’s fallen into. Whether or not, say, development can be moved off of the old devkits or not, I get the feeling he’s at least trying to accomplish that.

This also ties into the promised potential return of live events and merchandise. It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten either (ironically, we were going to get a live event at PAX East 2020, but then… uh… 2020 happened), but it doesn’t smack of the publisher wanting to pull resources off of the game. It reads like future-proofing, or at least an attempt at doing the same.

And this is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that it’s not entirely certain if Matsui has ever really wanted to be the producer of FFXI in the first place.

Eye see.

I don’t say that to denigrate the man; he got handed the reins at a difficult time and has kept on with dedication ever since. But that also means that he’s been working on FFXI in some capacity for 23 years now, and it’s not altogether certain that he wanted to spend the majority of his life on this same game. Not everyone wants to create one game that they just keep refining and improving for decades! It’s not somehow a failing to want to do other things.

I think it’s indisputable at this point that Matsui has created a titanic legacy and deserves to be celebrated for his contributions to FFXI over these long years. And I can absolutely understand why people would look at things like reducing the scope of updates a bit and think that the game must be coming to an end, that we’re running out of game to play. To an extent, that’s true; the days of getting big full boxed expansions for the game do not seem to be coming back, not that this is all that surprising, since we’ve known about it for almost a decade.

But FFXI was also a game not made for future-proofing, being instead tied very much to a console that has been outdated for 17 years now. It’s complex to develop for, and even at its height FFXI didn’t approach the popularity of FFXIV. There’s no reason to fear that it is going to suffer an imminent demise, but much like Square-Enix itself seems to be in a bit of a transitional period, the game needs to change moving forward. In everything from content updates to cadence, there’s always been a sense that this couldn’t last forever.

Rather than being worried about it, I choose to look at it as a new phase. Would I buy a new expansion if it came out? Of course. But if we’re never getting one – and it doesn’t appear we are – we need to engage with the game as it is and what it can do now. And if that means re-focusing around a different cadence of content updates, well, that seems like a small price to pay if we’re going to be celebrating three decades of Vana’diel later.

Also, maybe we can actually get some more comprehensive balance passes for the game. That’d be nice.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing¬†Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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