Having a conversation with Naoki Yoshida can be a very intimidating exercise. It’s not because of his demeanor; he’s friendly, genial, and has an obvious sense of humor. No, it’s because there’s an unmistakable level of energy to him, a huge amount of passion and ambition that drives everything he talks about.
He’s exactly the sort of person who would try something completely insane like remaking a game from the ground up after burning the first version to the ground, for example.
I had the opportunity to sit down for a one-on-one dinner with Yoshida at the Final Fantasy XIV preview event, during which we talked a great deal both about the upcoming relaunch of the game as well as his own experiences in remaking everything. For those of us who play Final Fantasy XIV, it’s obviously an exciting time, but for Yoshida, what’s happening now is the culmination of work that started only a month after he took over control of a game that he had to revitalize after a horrible flop on launch.
As Yoshida remembers it, after he’d been working with the game for a very short time, he knew what he wanted to do with both the story and the game. It needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. So in January of 2011, he sat the team down and showed a full presentation explaining, in his own words, how he wanted to drop a meteor and wipe everything out. Wipe the slate clean completely and remake the game from the ground up. A few members of the staff were skeptical, but most of them were excited to be working on something so audacious and unprecedented.
Really, “audacious” doesn’t begin to cover it. The End of an Era trailer cost about $3 million to produce, and the cinematic team started working on it in April of 2011. Even then, it was down to the wire to see whether it would be ready on time. It’s been an immense undertaking for Yoshida, made all the more stressful by his taking on the role of both producer and director for the title. Even though all of the decisions wind up being his, the two sides are often in conflict, and he claims to not naturally find himself in the public figure role that being a producer entails.
Not that it’s easy to tell that when confronted with his immense enthusiasm. Yoshida doesn’t just love FFXIV; he loves MMOs in general. His play history reads likea highlight reel of MMOs over the last decade: EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft, RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2. “You have to be passionate,” he says. “You have to love the field.”
Some of those are unsurprising; playing with the FATE system invites comparisons to RIFT’s eponymous rifts and the public quests of Warhammer Online. It’s the latter that Yoshida claims inspired the system, but they’re not something that he considers to be a special feature of the game. As he sees it, these mechanics and ideas are a good way to make the game more fun. They shouldn’t be a marketing point; they should be a central feature in every game, another option for players to enjoy.
He also believes that Guild Wars 2 did a good job with the same basic system, something that was inspiring for the FATE mechanics. Apparently he quite enjoyed GW2, feeling it was very polished and a very fun experience. He also noted that the buy-to-play model was interesting from a business perspective and that it that engenders a different set of expectations from players regarding content and updates.
On that note, is FFXIV going to possibly head to free-to-play? It all depends on what happens when the relaunch takes place, but it’s certainly not the first plan. Yoshida definitely feels that the subscription model is the better option, at least initially. “Every game wants to be a subscription game,” he argues.
It’s not that free-to-play is a bad model, but it can be unreliable, prone to wild shifts in revenue over time. It also can be less consistent for the players, with some free-to-play games essentially started as disposable enterprises that players aren’t expected to connect with. Players in general can find the environment less welcoming.
I was especially curious to see what he felt about the North American players. From my perspective, the FFXIV community has always been very contentious and often negative. Imagine my surprise to find that Yoshida feels the NA community is far more positive as a whole than the Japanese community.
It’s not a question of how much criticism he receives; it’s a difference in perspective. North American players have access to a large number of MMOs, and so when a player complains, he’s able to provide points of comparison. By contrast, Yoshida argues, Japanese players as a whole tend to not have the same breadth of experience. He feels that the Japanese community will just tell him that he did something terrible, while American players will provide had feedback on what doesn’t work and why as well as what does work and why.
We discussed briefly what he thought of players who will have lost interest or left by the time the relaunch actually takes place, and it turns out that doesn’t worry him. People have every right to play whatever game they want, he says; it’s been a long wait and it’s understandable to move on. The game will be here when they come back, and he hopes to astonish both new players and old alike with the state of the relaunch.
That level of calm extends to the relaunch as well. When I asked whether anything in the game made him nervous, he replied unambiguously, “No. If I don’t feel something is good enough, I’ll remove it and fix it. There’s no room in this for anything I’m not fully confident about.”
His confidence has kept him fueled through the development process. Catching four hours of sleep a night for two years takes its toll, and Yoshida jokes that he loves red meat because he needs its energy to keep going on the project. Fans have suggested that he take a lengthy vacation after the relaunch goes live, and he says with a grin that he would never attempt something this in-depth or insane ever again.
Then, thinking about it, he laughs. “Not for another five years, at least.”