The Alpha Test has begun and things are running... well, they're running. Information continues to pour out through Japanese publications, and this week we have an exclusive interview between Famitsu and Final Fantasy XIV Producer Hiromichi Tanaka and his faithful director, Nobuaki Komoto.
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- The alpha test has begun and would it be accurate to say that the whole world is watching? At this stage of testing there is only a limited amount of players, but the development team has taken their first big step. I'd like to talk about how you feel the test is progressing, and what you hope to accomplish as you go forward.
Tanaka: The current situation for the alpha test is that we have testing time split up into 4 hour blocks for each region -- Japan, North America and Europe. Admittedly, we have not stabilized the server, and the game is not fully playable yet. We've been causing some headaches for our test players who were lucky enough to get chosen for the alpha, but with each update we are improving the game.
- What is causing the server instability?
Tanaka: We have the same amount of testers in each region, but from our experience beta-testing FFXI, we figured only 50% of players would be logging in at the same time. Additionally, the testers in Japan were all selected as passionate FFXI fans, so they are eager to play, and the percentage of them logging in is extremely high. The servers don't crash as often during North American and European tests.
For the April 15th update, we extended the amount of time between logins required to remain in queue to 10 minutes and introduced a system to display your place in that queue. It allowed people who were waiting to get in to have some visual indication of their progress, and it let us organize the traffic better.
Komoto: As for the test itself, we sincerely apologize that everyone has not been able to enjoy the game to their satisfaction. We are also extremely grateful for all the feedback and opinions we have received so far.
- What are your impressions of the feedback you have received?
Komoto: They are certainly much different then what we hear from the development side. They notice a lot of little things that we don't. In addition, there are some interesting differences between the opinions of the different regions. Personally, it's been a big change for me, as I had been away from the action for so long working on FFXIV. Now that people are logging in and the alpha test is in motion, I'm finding myself back interacting with the developers and with management -- it feels like I'm home again.
- Have the developers been logging into the game?
Komoto: We want too, but we still haven't increased the amount of people who can access the game, so we're trying to restrain ourselves. (laughs) We want as many players as possible to get a chance to play.
Tanaka: During that first test, I was the only one at my PC trying to fight through the crowds to login my character. (laughs)
- Really! (laughs) Would we know it was your character if we saw it?
Tanaka: I was logging in as "Azagba Tanaka," so you would probably have a clue. (laughs) We can see chat logs and such from the developer side, but it's difficult to get a full picture of what players are doing from that alone. Therefore, I want to login as a representative and get an unfiltered look at exactly what the situation is like in-game.
- The Producer has to do it himself, right? (laughs) Have there been any particular opinions from the players that have left an impression?
Komoto: The alpha version is still focusing on basic controls and movement, so there have been comments that the response time is slow, or such and such command needs fixing. We expected some control issues and let people know on the tester site to tell us, for example, if they were difficult to understand without a tutorial. As we expected, many people confirmed that they are tough to grasp. This is something we feel needs to be addressed before release.
Tanaka: We are diligently investigating any issues that get a lot of feedback. One interesting thing to note is the difference in the amount of feedback posted to the Japan, North America and Europe tester forums. Japan has about 5000 posts. Europe and North America have a whole digit more with 19,000 and 25,000, respectively. The amount of testers in each region is the same, but we are seeing 5 NA posts for every single JP post, which really highlights the cultural differences of the regions. Also, North American posters tend to write many more suggestions. It's like, "Listen to my ideas!" (laughs)
- Meaning, Japanese players are a little more "graceful" would you say?
Komoto: More like they take their time and try to get a full understanding of the current situation. We thought they would have more scathing feedback for us, but it hasn't turned out that way. It feels more like they are looking out for us than trying to criticize.
- So, what you're saying is, you don't exactly have the time to be all warm and fuzzy with the players?
Komoto: It's nice, but it doesn't feel like we have really accomplished anything yet. (laughs) Though I do enjoy being back on the management-side of things.
Tanaka: We still have mountains of work to do. (laughs) We're still putting out pieces of the alpha version and need to examine what needs changing. Even when the official release comes out, we have to start preparing for the next project, so I'm not sure we'll even feel that sense of accomplishment and closure then.
- But that's part of working on an MMO -- it's never really "finished."
Komoto: Putting together an event where all the fans come together really gives us that sense of accomplishment though. It's like, "We did it!" (laughs)
Tanaka: I get that feeling everytime I log in with the players and watch them enjoy the game. The alpha version isn't at that stage yet, so I'm working hard to get it there.
- Ever since FFXIV was first announced, you have promoted it as a game that will change and evolve as you take in player feedback. Is it safe to say this plan has not changed?
Komoto: No, it hasn't. It won't even change once the game is released and official service begins. There are many things we want to fix, and we can't just deliver a product with only what we like. At this stage, we want to know what you want the most. Of course we don't just want to hear about the bad points, we want to take in and consider everyone's opinion on the future of the game.
- In other words, during the alpha and planned beta testing phases, you want players to send you any opinions they might have, no matter how trivial?
Komoto: As we mentioned, player opinions often contain things we simply overlook on the developer side. Even before the alpha started, we posted the play manual and people already had opinions on that. (laughs) Developers would take a look at what players noticed and learn things.
Tanaka: Conversely, we are also able to get confirmation for some of our own assumptions.
Komoto: So there's two goals: Discovering what we overlook, and confirming our assumptions. That's why every single comment is important to us.
- Let's move on to talk about the testing schedule. Is it safe to assume the size and scope of the test is going to increase gradually?
Tanaka: We're still examining the situation, but at this initial stage we want to be able to consistently conduct three tests a week.
Komoto: We feel it's important to maintain server stability and allow everyone to enjoy the game.
Tanaka: As for the region-based testing, we are thinking of changing that at some point. There are always people who just can't fit the testing times into their schedule.
- How long do you plan to run the current alpha test?
Komoto: We had a general idea in the beginning, but the server stability issues have caused more problems than we could foresee. We still want to examine players after they have been able to level their characters a little more.
Tanaka: Actually, we have two patterns set up for the speed of character growth, so we plan to delete all characters at some point during the alpha. After we collect data on the currently implemented pattern, we will wipe everyone and start again with a the second one in play.
- So, at some points you will have to start over from scratch.
Komoto: That's right. This isn't limited to the alpha, but in the beta as well, once things are running smoothly, we plan to do this multiple times up until the game's release.
- Will you move on to the beta phase once you have fully examined the growth rate?
Tanaka: Currently, the alpha test takes place on a single World. The next step is to increase the number of Worlds, which will multiply the number of testers. That will be the start of what we call Beta-1, or perhaps Alpha-2.
- The plans change according to the situation.
Tanaka: Depending on what feedback we collect and how far development advances towards a final product, we can call the current game a "beta version."
- Currently, regions are seperated during testing, but is there a time planned when everyone will start playing together?
Tanaka: That will probably happen once the Worlds are running 24 hours a day. We're currently working towards that.
- How are things going development-wise?
Tanaka: The graphics are pretty much finished. Next, planners and programmers need to make some final adjustments, but it's tough to say exactly what percentage is complete. (laughs) Even with the graphics complete, there are things that need tweaking. For example, the lighting throughout Limsa Lominsa is going to completely change.
- Is the general framework of the world complete?
Tanaka: The basics are pretty much done. Like I mentioned, it's mostly cosmetic changes that are left. (laughs) System-related things like the user interface, or additional quest material are still being worked on. If we consider how FFXIV has been in development for 5 years, we're probably in the final 10% of its development cycle, which accounts for 50% of the game.
Komoto: With the start of the alpha test, we start to look at character growth, expanding the world, quests and more. Looking at the alpha as it is now, there's less than 10% of the game available.
Tanaka: As for the progression of development, a conservative estimate would be 65%. (laughs)
- Right now, the alpha has focused only on the PC. How is development for the PS3 coming along?
Tanaka: We're working hard on the PS3 as well. We plan to have both versions begin service simultaneously.
- Then is it okay for those eager PS3 players to get excited?
Tanaka & Komoto: Yes! We hope you look forward to playing.