Volume 13 of Dengeki Games has hit bookstores today, and it contains a sprawling, 30-page Starter Guide to Final Fantasy XIV, which also just came out this week. While some criticism has arisen regarding the lack of in-game tutorials, Japanese players sure won't have to worry, as for 600 yen they have access to pages of details on character creation, navigating menus, classes and abilities and the battle system. Included are also many colorful maps for each city-state and the surrounding areas.
Can you tell I'm a little jealous?
Anyway, the real point of this article is to deliver what I can for overseas players: which in this case is an interview with Producer Hiromichi Tanaka printed at the front of this magazine. It isn't the most epic of interviews, but it is long and at times insightful, and with mere days before Square Enix leads us into that new era of the Final Fantasy online experience, it provides an interesting examination of what Vana'diel has meant and what Eorzea strives to be.
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-- Now that service has finally begun for Final Fantasy XIV, I would think this is the busiest period for you, but I would like to talk about the relationship between FFXIV and Final Fantasy XI, if possible. First, though, let's go back to the beginning of the series as a whole. Tanaka, you have be involved in Final Fantasy since its very inception and have experience working on many other RPG titles as well.
Tanaka: Yes, I have. Final Fantasy had its 20th anniversary a few years back and I just thought, "Has it been 20 years already...?" For a time, I also made action games, but looking back, the bulk of my work has been with RPGs.
-- Did you always like RPGs?
Tanaka: When I was in school, Hironobu Sakaguchi and I were very much into games like Wizardry and Ultima, which I feel served as the inspiration for me to get into this line of work.
-- That's when you produced your first title, the original Final Fantasy. You were mainly involved in the battle system, is that right?
Tanaka: Not just for battle system, but you could say I handled everything besides the story. (laughs) Sakaguchi and his crew crafted the scenarios and I basically got to develop whatever other aspects I wanted.
-- From the beginning, each title in the Final Fantasy series has introduced sweeping changes in the game's system, but the "Job Change" system from Final Fantasy III seems to have had the most impact, appearing again in both Final Fantasy V and FFXI. That type of job system has become a favorite ever since the time of FFIII, wouldn't you say?
Tanaka: Whether it's a stand-alone or multiplayer title, "party play" is the basis of any RPG. The system you mention allows you to assign different roles, or "jobs," to the party, so you might say it is the most natural fit for that type of game.
-- By the way, in the DS version of FFIII, job balance changed immensely with the addition of new abilities and other adjustments. Was this influenced by your experience with FFXI?
Tanaka: Looking back, the original FFIII was designed so that the player would raise a number of different jobs as they level and eventually settle on the final two jobs: Ninja and Scholar -- the elite classes, so to speak.
-- You pretty much needed to use those for the final boss.
Tanaka: In FFXI, it is more about a player finding their favored role or identity, and leveling the appropriate jobs as far as they can; if you like being a Warrior, you aim to become the ultimate Warrior. When making FFIII for the DS, it was that concept that influenced the process. Players can now win using a party of their choosing, and a fully leveled Warrior can be as strong as an elite class like Ninja or Sage.
-- I'm guilty of this too, but in FFXI people get very attached to their preferred jobs. However, FFXIV has given this area of the game an overhaul with the Armoury System. Can you tell us how this incarnation of the job change concept is different?
Tanaka: FFXIV doesn't use the term "job" -- a term which has been used through the Final Fantasy series. The concept here is one learns abilities from different "classes" like Gladiator and Thaumaturge, and through the combination of those abilities can effectively create their own job.
-- I got the impression in the beta that most players were trying out many different classes and testing combinations of abilities.
Tanaka: With FFXI's system, a Ninja does well with a Warrior support job, so to an extent, that becomes the de facto support job for Warrior. We wanted to allow for more freedom in choosing how to configure a character. We also wanted a system where during solo play, or even with large groups, you can adapt your role for the situation by swapping your abilities in and out. If you want to be recognized as a good attacker, you develop your offensive abilities, but if you want to be a healer, you can do without them. There should be a way to save sets of abilities to switch easily between them, but that feature isn't ready yet; we should be able to add it in an update.
-- So, the essential point is that everyone can customize their character in unique ways. When doing so, how is each character's role or identity conveyed to other players? For example, in FFXI it is easy to say, "That guy's a Paladin," but how do we understand this in FFXIV?
Tanaka: In FFXI, there are Linkshells, which are like casual groups of players. In FFXIV we want to have a system for more tightly-knit groups, called Companies. So while there is a lot of flexibility in customization, a player will also gradually define their identity within their own Company.
-- Since Companies weren't present in the beta, people have been left wondering how they will be implemented.
Tanaka: We plan to add Companies in a version update after the game's release, so it's still a secret. (laughs) The plan is to continue with the Linkshell system once service begins and eventually morph existing groups into Companies, which will let them operate more like guilds or clans.
-- When you say "guilds" I imagine something much larger in scale than a Linkshell. Will you prepare any special methods for these groups to communicate?
Tanaka: The chat function used for Linkshells already covers this in-game, so next is developing ways to communicate out of game.
-- ...which means using the Web?
Tanaka: For FFXI, players had their own message boards for discussing strategies and such, but for FFXIV we are preparing a community of our own on the Player Site.
-- This may be different from what you are preparing, but there is also the possibility of using social networks for communication. The connection between the game and the Web could be much different than with FFXI.
Tanaka: That may be true for other aspects of the game as well, and this time around we are looking at this from a whole new perspective. Many plans are being put together, and even I'm excited to see what we come up with. (laughs)
-- I'd like to jump back a bit and talk about the early days of FFXI. Even looking back now, making Square Enix's first MMO, not to mention making said MMO a numbered part of the Final Fantasy series, must have been quite the task. What would you say was the most difficult aspect of the development process?
Tanaka: That would be the environment within which we were working. At the time of development, the PlayStation 2 did not have a hard disc drive, or even the necessary networking capabilities. Furthermore, from a consumer standpoint, we had to break into the PC market as well. This is still true today, but MMORPGs popular in North American and Europe back then, like Ultima Online and Everquest, were all based on the PC. Those games had built the market, and we knew we could not break into that market unless we had a complete MMORPG experience that was accepted on a global level.
-- Besides RPGs and Action games with online elements, there haven't been many successful titles that utilize the hard disc drive after FFXI. That alone makes it seem like it was a gamble.
Tanaka: It was a gamble, but you can't succeed if you don't try. Things really got their start once word came from Sony Computer Entertainment that the PS2 would have a hard disc and networking capabilities and we would be able to offer version updates, which are crucial to the continuous evolution of the game -- a key characteristic of MMORPGs.
-- For players like us, our first "mission" was to get our hands on a hard disc drive. (laughs) Eight years have now passed since service began, but how long was your initial road map for the game?
Tanaka: We knew there would be no profit if we didn't make it at least five years, so we first focused on getting to that point. Therefore, we thought this game better still look good five years down the line, and used that as a basis for planning the required PC specs. Many felt the required specs were high for that time, but if we hadn't planned ahead, the game would have aged much faster.
-- Many of the editors' PCs could barely run FFXI at that time, and so we focused on the PS2. At some point, though, we all started shifting over to playing on laptop PCs.
Tanaka: FFXIV is going through a similar stage now, and the thought process behind it is similar to when we designed FFXI. That is why many users in the beta may have felt their PCs were not up to snuff -- myself included. (laughs) So, we want to include a number of options to support those with lower specs.
-- In FFXI, the level cap raise and Abyssea expansions have become hot topics recently. What are your ambitions for the game as it moves into its 9th and 10th years?
Tanaka: I have actually been discussing plans with the development team, and we are thinking that a year from now player levels will be much higher overall, and so we believe we should prioritize the development of high-end content. We have already provided so much for low-level players, such as Level Sync, so there is a lot more for high-level players on the way.
-- Certainly, the road to max level has become much smoother. Recently, I have been telling people who do not play anymore how you can go from 75 to 80 in a day, and they simply cannot believe it. (laughs) A long time ago, just gaining those levels was its own reward, but now the style has shifted towards the content rather than the grind. By the way, what sequence of events lead you to unlocking the level cap after six years?
Tanaka: A big part of it was the limitations that a cap at 75 placed on everyone. For example, taking away the cap opens up new combinations of jobs and abilities. At that stage, we used Merit Points, which we assumed would provide that variety, but as we found out through a survey of overseas players, without even being specifically asked, many cited raising the level cap as their biggest request. In the end, we felt that raising the level cap would be the best way to motivate players.
Still, with all the content we had balanced for level 75, raising the cap could make a lot of the game obsolete; monsters that posed a significant challenge at level 75 would suddenly become small fry. Confronting that reality probably took more courage than anything else, and is still something we need to remain cognizant of as we continue to raise the cap.
-- The other day, you added Scars of Abyssea along with the version update. What are the highlights of this expansion?
Tanaka: As with Visions of Abyssea, we added a large amount of Notorious Monsters and AF 3 equipment as rewards. There are equipment pieces for each job, and the designs are much different than what we have done before. The designer really put a lot of work into them.
-- The pieces I like the most are the Ninja hood and that unique-looking Puppetmaster head piece. I'm having a lot of fun trying to get them. (laughs)