Naoki Yoshida just wouldn't stop looking at his computer. The beloved producer, credited with transforming Final Fantasy 14 from disaster to dream MMORPG, kept typing and clicking as I spoke to him last week in a private room at E3, frowning occasionally. So I asked what he was looking at.
Naoki Yoshida at E3 2016 (last year)
"Because we're under maintenance right now, any sort of issues that happen at this timing could potentially delay the start of early access," Yoshida said, speaking through a translator. "If my response is not fast enough, that could delay the opening of the service to players." Then he laughed. "And plus for myself I'm downloading the patch."
That was Thursday, June 15, a day before the early access launch of Final Fantasy 14's newest expansion, Stormblood. In the days following our chat, Stormblood would run into a series of server issues that undoubtedly led to much more frantic clicking, typing and frowning. The servers have settled now -- and fans are loving Stormblood's new quests and dungeons -- but it was a rocky first week.
Yet Naoki Yoshida is still having a blast. He's been director and producer of Final Fantasy 14 for nearly five years, ushering it from the disastrous 1.0 launch to the well-received A Realm Reborn and its stellar first expansion, Heavensward. And all the while, he's interacted directly with fans, speaking to hundreds of thousands of Final Fantasy 14 devotees through weekly streams and Q&As. It's been a long, gruelling journey -- but Yoshida's not interested in retiring.
"I haven't gotten sick of it yet," Yoshida said. "There's still a lot of things I want to accomplish inside of Final Fantasy 14. Also, I'm not making the game for myself. It's not like this is a project that I'm doing for my own ego. It's more about: How do we satisfy our customers, our players, who have paid to play this game, and that payment is actually going into my salary."
Yoshida, whose light red hair and extensive collection of jewellery make him instantly recognisable to Final Fantasy 14 fans, says he loves listening to fans and changing the game based on what they say. "That's what I want to pay attention to, rather than being selfish about, 'Oh I want to make this, or if I can't make this I'm going to leave the company' -- I wouldn't think of it that way," he said. "And I do have the personality to be able to be frank, even when talking with corporate. I don't hesitate in letting them know what's on my mind. That allows there to be trust between Square Enix and myself. Square Enix has given me liberty to be able to do things in my style."
When I asked what else Yoshida had left to accomplish, he pointed to the story, a highlight of Final Fantasy 14. The intricate, ongoing plot is the main reason the fourteenth Final Fantasy is so appealing to those of us who don't love MMOs, and it's one thing that Yoshida wants to complete before he ever thinks about retiring. "There's this overarching story, and I've actually set a goal or endpoint for that arc," said Yoshida. "That's one of the things I want to accomplish is to be able to finish that narrative."
"How long will that be?" I asked.
"I think we'd need at least another two more expansions," Yoshida said.
More from our interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity:
On whether Final Fantasy 14 will ever change its old areas the way World of Warcraft has:
Yoshida: This is my personal thought and not anything that's set in stone. Looking at some of the areas in A Realm Reborn, our [original] 2.0 areas, that was when we were making updates to the original 1.0 and rebuilding the world from scratch in such a short time. So if you look back at it now, we can't enable flying, a lot of the side quests have been so accumulated that it's become a hassle.
Now that the development team has game experience of running the MMO, I do notice a lot of points that could be improved upon, and to be quite honest, it would be nice if I could rebuild the areas of A Realm Reborn.
On what class Yoshida plays:
Yoshida: Black Mage.
Schreier: So is Black Mage going to be overpowered in Stormblood?
Yoshida: I don't think so. The Black Mage has never been overpowered at all. It's really funny because a lot of players out there who do main as a Black Mage make comments like, 'Yoshida, stop using the Black Mage,' because I have a relatively high player skill level, and I'm very careful in making the adjustments to that particular job, so they don't become overpowered at all. People actually complain about it.
On what they can do now that they have ditched the PlayStation 3 version of Final Fantasy 14:
Yoshida: One of the biggest challenges we had was the hardware trying to access files -- the IO, or in and out... The speed at which some of the files are being read on the [PS3] hardware and then transferred into memory was slower compared to some of the other platforms. This is a 10-year-old-plus piece of equipment.
Where that caused an issue for Final Fantasy 14 was that for example if the player is moving across the field at a relatively fast speed, some of the NPCs or the other characters would not show up as smoothly as on other platforms. Because the speed at which the files were being read was slow, you did see a difference in the way it's being displayed on screen. So there always had to be a cap so we could accommodate for that hardware capabilities.
But now that we are phasing out of that platform, not having that bottleneck anymore, we have made improvements on usabilities. One example is, as of 4.0 Stormblood, your ground mounts can travel faster now.
On the inevitable Final Fantasy 15 crossover:
Yoshida: Plans for these are moving forward. The Final Fantasy 15 team has settled down on their end. We feel that it's going to be rather hefty in volume in terms of this crossover. Once we are able to get some visual references, some graphics available, and when we decide on timing, we'll make sure to make an official announcement.
On bringing Final Fantasy 14 to Xbox and Switch:
Yoshida: I've said this on several occasions, but it hasn't changed. We would love for as many players to be on FF14 as possible.
Conversations have been had with Mr Phil Spencer of Microsoft, and the upper management teams of Nintendo. But I have proposed a condition every time I speak with any platform manufacturers. It's that the game has to have the capability of cross-platform play.
Of course with an MMORPG, once it launches and starts going into live services and operations, there will be a community. No matter how small it dwindles down to, we have to be responsible for taking care of those communities. It would become an obstacle if the first-party or manufacturer changed how patches are being implemented or online regulations. Some of our external parties' regulations don't have MMORPGs in mind in terms of how they're regulating their online activities. Those can become a hurdle when we consider operating FF14 for an extended period of time, and so when I talk to those first-party companies, I ask them, "Do you have the capability to prepare for that, do you have the resolve that you're going to make sure to take responsibility and take care of those, do you have that willingness?"
If we are able to come to some sort of agreement, a handshake so to speak, or if it does end up being that unfortunately we can't do a handshake with Final Fantasy 14, either way we'll make sure to communicate with our players. But we have been tenacious -- we've been trying to keep at it and be persistent about our conversations.