A Realm Rebirthed – Appreciation for Naoki Yoshida

Final Fantasy XIV v1.0 launched on September 30th, 2010. A project that had been in the works for 5 years, the game had delayed the PS3 version (crucial for the home market in Japan) in order to launch by the release date given.

The game, largely managed by key members of the team behind Square’s first MMO, Final Fantasy XI, was designed to largely continue in the style of that previous release. The game was designed with gorgeous graphics for the era linked to the kinds of gameplay that FFXI fans would recognize.

I bought that v1.0 release, in fact, I still have the beautiful collector’s edition box of that release with Yoshitaka Amano’s gorgeous art on it, and that is my copy pictured above!

The game was kind of…well, it was kind of bad. The game was slow and plodding, designed to maintain the emphasis on group play that FFXI had, meaning that past maybe level 10, you’d pretty much need to tackle the content with a group. The graphics were so overdone that a potted plant used the same amount of geometry and shader code that a player character used – so it looked phenomenal for 2010, but that same artistry made the game run really poorly on most hardware. I had a Core i7 920 and Geforce GTX 285 at the time, top-end hardware along with 12GB of RAM, and I could run the game at full settings at barely 20 FPS. Seeing it made clear why the PS3 version was delayed – there was no way that the PS3 was ever going to be able to run the game at anywhere near that level of visual fidelity (and even when A Realm Reborn hit PS3 3 years later, it did so by animating enemies at half-frame rate, reducing the resources needed to process their animations. ).

The game’s gameplay was excessively grindy, with little repeatable content or engaging dungeons or raids. Most of the v1.0 dungeons were just open-world caves, a throwback to the MMO of old, but difficult to run on a regular basis as a result. The game was met with universally negative reception, and many interesting things happened – the game’s live service was made free along with an apology for the game from Square Enix president Yoichi Wada, and the top end of the development team was removed and replaced with Naoki Yoshida.

Naoki Yoshida is a veteran developer who came to prominence at Hudson Soft, working on titles like Bomberman before moving to smaller projects, then eventually winding up at Square Enix as the chief planner for Dragon Quest X, another MMO under the company’s watch. Yoshida (nickname Yoshi-P) was a strong designer with an eye for what was happening outside of Japan. As an MMO fan, he was one of a few in Japan who was familiar with Everquest and Ultima Online firsthand as a player, and also played World of Warcraft and was well-studied in the MMORPG genre as a result.

The expertise he brought to the FFXIV team as its leader cannot be understated. The chief problem he identified was that the leadership of the 1.0 project hadn’t looked at the MMO market in the time since FFXI had launched. They were trying to make an FFXI sequel, rather than a new game that would evolve to meet the market standards – a market that had grown and changed drastically since FFXI launched in the early 2000’s. By the 2010 launch of FFXIV v1.0, the genre had changed so drastically that the feature set of the launch game was anachronistic, locked in the past.

Yoshi-P took on a bold project that had never really been done, before or since – the team was going to undertake two simultaneous journeys, introducing new content and storylines into 1.0, trying to fundamentally refine the classes present in 1.0 while also preparing a relaunch of the game with A Realm Reborn.

Square Enix was uncharacteristically willing to take the chance, as the corporate perception of the 1.0 launch was that the game had damaged the brand of Final Fantasy – which isn’t inaccurate, as the game had tanked in critical and commercial reception. Yoshi-P had planned on doing this in barely 18 months, as the team would start from early 2011 and would aim to have ARR on store shelves ready to go in 2013.

Yoshi-P had to serve in a dual role for this process, serving as both a lead designer and also the main producer on the game, meaning he was both designing content and ensuring the team stayed on target with their tasks. This involved an absurd amount of work, by most accounts – the team had to streamline and reuse what they could of 1.0 while designing new content and improving what was there. This was a problem that was compounded by how odd the FFXIV v1.0 content really was – world maps were mazes, dungeons were nearly non-existent until the Yoshi-P team began adding content, the visual assets needed to be retooled to make performance, and combat needed to be redesigned nearly completely from the TP-heavy model of 1.0 into the more modern resource gameplay that ARR featured.


The team made strong, intelligent plays to maximize the crossover of work between the versions. The job system, introduced by Yoshi-P’s team, was done in a way that would allow the team to reuse icons, animations, and some of the design. New zones that were added or tweaked for additional story content were made to a standard that could be brought in to ARR.

The aim was to reuse as much as possible, and to tweak as needed to clean up what was there. World maps were used but tweaked with the damage of the Calamity, allowing the team to take the base from 1.0, add new visual tweaks, and fill out the map from the mazes of 1.0 to actually fleshed out zones. Artwork added from the patch cycle and the design of many of the zones was reused, and the basic shape of many of the props and art elements were reused with reductions to the amount of  resources rendering them took.

When FFXIV re-entered the news in 2013 with the release of A Realm Reborn, I personally was incredibly skeptical of the new game. I figured the game was still going to be boring, slow, and plodding, with a beautiful world and musical score and nothing more to say.

However, my friends got hooked into it, and by June 2014, I was back in with A Realm Reborn and really enjoying what I saw.

Yoshi-P deserves a ton of credit for accomplishing something no-one expected with any seriousness. In around 2 years of effort, the team he led managed to completely support and close out the story of FFXIV 1.0 for the dedicated players that remained until the end, and then used that work as the launching pad to springboard into A Realm Reborn, with groundwork laid to make that move as easy as possible. The launch was well-received, and the game rapidly gained critical acclaim and found an audience of both original 1.0 players and a new, larger audience.

Yoshi-P brought a sensibility to the game that was missing from the original launch. Yoshi-P was a longterm MMO player, and while it would be easy to dismiss the combat revamp that came with A Realm Reborn as being derived from the MMO’s that came before, the reality is that it managed to carve out its own niche in this space. It used hotbars and tab-targetting, but used a slower GCD and made combat more thoughtful and strategic compared to the market as it was in 2013. It focused on crafting in a way that most mainsteam MMOs had not, and delivered a different (debatably better) experience for tradeskills. Most of all, the game focused on using the Final Fantasy franchise shorthands and references to carve out a further niche – 1.0 and FFXI had elements of Final Fantasy tied up into them, but they often felt grafted on to the structure of the game. ARR felt like a loving tribute, using major summons from the series as enemies, bringing their signature attacks into a new level of visual fidelity that wouldn’t be matched until Final Fantasy XV 3 years later. The Alliance Raid series in ARR was Crystal Tower, referencing the plot of Final Fantasy III, a trend that would be revisited for more modern fans with the Stormblood Alliance Raids being based on the world of Ivalice from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII.

More than that, though, Yoshi-P understood that what a modern MMO needed was durable content, with repeatable content, involving quest chains, and a constant growth of power. The team built a stable foundation using elements of the 1.0 experience (mostly Levequests) and then added in a strong loot treadmill, with patches increasing power from newer dungeons and raids while also easing your ability to gain the gear from the prior tiers. Each patch had new story quests, and while ARR introduced new story quests that went on for new players to become the Horrible Hundred, the formula was sound and later expansions improved upon this by offering more engaging (and shorter!) story quest chains through post-release patches.

The end result was something that would have been preposterous to suggest in late 2010 – FFXIV has a legitimate claim to being the largest MMO in the world, and has had 3 expansions now, each of which has added a lot of quality content to the game. Yoshi-P has seen his stock rise because of the massive success of his gamble on FFXIV – he is now an Executive Director at Square Enix, the head of their Business Division 5, and a member of the Final Fantasy Committee that ensures the future releases of the franchise meet a standard of consistent quality. Shadowbringers, the latest FFXIV expansion, has won several awards from game critics and remains the top-rated game of the year on PS4 according to Metacritic aggregate scores, and is number 2 for 2019 on PC as of 8/18/2019, displaced by Beat Saber, of all things.

I don’t solely want to credit Yoshida with the success of the FFXIV project’s revamp, as he was just the leader and taskmaster ensuring the larger team was bought in and delivering the kind of content and gameplay that would bring players back. However, this is a case where I think it is worth stating that having strong leadership driving the team to do the best they could was crucial to the success of the project, and ensured that the game had a strong core it could build from.

After ARR’s launch, one of the things that Yoshi-P has popularized is the Producer Letter Live, a constant, multiple times per year livestream where he answers questions or presents new content to the playerbase. Unlike WoW livestreams, which are nearly always tied to new content releases, there are occasional PLL streams for FFXIV that solely exist to answer community questions and discuss the current state of the live game. Many of them do exist to promote new patches or other upcoming content releases, but even these will often answer some player questions or attempt to communicate the vision and design behind changes being made.

In the end, however, I think the tale of Yoshi-P’s takeover of FFXIV and the complete revamp he was instrumental in is a tale worth telling, and retelling. For more context, I would strongly recommend watching the 3-part NoClip documentary on the reboot of FFXIV – there is a lot of interesting information delivered in a short amount of time.

 

 

3 thoughts on “A Realm Rebirthed – Appreciation for Naoki Yoshida

  1. Interesting choice. All you say about the recovery work Yoshi-P did is true but for me he remains the poster boy for paternalism. I find his Producer’s Letters and interviews both patrician and patronizing and it was quite specifically his attitude towards the development of the game that decided me on not continuing after my free month at launch.

    It’s very true that under his stewardship FFXIV has incorporated many of the best-known tropes of MORPGs, but they’re mostly the ones I feel have damaged the genre and brought it into its current state, where the video-game aspect completely overwhelms the virtual world. The kind of structured, repetitive content upon which FFXIV relies is exactly the content I would hope to avoid in any MMORPG.

    It is, however, undeniably popular and FFXIV has become immensely successful on the back of it. I fear that will compound the damage done to the genre by post-Vanilla WoW, consolidating the idea that MMORPGs are about rote repetition of scripted content. Ironically, the best hope for that not to happen is now the putative success of WoW Classic, which could, although most likely won’t, usher in a new era of environment-driven gameplay.

    Second attempt!

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  2. Personally I think that while FFXIV is successful under Yoshi-P, changes he brought turned what could potentially become interesting take on MMO (if implemented correctly) into yet another mediocre WoW clone. Total neglect of open world in favor of instanced content, dual classing completely removed, ability bloat with little depth behind it, gear treadmill that brings no gameplay changes, formulaic patches comparable to asset flips. The only reason of current success is flood of disappointed WoW players and I doubt their honeymoon with FFXIV would last longer than several months.

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