With Patch 5.3 set to launch on Aug. 11, Final Fantasy XIV is reaching greater heights than ever. Since Patch 5.2, it’s reached over 20 million registered players, with that number only set to grow now that its free trial is being expanded to cover all of A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, the MMORPG’s first sprawling story expansion. Last week, I spoke for almost an hour with Naoki Yoshida, the title’s esteemed director, regarding the upcoming final Shadowbringers story patch. We talked about the measures the team took during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, plot armor, gender expression in Final Fantasy XIV, and much more.
Patch 5.3 experienced an almost two-month delay. By the time that the pandemic hit and Tokyo declared a state of emergency in April — forcing everyone in the metropolitan Tokyo area to stay home — development progress was about 50% complete. At first, the team faced logistical issues. For the first seven days after the state of emergency, as Yoshida and other members of Square Enix’s board of executives discussed how to move forward during the emergency situation, the company’s developers were encouraged to not think about work at all. “Priority is going to be on your health, your family’s health, so just concentrate on that for a while,” they were told.
Since tasks had already been laid out for Patch 5.4, the team was able to shift tasks and split up duties on Patch 5.3 and the upcoming 5.4, so as to not waste time or effort in the circumstances. “We didn’t want our efforts to be zero during this sort of paused timing … it was a very unusual and special case,” Yoshida states.
However, Final Fantasy XIV‘s developers managed to stay positive amidst the uncertainty and chaos. “People were still determined to continue work so that they [didn’t] sacrifice the quality or the volume of the game content that we wanted to deliver to the players as quickly as possible,” Yoshida says.
How to carry out development wasn’t the only complicated topic leading up to this patch. One subject of debate was the decision to expand the game’s free trial. Around a year and a half ago, the team started thinking about making all of A Realm Reborn, the base game, free. Before Patch 5.3, the free trial was capped at level 35 — a rather awkward level considering A Realm Reborn‘s quests end at level 50. While playing up until level 35 gives you a fine enough understanding of Final Fantasy XIV‘s foundation, it’s in the middle of what many players consider to be the weakest part of the entire MMORPG.
“We and our marketing teams around the world had to think about well, ‘are we okay with having those sales numbers be impacted?’ If, pretty much, we’d be giving away the starter pack,” Yoshida elaborates. “The goal would be to get everybody to subscribe through that. But will the sacrifice be sufficient?”
In the end, the team decided that although there might be fewer sales, expanding the free trial could bring in more people and pave the way for more subscribers. Now, the free trial’s level cap has been raised to level 60, which means players will be able to play the entirety of Heavensward, including the 3.x Patch series.
Additionally, players are also able to play as six races since the team is incorporating the Au Ra — a race that was introduced in Heavensward — to the previously playable five. 13 jobs, including the DPS Machinist, the healing Astrologian, and the tank Dark Knight, can now be played as part of the free trial. Lastly, you can traverse up to Floor 200 of Palace of the Dead, the game’s popular in-game Deep Dungeon, compared to the previous limit of Floor 10.
“We always compare Final Fantasy XIV to a TV drama series,” Yoshida explains. “But with A Realm Reborn and Heavensward being seasons one and two, we felt that allowing for players to experience those first two seasons would actually make it more smooth and helpful for players to transition into the great content that is Shadowbringers or future seasons. And, if people did find it interesting, they would be more motivated to experience seasons three and four.”
Shadowbringers has been — and continues to be up until this point — one of my favorite stories in not just the entire Final Fantasy series, but also video games, period. I’m far from the only one who feels this way, too. The expansion’s reception was overwhelmingly positive, ushering in a large new wave of Final Fantasy XIV players. I ask him about how Shadowbringers‘ reception has impacted the development team.
“At this point, we are just trying to continue with this momentum,” Yoshida says. “There is a benefit with having more and more people join us — that we’re able to reinvest and put in more costs into both the development and marketing.”
As the player base has grown, Yoshida says the team has, too — something that makes me particularly happy to hear. Final Fantasy XIV‘s development team is one of the better teams at listening to and incorporating player feedback. Content is constantly being released, whether we’re talking small holiday-themed events or the new expansion released approximately every two years (though this has surely changed because of COVID-19). The team’s burnout is always a source of concern for me, not just as a games industry writer, but as a fan.
One of my favorite aspects of Final Fantasy XIV is its willingness to tackle themes of politics, social justice, equality, and morality. It’s one of the mainline titles that address politics more straightforwardly, like Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy XII. I ask Yoshida about how he feels the game’s politics, which feel less theoretic than they did during Shadowbringers‘ release in many ways, have progressed alongside our own political climate.
Human history has been rife with conflict and wars since its inception. When writing the story’s scenarios, Yoshida says that what the team is trying to depict is, “How do we take those conflicts? And what do we learn out of it? How do we take that into the future? And how do we grow from it?”
Sometimes those elements overlap with what’s happening in the real world. Yoshida says that if you feel those kinds of themes come up while you play, if they apply to your reality, or if Final Fantasy XIV helps you with sorting your life in the real world, the team feels they are successful in what they have strived for. That mission is, “having our players feel something out of what we deliver in our story.”
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Yoshida says that, even with the antagonistic forces you encounter, the team works hard to create their philosophies — for they, too, have nuanced beliefs. One of the best examples of this is Shadowbringers‘ main villain, Emet-Selch. Although I’ve written about how exciting Elidibus, Shadowbringers‘ official new antagonist as of the previous patch, is so far, I still deeply miss Emet-Selch. I consider him to be both the best villain in the entire series and one of my absolutely-canon lovers in the game (Aymeric de Borel, G’raha Tia, Y’shtola are all in that group, too). I ask him about Emet-Selch and whether we can hope to see him again.
“I mean, I can’t say that you’ll never see him again, of course. I can’t exactly disclose it… but we don’t know,” he grins.
I find it hard to imagine not seeing him again, given that he’s become one of the most popular characters in the series. Natsuko Ishikawa, Shadowbringers‘ brilliant main scenario writer, is deservedly proud of striking the balance in Emet-Selch’s cruelty, humanity, and tragedy. However, Yoshida says the fates of many characters in Final Fantasy XIV are pretty much already decided. A character’s popularity has little bearing on their fate.
“Some fans bring up Haurchefant, and some people say that, ‘oh, he was killed because he was popular.’ And we think it’s actually backward,” Yoshida states. “We had really fleshed out his character. We wanted to have him know what he’s fighting for, what his goal was, what his stance was in everything. He was fighting for a certain cause. And that was already determined before he was even introduced in the narrative.”
Although Final Fantasy XIV hasn’t had trouble with killing off supporting characters, one criticism among some fans is that it’s a bit reluctant to raise the stakes and sacrifice some of its more prominent characters. While Haurchefant is still mourned by much of the player base, his shocking death occurred all the way back in Heavensward. Several characters in Stormblood, including its major villain, had fake-out deaths. In Shadowbringers, it was only expected that Emet-Selch would die as the primary antagonist. I ask him if the team is aware of this criticism, and if, given the suspenseful trailers for Patch 5.3, it’s something they wanted to tackle.
Yoshida says that he’s often heard people make assumptions about characters and their plot armor. He uses Urianger, one of the main characters, as an example. He’s seen fans believe that Urianger can’t die simply because he’s the holder of a quest. And, to that, he says, “You know, that kind of thinking… you should not have that kind of thinking!” he laughs.
“We don’t like adlib in terms of like, ‘Oh, this character is going to go or this character is going to die.’ It’s not random, either. At the same time, yes, people might notice that those in the core cast may not have died over the course of the story,” he explains. Since Final Fantasy XIV constantly depicts wars, conflicts, and battles, he says it’s “unrealistic to not have any sort of sacrifices even on the ally side. So I mean, I don’t mean to scare you… this is not, by any means a threat of any sort, but don’t get too comfortable knowing that, ‘Oh, these characters are safe’ because you might be in for quite a shock.”
Final Fantasy XIV‘s community is incredibly passionate and diverse — a fact that will only become more true as the game continues to bring in new players. Its reflection of that diversity through the freedom it gives to its players has always been one of my favorite aspects.
Recently, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV‘s biggest competitor, announced a significant change in regards to player freedom and expression. In a recent interview with Eurogamer, executive producer John Hight revealed that the upcoming expansion, Shadowlands, will remove the long-standing charge of $15 for players to change their character’s gender. Now, players will be able to change their gender for free with an in-game barber. In the end, Blizzard felt the old decision of asking players to pay in order to change their gender wasn’t “the right message.”
I know that inclusivity is something Final Fantasy XIV tries to tackle with sincerity, evident through features like the game’s Ceremony of Eternal Bonding. This is the game’s marriage system, which allows you to marry anyone regardless of your character’s gender. As of earlier this year, the ceremony’s wedding attire is no longer tied to your gender — meaning that you can wear a tuxedo or a dress whether you’re playing as a man or woman. However, if you want to change your gender in Final Fantasy XIV, you still have to pay real money for a Fantasia potion, the item that allows you to change your character’s appearance. I ask Yoshida about whether this and opening up more avenues of self-expression are things the team is looking into.
With his answer, he takes a while to formulate all his thoughts. Rather than someone doing their best to avoid saying something clumsy or offensive, he comes across as a director who recognizes the weight of the trust Final Fantasy XIV‘s community has placed in him and who wants to be respectful. He doesn’t pass on the question, undermine the importance of the subject, or do anything less than consider it carefully and thoughtfully.
In the end, he offers a different perspective from that of the World of Warcraft team. “By no means do we want to criticize anybody or say that, ‘well, this has got to be the way.’ But… so, with anything that you change like your hairstyle or putting in a color contact, something that’s more instantaneous. It’s something that you change all the time,” Yoshida begins. “But gender is such a sensitive topic because this is not something that’s instant. That’s why people are very proud of what they identify with and they try to live their lives to their fullest to express themselves and the gender that they identify with. And so do we want to treat this in a casual manner?”
Yoshida clarifies this is completely his personal opinion and that it’s something many people — including members of the team — are largely torn on. But he feels uncomfortable with the notion of something that is akin to flipping a switch. He worries that, by allowing for more freedom, “it might actually take the issue a bit too lightly.” It’s something he continues to think about as both a game designer and a person for the future of Final Fantasy XIV.
Ultimately, I use my last question to circle back to the present and ask him about the upcoming dungeon, The Hero’s Gauntlet. He compared it to one of my absolute favorite dungeons, Stormblood‘s The Ghymlit Dark.
“You have the player as the Warrior of Darkness, who saved the realm of The First. And so now, the people of The First come together to help,” Yoshida shares. “It’s going to feel like a lot of things that the player was involved in throughout the story connect in this content. Of course, it’s an instance dungeon, but as you fight through this dungeon, you’ll see. The scenario is going to get really exciting as well. So perhaps it might be nice to take your trust NPCs to go in there and enjoy the story.”
Before wrapping up our chat, he teases, “There is a sort of hidden feature, so to speak. So, once everything is settled down, you might want to try to see what that is.”