FFXIV Director Naoki Yoshida Speaks About Fan Fest, Y’shtola’s Skin Color Changes, and NPC Dating

As well as pandemic challenges, how The Twinning performance came to be, and Masayoshi Soken's cancer.

Since taking up the mantle as Final Fantasy XIVs director and producer, there have been many difficult and busy moments in Naoki Yoshida’s life. More than once, he felt he was facing his biggest challenge yet. 

“Looking at what I’m doing now, it’s even more busy,” he tells Fanbyte in an interview following the 2021 Final Fantasy XIV Fan Festival, an annual convention held digitally for the first time earlier this month. “It just exceeds anything that I had imagined.”

The event had plenty to share about Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, the new expansion coming out in the fall, and the future of the MMORPG. But Final Fantasy XIV players adore Fan Fest for much more than just the game. Fan Fest is just as much, if not even more so, about the people involved with the title. And despite the consistency and quality of the work players see, the ongoing pandemic has proved difficult for the development team. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been its effects on the team’s mentality. Changing the workflow to accommodate the circumstances, updating the rules by which the team abides — that was all doable. But people’s feelings, and how they adapted to the pandemic, couldn’t be rushed. Some were quicker than others, and Yoshida’s role as a leader means he’s had to be conscious of this.  

“Ideally, people would be able to switch quickly and be encouraged whenever people are like, ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do. In this pandemic, we just need to accommodate and just switch gears and press forward,’” he says. “But some people required the time to get adjusted, and they may not have had as high a motivation to keep moving forward. And I totally understand, or I feel like I understand, those people. It’s totally understandable that people go at their own pace. Looking back, I think dealing with that was one of the major factors that affected this past year.”

Even though it has been challenging, the team has been able to find many moments of joy — and are happy to share them with the community. One of the best moments of Fan Fest was a performance of A Long Fall by The Primals, with several staff members recreating a famous dancing meme on stage. 

As it turns out, Final Fantasy XIV composer Masayoshi Soken came up with the idea. Soken and The Primals saw the meme and wanted to recreate it. “They had a music video that they had a chance to make, so they did the performance by themselves and wanted to bring that to the stage during Fan Fest,” says Yoshida. “But you wouldn’t be able to carry your instruments and also dance. So, I think that’s why we wanted to have those back dancers supporting us.”

“We had a meeting with the people who are involved and responsible for planning Fan Fest,” says Toshio “Foxclon” Murouchi, Final Fantasy XIV’s global community producer and one of the dancers in the performance. By the time the leads responsible for planning Fan Fest had convened to discuss the stage, Murouchi says that it was already determined he would be one of the dancers. The conversation became more about the remaining three dancers, while Murouchi would be the member with the green shirt.

“It’s almost scary how some of these ideas that are just floating by become actual things,” laughs Murouchi. “I want to be careful when we’re discussing things with Yoshida-san. I just smile and nod.”

Yoshida says the performance was a showcase of the team’s philosophy behind everything they do.

“We love seeing the players getting happy and excited. The smiles on your faces are what we love to see,” he says. “We feel that the players are our friends and our allies that we kind of build this game together with. So, whenever there is some kind of idea to do something that’s fun or exciting… And that’s not just for Fan Festival, but with any game content. So I don’t think it’s a matter of which meme we want to pick. I think it’s more about, is it fun or not? Does it make people enjoy it or not? If we do decide to do it, then we’ll do it with full force and we’ll give it our all. So we might not know what the next thing is going to be. Foxclon might be practicing backflips, you know.”

(Photo credits: Square Enix – Takanori Tsukiji, Junichiro ZUN Ootani, Anzai Miki, Misuzu Chiba.)

But Fan Fest wasn’t just full of funny and lovely moments like the aforementioned stage or Soken’s unforgettable live performance of “Civilizations,” the Shadowbringers track that sparked the “LA HEE” meme. It contained genuine moments of connection — including a particularly emotional one for both developers and fans. At the end of Fan Fest, Soken and Yoshida revealed Soken had battled cancer for the last year, and is nearing full remission. Even the majority of the people he worked closely with, like main scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa, had no clue. 

When Soken first told Yoshida about his condition, he requested to have his workflow unaffected “without special treatment.” Creating music for the players to enjoy was his motivation to fight the battle. Yoshida was hesitant as a boss, leader, and friend. “Did I really want him to just continue to work as he was before he got sick? Or should I go in and pull the work out of his hands so that he can concentrate on his treatment? That is the part where I was very torn,” he continues.

“When battling cancer, I understand that it helps to have a very strong goal in front of you. So, I felt that allowing him to do his best work to the best extent possible, and to support that, was my job. I went and discussed with our CEO to see if there was any way that we could make accommodations for him. I asked if there was any way we could set up a work environment for him in his hospital room. And our CEO was gracious enough to allow it as a company, and he was willing to provide full backup for this purpose.”

However, the pandemic meant he couldn’t visit Soken in the hospital. During meetings over Zoom, Yoshida would see Soken’s hair and eyebrows were falling out. “You may not have noticed it, but when he was on stage at Fan Fest, he was actually wearing a wig,” he says. “Not all of his hair has grown back completely. There was a lot of struggle because it was hard to see all that.”

Fans around the world cried with Yoshida as he discussed the pain of seeing his best friend suffer — and the relief of seeing him back and ready for their next adventure together. I asked Yoshida why they ultimately decided to speak about it on stage. He tells me Soken revealing his fight with cancer was something they had talked about. But he didn’t actually decide on doing it until the day before Fan Fest.

“One of the big goals that Soken wanted to set for himself was to be able to come back on stage as a member of The Primals band,” Yoshida says. “He wanted to tell the players that, because of the players’ support, he was able to come back to the stage. He wanted to show and express his gratitude on stage.”

When they were rehearsing the day before the event, Yoshida wanted to check in, so he called him aside and asked whether performing on stage as The Primals was something he was still comfortable doing. Soken reaffirmed his decision, and so it was decided. Yoshida told him, “you can go before my final remarks in the closing ceremonies and we can let people know. Let’s show our gratitude together.” 

“It was more about conveying our thanks to the players,” Yoshida says. “That was the biggest thing that we wanted to do.”

As a journalist, one of the many things I appreciate about Yoshida is his thoughtfulness when answering questions, even if they’re difficult. One such question I’ve had for a long time is about Y’shtola’s skin color. Over time, community members, particularly in the west, have noticed that Y’shtola’s skin color has become lighter as the expansions have progressed. It’s an observation that has caused concern and hurt among some players. As one of those players, I asked Yoshida for his input.

He spent almost twenty minutes answering it, so I’d like to convey his answer to the community as clearly as possible. Like the material from the interview included in the rest of this article, it has been slightly edited for clarity.

“It is a sensitive matter, but there are different ways in which people do interpret this and it might be hurtful to certain people,” he says. “And I do understand that certain people might take it a certain way and be hurt in the way we depict certain things. But I do want to assure you that we do not have any sort of ill intent.”

He begins by explaining Y’shtola’s look in 1.0, in which her skin tone was much lighter. At the time, the team had to revamp the graphics engine, including the lighting system, on a tight schedule for A Realm Reborn. As a result, he feels the team wasn’t able to create a new look for her or shine the spotlight on her enough as one of the game’s key characters. That’s why, in Heavensward, all the members of the Scions — including Y’shtola — had a costume change. 

“We were able to allocate the resources to update their look,” he says. “So with Y’shtola, we changed up her hair a little bit. Thancred also went through some major changes.” (These changes were also addressed in the most recent live letter). 

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“We tried to bring out the energetic and outgoing aspect of Y’shtola with her costume, as well as her hair,” says Yoshida. “In order to further that depiction more, we tried to make her skin a little bit more tanned. She’s more sun-kissed. That was a choice that we made in her updated look. Same goes for Thancred, too. He would go through a survival period. He was out in the wild, so we gave him that rugged look with the sun-kissed tone, as well. So, Y’shtola has started out as a bit more fair skinned and then sort of darkened.”

Throughout the narrative of Heavensward, it takes place primarily in the Coerthas area, the snowy lands, and so a lot of the light is definitely very white in color,” he continues. “So, we did have to make adjustments so that we can still show Y’shtola in the updated look that we had given her with the skin tone. And we wanted to depict the change of the character, as in, like, how they changed from a more pale look to a more vibrant sun-kissed look.” 

In Shadowbringers, the souls of the Scions were removed out of their physical bodies and then traveled to The First, while their bodies remained in The Source the whole time. “For the Y’shtola that was in the realm of The First, we had created her as sort of Matoya’s embodiment for that narrative,” Yoshida explains. “But at the same time, the physical body was resting back in the Rising Stones, And they were in a room where there’s not a lot of sunlight that came in, so any tan would kind of go away. I wanted to make sure when we were depicting these characters, that they’re not stuck in time. They’re living characters; we don’t want them to stay the same all throughout. I don’t think that would be the best for the characters.”

Yoshida says he “would love for the players to focus more on the subtle changes that are being applied to these characters” and hopes they can look at it from a “more fair perspective.” 

“Of course, at one point, we did make their skin tone more tanned,” he says. “But we’re not trying to whiten it for the sake of whitening. I wish that players are able to see it on a much longer span because there was a time when Y’shtola was even paler.”

He clarifies he isn’t angry at the situation or trying to place blame on anybody for their reaction. “I just feel it is very unfortunate. This is a video game. And so I think the biggest purpose of it is to enjoy and have fun within this realm. And with Final Fantasy XIV, my hope for the players is that they’re not sort of bound by real life situations or stipulations. That’s the kind of philosophy that goes behind creating the various content that goes into the game. Same goes for the Ceremony of Eternal Bonding. That one does not question your race nor gender or sex for two people to be bonded together. It’s intentionally designed that way.”

“So I hope that players don’t excerpt one single sort of instance and are discouraged by it. I feel it’s such a waste for players to be discouraged from a singular instance,” he continues. “It’s such a large world to enjoy. I’m sorry if I’m being very blunt and frank about this, but I have tried to explain it to the best of my abilities what went behind it and the reasoning. And even then, I think it just boils down to… I wish people would just enjoy and have fun in this game. And I hope that this message gets conveyed to all those players that do wonder sometimes.”

Final Fantasy XIV is a global game, so I felt it was important to ask about something fans, especially people of color, have taken in numerous ways and long requested his perspective on. At the same time, I wanted to be conscious of cultural differences, so I tell him I understand racism and colorism are handled differently in Japan than North America or Europe. Yoshida respectfully disagrees, believing that might be a preconceived notion. “You and I are the same,” he tells me. “We’re people of color, as well.” He shares with me his own experiences with racism, remembering the times people would look at him strangely or say things that are hurtful in America and Europe. 

With that in mind, he wants the community to understand that the development team is “not being insensitive to matters of race or color.” 

“I understand that it is very hurtful,” he said. “We’re not immune to that; none of us are immune to that. We are thinking about it and trying to be as considerate as we can, and we are trying to be serious about it. So, if there was any nuance that might have been perceived as us, the Final Fantasy XIV development team, taking this issue lightly in any way, please understand that is not our intention.” 

He adds that, “if there were any sort of misunderstandings, we do want to be mindful of that moving forward. And I think it is meaningful that we were able to talk about it and have this discussion … I hope we can clear up the misconceptions.”

Despite already going well over time, he lets me ask one more question. I end the interview on another one that is important to me and many members of the community, albeit in a different way. 

As we near the end of the Hydaelyn and Zodiark story arc spanning over the last decade, reach the culmination of all the work involved in both starting a new MMO and recreating it, and tread ground that few, if any, other MMO has before, I ask him: Are there still no plans for NPC dating side quests? Must I wait longer to have a date with Y’shtola, G’raha Tia, Aymeric, or even my problematic paramour who has been dead since the end of Shadowbringers

Immediately after hearing the question, Yoshida laughs loudly before saying, “I hear that request actually fairly frequently.” 

I know very well, but I wanted to ask anyway! He says it’s okay if I ask about it until the day he lets me date Y’shtola. And he’s kind enough to spare my heart by not saying no outright. But he discusses why it hasn’t happened and probably won’t for some time — if it ever does. 

“It is a live game,” he begins. “I consider the NPCs as living beings. All of these characters have their life that continues within the realm of Final Fantasy XIV. You never know what happens to them in their lives. And by having that sort of date event with the Warrior of Light, it might kind of narrow their possibilities, you know? I’ve given it a lot of thought, like, what can I do to make that possible?” 

One possibility that came up was having a mirage of a character, rather than making the actual person romanceable. But it was difficult to execute, so the idea was scrapped.

“If you look at it from that perspective, and NPCs being living beings, and they see a copy of them dating somebody else against their own will, wouldn’t that be kind of… that seems kind of insensitive to the NPCs themselves, too! So it’s a really hard line to draw there,” he says. “I’m afraid I haven’t really found a good solution just yet. For example, say maybe three expansions down from now Urianger is suddenly like, ‘Okay, I’m leaving Hydaelyn and going to Mars,’ or something like that. Those who may have had their hearts set on being with Urianger may get really mad [and say], ‘What are you doing to my Urianger, Yoshida? Bring him back!’”

“With Endwalker, all of the characters that make an appearance will have moments in which they will shine. So I hope you look forward to playing the expansion.”

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker will be released on November 23, 2021.