As Final Fantasy XIV approaches the release of its fourth expansion, it’s in the best position it’s ever been. The critically acclaimed MMO has over 24 million players worldwide. It’s the most profitable Final Fantasy title in franchise history. It’s become a core of Square Enix’s business operations, spawned the global Fan Fest event that was deeply missed by its community last year, and become a way of life for many.
Serving as the conclusion to the Hydaelyn and Zodiark storyline told over the last decade, Endwalker will include a little bit of everything: the largest volume of story quests, six massive new zones, a new player hub city, two new Jobs, a level cap increase, new gear and crafting recipes, a new high-end raid series, a new Alliance raid, new dungeons, and a new Residential District. It’ll also add Island Sanctuary, a new kind of casual content; a new playable race and gender combination with the male Viera; a new Data Center Travel system, and even the new Oceania region data center. And no: That’s still not all that’s coming.
During a recent interview as part of the Endwalker media tour, I asked director Naoki Yoshida about how the team handles the pressures of developing something with such a large scope.
This article is based on an in-development build of Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, and content in the final version is subject to change.
“I think we’ve gone past that point of feeling any sort of pressure going into this new expansion,” he shares. “We’re just too busy that we don’t have the time to kind of reflect on just how much is on our plate.”
To make the gargantuan task ahead of them easier, he says the team has tried to create content that feels fun to play as it’s being made. They’re aiming to not just maintain the usual level of quality, but also improve the MMORPG’s cinematic elements and gameplay mechanics. But that content hasn’t been easy to make — not in the least because he tells me the word count for Endwalker’s script and dialogue is around 1.5 times larger than that of the last expansion, Shadowbringers.
As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on the team have made this expansion development cycle incomparable to previous ones. Out of the hundreds of people working on this game, some work from home; others come to the office to work — all are banding together from different locations to create one grand piece. It’s a radical change from the days before 2020 when the whole team would be physically present. Naturally, this has brought unexpected challenges — ones that he is extremely candid about during our conversation.
Perhaps the biggest one has been the ways in which team members share their creative vision, and the speed, quality, and harmony with which that becomes fully realized. “I don’t want to say it has decreased but I know it has become a challenge, for sure,” he states.
Say, for example, that the team is in the process of crafting a boss battle. Among the myriad aspects to this boss battle will be the background environment. The process would typically involve concept artists drafting some kind of visual foundation. Then, background artists would create an environment model based on that concept. After that, unique elements like special effects would be added.
There are multiple people and teams working on this one aspect, and so it wouldn’t be unexpected for one of the artists to feel torn about how a scene should be interpreted. Maybe an effect in the concept art gets visualized in a certain way, but considering what that particular fight is about, a designer may want to implement changes that lead to something more thematically appropriate.
“Had we been in the office, the person would be able to consult the game designer that’s planning for the content of that boss battle and ask them, ‘Hey, could you take a look at my monitor and see? I know the concept art was a blue light but I feel like a white light is better,’” he elaborates. “And the person can just walk over and say, ‘oh yeah, for sure. I think the white light works better in the scene. Let’s change it.’”
This simply isn’t doable in the same way given current arrangements. If a background artist feels a decision isn’t sitting right with them, consulting who they need to confirm the changes with can turn into a complicated affair.
“You’re not sure if they’re busy or not, or what their online situation is like,” says Yoshida. “And so, do we want to talk over Zoom? But if I share graphics over Zoom, it will depend on my connectivity. The graphics’ quality might not show up correctly. So then, would I need to capture a separate video or a screenshot? Well, that’s gonna take a lot of effort. I don’t want to lower the resolution because that would defeat the purpose of a graphics check. It becomes very difficult.”
In order to lighten the load on other team members, the background artist may decide they don’t have time to consult another developer. Instead, they’ll just finish it on their own. “Once we start to piece together those different elements that each of the artists kind of worked on their own, it does feel a little off sometimes,” he shares. “And even I feel, ‘Oh, wait, that doesn’t seem to work. Well, what’s going on? Usually, I would see materials a lot more consistent and coherent when you guys turn it in. What happened?’ And they would admit, ‘yeah, I actually felt that there was something off while I was working.’ I’ve come across that situation many times.”
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It feels like nothing short of a miracle that the team isn’t deviating from Final Fantasy XIV’s regular expansion release schedule. Expansions are released every two years; despite a delay of a couple of months, Endwalker is still abiding by that routine. But it’s not just that Endwalker is getting out the door, even though Yoshida says development will be, “down to the wire.” My first five hours with Endwalker were filled with gorgeous and enormous environments, plus some of the most satisfying Job mechanics in the game so far.
As a DPS-turned-healer main, I expected to run the Tower of Zot — the dungeon we had access to — as a Sage. While Sage is every bit as fun as it seems (though fairly complicated), I unexpectedly fell in love with the Reaper Job. Between the two, I had cared far less about it in the leadup to Endwalker’s release; now, I’m almost glad I underestimated it. I loved discovering how agonizing it felt to switch to other classes. I asked Yoshida about how Reaper, which is Final Fantasy XIV’s first exclusive Job, came to be.
“Whenever we’re thinking about Jobs to add with our new expansion, there are things that we are very mindful of and that are very important,” he says. “First of which is the gameplay experience of a particular Job. The second key factor is what players are looking for and desiring.”
Yoshida knew there was (as always) a major demand for a new healer. As a result, the team knew one of the two new Job slots would go to a healer, but, the team also aims to add a DPS Job with every new expansion. They looked to a similarly eager demand among fans: a character that would use a giant scythe. The developers then took the idea and went from there.
“Things moved pretty quickly because, with the giant scythe, I think we all pictured the Grim Reaper. We also liked the idea of an avatar that kind of floats with you,” he continues. “But we felt that just simply having a Grim Reaper and just combining that with an avatar wasn’t interesting enough. So, on top of that, we thought, ‘okay, so what if the player can possess the avatar within them and give a sort of demonic image.’ It brought us an image that has never before been seen [in Final Fantasy XIV].”
The Reaper Job also has a narrative function, as it ties into the existing themes of the void and voidsent. “That concept of enshrouding, where you’re kind of fusing together with your avatar, allows for a new set of skills to kind of open up,” states Yoshida.
Older Jobs are certainly not getting ignored. While some changes will be barely noticeable, others — like the Summoner rework shown during the most recent Live Letter — will be significant enough to impact their strategies.
As the team continues to make balance changes to the MMORPG, it’s crucial for them to be cognizant of Final Fantasy’s history as a series that has traditionally been on consoles. Players being able to use a controller as comfortably as a mouse and keyboard is something Yoshida has strongly emphasized for the team since A Realm Reborn.
“With the mouse and keyboard, you’ve got your Alt key or Ctrl key where you can have additional buttons to press,” he explains. “With a gamepad, you have a limited number of buttons and it does kind of limit how you configure the way you activate your skill rotations. So, we do want to be mindful that we are adjusting [a Job] so that it still fits within that sort of playability on the gamepad.”
He says that, ultimately, the team’s intentions with changes are never to, “oversimplify the rotations, per se. We do want to have it be technical. And as players level up, we do want to have that sort of stimulation for players as they’re adding more actions.”
The days until Endwalker’s release quickly loom closer. The reality is that the team has less than two months to get it all done. Despite the stress, Yoshida says he can’t help but feel excitement as a player himself. He thinks the excitement he feels is probably similar to what the rest of us are feeling these days.
“It has been eight years since the relaunch with A Realm Reborn — or, if you count from the original Final Fantasy XIV, it would be a total of 11 years,” he says. “Thinking about just how many people have joined us from all around the world, it’s really exciting and it makes me really happy to know there are a lot of people who are coming in and enjoying the game. I just feel like I want to welcome everybody coming in.”
As the team approaches the finale of the current narrative, I ask Yoshida about the characters he’s become most attached to by the end of this incredible journey. He smiles before immediately picking Alphinaud and Alisaie. He seems to have a particular affinity for Alphinaud, saying that he feels the twin was once, “the type of kid who would go on Reddit and type shitposts.”
And he might have stayed that way, had he not gone out into the world and experienced disappointment. “He goes out and experiences real life,” reflects Yoshida. “He grows and matures as a person. And I love how my team was so thorough in depicting that. Him and his sister Alisaie, those two are definitely characters that really resonate with me leading up to Endwalker and just how they land, so to speak. How they’re depicted in that story, as well as the path they have taken and where it’s gotten them.”
The path Final Fantasy XIV has taken is a long and difficult one. But it’s one that its community is proudly walking on as we reach the end of one storyline — and the beginning of another.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker will be released on November 23 for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Mac. Early Access starts on November 19. Be sure to check out our hub for all of Fanbyte’s Endwalker preview coverage, and keep an eye out for The Linkshell, our upcoming dedicated Final Fantasy XIV section!