Putting Respect on Final Fantasy XI’s 20-Year Run, FFXIV’s Older Sibling

We talked to producer Akihiko Matsui and director Yoji Fujito about their long-time success with FFXI, FFXIV's popularity helping their game, and the difficulties of working with old tech.

Here at Fanbyte, we have our own dedicated section specifically for Final Fantasy XIV called The Linkshell. Guides, tools, community happenings, news, trends, and heartfelt stories are all part of the mix — it’s indicative of how FFXIV has taken on a life of its own. As long-time players, we’ve seen its steady rise first-hand.

But we wouldn’t have any of that if not for the series exploring the MMORPG realm 20 years ago. Covering FFXIV also means understanding its history, further back from the fall of Dalamud and even version 1.0 itself —and a critical part of that history is Final Fantasy XI.

For those unaware, FFXI is still in service and going relatively strong, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. I recently talked with producer Akihiko Matsui and director Yoji Fujito, and our conversation shed new light on the wild ride they’ve been on in building, growing, and maintaining an MMO that’s stayed true to its design philosophies from generations past.

The Old-School Consistency of Final Fantasy XI

As an MMO that predates World of Warcraft, FFXI‘s systems and mechanics are indeed archaic. But as others in the genre continually adopted modern conventions, FFXI sticking to its roots has made it stand out more and more as time has gone on. What some may see as outdated, others see as fleeting uniqueness.

FFXI delivers an old-school MMORPG experience, which I came back to in 2022.

“While aging technology is a major issue in creating FFXI, we’re beginning to think its impact on the game content itself is not that significant,” Matsui states.

He points to the abundance of content built for FFXI over two decades being a key factor, but believes player sentimentality toward the game is just as important. He says its sustained success is also “because of the value that the players themselves have built up within the game, including friendships and memories, which I think is a major reason people continue to play.”

And so, unsurprisingly, FFXI finds itself not necessarily in a position of pronounced growth. Instead, the game has found a niche audience over the years and stays focused on serving its dedicated player base. And as Matsui says: “We will continue to prioritize active players and resolve to not make any adjustments that may cause them to feel cast aside, no matter how gaming trends evolve.”

Overcoming Technical Difficulties of Generations Past

The adherence to FFXI’s original foundation has been sort of a blessing and curse, however. Working with older technology has led to situations where the functions they relied on in the past have become obsolete, leading to difficulties and challenges other development teams just don’t face.

“There have been times where the game stopped working properly when updates to those tools, or to the operating system itself, became mandatory,” Matsui says. He continued, explaining that “automated processes to improve development efficiency have also stopped working in the past due to the recent tightening of today’s security measures.”

There have been additional roadblocks in terms of having the necessary hardware to work on the game. As Matsui puts it: “It’s also quite tough that equipment essential to development is no longer being manufactured and is not repairable when it malfunctions.”

Another major roadblock in maintaining FFXI is that client resources being bundled together in one large system causes problems beyond just old tech. In practice, this makes it difficult for the FFXI team to update just one specific element of the game if they need to. “A design where integrations are decoupled from each other and obsolete mechanics is ideally what we should be aiming for,” he explains.

If, for some reason, you were hoping for FFXI to make some kind of technological leap, you should put those hopes to rest. In the past, the FFXI team shot down the possibility of a revamp or remastering, and any sort of future expansion is highly unlikely. Matsui states that, unfortunately, remaking graphics in high definition or creating an expansion pack would be “difficult.”

Making the most of what they have and working within the confines of FFXI has been the key to their success, though. FFXI continues to run with a small team on a small budget, which has led to other limitations. “It isn’t realistic to always have a sufficient number of engineers on hand,” Matsui tells me.

Even so, they’ve found support from others within Square Enix. This is where the FFXIV team comes in, as its engineers help as needed — a practice that he says “has led to great success.”

The Final Fantasy XIV Area of Effect

Matsui calls FFXIV “one of the most prominent MMORPGs in the world,” and states clearly that it’s unnecessary for FFXI to try competing on the same level. After all, they are very different games with vastly different MMO experiences, leaving room for both to peacefully coexist.

There has been a trickle-down effect with the wild success of FFXIV, however. “We are also seeing an increase in the number of FFXIV players in Japan who try out FFXI during the downtime between FFXIV’s updates,” he says. Whether it’s due to a similar knock-on effect or otherwise, he also mentions that the last several years have seen a number of players from the west coming in.

“The community has become more active, which has been very encouraging,” he says.

Every now and then, FFXIV features the Maiden’s Rhapsody event which features Iroha from FFXI’s Rhapsodies of Vana’diel story.

Perhaps it’s curiosity or reverence for the old-school; either way, there have been some modernizations for those who do have their interest piqued. The FFXIV team, with director and producer Naoki Yoshida, have been somewhat like advisors to the elder MMO.

Matsui gave a few examples, telling me the FFXI team has received advice on planning promotions for the game. This advice, while built on FFXIV‘s results, has incorporated methods unique to FFXI. He specifically pointed to reworking how players accessed the game on PC, saying: “When we revamped the installer for FFXI, Yoshida assisted us in eliminating esoteric terms based on his experience with FFXIV and also from the perspective of what modern players would understand.”

“We regularly share implementation plans and other information with Yoshida, but matters like game content and the progress of the development and operations teams are left up to us,” he says. The support is there when they need it, but of course, the ones who know what’s best for FFXI are the ones who’ve been serving its long-time player base for two decades.

FFXI’s role lies in focusing on maintaining a level of quality that meets the standards of a service produced by Square Enix, and providing content that is uniquely FFXI to its [players],” he concludes.

Preserving the Past for the Future

It’s because of the content they’ve been providing that’s “uniquely FFXI” that the game is able to celebrate its 20th anniversary, serving those who matter most for the game’s success. It’s an incredible milestone for any MMO or live-service game, especially one that’s kept a fairly low profile within a big publisher. It would seem that FFXI marches to the beat of its own drum, and is still going relatively strong today.

When asked to look back at some of their favorite memories working on FFXI, both Fujito and Matsui gave contrasting answers.

“I was given a lot of freedom to create the Chocobo Raising system at my own discretion, and it’s still a wonderful memory to this day,” Fujito tells me. “Looking back on it now, the content has much room for improvement, but it’s what it is today because of its implementation back then I learned a lot from this project.”

For Matsui, he thought outside of the game itself and reflected on FFXI’s impact on the people he’s been able to work with. “The coolest thing is that the number of FFXI players I work alongside has increased,” he says. “It makes me proud to be able to contribute to this industry in some small way, especially when people tell me that FFXI is the reason they wanted to join the game industry.”

The heartwarming message you get upon booting up FFXI.

It’s not like the FFXI team is just kicking back, though. Matsui says the team has put a lot of effort into making the FFXI 20th anniversary memorable, pointing to the ongoing Voracious Resurgence questline and additional upcoming content that’s yet to be revealed.

Even though Matsui says the team only has a vague plan for the 21st anniversary and beyond, it’s at least indicative of a team that’s still looking farther into the future. “We will be working on solidifying details in parallel with our ongoing development and operations,” he states.

From the sound of it, it seems Matsui’s time as producer of FFXI may be understandably coming to a close soon. “I am approaching retirement, so in the interim, I’m also considering how to deal with the development and operations structure on top of that,” he tells me.

But players shouldn’t take this as a sign of FFXI’s end. “We intend to make plans from the perspective of keeping FFXI running for as long as possible while maintaining it as a viable business,” he says. Matsui’s responses bode well for the continued longevity of FFXI’s lifespan, which is a source of pride for both its developers and dedicated community.

Even though remasters, major overhauls, and more expansions are out of the picture at this point, Fujito indicates there’s still more left in the tank. “We are very happy that this title has ultimately come to be seen as a success,” he says. “I hope you will continue to watch how the title evolves!”