It’s entirely possible that even as someone with a healthy diet for all sorts of video games, you have missed out on Final Fantasy XIV. It didn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings, released in 2010 to a critical panning, Square Enix‘s flagship MMO was doomed to fade away into the ether, despite the hefty investment of time and money that had been poured into it.
In an attempt to resurrect the game, Naoki Yoshida was given the helm. His plan? Blow up the world, and start again, both in the game’s narrative and for the game as a product. The result was A Realm Reborn, an MMO that takes place in the same world, five years after the heroes of the previous incarnation failed in their task to stop evil. It was a risky, interesting premise, and it paid off: the game is still going strong eight years later and is one of the only subscription-based MMO‘s to not just survive against World Of Warcraft, but also thrive, despite its earlier missteps.
You may well have seen the memes since, that FFXIV is now free up to level 60 including the award-winning expansion Heavensward, but they don’t paint the whole picture. With Stormblood and Shadowbringers coming along as full-sized expansions afterwards, FFXIV has slowly been building a ten-year narrative that is set to conclude with this autumn’s upcoming expansion Endwalker.
Earlier this year, Square Enix held their annual Final Fantasy XIV fanfest, sharing details of the upcoming expansion. Fans of the game, who are numerous and fiercely loyal to the game and its development team, were excited to learn brand new things about the game, including new playable races (Male Viera), and a new job (Reaper). We took the opportunity to catch up with Yoshida, and ask him about the steps he and his team have taken to get from A Realm Reborn to Endwalker, and how far in advance ideas and story beats were planned.
The current Final Fantasy XIV story, concerning Zodiark/Hydaelyn has been running for a decade now, how do you feel about it now it’s finally over, and what were the challenges in creating an ending worthy of such an epic? How do you set the foundations for what will presumably be multiple arcs spanning multiple patches and expansions?
Naoki Yoshida: First of all, it’s too early to answer that question (laughs). That is because I and the development team are still in the process of working on the completion of FFXIV’s first arc, the Hydaelyn and Zodiark saga. As such, it’s more that the challenges are ongoing as opposed to having gone through them already… The biggest challenge is the scale of FFXIV itself, which has grown over the last 10 years. The story’s quality has improved, there are more appealing characters, the battle content is richer, and we’re using more sophisticated techniques in the cutscenes.
This means that there’s a lot of quality and work that needs to go into creating an ending that’s worthy [of the bar we’ve set for ourselves]. Yep, quite a lot indeed… We’re already looking ahead to Patch 6.1 and beyond for the next three years or so, but it’s too early to talk about that now. On the other hand, I can assure you that these new adventures will always be leading on from the ones you’ve been on already. It’s not going to be a story where everyone suddenly gets struck with amnesia, or yet another meteor falls to destroy everything, which would require you to start over. So, for now please look forward to the climax of our first arc!
Endwalker has finally introduced the towns of Radz-at-Han and Sharlayan, two names that have existed since the beginning of FFXIV. Were they always planned to be introduced at this point in the Warrior of Light’s story?
This was more or less our determination, because our policy was to achieve as much as possible in the game about the settings that had been continued from the original FFXIV and those things that had been conceived at that time. We went to Ishgard, which could be seen [at a distance] from the zones of the original FFXIV, we liberated Ala Mhigo, which was right next to Gridania, and our adventurers had to cross to the East to present a new cultural region.
We depicted the First as means of learning more about the mysteries of the world itself, as well as the Ascians. And now we’re finally arriving at Thavnair and Old Sharlayan, which had been conceived since the original FFXIV. So, it’s not so much a plan from the beginning as it is a story that we’ve been weaving to finally get to this point. Just as all our players have continued their adventures in the world of FFXIV over a long-time span, [the direction you can see in the game] is a result of us in the development team also partaking in our own lengthy journey.
The Warrior of Light has always been represented as a specific job during FFXIV and the expansions that followed. Going from the Warrior of A Realm Reborn, all the way to a Dark Knight of the Shadowbringers expansion, it has always connected the character to the story. Will the Warrior of Light’s new job as Paladin in Endwalker also have ties and significance to the story?
It is derived from the idea that when we were linking the original FFXIV to A Realm Reborn, I didn’t want the project to merely be a re-developing of the game, but wanted to make a story out of that in itself. I believe that FFXI and FFXIV are unique in the sense that they are story-driven MMORPGs. Typically, in games where the players themselves are the protagonists, it is more difficult to create a PR campaign. That’s why I decided to create a “virtual protagonist”, who would be able to specifically promote the turbulent story of FFXIV as a character that represents the player.
In the original FFXIV, he was a gladiator or archer, but in A Realm Reborn, he’s on the front lines as a warrior, and in Heavensward he puts down the axe to jump into the battle against dragons, picking up a lance instead and becoming a dragoon. As a liberator, he learns martial arts and becomes a monk, after which he journeys to the East to hone his swordsmanship as a samurai. As you know, in the First, the job is changed to dark knight to ward off the light. Just as it is written out here, the noble path our Warrior of Light takes in each expansion pack is representative of the expansion’s themes. As he learns the truth about everything and confronts the great mysteries of the world, we thought that a paladin would be a suitable face for him as a protagonist. Of course, our players don’t have to follow this example, because after all, the real hero of this world is you!
(Masayoshi) Soken made his return during the fan fest, and it was a very heart-warming moment for yourself, and fans (it was revealed during the event that he had been battling cancer in recent years). Can I ask about how you decided on the themes and lyrics for the main theme of Endwalker? It seems quite melancholy at times, but with a tinge of hope in it, before bursting into something more forceful. Do you feel this is in keeping with the story?
Thank you very much for congratulating Soken on his return. The main theme of course falls in line with the story, but at the same time, Soken interpreted the themes of this expansion pack in his own way and the melody line was born from his understanding of those themes. And to fit the melody line, the lyrics were spun by Localization Supervisor Michael-Christopher Koji Fox. He followed up with Natsuko Ishikawa, Lead Story Designer, about the themes and keywords of this expansion, before creating the lyrics. Just as players had done for Shadowbringers, I’ll be glad if you can unravel the meanings behind the melody and lyrics of this song after clearing Endwalker, and you’ll hopefully be left feeling something else!
NME: The Reaper/Sage jobs are coloured light and dark — are you able to explain if this has deeper ties to the plot of Endwalker? As an aside, the FFXI Dark Knight job was wielding a scythe (unlike the FFXIV Dark Knight) Did this factor into your design of the Reaper job?
No, the colour themes of the jobs have nothing to do with the concept behind Endwalker’s plot. This is because we don’t design jobs based on whether or not they look good in the story. We want players to be free in choosing their job. There are a number of people in FFXIV who came from the FFXI development team, but there isn’t any direct connection with FFXI’s Dark Knight and the new Reaper job. As for the visual design, there are of course influences from various works, but the “design” in terms of job mechanics and player experience is something the development team is still experimenting with. Please look forward to it!
Square Enix is set to launch Endwalker later this year, the fourth major expansion pack to FFXIV. The game will be released on November 23, but players who pre-order the game digitally will be able to access the expansion on November 19.