E3 2006: Final Fantasy XI Team Q&A
05.12.06 - 12:57 PM
In February of 2006, I (Patrick Gann) made the monumental decision to commit myself to one MMORPG. I chose Final Fantasy XI. In no way have I regretted this decision; it's been a good ride for me thus far.
Currently running with 500,000 active users worldwide (with a total of 1,700,000 characters), Final Fantasy XI continues to be the most successful MMORPG in the company's history, and is indeed one of the largest MMORPGs worldwide.
With all of this said, it was a special treat for me to sit down and have a talk with the key staff members of the team. We held an informal Q&A session, and we had a number of questions answered.
Present at the session were Hiromichi Tanaka (Producer of Final Fantasy XI, also the director of the DS remake of Final Fantasy III), Koichi Ogawa (Planner), Sage Sundi (Global Online Producer - Community & Service Division), M.C. Koji Fox (Senior Translator and drummer for the Star Onions), Toshio Murouchi (European Online Producer), and Arata Hanyuda (Global Publicity Producer and drummer for the Black Mages). It was an all-star Square Enix cast, and I was definitely awestruck.
After catching my breath, I was able to ask a number of questions: some poignant, some unexpected, and some just plain silly. Here's what we found out.
I asked them how long they plan to continue running Final Fantasy XI, especially since the game has been running for nearly five years. Their answer, one which they have apparently had to give a number of interviewers this week, was "as long as there are enough active users to keep the game as a worthwhile experience." In other words, the fans are in charge of the game's tenure, not the staff.
As for whether or not The Treasures of Aht Urhgan will be their last expansion, the answer was essentially "if needed." As many players already know, the Empire of Aht Urhgan has barely been revealed to players, and throughout the next few months, the expansion will continue to grow and be laid bare for gamers to enjoy. Translator M.C. Koji Fox commented that it may be enough to simply release patches from here on out, but if the user base is still significant after Aht Urhgan has run its course, it may mean another expansion will be released.
This week at E3, Blizzard unveiled the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, The Burning Crusade. With this in mind, we presented a hard-hitting question for the staff of Final Fantasy XI: how do you plan to stay one step ahead of the competition, and are you concerned that you will lose your fanbase to competitors such as World of Warcraft?
Their answer, which they said not aggressively or defensively, just matter-of-factly, was that they do not actively concern themselves about the competition. Rather, they focus on their own game, attempting to keep things interesting. They also mentioned their recent "Return to Vana'diel" campaign to give ex-players a chance to rejoin the world, as well as plans for new types of gameplay such as Chocobo Raising and the Coliseum. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka was adamant about the fact that they are not nervous about the competition stealing their players, as the number of active users has remained roughly 500,000 for years now, and they do not predict a sharp decline in the near future.
Four of the staff members gave different answers to the question, "what was your single greatest challenge in the creation and maintenance of Final Fantasy XI and its expansions?"
Producer Tanaka replied that the continual need to update (generally on a bi-monthly schedule) has been a difficult process, but that it is ultimately the most worthwhile thing they've done to keep the game interesting.
Koichi Ogawa, the game's "Planner" (i.e. scenario some plot work) said that his hardest challenge has been thinking of new things to do. He again mentioned the upcoming features with the Aht Urhgan expansion, as well as various additions that have come to pass throughout the game's lifespan (events such as Brenner, Dynamis, Ballista, Garrison, etc.).
Sage Sundi, the Global Online Producer, brought up the fact that there is a team of nearly 200 G.M.s (Game Moderators) and other staff that work to keep the game running safely and properly. He also talked briefly about the problem of gilselling and RMTs (real-money traders); he said that along with banning accounts, they have taken legal action in the past, but they do not want to reveal the details of how the track and prosecute RMTs because they wish to hold on to the "element of surprise" in dealing with RMTs and others who wish to abuse the game's economic system for personal gain.
Finally, translator M.C. Fox brought up the point that with every expansion and every updated patch, simultaneous versions are released in Japanese and English. As such, he has worked extensively with Ogawa and others in keeping the translated work up-to-date as soon as possible so the English version never falls behind.
Final Fantasy XI is the first (and currently only) MMO to run simultaneously across three platforms: PS2, PC, and Xbox 360. I asked them how difficult it was for them to do this, and whether or not they had any doubts or skepticism as to the possibility of this happening before it did in fact come to fruition.
The team explained to me that they had planned from the beginning of development for the game to run multi-console. Furthermore, as the game exists on the server, the programming work is not as difficult and complex as one would think it is to keep the game running on and across the different platforms.
Mr. Sundi added the relevant comment that a much bigger difficulty than going cross-platform was going cross-continental and thus cross-cultural. When they originally launched Final Fantasy XI, they assumed (incorrectly) that the approximate eight hour time difference between America, Europe, and Japan would keep the players logging in and out within separate time frames. As many players know, this couldn't be further from the truth as players from each region are found playing at virtually any time of day or night. Much work has gone into the auto-translate function and into "keeping the peace" between players of various countries.
Being the fan I am of videogame music, I asked about the possibility of the Star Onions and the Black Mages touring together across major cities in the US. All of the staff agreed that as much as they'd like to give the fans such an opportunity, each of the band members are busy with their own projects, and it was difficult just to get the Star Onions to play at the Final Fantasy XI Fan Festival. However, in a brief aside, Arata Hanyuda (drummer of the Black Mages) did say that a third album is in the works. As for whether or not the Star Onions will record a second album, they did not say.
Finally, I asked a few specific questions about the Treasures of Aht Urhgan expansion. They clarified a number of questions that players have been asking. Regarding the new eastern "besieged" map (in the region info section), they explained that the Empire of Aht Urhgan exists only in the stretch of land shown on the map. The unexplored and unpresented land east of the map would hence be a far-eastern continent that is not part of the Aht Urhgan empire.
Also, since I do play primarily as a White Mage, I had to ask: will a seventh teleport spell be created to reach Aht Urhgan? They explained that, though such a spell would be convenient, it wouldn't make sense since the Zilartian ruins only existed on the western continent, and that this is how the teleport crystals existed in the first place. Whether or not some alternate sort of spell will come into play, Koichi Ogawa simply smirked and said "we'll have to wait and see what happens."