Yesterday I was invited up to the Square Enix offices to discuss their recent announcement about reinstating subscriptions to Final Fantasy XIV. It was quite a privilege to get the opportunity to speak with Naoki Yoshida, the MMO's Game Director.
While the majority of our conversation dealt with the subscription service itself, I did get a chance to ask about some of the new content coming to the game before their version of Cataclysm hits Eorzea next October. I was impressed with the candid responses I received to my questions, and was glad I was able to clear up some questions I've had about this whole process.
Rather than break up the interview into several parts, I'm just going to keep it all intact. It's a beefy one, so prepare yourself for a wall of text. It's an interesting read though, and gives us a better grasp on why the development team has decided that now is the time to start up the paid subscription service in December.
Yoshida: As you know it’s been over a year since launch. First of all we would like to thank our very loyal community over that past year. Despite the rocky launch we had we have been able to continue with our efforts over the past year as a development team because of the strong support we’ve had from the community. Their continuing to play, to comment, to support has really been the backbone of our efforts and we’d like to let the players know how much we appreciate this.
The main reason behind the recent announcement we made regarding 2.0 was not just for the new players but more for the players that are currently playing now to show them that the future is bright, but even before we get there we will be taking all these steps to make it even better, to make that time before 2.0 even more exciting than what we have now. Keep supporting us over this year, before we get to that bright future.
Me: Can you talk about what the paid subscription service is going to look like? Will there be different payment options or perhaps a discount for loyal players?
Yoshida: FFXIV will be using the Square Enix ID system similar to what is used on FFXI right now. Currently the payment system we have on FFXI is not been received very well by a lot of players because the payment options were not what they expected. So we’ve heard the voices of all those players, and very soon we’re going to be introducing options that will work better for North American users that want to play the game. The current system that we are using is the European standard, but that’s not working very well in North America.
While we can’t make any complete promises right now we can tell you the direction we are going in. We hope to have, like what was announced at FFXIV’s launch, to have a system where if you have both a FFXI account and a FFXIV account tied to one Square Enix ID there would be a discount available for players who are playing both games.
And just to clear things up, while we made the announcement about the billing system, we don’t mean to start it right now. We are going to wait another few months until the release of 1.20 next November or December. We want players to experience all the stuff we added in 1.19, and we also want them to experience the things that will be added in 1.20 and then make their decision then. Billing will start therefore sometime in December.
Me: With the traditional subscription, did you ever consider a Freemium model? There are a lot of MMOs today that are switching to Free-to-Play model in order to make a profit, so I was curious why in 2011 or 2012 you’re going to a more traditional subscription-based model when very few games are able to be successful with that route.
Yoshida: Yes, we are currently going to the subscription billing. That’s not to say that in the future, depending on the needs of the players and the direction that the industry is going that we will never step away from that. It’s just that after 2.0 we’re going to reassess the situation, see what meets the needs of the players and what the current industry standard is.
While this might sound weird to the West, but FFXIV, being a game that is developed in Japan, the MMO players there are about 40 years old and are used to games that are subscription based. The overall image of Free-to-Play and Microtransaction-based games is one that is not very positive in Japan. That is one thing that is very different from the West. To immediately jump over to a microtransaction or free-to-play type style might be received negatively in Japan. There needs to be more of a transition period because there is still that demographic that says “microtransaction = bad.”
But then again we realize that this is not a game that is only for Japan, this is a game that is global, and so we intend to take in the opinions of all the different regions. We realize that some things are more accepted in America, some things are more accepted in Europe, and some things are more accepted in Japan. So choosing a model that fits all three is best. So that’s why it’ll be a combination of those and moving towards whatever the global industry standard is.
And another reason is that as you know the launch was met with a lot of trouble and the move to Free-to-Play from that rocky launch – while on the short term it might be a profitable thing to do but we saw that s only profitable on the short term. The game wasn’t designed for a microtransaction system where you buy items, use those items, and then they’re gone. We designed the game to exist for a long time. So we felt that by changing something designed to be played on a ten year span to Free-to-Play would shorten that. In the future again we can make those sorts of design changes, but to make that change now would merely be a short-term solution.
Me: Regarding the timing of this announcement: Why switch to subscription service now as opposed to when 2.0 launches?
Yoshida: About a week ago we had a live chat on Youtube where players asked questions via Twitter. One of the questions that arose was from a fan who said “I’m currently not playing, but I’m thinking of returning to FFXIV. How would you sell the game to me?” This was just after the release of 1.19, so I replied that currently the game is at about 50% of what we want it to be.
What does the 50% number mean? As of 1.19 we were able to add a lot of new content such as the Chocobo mount system as well as the Infrit battle and the Summons. These things are staples of the Final Fantasy staples. We also have a plan in place for adding more of these things so that it will feel more like a Final Fantasy game. This was accomplished as of 1.19. However there were still things that we felt were missing, things that are staples of MMORPGs. Player search, an item system similar to the auction house in FFXI – with these things missing, we had to give the number 50%.
As I mentioned before, we won’t be asking players to start paying until after the next patch, 1.20. The thing is, at this point with 1.20 there were two things we felt were missing from the game – the PC search and the improved market system that is more like the FFXI auction house. Both of these things will be added in 1.20. We will also have the addition of more Final Fantasy-esque type content, and then also – which we believe is the first in the industry – we will have this year long event having all these quests and content explaining the story about what is going to happen up until version 2.0. It will be called the 7th Umbral Era, and it’s basically quests and content that you can only play now, that you can only experience over the course of this year in the live events released with every patch. Because we are going to be able to promise these things we want players to experience 1.19, experience 1.20 with these two major changes that we felt were missing and then decide whether they want to click the billing button and accept the terms.
The players might think that version 2.0 will be a completely different game, and while there will be a lot of different changes and a lot of things will be revamped, FFXIV will still be FFXIV. The events that are coming now and that will be coming throughout this year all lead up to this sort of big bang that’s going to happen at 2.0. We are going to continue making changes, we are going to continue adding content. When players get to 2.0 it will be like an expansion pack, where when you get a new expansion pack you have thrill of going to those new areas for the first time, with 2.0 the whole world will be like a new area. Players will get that excitement of being someplace for the first time, but also seeing stuff that they are used to. So it’s a bit of “what’s the same?” and “what’s different?” and finding that experience all over again.
And then, of course, there’s always the issue of the costs – the costs of servers, of the 250-man development team that are all working towards making this new version. That’s a reason as well.
Me: How as the community reacted since the announcement?
Yoshida: First of all you can separate the community into two groups. One group of players played at the beginning and then quit, because they weren’t pleased with it. Their reaction is going to be understandably different. The community we found that of the players that have stuck with us, far more than 50% of those were supportive of the idea of moving to the subscription. They know that Square Enix is really serious about making this a better game, we’ve shown them this and we’ve come this far, so they’ve said they’ll support Square Enix in this decision.
On the other hand you have those that quit and are watching from afar – their reaction is more of “Okay, 2.0 looks pretty cool, but we should wait until 2.0.” And there is a good amount of discussion between those two groups. We have to take what’s inbetween. We have until 2.0 to decide if this subscription plan is working. So let’s first look at 1.20 and see the reaction and if at that point it looks pretty good we’ll start there. If there’s a group of people that say they need a little bit more time, we’ll have them wait until 1.21 and see what’s in there and then make their decision after 1.21. Those that have to wait until 1.22 and see what’s in there and then make their decision then. And then there’s going to be some people that wait all the way until 2.0. Ultimately it comes down to the player’s individual decision, and that’s what we want.
Me: How much of the content released in patches 1.19 and 1.20 is available to new players?
Yoshida: In version 1.19 we finally started implementing the bare minimums on things like tutorials, things that were missing from the original version of the game. The reason it has taken so long is that after the launch, all the people that have remained of this past year have been people that fought through that phase and that are now moving towards the end of the content. So our focus has been during the past months on providing content for those players. So now we are finally at the point where we are moving towards providing that content for new players. But yes, that has been added in 1.19.
As you know the actual packaged price for the game has dropped significantly, and also since it’s been free for over the past year – actually according to our numbers a lot of people are joining the game, new players are joining or old players are returning. And so because of this group of players are starting to grow, we thought that this would be the best time to start working on content for beginners. Not only do we have these new features, but we’ve also added things like Chocobos. The media is starting to get a buzz about it so a lot of people are returning. We want people who have quit to know that if they come back now they will see that the game has changed very much since launch in addition to the tutorial content we’ve added.
We still realize that there are still a lot of things that need changing. At the beginning some of the quests can be kind of confusing, and there still isn’t a lot of explanation of things at the beginning of the game, so in the next few patches we still have to continue making it easier for new players coming in. We hope that with patches 1.20 and 1.21 that not only the story of the 7th Umbral Era and this live event but also other content will continue to receive updates and players will look at those. If players see these changes and see what’s now in the game, they’ll see that now is the time to come back because there is stuff for you.
Me: Can you talk a little about what sort of PvP content has been added or will be coming to the game?
Yoshida: At was mentioned in the Version 2.0 documents we are planning PvP content. I am a big PvP player myself. In the Final Fantasy franchise there hasn’t been much in the way of fighting with people that are considered your friends. It’s a topic that’s been avoided in a lot of Final Fantasy. It’s become a real challenge for us to implement something that really hasn’t been done in the series.
Things like you see in other MMOs – getting PK’d in the field or duels or servers where every area is a PvP area – those things might not be the best fit for FFXIV. Personally when I was playing Ultima I liked doing the PKs, so I’m all for that myself. But on the other hand we realize that the hardcore players, the ones that are really supporting your game they make up that hardcore supports the game, a lot of those players are really into PvP and so we realize we have to put those aspects into the game. So even if only 15 or 20 % of the user base is going to be into PvP it’s still a reason to have PvP in the game because you want to meet that global standard even if those numbers are small.
The type of PvP we are planning for after 2.0 is very a sports like coliseum, where it’s a small area and you’ll be able to see your opponent right away at the beginning. And the other idea we have is something we are tentatively calling the Frontline, where you have one specific area designated for PvP sort of like how WoW has the Horde and the Alliance we want to have multiple groups – maybe more than just two fight, and have it be where the last man standing will gain control.
When implementing a PvP system though, we need to think about having it be meaningful, with PvP achievements and rewards and items. In addition we need to make sure that PvP is not something compulsory, so that you don’t have a game that forces you to PvP if you don’t want to. We don’t want that. There needs to be the option for those players that just want to stay in the Frontline and play PvP all day, and reward them for that, but not make it mandatory. There’s a lot that goes into the design and we want to make sure we do it right.
Me: Lastly, I wanted to ask about the possibility of a 360 version of the game. FFXI eventually came out with a version of the game for Xbox, is that something in the plans for FFXIV as well?
At launch we promised the fans that we would be putting out a PS3 version of the game, and we haven’t yet made good on that promise, so we want to make sure we deliver on that first. Therefore we are working on the PS3 version and will release that early next year so we can fulfill the promise we made to the fans.
That being said, unlike FFXI which was developed first for the PS2, we started off developing FFXIV for PC technology so making that step towards the Xbox 360 wouldn’t be as difficult. But then you also think of the fact that we are almost coming on that threshold of new game systems so we need to think of developing for those as well. So it comes to a choice of whether or not we develop for the 360 or for the 720 or whatever.
As new hardware comes out, new machines come out we will have to start developing for that new hardware, but as we said before we need to fulfill old promises first and that promise is the PS3. Once that is done we can look at other types of hardware. There are pros and cons obviously, since the company has invested a lot of time, money and resources into doing this, and we want to first get out what we have promised.