One of the most fascinating video game stories of this decade continues to be the total resurgence of Final Fantasy XIV. An MMORPG once thought to be on its deathbed, Square Enix took a terrible game (by their own admission and also by fan reception), blew the entire thing up, and reformed it as A Realm Reborn. It has since become one of the highest-quality MMORPGs in the world, with Square Enix continuing to add new content on a regular basis.
This has been a big year for FFXIV, with the release of a new expansion called Shadowbringers, a story that turns a lot of the traditional plot elements normally associated with a Final Fantasy game on their head. It's been hailed as one of the boldest and also one of the best Final Fantasy stories to come along in years, which is why Shacknews was excited to meet up with members of the development team to chat about it.
Main scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa and art lead Takeo Suzuki made the trip from Japan to attend this year's PAX West. And they took some time out of their busy schedule to talk to Shacknews* about Shadowbringers, some of its major plot elements, the game's newest jobs, and also the sixth anniversary of A Realm Reborn and how the team faces the challenge of recruiting new players.
(* - Interview responses provided via Japanese translator.)
Shacknews: You recently just celebrated Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's sixth anniversary. What are your feelings on celebrating six years?
Natsuko Ishikawa, Final Fantasy XIV Main Scenario Writer: There were a few staff members that had babies right around the time of A Realm Reborn. Considering those kids are now entering grade school, it just feels as though time has passed. Same goes for the players, though. I'm sure a lot of our players have faced different times in their lives, but we feel very happy and very fortunate that Final Fantasy XIV has kept on going and that we were able to celebrate another anniversary.
But not only were we able to celebrate our sixth anniversary, but we see that there are more players joining us. Some of our active subscriber numbers have been record high numbers. So it's wonderful that people continue to join us and we feel that it couldn't have been done without the players' support and how people continue to enjoy our game. Of course, we're very happy that we're able to celebrate our anniversary, but we're also thankful for all the players who have stuck with us.
Shacknews: How has the player base reacted to Shadowbringers and its story so far?
Ishikawa: Definitely, there are a lot of players who enjoy the storyline. And we've also noticed that, of course people enjoy the story, but not only do they talk to each other within the game, but we've seen many people posting on social networks or posting videos about their gameplay.
Takeo Suzuki, Final Fantasy XIV Art Lead: From my perspective, I oversee different elements within the art team, such as the characters, background designs, cutscene designs, and some of the technical designs. From different perspectives, I've heard feedback, as well. First, for the characters, we released the benchmark software before the release of the actual Shadowbringers expansion. But you got to try out character creation through the benchmark software. We've seen reaction towards the new races that we introduced, the Viera and the Hrothgar. So of course, seeing the reactions from the players just from the benchmark software and seeing that nice response made us feel very happy about what we've produced so far. But of course, we were still wondering about how players would react to the game itself.
So once Shadowbringers launched, we started hearing more comments about different fields and areas within the game, as well as the dungeon content. Certain people had mentioned about the cutscenes within the main story. It's great to hear positive reactions that came back.
Shacknews: What were your primary goals with the main scenario quests for Shadowbringers, from a gameplay standpoint?
Ishikawa: From that perspective, I think the general approach to how we went about this was, of course we had this five-year history since A Realm Reborn and we also have lore and setting that existed even before we launched as ARR. But we took all that and in Shadowbringers, we transferred over to another realm, into The First. So we had all these characters and different aspects that people have come to know, but we're also trying to bring something new and exciting for the players to enjoy in Shadowbringers. That's one of the goals that we had, was to bring that experience that was somewhat familiar, but still brand new. And from the looks of how people have been reacting, then becoming very attached to some of these elements, we feel that we have been able to achieve that goal.
Shacknews: You took a sharp turn in Shadowbringers from what many RPG players are used to, especially from a Final Fantasy game. You designed a story about the dangers of too much light. How did the team go about bringing that story to life, both narratively and artistically?
Ishikawa: The story concept of flipping those kinds of traditional notions has actually been touched upon in various different aspects of our expansions. Certain people's righteousness or what they believe to be good and true may not be righteous and true to other groups of people. We've touched upon that in Stormblood, as well as Shadowbringers and it is a theme that we touch on throughout Final Fantasy XIV. So with Shadowbringers, we took it one step further. We're having our adventures in Hydaelyn and nobody had any sort of doubt or never speculated about the existence of the planet, of course, or what light is supposed to signify. Our intention wasn't to break what's happening, but we wanted to provide another perspective. We wanted to jump in even further and pose questions that might get players to start thinking.
Suzuki: From an art perspective, of course we are taking the story to another realm outside of the Source and going into the First. So a lot of the efforts were put into, "How do we depict this different realm?" We'd have our different highlands, or the sea, or different plains that players would explore. Elements may be similar to what you're used to in the realm of the Source, but by going to the First, we wanted to take those similar elements and give them their own flavor, to present a different world that these adventures are going to jump into.
The other element that was really big in Shadowbringers is the fact that the flood of light had basically removed darkness. So it was a very eerie feeling that we wanted to bring out, with just so much light being there. The art team, especially the environment team, worked really hard in coming up with ideas that would help bring out that sort of presentation, as well.
Shacknews: What was your biggest challenge in designing the First as a dimension of overabundant light?
Suzuki: Definitely the fact that we are overcome by the flood of light was a challenge to depict in itself. We didn't want to have too much light or else it would interfere with gameplay. It would be washed out and it would be too hard to see. But at the same time, we have to have strong enough light to give players that impression that this is an unusual situation, that this is eerie that there's just a lot of light going around. It was a lot of fine-tuning and making sure we're making the correct adjustments.
As part of the adjustment process, we looked at how much light there is. Not just the amount of light, but we also tried to make sure we are paying attention to some of the environments, some of the textures, some of the materials that you see in some of these terrains in the different stages that players will venture into, or else we wouldn't have a proper sort of visual representation. A nice picture that we're painting for our players. So there were a lot of adjustments that we made in that aspect, as well.
We feel we kind of went too far with Mt. Gulg, but I think we will be making more fine-tune adjustments in future patches, as well. (Editor's Note: The patch addressing Mt. Gulg was released shortly before this interview was conducted.)
Shacknews: The Final Fantasy franchise as a whole has often excelled at creating three-dimensional characters, whether they be hero or villain. How important is it to give a sense of relatability to Final Fantasy XIV's villains, particularly Emet-Selch in Shadowbringers?
Ishikawa: For creating a character, we do feel that it is very important that we establish a sort of symbol or a characteristic that a particular character would have from the point of making the request to our different teams, including the art team. So whenever we start thinking about these characters, of course we think about establishing what their characteristics are like. Of course, these are people, men and women who are playing a role in a story. So each of them would have their own sort of thoughts and feelings as they move throughout the narrative. I feel it is very important that we understand the characters that we want to depict first. Then if there are any sort of elements that we want to feature in a character, we want to bring that out, as well as make sure it is being properly conveyed, so that we can present these characters and have the players feel an attachment to them or come to like them.
Suzuki: From a design perspective, of course our goal is to have the character stand out or be very recognizable. So we think about, "How do we make it so that these characters are easily identifiable?" or "What can we do to make them feel memorable?"
When we are designing these different characters and considering placing them within the game, we also need to look at how much resources we're allocating in creating these moments. The process of creating different characters and the resources that are needed don't vary very much between main characters and some of the surrounding characters, but we do have to consider, do we want to create specific animations for individual characters or do we have cutscenes that involve some of the characters having special emotions that they would act out within these scenes? So the art team would consider which elements do we place more focus on? Or what are some of the scenes that don't require so much labor to be put in.
So with Emet-Selch, the team did look at adding more facial expressions for this character, as well as additional emotions and movements that he would do in some of his scenes, so they carefully selected which ones would be appropriate in order for us to properly depict how he behaves within the narrative. That was some of the more important elements from the art perspective.
I feel that we were successful in bringing all this together, because it was very much a collaborative effort. Ishikawa-san would point out that there's some important elements from a narrative perspective that we wanted to feature and she would highlight some of the points within the story that are very important. So the cutscene team, the art team, the scenario team would work really closely together to bring together this whole package and it came out really well.
Ishikawa: One more thing I want to add is that the fact that we are creating these characters, and not just these characters, but anything within FFXIV, needs to come out of our love for these characters and situations. We don't want to make it so that we're just doing this because people will like it or we think this is hip and trendy or we have to make due with system requirements. We want to avoid cases where we're only looking at these elements. We want to make sure that we, ourselves, from a developer's perspective, fall in love with these characters or write a situation that we are confident and proud of presenting to our players.
Shacknews: Lastly, you mentioned that you have a lot of new players. What advice would you offer those new players who now face six years' worth of story in A Realm Reborn?
Ishikawa: In terms of advice, you may have heard that we have a plan to make some of the earlier quests a little more streamlined, the first part of A Realm Reborn and the subsequent patches after that. We're looking to streamline them and make them a little more compact. We are trying to put in means that would allow for a smoother transition and a smoother onboarding of our new players.
On top of that, we have some extra content, like the Return to Ivalice Alliance raid. In our upcoming patch, we're also going to be introducing the new NieR raid series, the YoRHa: Dark Apocalypse are coming too. So if you're not familiar with FFXIV, there's also those entry points that relate to other games, as well. I think there's different avenues where people can jump into FFXIV.
And with an MMO, some people might have the impression that it's neverending or that there's no change that would be brought about. But I think players have become very excited about Shadowbringers and there's just so much passion and excitement going on. And I think it's a very limited time that we'll have that excitement going on, so I think now is a really good time for people to share in that excitement, so we would love to encourage players to jump in.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is available now on PC and PlayStation 4. The Shadowbringers expansion is available separately.
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Man I'm really looking forward to getting to Shadowbringers content.