These interviews were salvaged from the GSLA archive, and offer a broad look at the early evolution of Square’s pioneering console MMO Final Fantasy XI from conception to launch and beyond. Naturally, these interviews do not address the game’s continuing legacy: the game outlived its own five-year roadmap by over a decade and is still online to this day, with the 2013 expansion pack Seekers of Adoulin bearing the distinction of being the last officially-released Japanese PS2 disc software.

Final Fantasy VI interview (1994)
Final Fantasy VII interviews (1997)
Final Fantasy VIII interviews (1998)

Final Fantasy XI – 2002 Developer Interview

originally found at the GSLA archive

Hiromichi Tanaka – Executive Producer
Koichi Ishii – Director

Origins of the Project

Tanaka: Originally it was Hironobu Sakaguchi’s idea to bring Final Fantasy online. But a big part of it, I think, was that online games were what the market was looking for. Before the PS2 came out, there was this feeling that the entire game industry was in a slump. There were still big titles like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy that sold well, but if you looked past those, sales were’t great—despite an absolute glut of new titles coming out every week. It may not have been as dire as the Atari Shock, but it felt like things had fallen to a level very near that.

The fighting game boom had ended, and it felt like the genre possibilities for video games had been largely exhausted. We were looking for fertile ground that could give birth to new ideas—but no one could see an exit from the current state of things. I don’t think it was any one’s fault, either; I think that as Japanese video game culture matured, this was an unavoidable roadbump. And so, given this climate, we decided to pursue the potential for new growth that we saw in online network games.

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Hiromichi Tanaka (2006)

But even after Sakaguchi talked to us about making an online Final Fantasy, we (the development staff) didn’t take any big active steps to get started. I think we were all dreading the networking part of the development. So, what happened was, Sakaguchi suggested that we try out some of the online games that were popular now. When I did that, it was like seeing the light for the first time. Ultima Online, Everquest, we bought them all and lined them up, giving each one a general playthrough. I was incredibly, almost ridiculously impressed with these games. To make a comparison, it would be like someone going from black and white TV to color TV. Or the way you felt when you could play arcade-quality games in your home for the first time.

At that time, there were no Japanese game developers who had fully embraced the new online paradigm. On the other hand, we felt that doing it half-way wouldn’t lead to success. If we were going to take the plunge into this new online world, then we should choose our strongest franchise from the start (Final Fantasy) and go all-in. Without that level of will and determination, we probably wouldn’t be able to break into the online market anyway. Another reason, of course, was how dangerous we perceived the decline of the console market to be.

Computers may have ample processing, memory, and graphics power, but consoles today are still very limited. Trying to make both a single-player version of FFXI and an online version at the same time would have been all but impossible. We didn’t want to sacrifice our ideal vision for our online game, and pursuing both avenues would probably result in something compromised for both, so we decided to only go ahead with the online game. In talking with Ishii, we both agreed that the big point about online games was the ability to “create another world”. To make a world that would feel satisfying to the many people playing the game, the world should be as large as possible—on a scale that feels realistic, like actual, real spaces. To use the PS2 memory alone for that would undoubtedly result in a world that’s too narrow and constrained.

Hardware and Server Issues

Tanaka: We’re planning a server capacity of about 5000 simultaneous connections per server. In our beta tests, we had 4 servers in total, so many thousands of players could join. Right now we basically have zero worries about server load. And one thing I want there to be no misunderstanding about: you don’t need a broadband connection to play FFXI. We’re designing the game to be a stress-free experience, even with normal dial-up.

Right now there are no data centers in Japan that can handle a load of 1 million players (if we reach that). For the beta tests we used servers in Otemachi, but I’ve been told they have a 500,000 person limit. If the player count goes above that, there’s a data center in America called Exodus, and we’d need something of that scale.

The Player Experience

Tanaka: We want to create a world that has a feeling of continuity, premised on a culture and society that is constructed in participation with the players. A game like Diablo certainly shows one very valid and fun approach to network games, but I would say that it offers a more transient experience. In FFXI, players who began the game at the same time will all progress at the same speed, generally speaking. Naturally, on a server of only 5000 people, you can expect to see some of the same people frequently (those who share your lifestyle rhythms) and befriending them. I think this whole dynamic is really interesting.

Ideally, of course, we’d like everyone who’s played the previous Final Fantasy games to try FFXI too, but this game requires additional hardware (a HDD) before you can play it. That being the case I think it’s unlikely to expect all the fans to jump right on board. However, as I said in the beginning, given the current uncertainty in the gaming industry, and our own positive reaction to the online games we tested out, we don’t see any other exit than this, for the future of video games. By and by everything will be moving to an online platform, and FFXI is our first step in that direction.

Items and Trading

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Koichi Ishii (2017)

Ishii: The trading system, where you can trade the items you create from monster drops with other users, is also a very important part of FFXI. We have programmed it in such a way, however, that certain monsters and items will only spawn in certain areas. This lends a sense of geography and place to the world, and also gives the players another motivation to journey to different regions. I think it also contributes to building relationships between players. In the beta test, we’ve already seen many players come to different zones with items in tow, specifically for the purpose of trading, and they get a good price for them too.

Tanaka: We’re planning to introduce a location expressly for trading too, like a bazaar.

PvP

Tanaka: I don’t think we’ll be including PvP events at launch. There’s a system for PvP that’s already been implemented by the team (and exists in the main game’s code), but we’ve deliberately locked it. This is a game between actual human players, so there are questions of morality to consider as well. In real life you have the police to enforce those, and in games like Ultima Online there’s the Game Masters. We’re planning to implement something equivalent for FFXI. Just as Ultima Online has it’s own culture built around the game, we’re hoping to build something similar for FFXI.

Balancing

Tanaka: We’re very satisfied with the balance we’ve struck between the amount of freedom players have and the story we’ve prepared. With humans, when many of us gather in a single location, there’s a social order that naturally arises, as well as customs and traditions. The players in FFXI, too, with the dual awareness of themselves as player characters and people in the real world, will be the ones who create the rules for Vana’diel. And I feel that we’ve succeeded in providing a platform for that.

Of course, we exert our influence over the game balance itself, and we do what we can to prevent any system-wide problems or abuses. But for the “culture” of FFXI, we’re hands-off. The patterns of life, common sense, and rituals that will all grow from here—that’s all being left up to the players. The beta version only had two worlds (servers), but the official game will have more than twenty. Naturally, we expect each server will develop its own distinct culture and rules.

Linkshells

Tanaka: Regarding linkshells, they’re only for players who truly want to form a linkgroup. If we allowed just anyone to make them, it would actually harm the formation of communities; moreover, the more linkshell channels there are, the harder is it on the server load. So please save up your gil and pool it together with your friends when you want to buy a linkshell. (laughs)

Single Player vs. MMO

Ishii: Up to now, I think there’s been too many video games that over-emphasize the single player experience. Of course we’ve had teachable moments from games like Street Fighter II, which showed the excitement of competing with another person, and Pokemon showed us how fun trading and comparing data with other players could be. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a kind of fun in games that came before video games—board games like Monopoly for instance—that has been neglected. In that sense online games harken back to the original experience of games themselves: that is, the experience of playing with other people together. It’s something of a return to the old table-top experience of games like D&D. And by changing the people you play with, you change the game’s difficulty, or it gets more fun (or in some cases, less fun). This is precisely the difference between online games and single-player console games: the joy of online games is created through your personal interactions with other people.

When I actually played online games for the first time, I felt that this truth was something everyone inherently knew, but it had somehow been lost in the lurch. But actually talking with your party, sharing theories and ideas and trying to figure out how to take down the next monster or objective… that collaborative experience—sharing the experience—is what makes these games so wonderful.

Tanaka: The previous Final Fantasy games have all had very flashy, impressive opening scenes. However, if we did that for FFXI, I worry it could unintentionally draw people too deeply into the story aspect of the game, and encourage a single-player style. This is a game you enjoy by communicating with lots of other people while you play, and we felt strongly about avoiding anything that overly encourages that kind of solo play.

Ishii: To create the world of Vana’diel, we tried to divide and organize the content by whether it was strongly related to the story or not. If you want to know what’s happening in the wider world, you’ll need to go to the central hub of each country. The info you get from quests is only a fraction of the whole, so if you really want to know what’s happening in the story, you have to complete the missions and spend more time in the central (capital) areas. To see the whole picture, you’d have to visit other countries too. But there’s no actual requirement to go and take on missions from every country. If we did that then FFXI would be no different from a console game. Once you meet more people, you’ll probably hear what’s happening in those places by word-of-mouth. There’s various ways to get information. In the end it will depend on the players—we’re not emphasizing any particular way to play.

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Concept art for Final Fantasy XI’s five races:
Elvaan, Tarutaru, Galka, Mithra and Hume.

FFXI Post-Release Interview – 2002

originally found at the GSLA archive

Koichi Ise – Systems Director
Hiromichi Tanaka – Executive Producer

Ise: I’d say we were somewhat prepared for incidents on launch day.

Tanaka: It might be the destiny of all online games, but as of yet, I don’t think there’s been a single one that’s had a completely chaos-free launch.

Ise: We wanted to do some kind of anniversary style event, but if tens of thousands of people were to connect all at once… our system can’t handle that.

Tanaka: Of course, technologically it would be possible, but we’re not in a place to make an investment in that kind of server capacity for just a single day.

Ise: That weekend we had our second round of technical difficulties though. I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t sleep at all Saturday or Sunday, and just worked through the weekend in a fog… it was awful.

Another unexpected surprise was users with a certain IP address being unable to connect. The underlying problem wasn’t restricted to one specific area, so we had to work with their internet providers and tune things up so as to better distribute the server loads, and gradually the problem went away.

Tanaka: Presently, we have about 120,000 users registered for FFXI with Play Online. To be frank, broadband has been proliferating slower than we expected, and that’s been hard. Right now, the servers are hitting about 3000 players during peak times (and that figure is roughly the same for all the servers).

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Koichi Ise (2006)

The pace at which we’ve been adding new users has not dropped off at all. The graph of that growth is a beautiful thing to behold. Our normal retail package games always have their big sales spike right at the beginning, but FFXI has continued to sell at the same pace since May, and actually increased again over the summer. Owing to that, if you look at player levels, there’s a pyramid-shaped distribution there. This means that in the distant future, when the growth of new players has slowed, we’re going to have a top-heavy “elderly” population of players, and we’ll have to figure out what to do about that. Though I should add, so far our subscription cancellation rate has been less than 1%, which is extremely low compared with other PC MMORPGs.

Ise: Regarding the server loads, if you look at Ultima Online and Everquest, at their peak times they’ve got about 100,000 people playing worldwide. Right now with FFXI, in Japan alone we’ve got about 60,000 people. Our single server capacity is about 5000 people, but I think that when you start hitting around 4000 simultaneous connections, there’s a danger that the maps might become too crowded, harming the gameplay (this depends on the distribution of player levels, too). Things look ok for now though. It’s not a serious problem at the moment, so we can probably keep adding players for awhile yet.

Tanaka: As for an overseas version, we don’t have a release date set yet. We’re working hard on the English version everyday, but the credit card processing and the networks themselves being outside of Japan means it’s taking awhile. If we do create an English version, our plan is for everyone to play on the same worldwide server. We’re translating the stock communication phrases into English, so it should be easy enough to play with others. Being able to play and talk with foreigners in their own words for the first time, though, will also appeal to Japanese players I think. If you can speak at a middle-school level in English you should be able to have a conversation, so it’s my hope that overseas players will actively try and communicate with each other without hesitations.

The Connection to Final Fantasy

Tanaka: From the beginning, this is how I wanted Final Fantasy to be—something with a huge amount of freedom, and the ability for the player to choose how they want to play. RPGs are about empathising and identifying with your character, and as a game, FFXI embodies that idea to the fullest. You and your character really are one and the same.

Ishii: What’s “Final Fantasy” about FFXI? Well, it’s what we’ve been chasing with Final Fantasy from the very beginning. But while we knew what we wanted to do then, we couldn’t realize it. But now, as an online game, we’ve been able to fulfill that dream. Or maybe it’s precisely the long history of striving for that goal by our developers which lends this game that Final Fantasy feeling.

Tanaka: Something I was told by the other developers when we made the early Final Fantasy game was “we want to make it feel like exploring a diorama, a little miniature world.” I think we’ve achieved that feeling with Vana’diel, a little world for players to freely explore.

Ishii: One thing to remember with this game—if you try to do everything on your own, you might not have much fun. If you divide up your roles and communicate while working together, I think you’ll have a great time.

Tanaka: Just remember not to forget the real world, and play moderately. (laughs)

The very first Final Fantasy XI trailer, shown at
the Japanese Square Millennium Event in 2000.

FFXI – 2007 Developer Interview

originally found at the GSLA archive

Tanaka: At first, I predicted that a relaxed, casual playstyle would be the norm for most players, but there turned out to be way more min-max style, stat-focused players than I had expected. Many of the MMOs that came before FFXI didn’t show you the actual stats or experience points for your character, so I think making those stats transparent for FFXI has encouraged more “efficiency”-minded players. There was actually a lot of disagreement among the development staff, of whether we should make that information available for players, but in the end we wanted the game to feel like a Final Fantasy game, which meant being able to see all your stats.

One of our earliest concepts for FFXI was that it would eventually develop into a worldwide game. This March, we rolled out the French and German versions, so it’s finally a diverse “multi-lingual” game now. I do wish we’d been able to expand FFXI to a worldwide game more quickly, though.