Final Fantasy XI - 2009 Developer Interview
This Final Fantasy XI interview with director/writer Kenichi Iwao was originally featured in the FFXI Story Ultimania mook and explores how the backstory and lore were created for Square's inaugural and long-lived MMORPG. The conversation covers the races and cultures of Vana'diel, the Vana'diel Tribune, and various memories Iwao has after 8 years of managing FFXI.
Kenichi Iwao - Planner/Writer. In charge of the world lore for FFXI. A lover of Western culture, he is especially fond of armor and brought a piece from his collection to the interview today. He is known for Parasite Eve 2 and Einhander.
—You created the world setting for Final Fantasy XI, but practically speaking, what kind of work did that entail?
Iwao: I'm credited as the director for the overall setting and scenario, which means I do the work of connecting up all the elements of the game, both inside and outside the game-world. Concretely, that means the areas, items, monsters, NPCs, skills, and synthesis… I decide the lore and naming conventions for all those elements, and I help coordinate the outfits and equipment for the various NPCs, as well as their backgrounds and personalities. I also work on the plot, dialogue, writing, direction, and battles for all the various events. Outside the game-world, I oversee the topics on the official site, and also assist with the writing and supervision for published guides and related products. If you wanted to sum it all up, I'm your classic jack-of-all-trades. (laughs)
—In what ways did you try to impart "Final Fantasy-ness" to this Final Fantasy MMORPG?
Iwao: I think innovation itself is the charm of Final Fantasy. That's why one of my goals was to have the world and setting feature something brand new. Of course, the traditions of Final Fantasy are important too, so magic and items names should feel Final Fantasy-ish, and the crystals play a vital role. However, in previous FF games, the crystals have often been depicted like gods around which the entire world revolves.
This time, I thought, "what if the crystals are more ubiquitous, more a part of your everyday life", so we relegated them to items you use for synthesis. At first glance it may seem like we've devalued the crystals, but for the people who live in this world, it means that the crystals are a more intimate part of their daily lives, so I think it actually strengthened their presence.
—Vana'diel features a diverse array of cultures, but what went into making the three nations that the player starts out from?
Iwao: Every world in the different Final Fantasy games has its own distinct charms, and each has its fans. In order to appeal to such a wide range of players, we thought of a setting that had three nations. To set them apart from each other, we gave each one different cultural levels (modern, medieval, and ancient), and different forms of government (dictatorship, communist, theocratic). There was also the question of what building materials they relied on (wood vs stone), and their architecture and the layout of their public spaces. Smaller details like what weapons and food they sell in shops, and how they handle magic, all were meant to emphasize each countries' distinctive culture, industry, and geography. I'll be happy if players find one that feels like home to them.
—What was your concept for having five different races?
Iwao: For each race we have conceptual keywords. Humans, for instance, resembling real humans, we thought of as "basic" and "diverse". The Elvan were "tall" and "active". The TaruTaru were "cute and cozy", with "a little mischievous streak" thrown in. (laughs) For the Mithra it was "nimble catgirls" and "sexy and cool". Judging from their silhouette alone the Galkan had "gigantic strength", but this betrayed their "prudent, thoughtful" personalities. These were the racial tendencies we initially thought of, but of course, within each race there's a lot of different types of characters, which I think is good.
—Do you have any interesting anecdotes or stories from the time you were making each race?
Iwao: The Tarutaru's name was originally just a placeholder. They were going to be a race of bird-riders who always rode on chocobos, so at that point, we borrowed the name Tarutaru because it was the name of a bird-riding people in actual history. 1 Later on we dropped that bird-rider background, but a lot of people felt the name Tarutaru had a cute ring to it, and they wanted to keep it, so we officially adopted it then. To match that, we made all the Tarutaru names use rhyming.
—There are also many different beastmen in FF11. Was it hard coming up with all that variation?
Iwao: No, not really. I often muse about the various races found throughout our world and their cultures and ideologies, and I like to daydream about "what if this race and this race, separated by time and geography, had encountered each other… what kind of culture would their mixture have produced?" I used that kind of thinking when I made all the beastmen, so a lot of them came surprisingly easily.
—What about the beastmen in Quon and Mindartia, how did you come up with them?
Iwao: Up until the Rise of the Zilart expansion, all the beastmen were ones I'd had since the beginning. The big thing I paid heed to was the overall balance. I roughly classified the beastmen into three groups: standard fantasy tropes like the orcs and goblins; familiar beasts from the FF series; and races original to FFXI like the Quadav and Yagudo. The original races presented an interesting challenge: too few and it feels barren, but too many might make some players feel uncomfortable. For the race names, I personally don't like hamfisted combinations like "Tortoiseman" and "Birdman", so I went for something more original.
—What was the inspiration behind the Beastmen from the near-eastern region?
Iwao: Again, I aimed for a balance with them like I described above. First you have Trolls, who are new-to-Vana'diel but fantasy standards, and the Mamool Ja, whose name is original but are basically lizardmen; then there's Lamiae, who are FF series regulars; and finally the all-original Qiqirn. The Qiqirn live closely with the human races, because I thought it would be interesting to show another side to the history and consequences of the great war, and how humans and beastmen ended up relating to each other. The people of Aht Urhgan still war with certain wild beastmen, but the simplistic notion that "beastmen==enemy" doesn't hold.
—There's a lot of Notorious Monster beastmen with unique titles, who have different titles in Past Vana'diel. Why is that?
Iwao: The beastmen names were created by myself and the localization staff. The reason for the title changes between past and present Vana'diel was simply that I wanted to show how the passage of 20 years had changed things. An easy example would be the Quadav notorious monster whose title in Past Vana'diel is "Go'Bhu Herohunter". During the Crystal Wars he boasted and spread rumors about how many enemy heroes he had slain, but as more of the truth of the great war came to light, Go'Bhu's lies were exposed and he became known as "Go'Bhu Gascon". 2 I hope people notice the little dramas hidden in the naming.
—How did you create the Vana'diel newspaper, the "Vana'diel Tribune"?
Iwao: The tribune was written by three people: myself and two other staff writers. We would all exchange plot ideas, then we'd each write an article, and I would supervise everything and make revisions as needed. In my case, though, I had so many other editorial duties to juggle, that I'd often end up working on them alone, typing away at my keyboard late into the night after everyone has left. People encouraged me, pointing out how valuable it was to document and transmit these lore and setting depictions to the outside world, so I wrote them believing they'd someday comprise a rich endowment for FFXI. And indeed, the Divine Soldiers of Altana (US/Euro: Wings of the Goddess) ended up expanding on the stories told in Joseaneaut's Mission and Atelloune's Wildlife Files.
—Do you have any funny episodes about the "Women of Vana'diel" column from the Tribune?
Iwao: The idea for that column came from one the female writers for the Tribune. "I want to write something that shows the perspective of people who aren't heroes or adventurers, the hidden lives and stories of the NPCs from every region." That's how it got started. Before that, I'd written a quest from a similar angle, "An Explorer's Footsteps", where I inserted some of the untold stories of that region in the form of Ironheart's stone monuments. I agreed that we should try and show Vana'diel from a non-adventurer point-of-view, so I asked her to write that column.
As it turned out, Layne Kauffmann's pleasure trips through various lands provided a wealth of useful story material for events later on. But I never imagined it would go on for so long, for 30 chapters! The writer also prioritized the things she wanted to write above consistency in the world, so Kauffman's travels sometimes take strange and peculiar turns. (laughs)
—Of all your time working on FFXI, what has been the most memorable event for you?
Iwao: At the Fan Festival 2007 in Anaheim, I gave a lecture on the history of Vana'Diel, and that was my first chance to speak up-close with all the players. Seeing their passion moved me deeply. The idea for the lecture came from the gap in knowledge between the Japanese and Western playerbases. The Japanese players have access to books and writing in Japanese about Vana'diel, so they're pretty familiar with its history… but Western players don't have that. We were about to release the Wings of the Goddess expansion, which is set in Vana'diel's past, and I was worried Western players wouldn't be able to enjoy it as much as Japanese players.
I wanted to do something about that. To be honest, though, I was anxious about the lecture because I thought it would be too dry and boring. But each time we turned a page in the presentation, there were oos and aas from the audience, and those worries vanished. I felt extremely grateful in that moment.
—How did you go about implementing and reflecting the backstory you wrote in the actual game world of FFXI?
Iwao: My approach was not to verbally, literally explain the core facts and lore, but to kind of paint around the edges, evoking in a dim and hazy way the overall picture of things. In a normal RPG I think you can talk straightforwardly about the mysteries of the world, but for an MMORPG, the world is also the setting where the players are actively participating, and living their lives out, so it would be presumptuous, and also boring, to just dish out complete, expositional answers to everything. Besides, with regard to the many questions surrounding the setting and story, I think it's more interesting if each player comes to their own conclusions based on their individual experiences.
—FFXI now has over 2 million players... what's it like helming such a popular game?
Iwao: I'm very happy about it, but at the same time, very afraid. (laughs) Within that vast playerbase there's a diverse array of values and knowledge, so it can be nerve-wracking in the sense that I always feel I need to be prepared for anything. There's players out there with an encyclopedic knowledge of Vana'diel and its world, a knowledge which can sometimes even exceed mine. I'm determined not to let them down, so even with something as trivial as the weapon names, I will buy a bunch of books and do extensive research before I set to writing.
For the reason, when players respond with "that's boring" to something I wrote, it super depresses me, but by the same token, if they liked it, I'm truly elated. The response from the players is our energy and fuel as developers, so we love to hear your opinions, even if they contain some complaints too.
—How do you want players to enjoy FFXI?
Iwao: I want everyone to discover their own way to enjoy it. To that end, I think we should keep striving to provide places that have the possibility for a lot of different playstyles. For example, I'm the one who recommended we add the Synthesis system, but there were some on the team who weren't convinced. "It's too difficult, do we really need that?" But from the get-go we wanted to have a lot of different options prepared for players, so I convinced them to allow it in.
Vana'diel may be a contained world, but we wanted the playstyles to feel it was limitless—that thought is always in the forefront of my mind. In that sense, when I see people having fun creating their own fanart or fanfiction or what-have-you, it makes me truly happy. I want to encourage that any way I can: "Please, feel free, do whatever you like!" When players discover the value of Vana'diel that is unique to them, and it leads to their own creative works—well, as developers, there's no greater blessing.
—Are there any new elements you dream of adding to FFXI?
Iwao: I've always wanted to have a large-scale NPC war, and that wish was fulfilled in Treasures of Aht Urhgan with the Besieged system. Now that that's in the bag, next I'd like to have large-scale player-vs-player battles. It depends, I think, on finding a good reason for players to fight, and something important for them to defend, or pledge their loyalties too.
One of my hobbies is collecting Western armor. In Europe and America they have these medieval re-enactment events, where hundreds up people get together and create a makeshift town, and people don suits of armor and mock weapons and have pretend fights and battles. (laughs) At these events, everyone fights for a king, and in the course of the fighting a real sense of loyalty and duty wells up in you for your king, and your fellow comrades feel dear to you. If only I could recreate that feeling in an RPG, I thought. That's one of my dreams, one of my ideals for FFXI. I don't think it's an impossible dream either, though there are many hurdles to overcome, so I've just got to keep striving.
—What does your ideal Vana'diel look like?
Iwao: I used to love playing tabletop RPGs. They have a basic rulebook, but the participants can customize the details as they see fit, and you write your own scenarios. It's all customized to the people playing and it offered me an endless world of possibilities.
When MMORPGs hit the scene, I felt "this is close to tabletop RPGs—in some ways it's even surpassed them." The next step, I think, would be to have players actively engaged in creating the world… that would be my ideal. To compare it to cooking, right now Vana'diel is like a dish that we, the developers, have prepared for the players. But what if it was like "today this group of friends has gathered, and they'd like to eat such-and-such dish"… what if we could create a framework where the players could answer those unique demands for each other, on the spot? That would be truly wonderful.
—Finally, what does FFXI mean to you, Iwao?
Iwao: It's this thing I'm always, always thinking about… of course, during my work, but also when I'm doing other work, and even when I'm playing another game. It's always there in the corner of my mind. Sometimes I even wonder, "is this a problem? am I sick…?" (laughs) But I love the world of Vana'diel, and I also love all the adventurers who are playing there. It can be terribly stressful but it's also extremely satisfying and fulfilling. At present, I don't feel like I've accomplished even half of what I want to do with FFXI, but I intend to keep working hard to expand this world. Thank you for all your support.
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