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As I walk into the room where Im to interview Naoki Yoshida, he has his back to me, looking up at a large screen mounted on the wall. Hes playing Final Fantasy XIV, typing away to a crowd of players that have surrounded him. Were told to wait for a moment before the interview can start.
Yoshida is the producer and game director on Final Fantasy XIV, the fourteenth main series game in the three decade-old series. Final Fantasy XIV was first released in 2010, and was a complete failure. Fans and critics panned the game. Reshuffles took place, development came to a sudden stop as Square Enix, the developers and publishers, desperately tried to revive the game.
That was when Yoshida stepped in - he took over the project as the development team moved on to version 2.0. Eventually named as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, it completely revitalised the game, now a critical and commercial success, with its most recent expansion seeing the highest player numbers in the titles history. Yoshida is seen as a driving force behind that.
This is all a well-known story in the games industry, everyone knows the tale of how Final Fantasy XIV did the impossible, coming back to life after people lost interest. Its now a populated Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), meaning players create their own characters and play alongside each other against huge threats in groups together in a fantasy world.
And now, Yoshida gets to play there with his fans.
This was always the end goal for Final Fantasy XIV. Final Fantasy as a series is a cultural icon around the world, with fans ready to pick up every release. Losing their support was a harsh blow, and the aim was to bring them back.
I think how we managed to complete this challenge is because business elements were not out priority, Yoshida tells me. Of course, business success is important, were not developing the game as volunteers, but from the failure of the original Final Fantasy XIV, 1.0, and the loss of the trust from players and the gaming media, regaining that was the most important thing. So, if we can regain trust from players and the media, the [business] loss didnt really matter. Completing that challenge was the most important and valuable thing for us, and I think makes it very special, and I dont think it will be repeated any time.
As the interview continues, a larger and larger crowd of players gathers on the screen behind us. They cast spells, show off their in-game items, and protect Yoshidas character from any threats that decide to walk his way.
Yoshida sees this community as Final Fantasy XIVs lasting legacy. Despite often referencing how much of a failure Final Fantasy XIV was at launch, and being well aware that history made Final Fantasy XIV the game is it today, that community is why it is successful now.
I believe that one of or maybe the main reason for the success of FFXIV is, since the failure of the original version, we developed the game with the players, with the community, and I believe we have the worlds best passionate community.
Especially with MMOs, theres a tendency that the players and the development team can be against or versus each other, but its not the case with FFXIV, we work very close together. I really treasure this relationship.
Theres a reputation Final Fantasy has to uphold. Since this success, the community has only grown, with Yoshida finding himself fans around the world. Fans from North America are, apparently, the loudest - he happily does an impression of how a North American fan will recognise him and scream Hi, Yoshi! while European or Japanese fans will murmur to friends about it.
Similarly, an American fan - who Yoshida refers to as a Warrior of Light, a term for heroes in the Final Fantasy series - once was so passionate at an airport that he attracted the attention of strangers.
[The Warrior of Light] was so excited, and because he was asking for a photo, a lady who came off the plane after us thought Well, is he a movie star? Is he a celebrity, who is he? and then the Warrior of Light was explaining Oh, hes the producer and the director of my favourite game, Final Fantasy XIV. He was explaining it so passionately but the lady, who was probably in her 50s, just said oh, alright and walked past.
Even when asked what hed do with the game if given unlimited resources and technology, Yoshidas response is for the community. Hed built data centres all around the world, giving everyone, in every region, the ability to play the game on a fast connection. Having a large, passionate fan base comes first.
Whats coming next for Final Fantasy XIV hasnt been announced. An expansion was released earlier this year, with a huge update coming afterwards that brought players back to a location from previous Final Fantasy games, Ivalice. Yoshida is still playing the game, though, still raiding dungeons with people he knows and making new friends.
Its not known to what extent Final Fantasy XIVs revitalisation made up for the financial losses that Square Enix may have suffered when it first released. To Yoshida, in an industry so attached to profits through microtransactions and what many consider to be predatory practices, it really doesnt seem to matter.
To end our interview, I asked him what the best gift hes received from a fan is. Hes received framed portraits of himself, collections of screenshots that friends have made after meeting in the game, and even wedding photos from a couple that met through Final Fantasy XIV. He appreciates them all, but theres one thing he likes over everything else.
I think the best gift is hearing people say Im really enjoying the game, so please continue working on it.
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