Before FFXIV, Square Enix broke MMO ground with the ambitious FFXI — the dev team reflects.
Greetings to all the fans and supporters of Final Fantasy XI Online (FFXI)!
Earlier this month, the game celebrated its 20th year anniversary, and we couldn’t be prouder or more honored by the support of all the fans and countless memories that we’ve built together during this time! To be able to say that we’ve continued to provide service for players around the world since May 16, 2002 is a remarkable achievement for us and we’ve been so happy to celebrate this moment with you all.
Continuing with the celebrations, a few of us from the FFXI development team shared our thoughts on the past 20 years.
Akihiko Matsui: I’m Akihiko Matsui, a “second generation” FFXI producer. I was part of what you might call the early team, and while working on the international version of Legend of Mana and thinking about our next project, Sakaguchi-san told me to do my research because we would be making an online game next. I joined the FFXI team in the beginning as a battle planner.
Yoji Fujito: I’m the current director of FFXI. I have been supporting what can be referred to as “lifestyle” content, the best-known of which may be the mog gardens and chocobo raising, as well as system-related aspects such as the chat or storage systems. Originally, I joined as a planner for the development of Einhänder and Parasite Eve II at the SQUARE Osaka development department (currently the Osaka office). After that, I answered the call for developing FFXI, and have been involved in the development ever since.
Masaru Taniguchi: My name is Masaru Taniguchi and I’m in charge of battle content. I have been involved in the development of FFXI since the Wings of the Goddess expansion. Before FFXI was released, I was in the QA department and worked on debugging the game.
Iori Watanabe: Hello, I’m Iori Watanabe. I joined the team as a tester during the beta version and got the opportunity to become involved as a planner from the second half of the Wings of the Goddess expansion pack. I oversee system modifications to enhance convenience with respect to fishing, mounts, and storage slips beyond Abyssea. Recently, I worked on storage expansion-related designs.
Yasushi Yamazaki: My name is Yasushi Yamazaki. As far as introductions, it would probably be easiest to understand my role if I say that I am in charge of Trusts, Ambuscade Chapter 1, and more recently, A.M.A.N. Trove. I was originally an FFXI player, but when I saw Producer Matsui’s passionate message to recruit development team staff, I applied for the position and joined the team.
Takashi Hisagi: I joined the company in January 2001 as a PlayOnline developer. After that, I was involved in the start-up of the development department for the SQUARE ENIX Account Management System, and then I was transferred to FFXI development after they heard my pleas to work in game development.
In FFXI development, I have been mainly in charge of seasonal events up to the present. In addition, I was involved in the overall planning of Unity Concord and the production of various missions and quests, and I am currently in charge of the production of The Voracious Resurgence.
Developing the First Online Final Fantasy Mainline Title
What was your reaction to the directive to create an online FF that would be included as a mainline numbered title?
Matsui: As a member of the development team at launch, I took it for granted that FFXI would be developed as a mainline numbered title. FFIX and FFX, which were announced at the same time, were two considerably different games, so it did not feel strange to have FFXI as an MMORPG among the others. It does seem like Sakaguchi-san and Tanaka-san went through a lot of trouble. In terms of releasing the game as an MMORPG, it wasn’t as though it was the first of its kind in the world, so I felt that we would probably be capable of making it.
Fujito: I’ve never spoken with Sakaguchi-san directly about this, so the reason why this directive was issued is something I’ve heard through the grapevine. It seems that Sakaguchi-san’s creative motivation was greatly inspired after experiencing EverQuest, and he approached Tanaka-san and Ishii-san about his passionate idea to create it.
For me personally, when I heard the next mainline numbered title was going to be an MMORPG, I felt a sense of elation similar to excitement and thought, “The cutting-edge RPG series, Final Fantasy, is finally going to enter into the MMORPG genre!” I was completely captivated by Ultima Online at the time, and I’d been thinking I’d like to be involved in creating an MMORPG someday.
Can you share what you recall of the public’s reaction to the announcement that the next mainline FF would be online?
Matsui: I don’t remember much of the public reaction at the time of the announcement, partly because I was too preoccupied with resolving various development issues.
Fujito: I only know how the reaction was in Japan, but there were people who were excited for this new undertaking, as well as people who felt that this was not Final Fantasy because it was going to be online. Then, the majority of people just knew that there was some sort of new title coming out, but not much beyond that. People in each of these categories were buzzing about it.
Can you share what kind of experience you had playing and/or developing MMOs at the time?
Matsui: No one had experience developing online games in general, not just MMORPGs. Back then, SQUARE was only releasing products for the PlayStation and other home consoles which were not network capable. Maybe we had experience with local communication matching using a wired cable, like with Pokémon and such? When FFXI was confirmed for release, I bought a PC and played EverQuest and Ultima Online. I felt more comfortable with EverQuest.
Fujito: Everyone on the development team came in without any knowledge about MMORPGs. Only those who had played Ultima Online or EverQuest prior to that had a general feel for the experience. However, every person I encountered was a specialist in the so-called “JRPG” field. Seeing those specialists made me think, “I’ve joined something so high-level that I’m not sure I fit in.” However, I had been exposed to MMORPGs early on, so I had my own interpretation of them, and I relied on that as I took part in discussions about the project.
What kind of considerations did you make while developing an online game versus an offline game?
Matsui: I was initially concerned about how much connectivity-related delays would affect the battles, but having been experienced with MMORPGs quite a bit, I knew from experience that players spent an extensive amount of time in the game, and that there are large variations among the players. Quickly running out of things to do is a problem, but never leveling up is also a problem, and it was precisely because you can see other players that it was difficult to balance.
Fujito: In MMORPGs, when you defeat a monster, players around you can see that. Sharing your status is a must. However, in a case where the world is destroyed as the story progresses, other players who are progressing more slowly could end up seeing an unexpected scene early on. As discussions moved forward about making FFXI story-driven, we needed to deliberate carefully about things like how to present the story, as well as how to help others in battle or handle things that could be spoilers for players at different stages of progression.
Were you surprised at the longevity of FFXI on the PlayStation 2?
Matsui: It was significant that we retained a relatively large development team after launch. The subsequent Windows and international versions, as well as the Xbox 360 version, allowed us to grow our player base steadily, which meant we didn’t have to immediately reduce development manpower to recoup costs. Additionally, the PlayStation 2 is a great console, which invited great software development, enabling it to sell many units over an extended period. Therefore, the significant longevity of the console allowed FFXI’s service to continue for many years on the PS2.
Fujito: A major selling point of FFXI was that it allowed players to experience an MMORPG on a console rather than PC. Support for later consoles was forgone for various reasons, but we continued support for PS2 until the last possible moment. The main reason was the fact that the title began on PS2 so there were many players who still enjoyed playing on it even many years later. Right before service ended on the PS2, players were inconvenienced due to a portion of cutscenes that had a high probability of causing the game to hang, but as a result, we were able to keep going until the release of Rhapsodies of Vana’diel, the finale of FFXI. In a way, that finale was a show of our gratitude and a parting gift to the PS2.
Bringing Final Fantasy XI Online Worldwide
What kind of mindset did you have regarding developing FFXI as a game that would be enjoyed by players worldwide?
Matsui: As a game from Japan, I wanted to introduce seasonal events that are as uniquely Japanese as possible to people around the world. We did not want to be overly conscious of global standards, in a sense. In addition, the Japanese game industry was very vibrant at the time, and I was proud of the fact that it was leading the world in certain ways.
Fujito: From the very beginning, we had anticipated releasing in English-speaking countries, as we believed that the MMORPG was a gaming genre that could become even more fun through the synergy of a larger and more diverse player base. And North America was the home of MMORPGs in the first place. As we were anticipating that it would eventually expand into English-speaking countries, we tried to provide some means of communication for Japanese players who may not be comfortable speaking English. The implementation of the auto-translate function is a major example of this.
Hisagi: I tried to be conscious of the fact that I wanted players from all over the world to enjoy the game. Since what may be common sense in Japan does not always apply to the rest of the world, I would check with the Localization team coordinator if there were any concerns. For example, in Japan, carrots are known as a horse’s favorite food, but I wondered if that was also the case overseas. It turned out to be OK for overseas too. On the other hand, dialogue for missions, quests, etc. are first created in Japanese, but even if there are expressions that are only used in Japan, the translators can make the appropriate adjustments. So, I often just hand things over as-is to the translators without overthinking it.
Can you share any memories from interacting with fans directly during overseas events?
Matsui: Not to say one is better than the other, but the play style between Western players and Japanese players is quite different. Fan events are also like that. In North America, I enjoyed the various activities that were staffed by volunteering fans. I only regret my lack of study, thinking how much more fun it would have been if I had been able to communicate more in English.
Fujito: I attended the North American Fan Fest, which was held at a hotel in Hollywood, and was extremely impressed with how the North American fans would express themselves in a way that I could readily understand. Everyone was friendly, and there was a very open and approachable atmosphere that filled the ballroom where the event was held. When I stepped away to use the restroom and was making my way down the hallway, I was approached by a female player, and as I did not speak English at all, I said something like, “Sorry, I have to go,” remembering the “I have to…” sentence structure I had learned in middle school. I still remember giving her a paper crane as a memento, which I had with me because I was planning to leave it along with a tip by my bed in the hotel room, before walking away. I felt very apologetic at the time.
Sustaining the Game as a Live Service
What kind of challenges does the team face with maintaining continuous content in a live service game?
Matsui: There is no alchemy that can produce results that exceed the staffing costs, and in the end, I believe that ultimately the best thing is to continue to spend the necessary staffing costs. There is the matter of quality vs. quantity with such costs, but with regards to quality, I think it is important that we, as gamers, try to improve ourselves daily.。
Fujito: Simply put, two issues always stand in the way. One is the issue of “human resources.” Creating content requires staff who know how things work and how to make it. Currently, we have seven members including myself, all of whom are planners. There is one member who can act as an engineer, but essentially, the team is only able to implement movement with scripts for planning. Therefore, for anything else, such as adding new graphics or adjusting UI, we continue to borrow help from outside parties as needed to handle work that is over-spec compared to what was originally anticipated.
The other problem is the equipment and development environment. We need to use old equipment that is already out of production and cannot even be sent in for maintenance, and when these fail, new resources cannot be added. This cannot be avoided because it was determined more than 10 years ago that they cannot be replaced. The current development team is working to prevent this equipment from breaking down as much as possible and treating them with care.
What kind of changes have been implemented in FFXI to allow the game to grow from its initial debut to now?
Matsui: I believe that the players who are playing now have more or less experienced the pleasure of overcoming some difficulties and achieving victory at a time when even leveling up was difficult. However, just as FFXI is now 20 years old, our players are now 20 years older and have less time to spend on the game, or they have more important focuses outside of the game. Therefore, we made bold changes in terms of content accessibility, the time spent per a single piece of content, and so on. That said, we were careful not to infringe on the aspect of the game which makes it possible to play alone but is more fun with friends.
Fujito: Many FFXI players have been with us for a long time, and there are quite a few who have been with us for 20 years. FFXI has also changed to fit the lifestyles of these players. The vicious cycle of having to gather people to play the game and then not being able to play due to the difficulty of gathering people became a serious problem, so we introduced Trusts as a measure to make it possible to play with a small number of people. Other examples include the Records of Eminence to clarify unfamiliar growth paths to some extent, and the Home Point teleportation to allow quick access to the desired content. By continuing to implement such measures when needed, we have been able to provide players with a comfortable place to play. I believe that this basic approach will remain unchanged in the future.
Hisagi: It depends on the content, but perhaps the shift in balance from a party-centric experience to one that allows for solo play.
What were some of your most memorable version updates?
Matsui: Memorable version updates in recent times would be when we implemented Trust and Records of Eminence and drastically changed pre-existing policies, and the first version update when the game was discontinued on PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, and we shifted to a smaller development team. In the early days, the version updates that added notorious monsters (NMs) had me hanging around in-game and online communities for a while, wanting to know what people thought of the NMs and their rewards.
Fujito: I still remember the time we added a mechanism called “desynthesis.” We found that it was possible to make a profit by buying equipment from a store, breaking it down using desynthesis, and then selling the materials back to the store. We had to adjust the selling price of the items in a three-day rush.
Taniguchi: When I first joined the FFXI team, my job was to lay down paths on maps. I laid down the paths in the Bastok area, but it was the type of work that didn’t give me any sense that I was actually making anything… Monsters and pets won’t move without the paths, so it was necessary work, but it was just very tedious….
Watanabe: Fishing on Reisenjima. We made it so that players could eventually obtain a piece of armor called the Dashing Subligar by fishing on Reisenjima, but since the conditions for acquiring it were unique and no hints were given, we thought it would be pretty difficult to get ahold of. We were surprised to hear of players easily obtaining it. Never underestimate the fishers of Vana’diel!
Yamazaki: The December 2013 version update when we implemented Trust is memorable. It was the first update I was in charge of on the FFXI team and it was a major change to the existing UI. I was especially nervous about whether other FFXI users would accept the UI changes since I was also a player myself.
Hisagi: The anniversary events in general have been memorable (I have been in charge since the 10th anniversary). While it is possible to shift the timing of implementation of other content for whatever reason, it is basically impossible to shift anniversary events (with the exception of the 18th anniversary, which was shifted by one month due to Covid). I felt quite a bit of pressure not to delay the release and to come up with a fun event plan. Therefore, once an anniversary event was over, we would start gathering ideas for the next year’s event right away.
20 Years of Memories of Final Fantasy XI
Can you share one of your favorite memories of working on FFXI?
Matsui: The fact that we were able to finally reach Tavnazia long after implementation, after our family of five had completed Promyvion. The fact that the number of people I meet through work who say they used to play FFXI has grown. When I meet people who say they wanted to work in the game industry because of FFXI, I feel satisfied knowing that I have contributed to this industry.
Fujito: One of the first content I was allowed to freely create was “chocobo raising.” With the intention of making people feel as much of an attachment to them as possible, I followed a flow similar to the “gardening” process, which compels people to check in once a day. The process of taking care of the young chocobos would move along in real time, and players would need to look after them as they got into various trouble every day. The format strongly incorporated the concept of the passage of time, and I later regretted that the time constraints were too strong and did not create a peaceful or laid-back atmosphere. However, 15 years have passed since then, and now that I have a child in real life, it can sometimes feel like a battlefield at home. So I can’t help but look back on how easy it is to raise chocobos…
Watanabe: On the last day of the PlayStation 2 beta, I was running around trying to adjust the amount of gil I had. The last two digits of the gil you held determined which World you started on when the official service launched. I think those who were participating in development at the time must have felt a sense of urgency because we had to finish the adjustments as the Worlds were slowly going offline.
Yamazaki: It’s difficult to choose just one, but I find the feedback from players on social media and blogs about the systems and content I was involved in implementing to be wonderful. Of course, I’m happy to hear that the game is interesting or fun, but it’s also very helpful to hear that the game is not as good as players would like it to be, or that they want certain things done differently. The experience of being able to develop a game in real-time and interactively with the players is such a great memory.
Hisagi: A favorite memory I have as a player is when I completed the Chains of Promathia missions with a friend (I was not a member of the FFXI development team at the time). A favorite memory I have as a developer is when we had no plans to implement the Siren avatar, but because I stubbornly requested it, we were able to implement it as a reward for The Silent Forest quest.
What do you think makes FFXI unique and special in comparison to other games?
Matsui: I’m struggling to name an aspect that makes it unique other than being an MMORPG, but if anything, it may be how the game has been layered with various generations of many developers and players who have been involved in the game thus far.
Fujito: In 2002, before the rapid development of the internet, we were able to attract a large number of players who were experiencing everything for the first time, which we believe had the greatest impact on the uniqueness of the game. The game offered a wide variety of options for that large number of players, and using the materials and content we provided as a base, they became “adventurers” and engaged in activities that exceeded the creators’ expectations. These activities were not limited to the game but spilled over to other internet services such as bulletin boards and forums, and I think it is quite unique that FFXI became a cultural center. It is truly a title loved by its time.
Yamazaki: I think it is the atmosphere of the development team that allows for the implementation of new forms of entertainment, without being too confined by existing rules.
Hisagi: One of the special characteristics of FFXI is that, as an MMO with a storyline, we’ve created a world in which players at different levels of progress in the scenario can mix and mingle without feeling out of place. For example, it’s a world in which players who have defeated the Shadow Lord and those who have not can coexist without issue.
And in closing, do you have any closing messages for your fans as we celebrate the 20th anniversary?
Matsui: In creating this MMORPG, I did my best as a developer, even though my part may have been small. There was also a time when I thought that games were a luxury, and that games without a creator’s artistry would be boring. Now I understand that an MMORPG becomes a masterpiece when it is populated with good players and their community. Thank you very much. We look forward to your continued support.
Fujito: I would like to thank all of you who love FFXI. In Japan, this is an unprecedented record for an MMORPG, but in North America, Ultima Online and EverQuest—FFXI’s great MMORPG predecessors—are still in operation, so FFXI is still in the position of a challenger that’s following behind them. First of all, I would like to pay my respects to both titles, which, even now, are still vibrantly operating as pioneers.
Now, FFXI has finally reached its 20th anniversary, a milestone that its powerful predecessors have already surpassed. FFXI started off as a console game and is heavily dependent on its hardware, which fostered its current development environment; despite this, the game has continued with frequent version updates to come this far, which I find impressive. The present day is a result of the solid foundation that has been built. I would like to thank all the creators involved in the development, and everyone who has worked hard to operate, promote, and coordinate this project.
And to all the adventurers. Each and every one of your actions has become the flesh and blood of the virtual world of Vana’diel. Every single move, no matter how small, that each person who experienced even a little of the adventures in Vana’diel, has had a butterfly effect on the entire environment surrounding FFXI.
Whenever I am asked about the secret of FFXI’s longevity, I always answer: “If we consider everything about the game to be 100, then 70 of that has been created by the players.” So, my message to you all can be summed up as:
Adventurers, your FFXI has finally reached its 20th anniversary! Congratulations!
We in the development team will get back to working hard to keep everything in Vana’diel running as it should. We hope you all continue to enjoy FFXI.
Taniguchi: I’m so glad you’ve been playing for a very long time! We look forward to your continued support!
Watanabe: It is only with the support of all those who played the game that we have been able to continue to our 20th anniversary. Thank you so much. If you are currently on hiatus, please come back when it is convenient for you. I’m sure those who have not logged in for years will be surprised by the changes. Vana’diel is always waiting for its adventurers to return.
Yamazaki: Thank you for the 20th anniversary. I believe that this game called FFXI, which has been going on for 20 years, has influenced many people’s lives. As a former player and current member of the development team, I am one such person. It is a game that has such a high level of passion, and I think this is a synergistic phenomenon caused by each player’s high level of passion. I think it is this passion that has made the 20th anniversary possible. It is your passion for FFXI that has made this a great day for all of us. Thank you for your continued enthusiastic support.
Hisagi: Did you enjoy the 20th anniversary event Mandragora Mania Madness? Some of the reward items are only available here, so we hope you’ll play along!
Thank you to the development team for taking a look back at the past 20 years of Final Fantasy XI Online! We hope you’ve enjoyed walking down memory lane with us, and we hope you’ve learned something new about the game! We could not have made it to the 20th anniversary without the support of all the fans, so in closing, we’d like to share our deepest gratitude and heartfelt well wishes to everyone who’s been a part of the journey thus far. What happens next is a future yet unknown, but we hope you’ll continue to join us for what FFXI has to offer.
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