Final Fantasy XIV: A Positive Tale Born From Disaster
I’ve gone on record several times about one of the problems I have with the press (in general, not just the gaming press): people love to write about negativity and controversy. It’s part of human nature to be more vocal when one has something to complain about and, let’s be honest, it’s just much easier to grab your readers’ attention when you shake your fist at the sky.
Personally, call me cheesy, a silly romantic, or even naive, but I like to write about positive things. I like stories that bring a smile to my face while I write them, even more so because, nowadays, they tend to be rather rare.
When Final Fantasy XIV launched, in the rather warm September of 2010, I was excited like a kid. I had my collector’s editon pre-ordered and I was waiting for the start of the early access, positive that Square Enix would have added a lot to the underfeatured beta. No one could fathom a MMORPG launched like that, after all.
The first sign of disaster came when the Italian distributor of the game communicated, much to my dismay, that they had a problem with printing the game, and the collector edition was to be delayed in my country for several days.
I don’t believe in signs, and I’m stubborn like a mule, so I picked up the phone and combed every video game store I knew until I found one that ordered copies from the UK and a clerk kind enough to email me a picture of my access code before shipping the game. The day mere technical difficulties will stop me from playing a new MMORPG I’m excited for among the very first wave, you’ll also see pigs fly.
When I finally accessed the game, exactly as the servers opened, the problem was evident: Square Enix didn’t add anything of note to the beta. The game was extremely barebones, had several clunky elements, and, while it looked extremely pretty and had some pleasing unique elements, it was hard to deny that the launch was an unmitigated disaster.
We don’t know what caused the game to be released in that unfinished and unpolished state. My theory is that there either was a large disconnect between the development team and the executives at Square Enix, or between the lower and higher echelons of the development team itself. It’s also possible that the less than stellar launch of Final Fantasy XI, followed by its success (in a much different market than the one we have nowadays) led the publisher to believe that launching an incomplete MMORPG and fixing it later was still acceptable. Ultimately we’ll never know for sure, so your guess is as good as mine.
Don’t get me wrong. The game was fun, especially for someone like me, used to the endemic problems of shaky MMORPG launches since Ultima Online, but being “fun” isn’t enough for a modern MMORPG that has to cope with audiences used to established products with years of accumulated content. Final Fantasy XIV started to bleed subscribers like a wounded deer.
We all know the routine when that happens to western MMORPGs: a large part of the development team gets laid off, including most of the QA and customer support staff, the game goes free to play or hybrid and enters maintenance mode, with content updates slowing down to a crawl. Ultimately, if the bleeding isn’t at least slowed down, the plug gets pulled.
But, Final Fantasy XIV isn’t developed and published by a western company. Square Enix hails from Japan, and the Japanese (forgive me for the generalization) are known for being a pretty stubborn people. Not only did they not fire anyone, but they gradually increased the staff to a whopping 300 people, picked a fresh face (Naoki Yoshida), put him at the helm of the whole project, and waived the monthly fees for a long while. We could already notice that something was afoot.
The shock from the failed release also pushed the company to finally learn from several of its previous mistakes (not only related to Final Fantasy XIV itself), like the lack of communication that always afflicted it, quickly addressed with the opening of official forums for both Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI in order to create a channel of dialogue with the fanbase.
When the great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 ravaged Japan, Square Enix turned the servers off responding to the national call to save energy. Many argued that they would never turn them on again. But indeed the switch was flipped and Eorzea reopened. The team carried on working without air conditioning and in rather arduous conditions through the hot and sticky Japanese summer and onwards.
The game continued to receive frequent and sizable updates, growing and expanding until about a year ago, when the publisher surprised everyone by announcing version 2.0 (that would be later renamed A Realm Reborn), an ambitious re-release set to present players with a completely new experience, including a redesigned world and UI, a fresh design philosophy and a completely new storyline. Even after the announcement the constant updating didn’t stop, continuing to this day.
Considering how fast Western publishers are at abandoning or neglecting projects in which both developers and players invested hundreds of hours of their time and effort (and money), both as a gamer and as a writer following the industry I can’t help being rather impressed by Square Enix’s stubborn perseverance, that not only kept a sinking ship afloat, but also started a long and costly restoration work in order to try and ultimately turn it into the luxury cruiser everyone wanted.
The Right Man for the Job
I’m even more impressed by Naoki Yoshida himself. It takes guts of steel for a developer to bet his career (and his sleeping schedule) on taking the helm of a project in the state of disrepair that afflicted Final Fantast XIV at launch, but Yoshida didn’t shy away from the challenge. He walked into the door, rallied a team that was being bombarded by extremely heavy criticism from every side, and managed to carry the game to the brink of its rebirth.
I was actually rather surprised when I first heard he was being appointed as game director and producer. He wasn’t a “big name” in the Japanese gaming industry (I actually had to spend half an hour on google to understand who the hell he was), able to instantly inject a much needed dose of trust in the disgruntled fanbase with his presence alone. He was, though, the right choice.
Yoshida isn’t just an experienced game developer, but also a long-time MMORPG gamer. His experience isn’t just limited to Japanese or Asian games, either. His favorite in the genre is Dark Age of Camelot, that he played for six years. As someone that considers it one of the best MMOs ever released, I can’t help but recognize that, at the very least, he has good taste.
It isn’t even just a matter of taste. Many Japanese developers nowadays have two rather extreme attitudes towards Western gaming. They either completely ignore its existence, or try to (poorly) imitate it while completely shedding their own gaming culture and design philosophy. Yoshida approached Western gaming as a gamer first, and not as a developer, meaning that he had time to form his opinions about what he actually played and to apply them to his own design philosophy without feeling the pressure to imitate those games for commercial reasons.
That kind of cosmopolite approach that manages to take the good of different design philosophies without completely ignoring the Final Fantasy tradition and the Japanese game development culture is exactly what Final Fantasy XIV needed. Being open minded is one of the most important traits for a game developer, and the lack of an open minded approach was, at least from what I could see, one of the most evident flaws in the previous leadership.
Disaster Can be Cool
One of the most interesting things between the transition from Final Fantasy XIV to A Realm Reborn is how it happened in the game. I don’t mean the patches that gradually improved the gameplay to the definitely enjoyable experience we have now, but how the whole affair fits the game’s lore perfectly.
The story behind the Seventh Umbral Era and the fall of Dalamud are a perfect complement to the radical changes that the game is going to receive. It’s so convenient that some argued that it was planned since the start. Now, the idea that Square Enix engineered such a radical failure of a numbered Final Fantasy on purpose is so farfetched that I doubt even the most rabid conspiracy theorists will support it with any real belief.
Nevertheless, the idea of turning the radical change brought by a completely new incarnation of the game into a massive in-game event spanning more than a year and tying in with the main storyline is a stroke of genius that has no precedent in the industry.
The falling moon gradually enlarging in the sky and the changing weather, accompained by imperial attacks and the appearence of Atomos corrupting the Aetherite crystals served as a constant reminder of the impending doom, and caused players to become emotionally invested in the transition.
When players defeated the twisted Nael Van Darnus (the one that caused Dalamud to fall) end embarked in the pilgrimage to the shrines of the Twelve in order to pray for the safety of Eorzea, the emotional connection with the overarching plot was at its climax.
Even now, after the final save determining that no further progression will be carried over to A Realm Reborn, hundreds of players are standing outside the walls of Ul’dah gazing at the stormy weather over the horizon and listening to a faded version of the game’s theme song interrupted by thunder. It creates a fantastic eerie atmosphere. I can’t say I’m not feeling a very clear Armageddon vibe, standing side by side with those I fought with for years as we wait for Dalamud to fall and destroy everything.
And yet, that atmosphere turns into frantic excitement as hordes of monsters attack the city, appearing where we have been completely safe for two years and wreaking havoc. We continue fighting and repelling wave after wave, and people keep logging in no matter the fact that no progression or loot are awarded.
All that atmosphere, those desperate battles against the voidsent army of Dalamud, that crescendo towards the end of a world promising rebirth, will be reflected in the storyline of A Realm Reborn.
It doesn’t happen everyday to live a game’s history in the making, and in Final Fantasy XIV we have been living that for a year, culminating in the last few epic days that we’re living now.
It’s emotional, unique, engaging, immersive and ultimately it’s extremely cool.
A Game Reborn
Of course, all the emotional connections of the world won’t do much good if A Realm Reborn won’t be a good game, or better, a great game, as it will take something rather exceptional to override the stigma appiled to the franchise by the previous failed launch.
That’s pretty much the largest question mark, but what we’ve seen so far is encouraging.
The UI was one of the major flaws of Final Fantasy XIV, but Square Enix finally understood that players using keyboard and mouse and those preferring a controller need radically different UIs in order to get the most out of their control method of choice.
The interface designed for PC users has been freed of all the console-born influences, bringing it up to speed with industry standards, but the real marvel is the PS3 interface, that will also be usable by those that will play on PC with a controller.
Not only does it look sleek, but it makes every action on two bars available with a single combination of buttons. No more trudging towards the bar one slot at a time with the directional cross. It’s definitely a great way to make MMORPG mechanics more accessible on consoles, and we can count on the fact that A Realm Reborn will benefit a lot if it’ll manage to connect with the PS3 audience that is already rather receptive towards the Final Fantasy franchise.
The new engine is also said to be better optimized for PC, allowing the game to run on less powerful machines and to access whole segments of the playerbase that were never able to play Final Fantasy XIV due to the rather draconian hardware requirements. The ability to display a high number of characters at once is a nice bonus, as the fact that people just popped on the screen after a while was one of my major pet peeves with the old game.
Ultimately, though, the most prominent improvement brought to the table by A Realm Reborn is the redesign of the world. The world of Final Fantasy XIV was very pretty, but also extremely cold, with a lot of empty space and few landmarks to really make it memorable.
The little but relevant touches added by the new team to enrich it were already very pleasant, so it’s hard not to have high expectations on what they’ll actually bring forth with a full redesign. They know very well that the new Eorzea needs to be exciting and memorable, and I’m quite sure they’re hell bent on delivering just that. The art we saw definitely goes in that direction.
Further icing in the cake is provided by the new focus on quests and away from repeatable (but repetitive) content like levequests, that is definitely appropriate for a game so heavily based on storytelling. and will make the leveling curve much smoother and more enjoyable.
Finally, forgive me for being frivolous, but the plans for housing sound quite lovely, with the ability to purchase an estate on a sharded neighborhood in three different environments and to express our personality and style in furnishing and decurating it to our heart content. It’s on par with the best housing systems that have appeared in the genre, and a radical step up from the beloved mog houses of Final Fantasy XI.
The new features and improvements promised by A Realm Reborn are simply too numerous to list in this article. Of course, we’ll have to see if the team will actually deliver on them, but for the moment, I’d rather be optimistic. What we have seen definitely looks great so far.
A Rare Second Opportunity
The laws of the MMORPG market are rather ruthless, and have been especially so in the last few years. Few very established titles offer tons of content, suffocating newer titles that don’t have enough to keep players interested in the long run, and launch with the nags and problems endemic of releasing such a complex product.
In an industry that is growing more and more crowded, first impression gains more and more traction in deciding what gamers will stick with. If a game doesn’t impress before the next big ones get released, it gets abandoned and most often never revisited once it’s shelved.
Writers and journalists often contribute to that, as well. Even very recently I’ve read articles, including very harsh jabs at Final Fantasy XIV, written by people that obviously never touched the game after the initial month coming with their review copy expired. The same kind of conduct contributes in maintaining similar stigma to other games that didn’t launch in a good condition but are now very enjoyable experiences.
In this kind of market second opportunities are extremely rare. Even converting a pay to play game to a free to play or hybrid business model can only go so far in stopping the bleeding or reversing the course, and the results it brings are pretty much always very partial.
That’s why it’s kind of ironic that Square Enix is literally creating a second opportunity for one of the games that launched most disastrously in the history of the genre. It’s ironic in an almost epic way, as they’re doing so while sticking to their guns and keeping the pay to play business model against all odds.
Of course, there are several factors in their favor to balance out the heavy stigma of Final Fantasy XIV‘s underwhelming launch and the allegedly less than popular business model.
First of all, the game is a numbered Final Fantasy. While the franchise isn’t as strong as it used to be during the PS2 era, it’s still a ten ton gorilla that can move several million of copies and has a very dedicated and almost religious following in every region. The fact that A Realm Reborn has been devised from the ground up as an immense fanservice theme park for Final Fantasy fans will definitely work as a selling point within that crowd.
Secondly, A Realm Reborn isn’t just relaunching on PC, but it’s also launching on a completely new platform. PS3 gamers have been waiting for it for a long while, and are less touched by the effects of the negative launch. The PlayStation userbase has also always been a very fertile ground for the Final Fantasy franchise, so it’s pretty easy to predict that the game will have a solid launch (at least sales-wise) on Sony’s machine, bolstering population thanks to the cross-platform servers.
Thirdly, everyone that previously purchased Final Fantasy XIV won’t have to buy A Realm Reborn, and will receive at least one free month of gameplay to try the new incarnation of the game. It’s quite safe to assume that the majority of those that have that box sitting on their shelves will at the very least give it a try.
Few games launch with the boon of 630,000 users already in the bag (at least for the first month). Add to them those that will purchase the game on PS3, and quite a few that will get it on PC because of the lowered hardware requirements or simply attracted by the buzz of the relaunch, and you have the potential for a full fledged second opportunity that really strikes me as unique in this industry.
And they Lived Happily Ever After?
Quite obviously success won’t drop on A Realm Reborn automatically. While the premise seems positive and it’s hard not to place at least a bit of trust on Naoki Yoshida and his team, that literally worked against all odds to turn Final Fantasy XIV into an enjoyable experience and pave the way for its rebirth, Square Enix still has a lot to prove.
There are several things that can still go wrong, but at the moment we can only hope for all the pieces to fall into the right holes in the right order. At the very least it would make for one of the most epic and positive stories of my writing career, and I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t like that. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I like writing stories that make me smile, and writing about a successful A Realm Reborn would make me smile a lot.
One thing is for sure: whether Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will meet the success fans hope or not, it’s already a positive tale. It’s an epic tale of a development team sticking to its guns against all odds, despite being bombarded with extremely harsh criticism from all sides. A weaker team led by a weaker man would have buckled and collapsed under that kind of pressure.
Instead, they carved a unique second opportunity with their nails and teeth, supported by a company that didn’t give up on them, showing some of that stubborn Samurai spirit that many think outdated, but that can still bring rather amazing results.
Ultimately, they know that they wronged their fans, but instead of just asking for forgiveness, scrapping the game and moving on, they’re striving to make things right, trying their hardest to replace an improved but flawed product with one that can fulfill the expectations of their customers.
It’s a positive tale that could generate an even better one. But, for now, I’ll be happy with this. Until we see if A Realm Reborn will be the worthy successor to Final Fantasy XI we hope it will become, and a spark that will reignite the Final Fantasy flame, Square Enix, Naoki Yoshida and his team at the very least earned my respect.