Final Fantasy XIV Reboot: a Look Into the Future

Yesterday Square Enix surprised many by announcing the reboot of Final Fantasy XIV and the release window for the PS3 version. I wasn’t that surprised. It was in the air and the signals of such a development weren’t exactly hidden too well.

The Japanese firm went to great lengths to give players the clearest vision possible of what’s going to happen on the road to the reboot of one of the most controversial RPGs of the history of the genre, going as far as publishing four beefy documents full of information, timelines and absolutely stunning art.  They did so with good reason, as if there’s a publisher that learned the value of communication in the harshest way possible, that would be Square Enix.

So we know what are the plans of the development team and of the publisher, but the question is: what is really going to happen?

First and foremost, let’s get that big elephant in the room out of the way: Final Fantasy XIV players will have to start paying a monthly fee between November and December.

This is obviously an unpopular choice. Who can really say that he doesn’t like playing for free? And even more so, completely for free, without even having a cash shop that gets in the way.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of naïveté in those that thought that such a convenient situation could have gone on forever.

MMORPGs are costly affairs to run, with servers taking their toll on the bills, and even more so a large staff constantly at work to update them. According to what Naoki Yoshida shared yesterday, there are 250 developers at work on Final Fantasy XIV. That can’t be cheap.

Quite obviously, though, many still feel entitled to play the game for free, somehow thinking that a full free year isn’t enough of an apology on Square Enix’ part for the botched and rushed launch of the game. The large influx of (apparently) free to play games created the illusion in a part of the playerbase that a company charging for a product it provides and supports is somehow to be considered a bad thing.

Some others feel that since Yoshida said that the game is at about the 50% of what he would like to have, Square Enix doesn’t have the right to charge until Final Fantasy XIV reaches the 100% of that condition.

Fact is that Final Fantasy XIV progressed by a large amount since its launch, and it’s now a fully working MMORPG. Verision 1.18 and 1.19 combined have proven quite the revolution that turned a still shaky game into a quite solid one. Before the monthly billing will start, version 1.20 will be launched, adding even more content and improvements to the game we’re playing now.

It’s definitely on par with the conditions at launch of many other Pay to Play MMOs, and personally, I consider it worth the monthly fee. Other people’s mileage may vary, but in the end Square Enix is holding no one at gun point to stay and pay. Yoshida expressed it quite clearly:

Many of you have enjoyed FINAL FANTASY XIV over the past year, growing accustomed to the service we have in place. I realize that this is a terrible inconvenience, but we very much hope that you will continue to enjoy the game. I can only ask for your understanding that we are determined to allow all users an equal opportunity to reach their own decision regarding subscription-based billing.

That said, it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that many will feel differently from how I do, and will refuse to pay for a wide variety of understandable reasons. Some will possibly come back for patch 1.20, but I think it’s safe to assume that Eorzea will have a leaner population this Christmas, even considering that Star Wars: The Old Republic will most probably pull quite a few into it’s space-faring embrace.

Square Enix is fully aware of that, and I doubt they’re under any illusion that this unpopular move will bring them much goodwill in the short term. That’s why they’re going to offer a second free trial when 2.0 will hit, in order to draw back in those that will quit when billing resumes, in addition to the many that already left since launch.

Personally, to ultimately shove that elephant out of the room, I feel the decision to resume billing was inevitable. Bills have to be paid and the Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 project is extremely ambitious. Under many points of view we’re looking at an almost completely new game, built upon the foundation of the old one, and it’s hard to correctly quantify the kind of costs such a massive undertaking will entail. In order to justify it some revenue is necessary, and I’d much rather pay monthly, and see that money invested in fully realizing the vision we glimpsed at yesterday, than to see the team gutted to reduce costs and development slowed down or even halted.

Let’s be honest here. Any other company, by now, would have fired the whole team, closed the servers, moved on to the next project with a nice, big “Sorry, but thanks for all the fish” to those that already purchased the game at launch. Square Enix and its development team kept pouring resources and passion into the game to finally give us what we paid for. This kind of behavior is a refreshing change in the stagnating MMORPG industry, and I can’t help but thinking that it needs to be encouraged.

No matter what those with an overgrown sense of entitlement say, one year of free gameplay is a hell of an apology for the botched launch. If that’s not enough for you, honestly you’re asking too much. No company will feel indebted to its customers forever for selling them an underdeveloped product, especially after pouring so many resources into righting that wrong.

Now that we beat that elephant into the ground, let’s move to happier thoughts: the future of the game, whatever its population in the next twelve months will be.

First of all, Final Fantasy XIV is going to have a new graphics engine. The game already looks amazing compared to the rest of the MMORPG market, but some elements are still missing, especially in the area of effects and shading. The result is that, while the level of detail is extremely pleasing, many find the visuals cold. The concept screenshot shown yesterday is very heavy on shading and effect, giving a much warmer and more vibrant feel to the game’s visuals. It looks absolutely stunning, and blows out of the water any other MMORPG on the market and what we saw so far of any that will be released in the foreseeable future.

Of course we don’t know much of where this screenshot comes from. It could be from a working early build with the new engine, or it could be doctored to show roughly how the new engine will look like. Out of curiosity I examined it in photoshop, just to check for signs of evident doctoring,  and I found none  in the actual 3D part of the screenshot, so I tend to believe that Square Enix already has an early version of the engine running in-house. This is confirmed by the roadmap they shared, that marks the development of the engine between May and December this year. If that roadmap is spot-on, the new engine must be nearly complete.

There are very strong signs of compression and artifacts around the UI elements, so it’s possible that the 2.0 UI has been photoshopped over a clean screenshot (I wouldn’t be surprised, if they had that UI ready, they’d probably launch it way before 2.0), but that doesn’t really detract from the value of the picture.

If the engine is already running, I guess we can expect to see more screenshots and maybe even some video clips in the near future. Color me interested and all that jazz. Especially, I’d love to see how the current cities will look with the coat of fresh paint provided by the new engine.

I also wonder if the new engine will incorporate elements of Luminous, that seemingly can make even the plain concrete walls of a garage look rather amazing. After all Luminous has been reported as able to cut development costs by 30%, and even if Final Fantasy XIV will soon involve a monthly fee, I’m sure spending a bit less on it will make Yoichi Wada smile.

Another question is if the new engine will support DirectX 11 on PC. During the Square Enix 2011 Open conference a few days ago, the Japanese firm had a panel on the usage of the newest DirectX version, so it’s rather obvious that at the very least they have their eyes on the technology.

One thing is pretty much for sure. Square Enix intends to keep a firm hold on the market lead for graphics. It can definitely prove a winning tactic, as in today’s gaming, there’s little that attracts the attention of new players as much as some shiny screenies. If the publisher wants to steer the game towards success when 2.0 will hit, absolutely stunning graphics are a requisite that cannot be missed.

Another element that we see in the concept screenshot is the new UI. It’s no mystery that the current interface isn’t exactly the state-of-the-art of usability. It’s way better than it used to be, but it still can use a lot of improvement. The new one looks quite amazing, and shows a lot more data, while looking much less cluttered.

Looking at the bottom right of the screen, we can see a large array of buttons, that will most probably completely replace the current main menu. The layout definitely looks designed to be operated with a mouse. Creating two separate and specialized UI for mouse and controller operation is definitely the right way to go, and will topple a barrier that currently exists between Final Fantasy XIV and gamers used to traditional MMORPG control schemes. An interface as streamlined, functional and powerful as possible is another element that will make or break the launch of 2.0.

The full redesign of the outdoors maps is another big part of the road towards the reboot of the game. The development team was forced to resort to recycling assets very heavily in order to keep the current maps seamless, and that created a world that looks beautiful, but also rather boring. That’s something that doesn’t fly very well in MMORPGs, where players travel through the same areas again and again thousands of times.

That’s why the decision to ditch the seamless world to focus on making every area as amazing as it should be in a world belonging to a franchise called Final Fantasy is a sound one. Who really cares if once in a while we’re presented with a loading screen? If the world isn’t boundless and fully explorable in the style of Oblivion and Archeage, but areas are still connected by small funneling passageways, seamless zones are nothing else than a gimmick.

The preliminary art we’ve seen yesterday shows an element that’s sorely missing in the world of Final Fantasy XIV today: Elevation. If you think about the most stunning and awe-inspiring fantasy worlds you can imagine, you’ll probably notice a common element: a radical and extremely scenic variation in elevation. Good fantasy world are almost never flat. They have incredible mountain ranges, frightening chasms, absurd cliffs and breathtaking canyons. An heavier use of those elements, alongside with a much larger number and variation of landmarks, is the key to create a new Eorzea that will prove really memorable.

Square Enix has always shown a great level of artistry in area design, so I’m pretty confident that the new Eorzea, built without the strangling restraints of seamless areas and supported by the new engine will look as incredible as the franchise deserves.

The new server structure is also a big deal, assuming it’ll work of course. The lag Final Fantasy XIV isn’t nearly gamebreaking, but it’s sometimes noticeable, especially when you’re in voice chat with someone else. I used to play a lot with my ex-girlfriend, and when she joined the game I shown her around. Every few seconds I would stop to wait for her, because on my screen she was several yards away, and she’d stand there wondering why the hell I was stopping, since on her screen she was right on my heels.

A more responsive and solid server structure might prove just another boon to the success of 2.0. And not just because it’ll be easier to let your significant other follow you around, but also because less latency allows for more complex encounter scripting. If you have a server that lags excessively, you have to hold back a little on the level of challenge, because if players get oneshotted by an attack that they didn’t see coming, they’ll get upset and frustrated, and rightfully so. A more powerful, agile server structure that can handle faster response times isn’t only more pleasant to the eyes and doesn’t just cut back on loading times. It also opens up possibilities for more varied and challenging boss fights.

Final Fantasy is a series that made of boss fights one of its staples, and that’s why this is an area in which Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 simply can’t fail.

Of course content is another important factor. Naoki Yoshida leans heavily towards the theme park approach to MMORPGs, and the team has been adding new pieces of content to the game at a steady pace. Looking at the roadmap for 2.0 and beyond, we can easily see that between several dungeons, a new storyline, a ton of primal and boss fights, hamlet defence, assorted battles against the Garlean Empire and even some full-fledged raids, the Final Fantasy XIV reboot won’t be light in content as the game was at launch. That’s definitely a crucial issue, as a game can have absolutely great graphics, lightning-fast servers, the most sleek UI in the world and a stunning set of areas, but if the players have nothing to do, they will still quit.

Luckily the team seems to have realized that long ago, so there’s very few doubts on the fact that the reboot of the game will be solid content-wise.

There are too many other additions and improvements to list them all, from housing to the mannequin system that will allow us to change between several equipment sets with a single click (making the Armory system even nore hassle-free) , free companies to strengthen the community, summons, pets and mailboxes. There’s a lot of juicy stuff that will come with 2.0 and before, adding up on top of the new content to create an even more solid game.

What Final Fantasy XIV needs to become is a true numbered Final Fantasy Game, one that can engross its fanbase with epic storylines, intrigue, stunning landscapes, deep and charismatic characters and fun gameplay. Looking at what the Development team has done so far and at what they have in store, it seems that they understand this very well.

Reintroducing Final Fantasy elements into the picture is a large part of the plan, and that will definitely help the fans of the franchise to feel at home. I just wish they would introduce some romance elements, as that’s something that has been sorely missing in Final Fantasy games for a while. Looks like for now that isn’t on the menu, but who knows what the future holds.

PvP is definitely the odd addition, as Final Fantasy XI had a tradition of great PvE and absolutely abysmal competitive content. Do you remember Ballista? Probably not, because even if you played Final Fantasy XI, you very possibly tried it once, noticed that it was absolutely unsightly, and never went back to touch it again.

But Final Fantasy XI didn’t have Naoki Yoshida at the helm. Games very often take form based on the taste of their team leaders and game directors, and Final Fantasy XIV is no exception to that rule. Given the progress since when Yoshida took command, we can only be thankful about that. He’s a dedicated MMORPG gamer, and he probably has more experience about what works and what doesn’t in a wide variety of MMOs than anyone else at Square Enix. He’s also a dedicated PvPer, and that’s why Final Fantasy XIV is getting not one, but two PvP features.

The most interesting is Frontlines, that will see the three grand companies battling for control of ancient ruins and the secrets and relics that lay within. The art piece dedicated to this feature shows a large fortress and siege engines.

Three-way faction vs faction? Check. Fortresses? Check. Relics? Check. Rings a bell? It’s called Dark Age of Camelot.

It’s no mystery that Naoki Yoshida is a fan of DAOC, he played the game for six years.

How not to understand him? Personally I’m of the idea that Dark Age of Camelot is the best PvP-centric MMORPGs ever released, with its large self-balancing three-way battles, it brought a level of thrill and excitement that I still have to find in any other modern MMORPG I play.

I’m not saying that Yoshida should copy Mythic’s masterpiece perfectly (even if I can’t say that it wouldn’t please me), but if he’ll manage to bring even just a part of those exhilarating RvR battles to Final Fantasy XIV, we’ll have another extremely solid asset to the game’s resurrection. Faction-based PvP can satisfy those that swing that way, and it’s semi-collaborative nature also makes it the most accessible to PvE-dedicated gamers, so it’s definitely the right choice.

Of course there’s the final boon, what can really prove as the key to the game’s reboot, and that’s the PS3 launch. Getting a second opportunity is a rare luxury in the MMORPG market, and a launch on another platform has the potential to provide exactly that. Not only the game will open up to an entirely new segment of players in a market that involves very little competition and that is already in love with the Final Fantasy franchise, but the release will bring new reviews of the game by the gaming press, giving Square Enix the opportunity to cancel the stigma of the botched PC launch.

Of course, and I’m sure Square Enix is well aware of this, in order to make the most out of this rare opportunity, the game needs to be extremely solid. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new, but true unbiased fairness does not exist between the gaming press (or any kind of press, really).

A large part of the Western media is already rather hostile towards any game that is developed in Japan, and is now definitely jaded  against Final Fantasy XIV. The ship will have to be built over a steel-clad double-layer keel, as vindictive journalists will try to find every possible hole to sink it.

That said, if the game will be solid and the features will all be in the right place, the gaming press may actually be forced to give it a chance. Success stories in which dire situations turn to victory sell well, and an extremely solid showing of the PS3 version could prompt the media to wave the white flag of reconciliation and jump on the ship.

Considering that some sites have invested a lot of time and effort into bashing the game as much as possible (to almost malicious extremes), reaching the low point of posting extremely negative reviews multiple times just days before major patches, there’s no doubt that a few harsh reviews will still appear, but those may find themselves isolated and may prove ineffective in curbing the success of a polished and solid release.

A further smart move would be to put the PC client on Steam. Doing so has brought very good results to other publishers, and could prove the perfect complement to promote the PC re-release on the side of the PS3 launch. Square Enix has a very good relationship with Steam, and I’m sure they know very well what kind of success they can attain by distributing the game on that platform.

Ultimately, Square Enix is taking a massive gamble, risking to alienate part of the playerbase now, in order to dedicate as many resources as possible to shape 2.0 into something that can truly satisfy everyone (or almost) next year. I doubt they had much choice, but I can definitely respect the guts it took to take the first steps on such a possibly unpopular path.

I can only hope that after those first steps they’ll start running, because it’s going to be an uphill battle, and one that will need not only a massive development effort, but also a strong marketing investment. The new trailer of the game will be shown at E3 2012. if Square Enix wants to do that right, that’ll be only part of a very strong event presence between E3 itself, gamescom and Tokyo Game Show, and just the kick start of a solid promotion campaign.

Square Enix needs to make the gaming community aware that Final Fantasy XIV-2 is coming, and  that it’s going to be big, beautiful and a lot of fun. That means advertising everywhere: on websites, on magazines, even on more traditional channels like TV and billboards. No stone should be left unturned. They have the promotional means to do that, and they need to put them at work.

A little detail that might definitely help is Final Fantasy XIII-2. The game looks like a very solid return to the roots of the Final Fantasy franchise, and if it’ll satisfy the fans on release, it will definitely contribute to restoring confidence in the company’s ability to provide great Final Fantasy games. If XIII-2 will be a success, especially PS3 gamers will start looking towards Final Fantasy XIV-2 favorably.

Ultimately, no matter how many will leave Eorzea now that adventuring there will cost a few monthly bucks, Final Fantasy XIV will get the rare luxury of a second chance. Whether that chance will turn into a success depends on how solid the game will be and on how much Square Enix will be willing to invest in promoting it.

I, for one, will always hold a lot of respect for Naoki Yoshida and the team he leads. He willingly stepped on a sinking ship that could easily compromise his whole career, led the sailors into patching most of the holes, and steered it towards a stormy but potentially successful route. I think that crew deserves support, and I feel that they have what it takes to return the favor by giving us a great game to play.

Giuseppe Nelva

Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.

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