Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida talks project management, ‘small but big surprises’ and ‘planning years in advance’

‘I don’t think that all systems we have are going to be perfect for players who want to enjoy the game in the moment’

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Years ago, Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida quietly changed the perception of Final Fantasy XIV.

I was there at E3 when XIV debuted. I saw the grimacing faces of press and players alike, and witnessed the rocky launch. I was also there when it was quite literally “reborn,” and experienced the drastic upgrade myself. Years later I would come to learn that Yoshi-P’s light touch (alongside of his team) was responsible for the revival, and it seems like Square Enix noticed him too; as he’s one of the developers heading up Final Fantasy XVI.

But before we shift some of our focus to XVI, I sat down with Yoshi-P to talk XIV: which still has plenty of life left in it.

Destructoid: How do you possibly manage to stuff all of the content you do in each major patch? It’s not just PVE content, but nearly every facet of the game is upgraded with quality of life changes.

Naoki Yoshida: We are able to achieve this volume of content in each patch due to a few key elements: the ongoing efforts of each of the development team members, our management team expertly keeping everything on schedule and under control, and the continued support of our infrastructure team. However, I feel the most important factor is our planning of all content implementation even years in advance.

Patch 5.3 already had a completed implementation plan even before development of Shadowbringers was complete. As Producer and Director of the title, I begin the planning by creating an initial draft, and then share it with our team leads who will discuss within their teams and iron out the details. In this way, we avoid just having my recommendation be the final say, but I’ll take feedback and suggestions from each division on content they’d like to make improvements or adjustments to, and after deciding on the overall direction, we would add the specifics into the content implement plan. We can’t create a lot of the proposed content within a single patch cycle (roughly 3.5 months), and most need at least two patch cycles worth of time and resources to complete. You could say that the development team is always living half a year into the future…

Larger projects such as streamlining of the storyline and adding flying to A Realm Reborn areas can take anywhere from nine to even twelve months, where our staff find time in between working on core patch content to get them done. Some other examples include the World visit system, cross-World party finder, and the Bozjan Southern Front (coming in Patch 5.35).

The impact of COVID-19 pushed the release date of Patch 5.3 by about two months, but the reason why the content volume did not decrease was mainly due to long-term planning and detailed management.

In 5.3, I couldn’t believe that resurrection immunity got a new timer: I’ve been waiting for that since 2.0! This is such a small thing to the team I’m sure, but little upgrades like this can be huge for the player base. What led to this inclusion and why wasn’t it in sooner?

The Transcendence buff wasn’t the only change made with this patch, as we also made adjustments to content that we flagged all the way back in A Realm Reborn as aspects we wanted to adjust, including giving display priority to your DoTs on the enemy’s health bar. We set the goal more than a year ago in our plans for Patch 5.3 to greatly expand the free trial and to target new players.

With this in mind, we made adjustments to help with server stress and load, and also made very detailed, yet drastic changes to the server back-end processing. All of these various changes were the fruits of that labor, so I believe we’ll continue to have these “small but big surprises” in the future (laughs).

How important are 24-person alliance raids at this point in the game’s life cycle? They’re one of my favorite parts of the game, but does the team still enjoy working on them and does the player base engage in them regularly?

Our original goal and plan for alliance raids when we were launching A Realm Reborn was for the content to not only be large in scale, but also a higher difficulty than what we see in game. I think it would have netted out somewhere below The Binding Coil of Bahamut in terms of difficulty, but far harder than what we currently have.

Unfortunately, when we determined that the release of the alliance raid would not make it in time for ARR’s launch, we had no choice but to change up the plan of our difficulty hierarchy for our content. We thought players would feel suffocated if we just had high-difficulty content, so alliance raids were positioned as a more casual type of content, even if there were some wipes along the way. This turned out to be well received, and we are also very satisfied with the current difficulty level. We plan to continue including this as one of our main forms of content.

I also think we are able to keep this content fresh and exciting both because of staff growing through their experience on the team, and also by shifting around members who work on alliance raids. Alliance raid bosses tend to have simpler mechanics in comparison to Savage difficulty raids, so it’s a perfect type of content for new and intermediate staff to tackle. I could see them working on this to hone their skills in creating raid content, and then move on to working on Savage battles. This is also a great way to make sure that the same staff isn’t always working on the same type of content.

We also specifically ask staff if they would like to work on certain content after we have solidified some of the basic ideas and information, and I think this may have been a major factor in helping create new, high-quality content. When it came to the NieR crossover, of course all of our staff replied, “I want to work on it!” (laughs).

What percentage of players would you say regularly engage in PVP activities in Final Fantasy XIV? How happy are you with the PVP element of the game? I think it’s evolved quite a bit.

We have been able to increase the overall number of modes available for players in PvP, and we’re trying to steer it down a slightly more casual and accessible route—from this we’ve seen a steady increase in the overall number of players participating in PvP content. Especially for Frontline, there are many people that casually enjoy the content, and we do try our best to accommodate any feedback we receive, most notably through ability adjustments—sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic.

We decide on the direction to take the adjustments for each job based on such things as each job’s win rate in matches or how often it is played in comparison to other jobs, and then we analyze abilities and determine the appropriate adjustments.  We do have some future plans in store for PvP, but we would appreciate your patience until we are ready to make those announcements!

Talk to us a bit about the crafting side of Final Fantasy XIV. I feel like it gets left out of the conversation a lot because of how exciting the PVE content is and how glamorous raids are. Is there a dedicated team working on crafting content? What are some things you’ve been wanting to add to that portion of the game?

First of all, I’d like to point out that the development team and I don’t have the mindset of trying to force people to play all types of content that we bring to the game, and by this I don’t mean just crafting and gathering. FFXIV is part of the Final Fantasy series, so playing through the story is a must. There are battles within the story, and many of the players like to battle; so naturally, battle content becomes the main element. At the same time, modern-day gamers are busy with a lot of things outside of playing games: spending time with family and loved ones, engaging in social media, and the like. Our mindset is to have the players pick and choose what they want to play within their schedule, so we never feel like it is being left out.

We indeed have a dedicated game design team called the “non-combat team” who not only specialize in crafting and gathering content, but they also take care of housing. That team is made up of around six or seven game designers, as well as a dedicated programming team, who all work alongside the UI team to help create those gameplay elements that enrich the player experience in Eorzea.

We have future plans in store for content from these teams, so stay tuned. We’re planning to make announcements at one of our Letter from the Producer Live streams down the line!

Do you see yourself changing anything about how the current endgame PVE system works? The currency system as well as the weekly lockouts still work for many players, but over time, I can see it getting stale. Do you feel like it’s working as intended?

I don’t think that all systems we have are going to be perfect for players who want to enjoy the game in the moment. However, FFXIV has always been designed as an MMORPG that is considerate of the modern-day work-life balance, which tries to lessen the gap between players that have been playing since the beginning and those who have joined on later. Additionally, we want to ensure a friendly experience for any players who are coming back after a break from the game. At least as long as I’m in charge of this title, I don’t think this policy would change.

Everyday life in reality is everchanging, and people’s lifestyles change as well. If I feel a need to make adjustments to accommodate any major changes in the real world, then I’m sure we’d look to make changes to this or any other system at any moment.

Do you feel comfortable with your content cadence at this point: with even number patches bringing in big raid content and odd-number patches serving as a catch-up of sorts? Would you ever mix this strategy up?

I think this could go either way, and we could either make drastic changes or continue with the current cadence. I do feel like it’s a bit difficult to talk about this because in doing so, there’s a possibility that it could limit our options down the line.

Our current content implementation cycle is a very powerful tool for the development team in that we are used to it and comfortable working with it. It’s easy for us to make predictions on which areas of development could cause issues, and we can utilize our past experiences to easily make revisions to our forecast. Additionally, since it’s easy to create these plans for us now, there are major benefits such as being able to keep our content volume in updates as large as it is.

However, having the same cycle repeat itself will bring about both predictability and boredom to the players. Stability creates a sense of security, but there is a very fine line between that and boredom, and I am constantly having an internal debate on this. In order to mitigate that boredom, we’ve implemented new types of content such as Ultimate difficulty raids and the race for world first that comes along with it, and also brought content like Eureka and the Bozjan Southern Front into existence. In the end I feel like this could be an endless thesis, so maybe we can leave it at this for now.

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Chris Carter
Managing Editor - Chris has been enjoying Destructoid avidly since 2008. He finally decided to take the next step in January of 2009 blogging on the site. Now, he's staff!