Happy 18th Birthday, FFXI!
Today, May 16, marks 18 years since Final Fantasy XI released in Japan for the PlayStation 2. Despite the closure of its PS2 and Xbox 360 servers back in 2016, its developers still nourish a healthy PC community with consistent updates and events, outlasting so many other MMORPG games that came and waned from relevance. Even after all this time, being exposed to more modern iterations of the genre with technological and design advancements, I’ve been unable to shake FFXI from my mind for, well, about 18 years now.
Something about FFXI stuck with me, glued into my brain with a strong nostalgia for when MMORPGs prioritized players over loot—but those times haven’t been lost. You can still experience FFXI for yourself right now, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, its world of Vana’diel is getting more populated in 2020.
To celebrate, I got ahold of Director Yoji Fujito and Producer Akihiko Matsui to ask them some questions about FFXI‘s currently thriving landscape, how they’ve managed to maintain it after all these years, and what they’ve got planned for the future.
I was about 14 years old when I first played FFXI. I remember convincing my mom to use her debit card for this “online game” — a foreign idea back then! Those were different times, but with a whole new generation of potential Vana’diel residents up and coming, are you planning any efforts to bring in new people? How do you balance that with keeping your current player base happy?
Yoji Fujito: I hope it’s safe to assume you are asking about our initiatives for new player acquisition.
FFXI runs on a fairly old system, and because that system itself makes up the core of the game, we are unable to make significant changes to it. This means we need something else to keep new players engaged so they continue to play.
One of these is the “deeds of heroism” rewards that you can earn through the monthly Records of Eminence. Some of the rewards you can obtain include materials needed to catch up to players ahead of you, or tokens you can exchange for gear.
Currently, we have very few guides within the game, and we are considering what systems we can put in place in order to help counteract this current shortcoming. This will need to be useful for returning players as well, and we’d love to get the opinions of our most experienced adventurers, if possible.
Additionally, for our experienced adventurers, we plan to provide new gameplay content and a version update that focuses on updating existing gear.
Lastly, when it comes to balancing all this with keeping current players happy, we have always put the active players at the center of our focus. If we did not have these players, we wouldn’t be able to sustain our activities within Vana’diel!
Akihiko Matsui: As FFXI has been in operation for such a long time, we feel we must avoid anything that would break the existing community. We do tend to put active players first, but our general direction when welcoming new players to join us is to look to people who enjoy video games or fans of Final Fantasy and encourage them to try it out.
We would especially emphasize the massive amount of content available, and one of the best stories of the Final Fantasy franchise. Another selling point is that, while this is an MMORPG, you can also play solo at your own pace.
How do you maintain player retention and interest in progression without the use of loot boxes and other modern reward systems?
YF: People tend to get the wrong impression, but I believe that fundamentally there are no games that solely survive on simply having players purchase loot boxes. In any game, developers would still try to get the player to complete objectives in game using the item(s) obtained through the loot boxes.
In FFXI, we simply provide what people would expect from a loot box in the form of gameplay content and adventure. And at the same time, we continue to expand the areas in which players can try out or utilize what they obtain.
AM: I am very familiar with the power of the loot box (in Japan, we call it “gacha”), in terms of being able to monetize instantaneously. That being said, the biggest selling point of FFXI is the gameplay experience, so I feel that a model in which we’re having players skip that gameplay experience to get a reward for a fee doesn’t seem right, especially from a long-term operations perspective. I think one of the reasons why we’ve been able to continue operating FFXI until now was because we didn’t entice people to spend excessively in-game.
FFXI’s slower game speed sticks out in today’s fast-paced world. What are some advantages of working with a slower-paced battle system?
YF: As an MMORPG, FFXI is a game where you will be playing with a number of other players fighting strategic battles, and it was designed around the premise that text-based chat was a must to be successful. This applies even to instances in battle where players may want to communicate via text to some extent.
More recently there has been an increase in the number of solo players who utilize the Trust system, as well as more experienced players in general, and so there are cases where the group simply understands their role and can play without having to type much. I think that’s what is causing more players to feel that the battle speed feels a bit slow. In addition, many modern titles assume the availability of voice chat, so I believe that difference in environment plays a big part as well.
AM: It is true that MMO or other online games that came after FFXI have a much faster tempo when it comes to battle. Outside of battle, we can also see a difference in pace at which the player character advances in level, or how much time is spent in a single area—they all seem to progress more quickly as a whole.
On top of that, the monetization model of the game influences the design as well. The Final Fantasy series adopted the Active Time Battle system from early on, and while it might seem a bit busier than a typical turn-based RPG, I believe many long-time fans find enjoyment in strategizing which commands to choose depending on their situation. In addition, because of the Support Job system, there are many types of magic and commands you can utilize, which is very characteristic of this game.
I feel that in a world of modern games with fast-paced gameplay and progression, FFXI stands out as an alternative even more.
Nearly every Final Fantasy pre-PS3 has been remade in some form. Whether it’s a complete overhaul like Final Fantasy VII Remake or adding cutscenes to Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s been a consistent tending to the series with more modern versions releasing over time. Is there a desire to remaster the game moving forward, or is FFXI Mobile intended to play that part—assuming it’s still in development?
YF: FFXI was the first mainline Final Fantasy title that was an online game. New installments for FFXI came in the form of expansion packs—similar to a standalone title—which created an expanding and extremely vast world and story when compared to other Final Fantasy games. If you consider the volume of content within FFXI, you can imagine how much would go into a remake and the risks involved.
There is also the question of whether a modernized FFXI still be in the form of an MMORPG. I’m sure many players would say no.
This is just my personal opinion, but I’m sure if people got their hands on an offline version of FFXI, players would feel that something is off with the game. This is because about 80% of FFXI is comprised of player interaction.
Regardless of whether we do make a remake or not, I feel like this would be the reaction.
AM: I think what makes FFXI different from the other mainline Final Fantasy games is the fact that it’s an MMORPG. I don’t think a simple remake would be possible.
However, I do think it would be cool if we can create a new story that stems from the FFXI lore, with a new game system on a new platform.
As FFXI turns eighteen this year and we move even further away from a pre-WoW style of MMORPG gameplay, what are you doing moving forward in order to maintain FFXI’s identity within the series and genre? Are there certain pillars of design you’ve strictly adhered to throughout the years?
YF: While this may be a quite different way of thinking for a game design perspective, the fundamental concept behind FFXI has consistently been about taking the time to win.
This relates to how players plan their actions in-game, and I don’t think we’ll ever change this. Instead, we have made changes that would accommodate for the out-of-game lifestyles of our players as best we can. (I think the best example here would be the implementation of the Trust system.)
We will be continuing to uphold this directive moving forward.
AM: If the only MMORPG being developed and run by Square Enix was FFXI, then we may have been able to attempt a major system overhaul to match modern trends. A battle system that places heavy emphasis on experiential aspects surely had its pros, but we can’t deny the fact that it was only made possible due to tradeoffs made within the game.
I believe that there is no need to shove too many different gameplay experiences into a single game. With that in mind, because FFXIV is still in operation, FFXI can be an MMORPG that allows for the players to enjoy the slower-paced battle that is very much like the traditional turn-based RPG on consoles.
MMOs, by nature, are fueled by time investment. With FFXI’s 18th anniversary, that is a lot of time committed to the Vana’diel by those who still inhabit it. Outside of daily activities and quests, is there any content planned that could expand the Vana’diel experience through world-building and story instead of repeatable objectives? How do you reward those who have stuck around for so long in a meaningful way?
YF: It deeply pains us to be unable to bring new adventures in the form of a full expansion pack. While it may not be as epic, we do plan to provide a new content arc in some way, shape, or form. I am also discussing with the person in charge of in-game jobs to be able to respond to our team’s desire to reach an even higher level when it comes to jobs.
AM: It would’ve been amazing to have the opportunity to create an expansion pack. However, we are doing what we can at this time in continuing regular content updates. We plan to add more story elements, too.
When it comes to supporting the game up to at least its 20th anniversary in 2022, how do you continue developing engaging content with older dev kits that have been pushed to the limit for years already? Do you think the technical limitations of the current engine is holding FFXI back from your ideal vision of it?
YF: In the players’ eyes, it might appear as if our only obstacles lie in not being able to update our rendering engine and development kits. However, we must not forget that FFXI is but one game which lives within the larger PlayOnline system. PlayOnline extends its roots to the overall service structures, including the subscription/payment system as well. We would appreciate everyone’s understanding that trying to overhaul something like this involves taking great risks and requires a considerable amount of resources.
Despite these limitations, we are capable of creating and providing more content in the future, and we still have plans to do so. We had promised more reforged Empyrean Armor, which will be coming soon. We still have lots of things we can do, so please look forward to them.
AM: We had to structure a means to “bit pack” content transmitted over the network in order to reduce the overall amount of data being transmitted. That meant we had to limit the cap on whatever in-game element we were looking at, which proved to be an obstacle that caused us to struggle with expanding the game. Elements such as player level affected way too many other things, and so that’s why we weren’t able to raise the cap.
I don’t believe those restrictions were necessarily bad. Although this may not be directly related to MMORPGs, around the time FFXI launched, the overall size of game media became much larger, and human resources became the most difficult element to handle in game development. (Until then, memory or CPU processing power was most important.)
That being said, we don’t have an unlimited amount of memory, and so I don’t doubt that the limitations on physical media did contribute majorly to the production of the game, in terms of not putting in unnecessary human resources.
Are there any plans or intentions to integrate access to both FFXI and FFXIV into one subscription?
AM: The system that processes subscriptions for FFXIV is separate from FFXI’s, and it would be difficult to accommodate for something like that immediately. We did share with the FFXIV team the interest that there seems to be from FFXI players to have this type of dual subscription, though.
Have you noticed an increase in concurrent players since the world’s general isolation in 2020?
YF: Yes, we are seeing an increase in the number of players across all Worlds (servers).
Many of us are forced to limit how often we go outside or might even need to self-quarantine, so I’m sure means of entertainment for almost everyone has been limited. If people are choosing FFXI even amidst these circumstances, it makes me happy to think we are helping with the situation in some way.
With the temporary closing of phone and chat support, canceling of the Fan Gathering and PAX East, how has COVID-19 affected FFXI’s content development?
YF: Our patch update for May was directly impacted by COVID-19—for that update, we had to limit the content to only the most critical and important content.
Currently, it’s looking like we might have an idea on the length of the current work-from-home situation in the near future, so we will continue to provide future version updates while adjusting our schedule as necessary to work within these parameters.
Is there any timeline that we can expect to hear more about FFXI’s fate moving forward, or should fans not get their hopes up for any big announcements in the near future?
AM: We’ve been preparing for opportunities to announce upcoming milestones for FFXI as well as some of the new initiatives we are planning for, leading up to the 20th anniversary. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation, many of them are now postponed. We are currently regrouping to figure out how we’ll go about making our announcement, so please be on the lookout for any updates from us in the near future.