WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL
#1 Hiromichi Tanaka Part 1

“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI).

Our very first guest is the original producer of FFXI, Hiromichi Tanaka. In this four-part conversation, he spoke about starting the FFXI project, establishing the Development and Operations teams, and his mindset as a producer. Let’s dive right in!

Hiromichi Tanaka

Previously affiliated with Square Enix (formerly Square) as a Game Producer and is one of the founding creators of the FINAL FANTASY series.
Producer of FINAL FANTASY XI from the beginning of development until 2012.
He is currently involved in game development as a Corporate Officer at GungHo Online Entertainment, Inc.

Everything started from “This is fun, so give it a try.”

  • Matsui

    Mr. Tanaka is my esteemed predecessor, so I’m a little nervous. (laughs) First, I’d like to ask about how you were originally asked to join the FFXI project.

  • Tanaka

    It was a long time ago, so my memory is hazy. (laughs) Back in 1996, Square (as we were known at the time) started a studio in Honolulu, Hawaii and Mr. Sakaguchi (Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the founding creators of the FINAL FANTASY series) began working on the FF movie. We worked during the day, but Hawaii didn't have many places for us to hang out in the evening like we did in Japan, and I think Mr. Sakaguchi didn't have much to do. I think it was around 2000 when he got really into EverQuest* and urged us, “This is fun, so give it a try.”

    *EverQuest is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) released in North America in 1999.
  • Matsui

    Did you play EverQuest together with Mr. Sakaguchi?

  • Tanaka

    Mr. Sakaguchi had joined an ambitious guild at the time and was quickly going through all sorts of adventures, so his level was much higher. But sometimes he’d be like, “Here are some hand-me-downs,” and give us his leftover items. (laughs) The rest of us would be wearing newbie gear while Mr. Sakaguchi would be sporting some impressive golden armor.

  • Matsui

    Was that your first experience with MMORPGs?

  • Tanaka

    Yes. I was curious about Ultima Online* but never actually played.

    *Ultima Online is a game released in 1997 widely considered to be a pioneer of the MMORPG genre.
  • Was this experience what convinced you to make an online FF title?

  • Tanaka

    Around that time, game development was moving from the PlayStation to PlayStation 2 (PS2), so I believed online was definitely the next step for role-playing games, including the FF series. However, we had to provide version updates in MMORPG development, something that was quite difficult on gaming consoles back then, as they relied on read-only memory and couldn’t handle updates. It was then that we heard Sony Computer Entertainment (as they were known at the time) might be releasing a hard disk drive for the PS2 (the PlayStation BB Unit), which we felt we could use and thus began development.

  • Matsui

    Were you the one who formed the development team?

  • Tanaka

    This was a company movement, Mr. Sakaguchi began by going around and looking for members. We knew MMORPGs were an enormous endeavor and couldn’t be undertaken with the size of previous teams that worked on the FF and Mana series, so establishing the FFXI project began with bringing together four or five teams.

  • It must've been an enormous project to require four or five teams, considering each of them could create an entire game on their own.

  • Tanaka

    Our team had just finished the development of Chrono Cross and was the first to begin, followed by members of the Parasite Eve II and Brave Fencer Musashi teams in Osaka who joined us in Tokyo.

  • Matsui

    I was in the Mana team back then and joined up with you early on.

  • Tanaka

    We had the Square Millennium Event in 2000. Mr. Kameoka (Shinichi Kameoka, Player Character Designer for Secret of Mana) from the Mana team illustrated the artwork for FFXI that was used at the event, while Mr. Kato (Masato Kato, Director, Scenario and Script Writer for Chrono Cross) from the Chrono Cross team started putting together the overall story for FFXI.

  • Matsui

    As I recall, the Mana team was settling down after finishing development on Legend of Mana. We were discussing what we wanted to make next when Mr. Sakaguchi jumped in and was like, “It’s time to make online games!” (laughs)

  • Tanaka

    I also made several visits to our development team members in Osaka to persuade them to come to Tokyo, since splitting development across two headquarters would be difficult. Of course, there were still some members who remained in Osaka for family and other reasons.

  • After working on the first three FF titles, you stepped away from the FF series and worked on other games. Did you have any hesitation about returning to the FF series?

  • Tanaka

    I’m not too picky about the title. Even with FF and FFII, I worked on both of them with the mindset that they were brand new titles.

  • Would that mean that you're not swayed by implicit rules and game systems and associated with a series?

  • Tanaka

    It just means that the games ended up as part of a particular series in the end. For example, Secret of Mana was originally designed to be the fourth numbered title in the FF series. A lot happened afterward and eventually led to the creation of two separate games, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger.

  • So perhaps FFXI began from the motivation to create an MMORPG, rather than making “a game in the FF series.”

  • Tanaka

    Yes. With that said, Mr. Sakaguchi and I did talk about how if we made an MMORPG, it ought to be based on FF. Then when we were deciding whether to call it “FF Online” or release it as a numbered entry in the series, Mr. Sakaguchi adamantly believed it should be released as a numbered entry.

  • What a surprise! Mr. Sakaguchi said that?

  • Tanaka

    He insisted that a game with a name like “FF World” would be viewed as a spin-off rather than a main entry in the FF series, which led to a debate between him and management. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    It shows how serious he was about creating an MMORPG.

  • Tanaka

    Management wanted to revoke its place as a numbered entry later on because they feared many players would be unable to play the game, as it required purchasing additional hardware on top of the PS2 console. During the debate, however, Mr. Sakaguchi left Square in 2001, and there was no one left to defend FFXI’s position as a numbered entry. (laughs) Even then, I strongly believed that future titles in the FF series should be online. Although I was approached several times by the company president at the time, Yoichi Wada, to revoke FFXI’s status as a numbered entry in the FF series, I ended up persuading him instead.

  • Matsui

    During tough times in development, I remember you had to call most of the shots since you were the on-site director of the Tokyo development team, and Mr. Sakaguchi was living in Hawaii.

  • How long was Mr. Sakaguchi involved in FFXI's development?

  • Tanaka

    At the very beginning, he sent me several sheets of A4 size paper, which were something like a journal of his experiences playing EverQuest, and said that was the kind of game he wanted it to be. You could say that was pretty much the first and last time he was involved.

  • Sort of like, “Okay, I leave the rest to you!”? (laughs)

  • Tanaka

    We did talk about it over in-game chat in EverQuest, I guess. (laughs) Mr. Sakaguchi was preoccupied with the movie and FFIX until they were released, and later, put his full attention into establishing our online platform, PlayOnline. It was something like a predecessor to modern social media and conceptualized as this expansive platform with features including an online library of the latest manga, music streaming, and sports broadcasts. All of these features are commonplace services nowadays, but they may have been jumping the gun back then.

  • Mr. Matsui, did you have any doubts when you were suddenly told that online games were the future and brought onboard to the FFXI team?

  • Matsui

    No. The Mana team was preparing to start our next title when we were brought onboard for FFXI. At the time, the majority of my work involved managing graphical resources and allocating the manpower of our staff, so I was starting to get a little bored of game development. MMORPGs were completely different from the development of previous games. In terms of graphics, you had to come up with clever ways to display many characters at once instead of drawing in each one individually, and had to design the game with network latency in mind. I felt like I had returned to the creative side of things, and I was very excited about that.

  • Sounds like it sparked a flame in your engineering spirit.

  • Matsui

    There was just one thing. During Legend of Mana’s development, there was a time when I took on more work than I could handle, and I thought I was done for. After that experience, I decided to avoid overexertion by limiting myself to work only about half of what I was capable of, but before I knew it, I found myself with programming duties and put myself through another terrible experience. (laughs wryly)

  • Matsui

    Mr. Matsui is a game planner, but he's always writing programs. (laughs)

  • Tanaka

    If you include the Visual Works* team that worked on the opening movie, I think we had something like several hundred members.

    *Visual Works is a video production department within Square Enix specializing in high-end digital graphics for games like the FF series and Dragon Quest series. Currently, they've merged with the Image Arts Division to form the Image Studio Division.
  • So you led the team of several hundred members to embark on the MMORPG genre, but how did you go about organizing the team?

  • Tanaka

    We began with having them play MMORPGs thoroughly, just as we had played EverQuest together with Mr. Sakaguchi.

  • I imagine you had them play EverQuest, then?

  • Tanaka

    Yes. We told them playing the game would be their job for a few months.

  • Matsui

    I played a ton at the office since our office's network environment was better than what I had at home, but there weren't flat rates for communication fees back then. The company shouldered some of the costs, but there was one month where I was charged something like 70,000 yen (about 700 USD), which almost made me cry. (laughs)

  • Tanaka

    Right, FFXI was released around the time ADSL service started to spread, didn’t it? Square's Sales team went all around Japan to secure partnerships with cable television companies.

  • Matsui

    We were really blessed in terms of timing, especially with the PS2 hard disk and always-on internet.

  • Tanaka

    We also had agreements with PC manufacturers and vendors when we were releasing the Windows version. As I recall, the FFXI benchmark software was supposedly great for storefront displays, and they assisted us in all sorts of ways. Using the FFXI benchmark instead of a playable demo was a great success, if I say so myself.

  • Since the FFXI team was a mix of several different teams, I imagine each team had its own workplace culture. Was there anything in particular you did to unite the team?

  • Tanaka

    Games are the common language for game planners, so I think had acquired general knowledge of what kind of game they were supposed to make by playing EverQuest. On the other hand, I got the impression that the graphics-related members were overwhelmed with figuring out how to create an open-world game for the PS2.

  • Mr. Matsui, was there anything you were careful about when it came to working with other members of the new team?

  • Matsui

    Since there were so many people in the team, we decided on the exact specifications for designs, scenarios, and events, but had an agreement that we had more freedom with everything else. I had no idea what the finished product would turn out to be and everyone had different workflows, which took a while to get used to. On the other hand, I was given a lot of freedom with battle-related matters as long as they didn’t turn out horribly. In some ways, I was allowed to work in a way that was easiest for me, so I didn't really struggle there.

* To the second part