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WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL
#2 Yosuke Saito Part 2

For our second guest, we invited Yosuke Saito, the original producer of Dragon Quest X Online (DQX) and a fellow adventurer in FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI). In this second part, he shares more of his memories regarding FFXI and other topics.

Yosuke Saito

Square Enix Executive Director involved in various projects, including the NieR series and the virtual idol group Gems Company.
Producer of Dragon Quest X Online from the beginning of development until 2018.
He is currently the Producer of BABYLON’S FALL developed by Platinum Games.

The thrill of FFXI might never be surpassed

  • When FFXI launched in 2002, Mr. Saito was working on MaildeQuest* and CrossGate*, both of which were online titles. Were there any reasons why you focused on online games?

    * MaildeQuest was an online role-playing game that began in July 2001, where players gave directions to their characters using a web browser and the results would be delivered by email. In 2002, the game was renamed MinnadeQuest, and after scenario expansions and platform changes, it concluded service in March 2017.
    * CrossGate is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that began in July 2001. The game was available in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China. As of 2021, the game is currently in service in Taiwan and China.
  • Saito

    At the time, I was playing Diablo like a maniac. I also played Ultima Online, but I was really engrossed in Diablo. There weren’t fixed rates for network services back then, so my parents’ home received an obscene telephone bill. (laughs wryly)

    * Diablo is a hack-and-slash action multiplayer online role-playing game by Blizzard Entertainment.
  • Matsui

    I also had a similar experience. (laughs) Are you talking about the first Diablo?

  • Saito

    It was the first one. The first brand-new computer I purchased myself was a Mac, but it wasn’t because I wanted to design stuff, I just wanted to play Diablo. I remember that none of the stores nearby had it, but a fellow nerd from a different industry told me that a certain store had it, so I went to a shady shop with imported games to purchase it.

  • Matsui

    It wasn’t until later that a distributor stepped in and made a “proper” English version available in Japan.

  • Saito

    That’s right. I think the store I bought it from was a private importer.

  • Matsui

    Did you want to make online games yourself because of Diablo’s influence?

  • Saito

    Yes. Enix had its roots in PC games, but by that time, the department for PC games was gone and there wasn’t even a business model for them. It was still a little early for online games to emerge in the market so the hurdles were set quite high.

  • Matsui

    I imagine you struggled a ton.

  • Saito

    It was certainly troublesome, but it was something I wanted to do, so it wasn’t really a pain. Much of CrossGate’s format has changed since its release almost 20 years ago, and it’s currently only in service in China and Taiwan, but it’s still thriving as an IP. The nice part about making CrossGate is that the younger audience that were playing the game back then have taken up fairly important positions in Chinese game companies, and they tell me, “I grew up playing your games, Mr. Saito.” Perhaps I’m more widely known in China than Japan. (laughs)

  • The Japanese market for online games was still in its early days back then, and your decision to then sell your games overseas really showed your tenacity.

  • Saito

    Unlike today, there were all sorts of barriers to entry when it came to online games. First of all, it’s a PC game, so there was the fearsome barrier of relying on customers to browse PC game retailers. Although there were already many excellent PC games at the time, quite a lot of people were under the impression that PC games were mainly adult games. There was also the fact that internet access wasn’t as widespread as it is now.

  • How did you perceive FFXI’s launch in 2002 under such circumstances, Mr. Saito?

  • Saito

    At any rate, it was very fun, even when your entire party was incapacitated.

  • As a developer, did you feel any jealousy?

  • Saito

    Oh, I was absolutely jealous. I was simply impressed that they could make something like it. After almost 20 years, it may not have kept up with modern trends, but the world is immense, the cities are immense, and the game properly conveys the presence of other people. And the world’s atmosphere and music match perfectly. The game is obviously fun because there’s other people, but the somewhat challenging aspects of the game are also part of what I think makes it so wonderful. In some ways, I feel that it remains so memorable because it was challenging.

  • Matsui

    As a developer, it makes me very happy to hear those words.

  • Saito

    You wake up early in the morning to recruit party members, then finally depart in the afternoon, but wipe out moments after reaching the leveling area. You manage to call for help, but the rescuer arrives with a train of pursuing monsters, and they end up incapacitated in the same spot. When EXP farms turned out disastrous like that, even that was part of the fun.

  • Matsui

    It’s not as if we intended to make the game challenging. During the planning phase, we received a directive to make a job take roughly six months* to fully level. We estimated that the average player would play a bunch during weekends and end up with about 14 hours per week, while hardcore players were estimated to play 40 hours per week. Surely the truly hardcore played way beyond 40 hours per week, but our estimates already had hardcore players at more than three times the amount of playtime compared to the average player. So if it were to take hardcore players six months to level, the average player would require almost a year and a half to fully level a job. We started off with something like, “I played so much but my EXP bar hasn’t even budged!” and which was gradually softened to a level of, “Players won’t be able to keep up unless we tone it down this much!” so in our minds, we thought we’d toned it down considerably. (laughs wryly)

    * The directive was later updated at launch to an estimate of roughly three months to fully level a job.
  • Saito

    Players at the time said the EXP loss was quite strict, but we had nothing we could draw comparisons to, and older games were generally strict even outside of online games. Considering that, it didn’t seem all that strange to me. Of course, leveling was difficult, but I was okay with it since it was fun.

  • I don’t mean to sound like a particular NPC, but if you really didn’t like it, you would’ve quit.

  • Saito

    However, waiting for HNMs (High-level Notorious Monsters) defied common sense. (laughs) That was the only thing I felt was completely out of my reach. However, I thought it was viable as one avenue of endgame content, and I’m sure there were players who enjoyed rivalries over HNMs, so in my opinion that sort of feature was a necessity as well. But I personally stayed away from it out of fear that my work life would be over if I tried to get into HNMs. (laughs)

  • So even Mr. Saito stayed away from HNMs. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    As someone who was working on them, I also felt that it was something I personally wouldn’t be able to do. (laughs wryly) For those of us who squeezed in their playtime between getting home from work and going to bed, it was quite tough to get into.

  • HNMs have quite a wide spawn window after all.

  • Matsui

    That was also the result of trial and error. If the timeframe was too wide, players wouldn’t be able to hunt down specific targets. If it was too narrow, it would be farmed endlessly by a limited number of groups. I believe what we had was a result of trying to designate a timeframe where anyone could have a chance.

  • The spawn window for King Behemoth* and other HNMs were superb.

    * On release, King Behemoth had a chance to appear instead of Behemoth after 72 hours or more since it was last defeated. Behemoth itself reappeared 21 hours to 24 hours after being defeated. Other HNMs worked in a similar manner, including Fafnir, Nidhogg, Adamantoise, and Aspidochelone.
  • Saito

    When I happened to be at Qufim Island when people mentioned King Behemoth was spawning soon, I would go to spectate, and the whole area would be littered with bodies... Seeing that spectacle was fun too. (laughs)

  • When King Behemoth used Meteor, everyone in the vicinity was affected regardless of whether they claimed it or not, so even spectators were burnt to a crisp. (laughs)

  • Saito

    Exactly. You can’t just sit there and watch.

  • Mr. Saito, from a developer’s perspective, were there any game systems or operations where you felt FFXI excelled or had missed the mark?

  • Saito

    There weren’t many things I felt had missed the mark back when I was playing. Personally, even waiting for parties to fill felt like a part of life in Vana’diel, and I was on the side of people who were okay with it. But for people who had limited time to play, I get the feeling it may have been better if there was an automated matchmaking system to allow them to play more casually.

  • Matsui

    Nowadays FFXI also puts effort into making the game more casually enjoyable, but in the past, perhaps we made parties too much of a prerequisite.

  • Saito

    Also, I feel that modern games don’t have the same thrill as FFXI when it comes to exploring new areas. FFXI had aspects that might be criticized for being too strong or too difficult and may not have been considered acceptable by today’s standards of game balance. But those aspects are what contributed to the thrill, and which I saw as an exquisite balance as I was playing. Oh, I guess that’s not really from the perspective of a developer. It was truly a lot of fun as a player, so I keep getting derailed in that direction. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    No, no, thank you. (laughs) By thrilling aspects, are you referring to areas like Ifrit’s Cauldron?

  • Saito

    Oh, that was a very scary place. Bombs would fly at you from nowhere as soon as you used magic, so casting Invisible or Sneak was a matter of life-and-death. Well, it’s not an issue if you’re not stingy about using items. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    If you were alone when you were attacked, there was almost no chance of surviving.

  • Saito

    I also played beast master, so I remember the area with the wyvern NM strolling around.

  • Matsui

    Are you talking about Kuftal Tunnel? That’s where Guivre is always taking a stroll.

  • Saito

    That’s the one. I remember those moments in Kuftal Tunnel where I’d be looking for a place to farm, and I’d hear these heavy footsteps. I either fearfully clung to the wall and prayed it didn’t come near, or if someone else was getting attacked, I took that opportunity to run past them.

  • Matsui

    It was quite common to get attacked while you were leveling there.

  • Saito

    Since there’s no way a leveling party could stand up to it, you’d have no choice but to get crushed. (laughs)

  • Guivre was interesting as a game mechanic, but nowadays, being unable to safely level in one spot in a game where camping is the norm would probably be criticized. (laughs)

  • Saito

    I agree. That’s part of the reason why there may never be another experience that surpasses FFXI in thrill.

  • Matsui

    Would you say losing exp when getting incapacitated is one such factor?

  • Saito

    I feel like it’s not only system-related aspects like that, but the world’s atmosphere and music, and a combination of all sorts of elements.

  • Matsui

    So you’re saying the thrill isn’t just from being afraid of losing EXP but also the excitement of enjoying the adventure.

  • Saito

    There was an activity where players challenged themselves to reach Jeuno at level 1, which would be extremely difficult if you weren’t familiar with the world. But as you level up, you gain more freedom to go to other areas, you gain more knowledge as a player, and the fears that inhibited you at lower levels are gradually dispersed, until a point where you’re capable of activities like going to Jeuno at level 1. There are fears which can be overcome as both the character and player progress, which gave the sense that they were living in the world of Vana’diel.

  • With FFXI reaching its 20th anniversary in May 2022, what do you think has contributed to its longevity?

  • Saito

    I would attribute it to the hard work of Mr. Matsui and the development team. As someone who creates online games, we want to keep our games going as long as there’s even one player still playing. But continuing to operate at a profit loss is frowned upon as a business practice and doesn’t make anyone happy. I think FFXI is blessed from a prospects standpoint and is well-balanced to remain in operation, and I’m very impressed when I consider how hard staff members must be working to maintain that.

  • Matsui

    Half of that is due to the efforts of our remaining developers, but I think the other half is because the staff members who began the project were truly amazing. While we certainly can’t compare to modern games, I’m truly grateful that they created graphics that can still be used 20 years later.

  • MMORPGs are said to take about 3 to 4 years to produce, but FFXI was developed in almost half that time. It’s amazing they were able to develop something of this quality in that short period.

  • Matsui

    Nowadays, there’s a very high development cost for creating 3D models. Lighting and other settings can be adjusted at very minute levels. But on the other hand, it’s difficult for a modern AAA title* to do well if it doesn’t have those kinds of things. Considering that, FFXI may have been created at the perfect timing. 3D models were still kind of blocky during the PlayStation era, but the PS2 was able to handle more polygons and detailed textures. I believe the fact that FFXI was created at a time when there were people with the skill to convey shadows and volume using those textures played a big role. The polygon count is drastically lower than 3D models in modern games, but the character models still have a defined “presence.”

    * While there isn’t a strict definition, “AAA title” refers to a large-scale game developed with immense manpower and technology, referred to as “development cost.”
  • There are obviously some elements that feel outdated, but I believe FFXI’s graphics are wonderful.

  • Matsui

    I’m sure the designers were capable of creating models with even more detail, but we wanted to simultaneously display as many characters on the screen as possible, so the polygon count and texture size per character were limited. The designers fulfilled our need to reduce memory sizes as much as possible while retaining quality, which has me truly impressed even to this day.

* To the third part

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