“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI).
For our fourth guest, we invited Minae Matsukawa, the producer of Capcom’s online action RPG Dragon’s Dogma Online (DDON).
In this second part, she spoke about the role FFXI has played in her life, as well as her favorite aspects of the game. We also learned the truth behind the message that appears before you can play the game!
* The following interview took place remotely.
Producer affiliated with Capcom.
Producer of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, an expansion to the open-world game featuring the vast expanse of Gransys Island which adds large-scale content for high-level players, and the online action RPG Dragon's Dogma Online.
FFXI provided me with an ambition
Ms. Matsukawa, are there any aspects of your work that were influenced by FFXI?
Around the time I was playing FFXI, I believe Capcom had just started releasing Monster Hunter titles that were compatible with Multi-Matching BB*.* Multi-Matching BB was an online matchmaking service provided by KDDI, supported by titles such as the Monster Hunter series on the PlayStation 2.
Personally, I really enjoyed online games and had dreams of working on one someday. When I was in my mid-30s, a friend had asked, “What sort of game do you dream of making in the future?” and I’d replied, “An online game; after all, they’re so much fun!”
As one thing led to another, I ended up assuming the role of DDON Producer. When that friend of ten years later remarked, “I’m glad your dream came true!” it dawned on me that I’d fulfilled my dreams. So rather than saying FFXI was an influence in my work, I’d say FFXI provided me with an ambition.
Following the launch of Multi-Matching in June 2001 for dial-up connections, Multi-Matching BB launched in September 2003 for broadband connections.
What were your thoughts on FFXI from a producer’s perspective?
From my meager position in the gaming industry, developing and operating the game seemed really hard.
Just by playing it a little, you could tell there was an incredible amount of content, and I could only imagine the immense effort that went into to operating on a global level and keeping the servers running 24 hours a day. For me at the time, it felt completely out of my league. However, while I could only imagine how difficult it must’ve been, I am truly grateful for all of the fun I had in Vana’diel.
If you were able to enjoy it, then it was worth our efforts.
Mr. Matsui, which aspects would you say gave you the most trouble?
There were all sorts of hardships, but in the early days it was definitely balancing the game. We also hadn’t created even half of the things we wanted to do at launch, and players were burning through the new content we implemented, so our to-do list just kept getting longer and longer. Players were always on our heels, and we had to do everything we could to stay even just one step ahead of them. Working under that mindset was very rough.
How large was the original team that was working on the game?
The overall team had over 200 members, but battle-related matters were handled by three of us, including myself.
I created the internal data for items and monsters, while another managed monster behavior and placement, and our third member managed our graphical resources. That was our three-man team until we finished developing Chains of Promathia.
That’s incredible! I’d always thought there were far more battle-related developers than that.
After finishing Chains of Promathia, our teams were reorganized and we gained a few more support members, which made things much easier. Up until then, it was pretty rough since I had to create all the data myself.
What were the other teams like?
I think we had about twenty game planners? I recall we also had quite a lot of programmers and designers too. Other than that, we had staff members for server-related matters and the PlayStation 2 version, as well as for porting the game to Windows and Xbox 360. Because we were handling global operations, we also had many Localization staff members.
At the time, I was just another member of the Development team and didn’t have a full view of the entire team, but I imagine there were a fair amount of Game Masters (GMs) and server management staff members too.
There were also the Promotional, Marketing, and Business teams, though not everyone was working exclusively on FFXI. If we counted everyone involved with FFXI in some shape or form, I think we had somewhere between 300 and 400 people. That’s how enormous the project was.
In the Japanese game industry at the time, I think FFXI was the only project of such an enormous scale. After all, it was a time when even a team of 100 members was considered large.
It’d be an even larger number if we were to include the Quality Assurance (QA)* staff.*Quality Assurance teams, often referred to as “QA,” are staff members who check the games to locate and report any flaws.
QA has it quite rough too, don’t they?
The QA team carry out their work on the test servers, but some of the debugging commands* affect all Worlds.* Debugging commands are special commands used by the developers when verifying features on the test servers. These include commands that change the in-game time or weather, deleting a targeted monster, and other exclusive controls.
There was this one time when QA reported that there was a monster that couldn’t be defeated, which I figured was just someone forgetting to disable the invincibility command. But I was told, “It’d be a huge problem if an invincible monster showed up on the live servers, so please look into it,” and I remember sobbing as I investigated the matter.
The job system is simply astounding
Ms. Matsukawa, what are some system or operations-related aspects where you think FFXI excels?
First and foremost, it’s amazing how they were able to create such an accessible online game back in the early days of the genre. That’s obviously not the only thing; the depth of the gameplay and the feelings of accomplishment it provides are also praiseworthy.
But what impressed me the most about FFXI was how they took the FINAL FANTASY series we played as kids and condensed it into playable jobs. This gave players an ambition to work towards as they battled and leveled up, which is simply brilliant.
In FFXI, the unique lore of the FINAL FANTASY series is integrated with elements of online games. On top of how accessible that premise is, it’s excellent how FFXI is brimming with elements enjoyable for both the Japanese and global audiences alike.
FFXI’s jobs represent a fundamental concept of the FINAL FANTASY series, and at the same time, they’re also the in-game aspect that players feel the strongest connection to.
The support job system is also excellent. Back when the level cap was 75, it was a great way to try new jobs other than your main job. In my case too, I’d be leveling while thinking, “Maybe today’s the day I’ll level warrior to 37.”* Treasure Hunter is a thief job trait learned at level 15 which increases the chance of items dropping when defeating enemies.
There were also cases where, for instance, I had no intention of playing thief as my main job, but Treasure Hunter seemed useful. As a result, I learned about the fun aspects and struggles of various jobs.
Of course, if you end up liking how the job plays, you could continue leveling it even further. The support job system is really well designed in those aspects and is my favorite part of FFXI.
There certainly were many players who leveled thief to 15 for Treasure Hunter.
I also remember a lot of people leveling to 25 for Flee. Job abilities and traits that might be handy on a support job are an intentional design choice.
The support job system itself was suggested by Mr. Ishii (Koichi Ishii, original director of FFXI) who observed, “If there were a system that encouraged leveling various jobs, people would play more.”
That’s me, I’m one of those people! (laughs) After all, I was hesitant to play melee jobs but leveled them up anyway. The support job system is truly wonderful.
On the flipside, players were capable of handling support jobs in ways we hadn’t imagined, and it was tough making balance adjustments.
On the operations side, I thought it was nice how you proactively held events like VanaFest. I often couldn’t attend due to schedule conflicts with work, but it’s great how you even have orchestra concerts too. It’s always fun to meet up with other fans at real-life events, and I’d like to participate if I could go back in time.
In recent years, we’ve had events hosted by KADOKAWA and Lightning Brigade.* Lightning Brigade is a team of FFXI players formed by editors and writers of the Japanese gaming magazine Dengeki PlayStation.
While this isn’t about FFXI events, I often hung out with my close in-game friends every year after Tokyo Game Show. They don’t work in the game industry, but they come down to Tokyo for Tokyo Game Show, and so we figured we might as well meet up. I remember having a lot of fun talking face-to-face with them about which job we’d level next or what monsters we’re trying to defeat.
So aside from work-related functions, you were also enjoying your time with regular attendees as an adventurer.
Yes, just as a regular player. (laughs)
The friends I met with in these offline meetups knew I worked at Capcom, but many of the friends I often played with didn’t know. During those periods when I was busy with development, perhaps they were thinking, “It’s weird how they suddenly stop logging in.”
Intentions behind “A Word to Our Players”
I think there truly are a lot of people out there who were influenced by FFXI. I’m grateful that FFXI has influenced me in many positive ways; however, there are also those of us who get addicted to the game and neglect their real life priorities.
That brings to mind the “A Word to Our Players” message that appears before the game starts.
That warning message is unique to FFXI, isn’t it?
I believe that was Mr. Tanaka’s idea. (Hiromichi Tanaka, original producer of FFXI)
The truth is, when we were developing FFXI, we had colleagues who became addicted to the games we played for research and stopped coming into the office. We had to log into the game and plead, “Please at least show up for the meeting…” (laughs wryly)
I see, so that phrase was based on the development team’s personal experiences…
That’s an eye-opening revelation. (laughs)
Once you experience an MMORPG, you can tell they’re very easy to become engrossed with. That said, however, we didn’t feel it would be right to implement something like a playtime limit, so we had to rely on players to exercise self-control.
Taking that into consideration, I feel like displaying that message was pretty much all we could do. I think our stance as developers should be to deliver the best game experience we can, even if it tempts players to play 24 hours a day.
Which reminds me, back when I was frequently playing FFXI, my room had a TV right in front of the bed. On Saturdays, I’d race my way through the Sanctuary of Zi’Tah to log out in Tu’Lia before heading to bed, then by 8:00 on Sunday morning I’d be running around in Tu’lia. From there I’d take a break for about an hour around noon, then hunt something until nightfall, after which I’d work on getting further in my missions. That was pretty much my weekend routine at the time.
My family, on the other hand, would see me in the morning and say, “There you go playing video games again,” and head out on their way. And when they came home at night, they’d be like, “You’re… still playing video games…” I’ve been told they see me playing games in the exact same spot as when they left and think, “Yikes.” (laughs)
For me, I didn’t even realize it was strange for me to be sitting there the whole time. Online games can be frightening, can’t they? (laughs wryly)
So when we were listening to your story earlier, I was quietly thanking you for having that “A Word to Our Players” message there.
To this day, that message still shows up every time, telling us, “Don’t go overboard!” (laughs)
But even with that reminder, there were days where I was determined to play FFXI and stocked up with plenty of food and drinks on the day before. And things like limiting our beverage intake to take fewer bathroom breaks, or struggling to eat potato chips while holding a controller; I’m sure we all had those kinds of thoughts cross our minds while playing!