Continuing where we left off, Koichi Ishii and Yoshitaka Amano discuss FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI) in the second half of this special edition of WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL.
Early on in development, Mr. Ishii contemplated how to go about promoting FFXI, since an MMORPG for home consoles was still an unprecedented endeavor in Japan. To this end, he commissioned Mr. Amano to create a world map, but the resulting artwork would surpass his expectations in more ways than one...
* To differentiate between the FINAL FANTASY series and its first title of the same name, in this article, we will be referring to the first title in the series as “FFI.”
CEO of Grezzo Co, Ltd. In the early days of Square, he planned FFI and was in charge of game design until the third game in the series. After that, he worked on the direction of the Seiken Densetsu series and other projects before returning to the FF series to work on FFXI. In addition to creating the foundation for the world of Vana'diel, he was also the director leading up to the Rise of the Zilart expansion.
One of the leading illustrators in the Japanese fantasy world and an artist who is active in many fields, including stage art and costumes for films and plays. He began his career as a designer for Tatsunoko Production and later became an independent illustrator. He has worked on illustrations and character designs for many fantasy works, including novels and anime, and has been involved in the FF series for over 34 years, from FFI to the present.
Conveying the vastness of MMORPGs with an enormous world map
After development on FFIII was finished, Mr. Ishii worked on a number of titles, primarily in the Seiken Densetsu series (known as the Mana series in the West). He then returned to the FF series almost 10 years later to work on FFXI.
Rather than “returned,” it was more like “brought back.”* Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the founders of the FF series.
Mr. Sakaguchi* had been asking me to work on FFXI, but I kept declining him for a while. But he insisted I give MMORPGs a try before making a final decision, so I played EverQuest*, among other games.
As I played, my interest was piqued as it dawned on me: I could use this new technology to realize the fantasy world I’d always envisioned, something I’d wanted to do since FFI. After all, hardware specifications and essentially everything else had come a long way since the NES era.
Though phrasing it this way doesn’t sound very good, you could say I used FFXI to fulfill a personal creative desire: to bring a world to life.
* EverQuest is an MMORPG released in North America in 1999.
Your desire to bring a world to life in digital form was the starting point of your creative career, after all.
When I finally accepted the offer of working on FFXI, the first thing I did was to reflect back on the days when I was making FFI. What were my themes and values as a creator? What led me to incorporate certain details, such as crystals and the four major elements? And finally, why did I want to work on Seiken Densetsu after finishing FFIII?
I looked back at my creative process up until then and thoroughly contemplated these questions.
Not only was FFXI a brand-new title in the FF series, it was also an MMORPG for home consoles, something that was unprecedented in Japan. Did that cause any additional difficulties?
As you know, the MMORPG genre was still mostly unrecognized in Japan at the time. Evaluating the situation not only as a director, but also from a producer’s point of view, I felt that a major hurdle would be getting people who were unfamiliar with MMORPGs to understand the world within the game. So I decided to meet with Mr. Amano, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, for counsel about my vision for FFXI.
Mr. Amano, what were your thoughts when Mr. Ishii told you about FFXI?
I was impressed that online games allowed players from around the globe to play together. But at the same time, I was unsure how to convey that kind of world through an illustration.
My initial idea was to convey the vastness of the in-game world, using something that could be recognized by audiences that were unfamiliar with MMORPGs or had yet to play FFXI, and I believed a world map would do the trick. I shared this idea with Mr. Amano and it seemed like he thought of something, so I ended our first meeting with a sense of relief for the time being.* A tatami mat is approximately 180 cm x 90 cm. (6ft x 3ft)
When I later visited Mr. Amano for our next meeting, I found four enormous sheets of paper laid out in his studio, each one the size of a tatami mat*. I thought, “Man, he must be working on a huge commission.”
So out of curiosity, I asked, “What are you going to draw on these?” When he replied, “That’s going to be the world map for FFXI,” I couldn’t help but go, “Huh??” (laughs)
And that eventually became the famous folding screen-style world map.
ILLUSTRATION: ©2002 YOSHITAKA AMANO
Even something the size of a single tatami mat would've been more than enough for what I originally had in mind. But Mr. Amano insisted, “If we’re going to do this, I might as well make it like the Choju-giga* and Rakuchu Rakugai-zu*,” and I thought to myself, “Gee, this is becoming a bigger deal than I thought...”* Choju-giga is a set of four illustrated scrolls belonging to Kozan-ji Temple in Kyoto. The illustrations feature lively scenes of frogs, rabbits, and various other anthropomorphic animals.
* Rakuchu Rakugai-zu are paintings done on folding screens depicting the cityscape or outskirts of Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. They were primarily painted between Japan’s Sengoku and Edo periods.
When Mr. Ishii first told me about his concepts for FFXI, I was overwhelmed by their grandeur. In exaggerated terms, drawing a world map of Vana’diel seemed like it’d be bringing an entire world to life. And while it could just be a presumptuous prediction, perhaps stories of Vana’diel will be retold hundreds of years later as some sort of legendary myth.
As an illustrator, expressing that sort of view of the world through a piece of art was sure to be a considerable challenge.
Even so, surely no one expected the artwork to be so large...
Since Rakuchu Rakugai-zu are also folding screen paintings, I thought it’d be a magnificent sight if we could display those and the world map side-by-side. So I prepared the largest sheets of paper I could obtain at the time and began drawing. Had it been possible for me to obtain larger paper, the world map might’ve been even bigger than it is now!
Inspiring each other as creators
The size isn’t the only thing that’s amazing about the world map; if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that the monsters are portrayed in the same parts of the map where you would find them in-game.
Mr. Ishii was very particular about that.
I was hoping players would notice and exclaim, “It’s just like the game!”
In a similar vein to how you can gaze up at the sky and stars in-game, I wanted share how the world would look if you were to peer down from above. To convey that experience, everything had to match the game precisely. Besides, I thought it’d be nice to have an illustration that could visually immerse viewers in the world of Vana’diel, or remind them of their in-game experiences. That’s the kind of romanticism I was looking to express through artwork.
That’s very lovely.
However, creating the map was easier said than done and took quite a bit of effort.
Sometime after the line art and coloring processes were finished, I dropped by Mr. Amano’s studio under the assumption that we were pretty close to being done. When I arrived, there was a stack of boxes containing several kinds of gold leaf.
I was marveling at how many different varieties there were, until Mr. Amano said, “Here, stick these on,” and made me help him. (laughs) Certain parts of the world map, such as the clouds, are actually depicted by layering rolled gold leaf.
So this magnificent piece of artwork is a result of you creatively inspiring Mr. Amano.
Creatively inspired? More like asking too much of me! (laughs)
Hey, I didn’t ask you to go as far as you did! (laughs)
That being said, I could really sense Mr. Ishii’s passion, and I myself was excited at the chance to try something new. Well, I guess you could say that Mr. Ishii talked me into it.
I wasn’t sure if I should mention this... But there was another thought I had when I asked Mr. Amano to draw the world map: I felt that the FF series may not have fully utilized Mr. Amano’s talents after Mr. Sakaguchi and I left.
Although Mr. Amano is a staple of the FF series, it’s not enough to simply have him provide the accompanying illustrations for each game. In order to create a good game, you first have to properly explain to Mr. Amano and get him on board with the theme of the game. At least, that’s how we worked together on each game when I was involved in the series.
So if I was going to work on FFXI, I wanted to re-establish the connection with Mr. Amano I had back then. The idea was to set an example for our newer creative staff members: if you can convince Mr. Amano, you can come up with something even more magnificent.
So the illustrations of FF are the product of creative minds inspiring each other to greater heights.
As Mr. Ishii said, I couldn’t have completed this world map by myself. As a matter of fact, after that world map, there was another project where I tried to do something of a similarly large scale, but I just couldn’t do it.
In that sense, the world map is an important work for me. It’d be rough if every job was like that one, though. (laughs)
At the time, I decided that I’d never be involved in the FF series again after finishing FFXI. In other words, FFXI might be my last chance to work closely with Mr. Amano... With that in mind, I wanted to leave something behind as the culmination of my collaborations with Mr. Amano, so the world map is a very emotional work for me as well.
I believe it’s a work of art that transcends being just “an illustration for a game.”
It clearly transcends that from my point of view as well. There’s also the fact that working on the world map opened up new avenues for me as an illustrator.
Which reminds me, didn’t you also work on a piece related to the mandala of the Nichiren-shu sect, the Lotus Sutra*? It was intriguing to see you take on that sort of project, considering you had worked on FFXI’s world map in the past.* The Lotus Sutra was painted to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the birth of Nichiren Shonin. Visit the website for details.
I’m impressed you know about it. Actually, the person from the Nichiren-shu sect who commissioned it was a big fan of the FF series. We got into a passionate discussion about the world map and I ended up taking on the job.
Mandalas represent mythological systems and cosmologies, which I felt were similar in theme to FFXI’s world map. My previous experience from working on the world map came in handy, especially in terms of production methods, since I drew on a large hanging scroll and covered it with gold leaf.
Mr. Ishii, how do you feel the world map turned out, in terms of your initial goal of creating something to convey the vastness of FFXI’s world?
We certainly achieved it.
After it was finished, we made a huge poster and advertised it in a prime location in Shibuya, and it was a really spectacular sight. During production, I was imagining the surprised look on people’s faces when they saw the world map as they passed through Shibuya, so I was really happy when it finally came to fruition.
I’m sure this world map stirs all sorts of memories for FFXI players.
Moreover, each person has their own different memories of in-game experiences. That diversity is a distinctive pleasure of MMORPGs.
In so many ways, this world map is more than just an illustration. That’s the kind of artwork I believe Mr. Amano was able to create.
It’s thanks to you, Mr. Ishii.
I was reminded by the accurate portrayals of the monsters on the world map, but I’ve heard that Mr. Ishii had a very detailed vision for the setting of Vana’diel from its conception.
Yes. After all, I gave in to Mr. Sakaguchi’s persuasion because my envisioned world could be realized in digital form.
I believed that providing details for each area, such as geology, climate, the plant and animal ecosystems, and food chains could each add more depth to the world. On the other hand, I absolutely didn’t want to rewrite or add to the lore retroactively.
FFXI’s longevity adding depth to the world of Vana’diel
Next, I’d like to hear about when Mr. Amano worked on the title logo for FFXI.
When we were designing the logo, I told Mr. Amano, “The logo should express that it’s a game you play with other players.”
That was something I struggled with, since I had no knowledge of MMORPGs back then. I’d ask, “What’s the protagonist like?” and get responses like, “The players themselves are the protagonists.” (laughs)
At any rate, I remember sketching out whatever came to mind.
We actually have the rough sketches at Square Enix, so I brought them with me today.
ILLUSTRATION: ©2002 YOSHITAKA AMANO
Wow! I can’t believe you still have them. (laughs) I faxed these over from Paris, where I was staying at the time. But my goodness, look at all the ideas I had!
Do you always draw this many rough sketches?
It happens every time I work with Mr. Ishii, but when I listen to him speak, my mind pours out all sorts of illustration ideas and just won’t stop. I'd burn through a bunch of rough sketches all at once, and when I got tired, I'd send them by fax and ask for feedback.
Mr. Amano's concentration is really amazing when he gets into it.
And in turn, seeing him would compel me, so I think we were inspiring each other. In that sense, the way Mr. Amano draws feels like a jazz session.
In my case, I tend to draw out of the inspiration I receive at the time. So when people ask, “Could you draw something like that again?” I have trouble replicating what I drew before.
Even a master like Mr. Amano has this many variations in mind during the rough sketch stage. That's something I hope young illustrators will make reference of.
ILLUSTRATION: ©2002 YOSHITAKA AMANO
After that, Rise of the Zilart was released, and Mr. Ishii left the FFXI development team. On the other hand, Mr. Amano continued to work on illustrations for the later expansions.
I continued to look at Mr. Amano’s art even after I left the FFXI team. I still remember the package illustration for Treasures of Aht Urhgan.
ILLUSTRATION: ©2006 YOSHITAKA AMANO
I heard that the story would be set in Aht Urhgan, a region based on the Middle East, so the concept I had while drawing was “passing through the entrance to take that first step.” The architectural design is another aspect where I took inspiration from the Middle East.
Although it’s a beautiful illustration, it does make me wonder how it might’ve been if Mr. Ishii was there to influence Mr. Amano's work.
I’m sure it would’ve been quite different. I can imagine him constantly telling me, “I think it should be like so-and-so.” (laughs)
But if I wanted to provide input, I’d have to take responsibility and go back to being the director, so I couldn’t just recklessly voice my feedback. So after I left the FFXI team, I felt like a father watching over the game from afar.
For the following expansion, Wings of the Goddess, the goddess Altana was depicted on the package illustration. When I saw this, I was reminded that the world map from earlier also prominently features Altana in the center. Was Altana part of the original lore, when you first conceived the idea of Vana’diel?
ILLUSTRATION: ©2007 YOSHITAKA AMANO
That’s right. I wanted Altana to be revered as the highest deity in Vana’diel.
On another note, Altana also plays a major role in the final chapter of Vana’diel’s scenario, Rhapsodies of Vana’diel. Even though a decade has passed since the world map was illustrated, it continues to be relevant with the ongoing events of the game.
Back when I was the director, that world map as my template for writing future scenarios, primarily with Mr. Kato*. And after that, Ms. Sato* and other staff members involved with the scenario poured a lot of effort into pulling details from that world map to continue building up Vana’diel. As you might expect, continuing that process over so many years has really added a lot of depth to the world.* Masato Kato, director of Chrono Cross who was also in charge of its scenario and script writing.
Incidentally, I think that some of my initial ideas for Vana'diel have yet to be reflected in the game. However, I think just having them in mind provided more depth to the digital world, and perhaps players have caught a glimpse of such concepts somewhere.
* Yaeko Sato, game planner in charge of narratives for numerous missions and quests.
Mr. Amano also drew the illustration for the WE ARE VANA'DIEL special site.
It’s very typical of Mr. Amano and a very nice illustration. It gives off this positive vibe, as if the adventurers are coming together to proclaim, “There’s so much more for FFXI, even after 20 years!”
Having said that, Mr. Amano’s illustrations are easily recognizable just by looking at the silhouettes. In fact, a lot of artists are influenced by Mr. Amano’s work and try to imitate the same kind of style. But his unique touches are really hard to replicate, aren’t they?
The FF series is a “starting point” for both Mr. Ishii and Mr. Amano
It’s almost time for us to wrap things up, but once again, I’d like to ask Mr. Amano what “working on FF” means to him.
To sum it up, it’s the “origin of new challenges.” After becoming an independent illustrator, I was always searching for new challenges, which helped me grow and broadened my range of work. Among those jobs, Mr. Ishii continually stimulated me as an illustrator and brought out my potential to its fullest. For that, I’m very grateful.
Mr. Ishii, how did you feel after meeting with Mr. Amano for the first time in a while?
Thanks to FFI, I was able to meet with Mr. Amano, someone I’d admired, and we were even able to collaborate on various projects after that. It’s a dream come true, one that I wish I could tell my old self about. I’m truly glad that I was involved with the FF series, and to have continued working as a game creator. That’s what I’m feeling in this moment.
On top of that, it wasn’t just a one-time collaboration; you were able to inspire each other and pioneer the FF series.
That's right. At the time, whenever Mr. Amano drew a great illustration, I was desperate to create a game that was befitting of them.
It might be a bit impudent for me to say so, but I think I felt a kind of rivalry with Mr. Amano. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why we were able to create the FF series in such high quality.
On that note, something I’ve been feeling a lot lately is the importance of “creative greed.” Even if others around you claim, “That’s impossible,” you can often overcome such hurdles if your greed is compelling enough. There’s no denying how greedy I am, and I think Mr. Amano is that way too. Back in the days of Square, there were many people, including Mr. Sakaguchi, who were very greedy. Because I was surrounded by people like that, I grew up to be that way as well.
What are your thoughts after looking back to when you were developing FFXI?
Well, it was really rough... I can only remember how rough it was. (laughs)
I’d say that’s fine. An easy job wouldn’t be remembered, and you wouldn’t look back on it either.
The incredible amount of energy Mr. Ishii, Mr. Amano, and the developers put into the game is what’s allowed so many players to continue enjoying the game even today. I think the suffering that went into conceiving the game was worth it.
I always feel apologetic about this, but you might say I just keep conceiving games and leaving the rest to others. (laughs wryly) The developers who succeed me are the parents.
But it's amazing that 20 years have passed and it's still going strong like this. What does FFXI look like to today's players?
It’s essentially another life. I can’t imagine another game that was so relevant in the players’ daily lives.
After all, back when I was involved with FFXI, the game was balanced to require a lot of time for essentially any activity. On top of that, it was a harsh world where you couldn’t survive alone, so you had to be considerate of other players, and remain aware of what it meant to live as an adventurer, among many other things to ponder. But that same harshness also made for those moments where you felt genuine joy for each other when someone accomplished something. During the development of FFXI, I was fascinated by the idea of creating such a world, and also felt that I should be the one to make it happen.
Based on what you’ve shared, my impression is that you began with a desire to create a digital world, and that you chose games as the medium for expressing that goal. I hope that you’ll keep churning out new “Ishii worlds” in the future.
It’s true that with the huge expansion of opportunities and technology through which we can express ourselves nowadays, there are times when I think, “Maybe I don’t have to limit myself to games anymore.” But I think my personal theme of “creating digital worlds” will always remain the same. I’m sure I’ll continue to contemplate what else I can do with that theme.
I’m sure there’s all sorts of possibilities, so if you decide on one, I’d like to be the first to know. (laughs)
Finally, Mr. Ishii, do you have any words for those who are currently playing FFXI?
Thank you very much for taking such good care of FFXI. Considering how far things have come, all that comes to mind is a simple “thank you.” I simply couldn’t thank you enough to express the gratitude I feel. Recently, in various situations, I’ve come to realize just how fortunate I am to be in a situation where I can express my thanks. I sincerely hope that, with your memories of the game as its players, FFXI’s world will continue on as one that overflows with new feelings of compassion.