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WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL
#10 Naoki Yoshida 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). This interview was published on May 16, 2022, the day of FFXI’s 20th anniversary since launch. To coincide with this momentous occasion, our tenth guest is Naoki Yoshida, Producer & Director of FFXIV, who is also the leader of Creative Business Unit III, the division overseeing the FFXI project. In this part, Mr. Yoshida spoke about his involvement with FFXI, how he came to join Square Enix, and his perspective on FFXI as the division lead.

Naoki Yoshida

Executive Officer and Member of Square Enix’s Board of Directors. FFXIV Producer & Director, FFXVI Producer. Vice President and head of Creative Business Unit III, which works on MMORPGs such as FFXI and FFXIV.

Carrying on Mr. Tanaka’s legacy

  • Matsui

    FFXI is celebrating its 20th anniversary at last, and our interview on this occasion is with Mr. Yoshida, the head of our Creative Business Unit III. This also happens to be our tenth interview, so I‘m deeply moved that the series has finally come this far. Thank you again for joining us today.

  • Yoshida

    Thank you for having me.

  • To begin, as the head of Creative Business Unit III, the division overseeing the FFXI project, how exactly are you involved with FFXI?

  • Yoshida

    Please allow me to explain from the beginning. First of all, FFXI had a very unique position in Square Enix as its first MMORPG. FFXI was our first instance of business alliances with PC manufacturers and preparing dedicated marketing staff. At the forefront of it all was Mr. Hiromichi*, and this made him a key figure of extreme significance. After I took over FFXIV Version 1.0, the other project he was overseeing, Mr. Hiromichi returned to focusing on his role as FFXI Producer until he departed from Square Enix. That was when he asked me, “Yoshida, if you can, would you take over FFXI too?” and that was how I became involved with FFXI.

    * Hiromichi Tanaka, original Producer of FFXI.
  • I see, so there was some history between the two of you.

  • Yoshida

    I owed a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Hiromichi, and so given it was an MMO business, I decided to oversee it within the division I was managing at the time, Business Division 5. After taking over, I pondered what should be done for FFXI, a game supported by many passionate players, and my resolution was to ensure the operations of FFXI can continue as long as possible.

  • Matsui

    Back then, there were a lot of specifics that only Mr. Tanaka was privy to, and I remember Mr. Yoshida conducting a thorough internal inspection to uncover them.

  • Yoshida

    That I did. (laughs)

    I was looking at the numbers for everything, including development-related costs, personnel assigned to each aspect of the game, how the patch cycles worked for it, labor and server maintenance expenses, and so on. These specifics were crucial not only for me, but for Mr. Matsui as well. He also needed a firm understanding of the numbers as he was to take over as producer. With Mr. Hiromichi leaving the company, neglecting to comprehend these specifics would be the downfall of our operations and ultimately force us to end the service for the game.

    Of course, on an emotional level, I wanted FFXI to maintain its previous scale of operations. However, if we kept going at that scale and couldn’t bring in enough revenue as a result, that would be the worst-case scenario. Therefore my first venture after taking over FFXI was to uncover the specifics and decide what to cut back or expand upon.

  • Matsui

    It was an inevitable part of securing the game’s future.

  • Yoshida

    Another matter was how long we could maintain support for North America and Europe. Our investigations revealed there was still a high demand in North America, so we increased our resources there and moved forward with advertising and public relations (PR) as well.

    However, back then our overseas offices were predominantly focused on FFXIV and lacked the staff to devote to FFXI. To resolve this, we approached Square Enix America to re-evaluate their staffing, planning for anniversary-related and promotional projects, and community events. After that, we held another discussion with the team to establish a long-term plan, after which Mr. Matsui and his team took over the operations, and here we are now.

  • What about your current involvement with FFXI?

  • Yoshida

    Currently, aside from sharing information on the interval and content of version updates, I’m primarily involved in the budgeting side of things. I generally evaluate the cost-effectiveness of advertising and PR, this interview series being one such example, and provide alternate ideas should there be any shortcomings.

  • It seems like your role requires a different mindset compared to working on standalone games.

  • Yoshida

    That's right. When it comes to MMORPGs, spending money on advertising and PR has the effect of retaining more players, but this is a difficult concept for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the online game business. It’s often said that money shouldn’t be spent without an explicit plan for profit, but the opposite is true when managing a monthly subscription MMORPG, where player retention is the “profit.”

    On the other hand, the hard part about the MMORPG business is that doing nothing leads to a decline in player retention, which means decreased revenue. Understanding this concept makes an enormous difference. I’m not stingy in giving the go-ahead to spend, but when we do, I evaluate the cost-effectiveness and have the team make the most of the information for our next expenditure.

  • I see.

  • Yoshida

    On the other hand, I believe the game content should generally be left to Mr. Matsui and his team, rather than have me superficially intervene. With that said, when they’re making the game more accessible for new and returning players, I do occasionally ask them to tweak certain aspects of the user interface (UI) that I, as a third party, found confusing.

  • Matsui

    When we revamped the FFXI installer in 2019, we first asked Mr. Yoshida to have a look, then tweaked words and phrases that were hard to understand.

  • Yoshida

    FFXI is an MMORPG with such a distinguished history, and it’d be a pity if players couldn’t make it past the entrance. So I directed the team to make the installer more accessible by using words that are more common today.

  • Matsui

    Prior to that, the installer still had technical jargon that was quite difficult to understand. I think we subconsciously believed those words were still common knowledge, just as they were for PC users back when the game was released two decades ago.

  • Yoshida

    PC users back then were the kind of people that were knowledgeable about graphics cards and such, after all. (laughs) Because times had changed, I felt we should be careful to avoid tripping up our players with that kind of technical jargon.

  • Matsui

    We also tweaked the chat feature based on the modern standards we learned from Mr. Yoshida.

  • Yoshida

    Another discussion we had was what we could do for returning players looking to rejoin the community after a long absence. FFXI was released during the golden age of MMORPGs, and there are many who consider FFXI as a place where they can “come home to.” However, I guessed that players would come back to FFXI all alone and end up logging off without reuniting with anyone, so I requested a system to help players reconnect with others.

  • Matsui

    Recent games try to keep social interactions casual, but FFXI was designed to be more fun with close-knit communities, so we’ve been receiving advice on how to rebuild that aspect. We’ve also borrowed engineers from Creative Business Unit III on a number of occasions.

  • Yoshida

    In regard to profitable operations, hiring server engineers and other staff to work exclusively on FFXI around-the-clock the whole year round would increase its expenses. So in Creative Business Unit III, engineering fees are expensed under FFXIV, while the FFXI team can submit proposals for tasks that require engineers. Once a proposal has been reviewed and approved, we have the programmers estimate the costs and then have a discussion with them. If we asked them to focus on FFXI for three months, for example, then FFXI would only incur costs for those three months. This allows us to keep costs down and is one of the perks of overseeing two MMORPGs in our division.

  • Ah, so managing multiple MMORPGs is what allows you to make those kinds of pragmatic arrangements.

  • Yoshida

    When our engineers are unsure what to prioritize, we can designate their priorities and allow them to work productively without hesitation, which I believe is also one of our strengths.

The events leading up to joining Square Enix

  • I’m sure this is something you've already talked about on multiple occasions, but would you tell us again about how you joined Square Enix?

  • Yoshida

    My previous job was working with Enix prior to the merger, which involved the planning and sales of my own projects to have them approved. I was working on an online game for PCs at the time, but to my surprise, Square and Enix announced their merger while I was still working on it. (laughs wryly)

  • Matsui

    Ah, so it was around that timing.

  • Yoshida

    As a result, we were told the game might not stay PC-exclusive, and sure enough, after the merger actually took place, we were told to rework it for the PlayStation 2 (PS2)... There was a vast difference in memory capacity between PCs and the PS2 even back then, so frankly, I was like, “You’re kidding me right?”

  • Speaking of the Square Enix merger, that’s pretty close to when FFXI launched.

  • Yoshida

    As it turns out, they weren’t kidding, so we rewrote the memory map to be compatible with the PS2. But that led to a swarm of issues, such as the game failing to run, memory leaks*, and failing to load data in time. To top it off, we were then told to reserve memory space for PlayOnline compatibility. (laughs wryly)

    * A memory leak is a condition where a program retains memory that is no longer needed, which eventually leads to issues.
  • Matsui

    That's absolutely dreadful...

  • Yoshida

    It was during such hectic times that Mr. Saito asked me, “Can you come to Tokyo? The heads of Square’s business divisions want to speak with you.” When I arrived at the meeting, in addition to Mr. Saito and Mr. Hiromichi, there was also Mr. Ishii*, Mr. Kitase*, Mr. Kawazu*, Mr. Narita*, and Mr. Tokita*; basically, all the key figures of Square Enix at the time were all present.

    * Koichi Ishii, original Director of FFXI. * Yoshinori Kitase, Brand Manager of the FF series.
    * Akitoshi Kawazu, Director of the SaGa series.
    * Ken Narita, original Programming Director of FFXI.
    * Takashi Tokita, Game Designer for FFIV and other works.
  • That sounds nerve-wracking.

  • Yoshida

    Taking the lead, Mr. Hiromichi explained, “We have high hopes for the game you’re making, after having read the proposal for it. But we heard you’re struggling with development, so we’re here to see if we can help in any way. And for that, we’d like you to tell us everything you’re currently struggling with.”

  • Matsui

    That shows a lot of resolve on Square Enix’s part.

  • Yoshida

    So I gave him a rundown of our issues with adjusting the memory. Hearing that, Mr. Hiromichi replied that he was hoping our game would become a great online game like FFXI and wanted to assist me as much as possible.

    On another note, Mr. Ishii asked if there was a name for the game’s battle system. When I told him no, he replied, “I personally think this game won’t sell if you don’t name the battle system,” which left an impression with me.

  • Matsui

    I had no idea you had a conversation like that with Mr. Ishii.

  • Yoshida

    It was certainly the case with home console games at the time, but I was also a PC gamer and aware of the PC market, and felt it was only natural for there to be differences between PC and console games. So during the meeting, I answered, “There isn’t a name for the battle system in the global hit title Diablo*, and the game instead falls under a genre called ‘hack-and-slash.’ But that’s just a difference in perception, so I understand what you’re saying, Mr. Ishii.” To which Mr. Ishii generously replied, “Is that so? Fascinating.” (laughs)

    * Diablo is a hack-and-slash game by Blizzard Entertainment, considered to be a pioneer of multiplayer online role-playing games.

  • That sounds like something Mr. Ishii would say. Either way, I wasn’t aware Mr. Tanaka had taken initiative like that.

  • Yoshida

    Mr. Hiromichi helped me in various ways even after that meeting.

    Of all the games I’ve played, I still think FFXI has the best garbage collection* in the world. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I asked for the garbage collection algorithm, if not the source code. Normally, sharing that sort of information with an outsider would be unheard of, but he answered, “Sure, I don't mind.” Mr. Narita also offered to set up a meeting with the programmer in charge, and about three months later, we had a version of the game with the memory issues resolved.

    Following a sales meeting, however, a scenario mode also became required, which apparently led to quite the debate within Square Enix over how they could break the news to the development team after having reworked the game twice. As a result, the development of the game was put on hold.

    * Garbage collection is a feature that automatically frees up unused memory space.
  • That’s a pity to hear...

  • Yoshida

    In the midst of that, Mr. Saito invited me to join the company and try again, which is how I ended up joining Square Enix.

    As such, I was actually indebted to various staff members before I even joined. Even though I started as a contract employee, I’d already met many of the higher-ups before I got to know my peers, which made for a peculiar experience. Sometimes I look back at how I suddenly made these huge connections in high places when I was just doing my best to create games, and muse about just how intriguing life can be.

  • Matsui

    It might’ve been like that when you joined us, but you’re our leader now. (laughs)

  • Yoshida

    That chain of events is actually one of the reasons why I was determined to rebuild FFXIV. Despite all Mr. Hiromichi had done for me, I wasn’t able to release the title he had high hopes for, so I felt like rebuilding FFXIV was the only way I could repay him.

  • Did you know about all this, Mr. Matsui?

  • Matsui

    No, this is the first time I’ve heard about it. However, at the time, I had my own thoughts on FFXI’s garbage collection.

    When it comes to memory management, garbage collection-related issues are often the reason why game system-related crashes occur. So when I saw how FFXI allowed players to quickly change equipment during battle, I thought, “I can’t believe they’re trying to push those limits…” FFXI was created by an extremely talented group of programmers, so ironically, it might’ve been harder for someone on the team like me to fully appreciate their accomplishments.

  • Yoshida

    That garbage collection is truly ingenious. Garbage data always accumulates in memory, so no matter what, complex operations are doomed to frequent freezes and crashes. Considering the level of graphical detail present in FFXI, it’s pretty much a miracle that the game could run like that without any hiccups. I have no doubt that it’s the reason why FFXI has been able to continue even today.

* Part 2 will be available on May 30, 2022.

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