“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI). Our eleventh guest is Yoshitada Iwata, who has been closely involved with Ragnarok Online (RO), an MMORPG which, like FFXI, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2022. Considering the launch of both titles coincided on the same year, how did these two key figures view the other game? In the first part of this four-part conversation, we talked about what the online game industry was like back when Mr. Iwata became a game master (GM) for RO.
Executive General Manager in charge of the Operation Development Division at GungHo Online Entertainment, Inc. He joined the company as a GM in 2002, when RO was launched in Japan. In addition to leading the GM team, he was also involved in the development and operations of other MMORPGs, such as Emil Chronicle Online and Grandia Online. Since 2010, he has been overseeing numerous titles within the company as Executive General Manager.
Ragnarok Online is an online game for PC developed by Korean game development company Gravity, available all over the world since August 2002 (since December 2002 in Japan). Cutely deformed 2-dimensional characters and the 3-dimensional world are the game features.
Drawn to the online game industry by the fun of communication
First of all, how did you end up joining GungHo, Mr. Iwata?
I was a student around the year 2000, back when high-speed internet access was becoming a household commodity and the "Broadband Age" was being ushered in. Those trends led to the debut of online games, which had me completely hooked. It was then that I heard about the alpha test for RO, which was being held at the time.
Would that mean RO was your reason for joining to begin with?
Yes, I joined when I heard they were hiring GMs for the Japanese release of RO. I'd never heard of GungHo prior to that, but I joined with a single thought in mind: "I want to work in the online game industry!"
What was it about online games that appealed to you back then?
The largest appeal was being able to indulge in once-in-a-lifetime moments of communicating with other players from various countries and regions. Even outside of leveling up or conquering dungeons, simply chatting with others was so exciting that I'd find myself staying up all night. I found it enjoyable to the point where I believed that in the future, the majority of games would likely be online in one way or another.
We were all still inexperienced during those early days of online games, which made for a fresh atmosphere.
Yes, it brings back memories. Although PC specs and graphical quality rapidly improved after that, I believe what made online games enjoyable, at least back then, was not the technical fidelity but the act of communicating with others.
GMs working two-shift operations for RO
Of all the many online games in the PC game market at the time, what was the biggest reason that drew you to RO?
Other games at the time included Diablo* and Ultima Online*, both of which were masterpieces.* Diablo is a hack-and-slash game by Blizzard Entertainment, considered to be a pioneer of multiplayer online role-playing games.
However, I had concerns about how the characters and interfaces in those games had heavily Westernized designs overall. With RO, on the other hand, I could sense the influence of Japanese games all over and its characters seemed more approachable, so I felt it'd be well-received in Japan.
* Ultima Online is a game released in 1997 widely considered to be a pioneer of the MMORPG genre.
What was it like working as a GM for RO?
It was absolutely hectic. Back then, online game businesses didn’t have preestablished management structures, and our department responsibilities weren’t clearly defined, so our team ended up handling a wide variety of tasks, including odd jobs. GM duties were managed across two shifts, which would be out of the question nowadays.
MMORPGs are operated 24 hours a day nonstop, so splitting that into two shifts would mean 12-hour workdays…
That must've been tough... From what I remember, we had three shifts for GMs back when FFXI launched.
How was the FFXI GM team organized during launch?
In the very beginning, Mr. Tanaka* and other Operations team members requested Mr. Sage Sundi*, who’d led the Ultima Online GM team, to come up with a GM framework for FFXI. We had a lateral relationship with Square Electronic Arts, the Japanese service provider for Ultima Online, as they were a joint venture of Square (now known as Square Enix). We also formed a team to handle user support for all of Square’s titles, and one of their responsibilities was GM duties for FFXI.* Hiromichi Tanaka, original Producer of FFXI.
* Sage Sundi, former Global Community Producer of FFXI.
Our Community & Service Department does in fact provide user support for all Square Enix titles, but I hadn’t realized its roots go back 20 years.
In that regard, GungHo at the time wasn’t as refined as Square Enix back then. Instead, we had a custom of assigning new staff to GM duties first to see what their strengths were. After working as GMs, they were delegated to other departments, such as game development, web design, and customer support based on their personal preferences and abilities. As time went on and RO grew in popularity, GungHo increased its supported titles and staff members, but for me personally, the hectic days never seemed to end after I ended up overseeing the GM team.