Hirokazu Hamamura Part 4

WE GREW VANA’DIEL is a series of interviews with those who were involved in the development of FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI), as well as guests from other companies. In this installment, we interviewed Hirokazu Hamamura, who served as the representative of the Famitsu Group until April 2020 and has been following FFXI at the forefront of gaming media. As a key figure in gaming media and an avid player himself, what were his views on FFXI? In this fourth and final part, Mr. Hamamura spoke about FFXI’s 20 years of history, as well as the future of MMORPGs and game media.

Hirokazu Hamamura

Senior Advisor for Digital Entertainment at KADOKAWA. He was involved in the game magazine “Famicom Tsushin” (Weekly Famitsu since 1995) from its first issue and served as its editor-in-chief from 1992 to 2002, after which he continued to lead the overall media side of things as Famitsu Group Representative until 2020. Mr. Hamamura has produced many publications on FFXI, including “Vana’diel Tsushin,” and is also known as an avid FFXI player who adventures in Vana’diel with his son.

FFXI cleared the way for modern online games

  • Mr. Hamamura, from your perspective, where does FFXI stand in the history of video games, and how has it influenced the video game industry?

  • Hamamura

    First of all, it’s plain for anyone to see that the history of Japanese MMORPGs began with the advent of FFXI. When I had an opportunity to speak with members of the FFXI development team back then, everyone was determined to usher in a new era for video games, an attitude that was mirrored by Square (now Square Enix) through the immense cost they had dedicated to the venture. They ambitiously put everything on the line as if to say, “We better make this succeed, because there’s no future for us if we don’t!” as they made their way into the world of MMORPGs.

  • The endeavor might’ve been considered reckless in some ways, but what would you say was the key to its success?

  • Hamamura

    Staff members from Chrono Cross, Legend of Mana, and Parasite Eve 2 came together to form the massive FFXI development team, but there was plenty of teamwork within the team despite its large size. Their producer and director, Mr. Hiromichi* and Mr. Ishii*, had drastically different personalities and may have complemented each other in some ways. Mr. Hiromichi doesn’t show his emotions very often and he appears collected even in a critical situation. (laughs) On the other hand, Mr. Ishii is a very passionate type of person, and I hear that their opinions often conflicted.

    * Hiromichi Tanaka, original Producer for FFXI.
    * Koichi Ishii, original Director for FFXI.
  • So their team was essential to making FFXI possible in that era.

  • Hamamura

    That was how they went about creating FFXI, anyway, but I imagine the course of development and operations was fraught with unease. For example, FFXI was often scrutinized when topics like online game addiction and gaming disorders were mentioned. As an MMORPG for consoles, FFXI faced various pitfalls and problems of online games head-on, so to speak. The game then became a reference for subsequent online games to implement countermeasures and avoid making the same mistakes. Thus, modern MMORPGs in Japan are the product of various aspects of the genre evolving in this way.

  • I suppose you could say that FFXI forged its way through uncharted territory.

  • Hamamura

    I can only assume some of their experiences were too grisly to bring up in interviews like this. FFXI was caught in all sorts of common pitfalls of online games and paved over them on the way out. In that sense, it cleared a path for subsequent online games to follow. The path splits off in places where MMORPGs have evolved over time, but they always lead back to FFXI’s legacy. Without FFXI, MMORPGs in Japan would’ve been a little slower to evolve.

  • Now that’s a viewpoint only members of the media could perceive.

  • Hamamura

    Moreover, FFXI achieved excellent commercial results. It was an excellent business decision to invest so much into developing a genre that was unexplored in Japan. Going back to your question about FFXI’s influence on the video game industry, I’d say there’s too many accomplishments to list here in such a short period of time.

  • So you’re saying FFXI will not only be remembered in the history of online games, but in that of video games as a whole?

  • Hamamura

    Absolutely. Just as Atari popularized video games worldwide with Pong, as did Nintendo with Mario Bros., future generations are sure to remember FFXI as a work that made video game history. Should a textbook on the history of video games ever be published, multiple pages ought to be dedicated to FFXI.

The pros and cons of hurdles in the past

  • Numerous aspects of modern MMORPGs have evolved over time and become easier to play. This eliminated the sort of hardships that players endured during FFXI’s launch, but also diminished the triumph of overcoming them. How do you feel about that?

  • Hamamura

    Modern MMORPGs enable players to log in and progress at their convenience, but that’s led to a decline in human interaction. Back in the old days of FFXI, you were faced with challenges that were impossible to overcome without good relationships with other players. At times, this meant you had to communicate effectively with complete strangers, sometimes even with players from other countries. But those struggles were part of what allowed strangers to bond and experience triumph. The absence of hurdles and the struggle to achieve effective communication are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.

  • Nowadays, how difficult would it be to find a “hardcore MMORPG” like the old FFXI?

  • Hamamura

    There are many MMORPGs nowadays, so if you feel a particular title isn’t for you, you can look for another one.

    Many players in FFXIV would probably withdraw from a Duty Finder* queue if they saw that the average wait time was longer than 30 minutes. Based on that, today’s young audiences may have a hard time accepting an MMORPG like FFXI in the old days, where forming a party easily took 30 minutes to an hour.

    * Duty Finder is an automated matchmaking feature in FFXIV.
  • So perhaps MMORPGs like the old FFXI were only possible because of how things were back then.

  • Hamamura

    When you look back, certain HNMs’ had incredulous specifications. With King Behemoth, for example, people were secretive about when it was last defeated. When the respawn window was available again after 72 hours, you’d head to the spawn location and find a rival linkshell already waiting there, sparking a nervous tension in the air. You didn’t know if the monster would even appear, and even if it did and you managed to pull it first, there was no guarantee that it’d drop the item you were after. Something like that would be unfathomable today, wouldn’t it? (laughs)

  • But I think that made the Defending Ring all the more unforgettable for those who managed to obtain one.

  • Hamamura

    I agree. Which reminds me, there was this time when one of our linkshell members got the Eurytos’ Bow*, which was priced at around 10 million gil. 10 million gil was a lot of money at the time, and so they ecstatically exclaimed, “I’m going to use this gil to raise my goldsmith to craftsman!” But the road to becoming a goldsmith was incredibly steep, and 10 million gil was not enough. Those days were really something else. (laughs wryly)

    * Eurytos’ Bow is a ranger-exclusive bow that can be equipped from level 55. Its attributes were considered unparalleled at the time.
  • Ranger’s Sidewinder was powerful, wasn’t it? (laughs)

  • Hamamura

    So many players started leveling ranger for Sidewinder, only for it to get adjusted. (laughs) Surely no other character class in MMORPG history has been through such a tumultuous journey.

    The memories are flooding back to me, like getting overrun by a train of monsters that were chasing someone else while I was looking for a party at Crawler’s Nest… Plenty of those stories were devastating events for me at the time, but are absolutely hilarious when I look back on them now.

  • Earlier, you mentioned that FFXI was caught in the common pitfalls of online games, but perhaps players enjoyed those pitfalls to some degree.

  • Hamamura

    I’d say they were open-minded. Nowadays, if the latest limit break quest had an NPC telling you, “Don’t think I’m forcing you, or anything!” there’d be an outrage, wouldn’t there? (laughs) Everyone was riled up by it at the time, but they were also able to joke about it.

Keeping an eye on the future of FFXI

  • The state of online games and game media has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. How do you think game media will evolve in the next decade or two?

  • Hamamura

    I’ve left the forefront of the media and now have a different standpoint of the game industry, but those who remain at the forefront will dictate how the media evolves from here on out. Personally, I’m eager to see how it’ll advance in the years to come.

  • What are your thoughts on FFXI, the game that captivated both your public and private life?

  • Hamamura

    As a member of the media, FFXI was an early sign that games-as-a-service were destined to change the future of games. If I hadn’t been absorbed in FFXI, I would’ve been slower to adapt my mediums to the shift. Also, thanks to that experience, when mobile smartphone apps went mainstream, I was able to swiftly perceive and respond to the transition in people’s lifestyles and their interactions with games. I really learned all kinds of things from FFXI.

  • What about your thoughts as a regular player?

  • Hamamura

    As a player, FFXI is sort of like my hometown. Even if I‘m absorbed in another MMORPG, when I come back, my old friends are still around to say hello. I also have the freedom to play just as I did back then, whenever I want. So as a regular player, I’m very grateful that my second home continues to be there for me.

  • Last but not least, do you have a message for FFXI as the game celebrates its 20th anniversary?

  • Hamamura

    I’m interested to know how FFXI will unfold after coming this far. Whether this seemingly everlasting game will eventually come to an end or will simply keep moving forward, is something that piques my curiosity as I keep an eye on how FFXI continues its storied history.

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