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 Koichi Ishii, the original Director of FFXI who breathed life into the fantasy world of Vana’diel. In this third part, Mr. Ishii talked about early challenges in FFXI's development and what he felt upon seeing players' reactions to launch.
* 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 Mana 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.
Running around as director
Could you tell us more about how staff members from various development teams were assembled for FFXI?
The Mana and Chrono Cross teams convened first, then I accompanied Mr. Sakaguchi* and Mr. Tanaka* to speak with our development team in Osaka about joining the FFXI project. It wasn’t a lighthearted request and we really had to be mindful of our approach, since joining us meant they had to move and reconsider their family situations. In the end, four development teams came together; with fewer members than that, I imagine we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did in FFXI.* Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the founders of the FF series.
* Hiromichi Tanaka, original Producer of FFXI.
You were picked to be the director of the project, but did other team members have predetermined roles when they joined?
Mr. Tanaka supervised the core systems and user interface (UI) while I primarily oversaw data designs related to worldbuilding. Both of us were put in charge of many staff members in our respective teams. We were starting from scratch in every respect, and I imagine our staff were unsure not only about their work but also their in-team relationships.
As their director, how did you organize such a large group of staff?
When I considered how to coordinate such an enormous team, the first thing that came to mind was laying a foundation for the kind of world I wanted Vana'diel to be. So to convey my ideas, I thought of using a world map as the first step in unifying the team’s vision and ideas. I used the map to explain why the various races exist, the reason behind the three dominant nations, and other lore-related details to convey what kind of world this was to be.
That sounds a lot like a class in world history.
Aside from the matter of unifying our vision, the unannounced release date of the PlayStation 2 hard disk was a major concern. Our project wasn't feasible without the hard disk, and I remember there being considerable anxiety among our staff members as to whether the game could really be completed.
Since the hard disk was being released in an unorthodox way, and there were other new network and operations-related matters going on at the same time, I imagine even the developers were struggling to get a full grasp on the situation.
That said, all we could do was create what would be necessary for the game. As such, I focused on my work with Mr. Kato* and Mr. Iwao* to finalize the events and worldbuilding at a breakneck pace.* Masato Kato, game planner who was in charge of FFXI’s plot up to Rise of the Zilart.
* Kenichi Iwao, former planner involved in the lore and other aspects of FFXI.
I heard you also came up with ideas for the battle system in the meantime.
For the battle system, I definitely wanted to include something that would emphasize a sense of unity between party members and provide a real-time experience. The idea I came up with was skillchains, in which party members could coordinate and link their attacks together.
Ah, so that’s how skillchains came to be.
I first invited Takai* out to lunch, then told him, “I have this idea and you’re going to help,” and explained the concept of skillchains. From Takai’s perspective, I imagine it was a pretty reckless request. (laughs) Nevertheless, his reaction to the proposal was very positive and he was eager to work on it. It did mean more work for him, however. (laughs wryly) As for myself, I hurriedly worked on the lore and placement of monsters in each area, as well as the design documents for the required game data.* Hiroshi Takai, former battle effects designer for FFXI.
I can sense the hectic atmosphere of those days just from listening to your stories.
Since we were already short on time, my proposal to add such a big feature was met with massive resistance, especially from the Battle team. But I adamantly insisted, "Just do it!" and forcefully had them work on it. Even under such circumstances, the team managed to finalize and implement the specifications in a short period of time.
We often hear that the development period for FFXI was unusually brief for a game of its scale.
In other words, we quickly decided what kind of game we were making, then flew through the creation process in a short period of time. Because of that, I felt burnt out after the mastering process. (laughs wryly) Although the launch meant that we were garnering attention from players and the media, personally, I wanted to withdraw from the public eye for a while.
Considering the novelty of FFXI at the time, weren’t you bombarded with interviews?
Indeed, I received a lot of requests for interviews, so there was no time to withdraw. (laughs wryly) Early on, I tried to answer interview questions in ways that would emphasize the fun of online games. Those looking to play FFXI would be met with high hurdles, so conveying its appeal to persuade players to try it was quite the challenge.
The appeal of MMORPGs can often be difficult to understand without playing them yourself.
Because of those circumstances, I was very thankful when the media voluntarily did what they could do to help us. They played FFXI and came up with various mediums to appeal to the public, and I feel nothing but gratitude for how they generated excitement for the game alongside us. I can say with confidence that FFXI’s increased recognition and massive growth were thanks to the media’s support. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them again for their assistance.
Continuous internet connections were beginning to spread at a rapid pace around that time. Even though it was great timing for FFXI, I still think some people felt that the hurdle was too high.
Even back then, there were always game fans who said, “I’ve played every numbered FF game, except FFXI.” I imagine the threshold for online games was still quite high.
Back when I still felt that online games weren’t as popular as they could be, I remember hearing that developers from other companies were playing FFXI, which had a strong influence in their own development of offline games. Later, starting with FFXII, a new archetype of games was released that conveyed a sense of expansive worlds. Similar to my experiences with FFI, I was truly happy to have created another game that inspired other developers.
A series of unexpected occurrences
The world you envisioned gradually took shape and was first revealed to the public in the beta test. How did you feel about the response it received?
The beta test was conducted with only a fraction of what was planned for launch, but seeing how players were enjoying the experience of meeting up and cooperating with strangers in a fantasy realm, I felt the game was going to do well. It was encouraging, as if to reassure us that Square can and should release an MMORPG of their own. At the same time, I also couldn’t wait for them to see what else we had in store for FFXI.
For many of us, FFXI provided our first taste of living in a virtual world.
Games have become more time-efficient and their position in the entertainment industry has changed considerably compared to how they were in the past. When I was working on FFXI, I was purely focused on how to convince players to stay and experience the world, but I’m sure my methods would be hard to execute by modern standards. Nowadays, we developers are producers of playtime, so games have become more like theme parks where you can take a stroll and choose what to enjoy.
So rather than a matter of which is better or worse, it’s just that games have also changed as lifestyles have shifted.
Back then, I believed the sense of traveling actual distances was an essential experience, where players could savor the scenery and atmosphere during their journeys, and even stop by various destinations to try out the local specialties. Traveling around an expansive world by foot, chocobos, ships, or airships, while gaining different perspectives, meeting new players, and making your way through various trials and occurrences; that’s what I thought it meant to travel the world. I’m very glad to have been able to create FFXI in that era, when those kinds of expressions were still accepted.
It’s a well-known fact that Rise of the Zilart was originally meant to be included at launch, but could you tell us more about what led to it being released separately?
As we all know, Rise of the Zilart ended up as FFXI’s first expansion, but its story was initially conceived as part of the base story. However, we couldn’t finish developing it in time and had to cut it off at the Shadow Lord. At the time, I felt apologetic towards our players for putting out an incomplete game.
This topic also came up in our interview with Masato Kato, but I felt there wasn’t much of an issue since there was quite a lot to enjoy even before the Shadow Lord, not to mention how enjoyable that final battle encounter was.
I’m glad that you thought so. After the game was launched, we single-mindedly focused on enhancing the game. Since MMORPGs do not end after release, the other staff members and I secretly played the game among the regular players in order to see their reactions and identify areas that needed improvement. As a result, after launch, we had a heightened awareness to make the game better.
It must’ve been tough to make improvements while also adding new elements.
We basically went all-out on whatever was necessary at the time. But we believed paying attention to players’ reactions and tweaking the game was sure to make FFXI even more enjoyable for everyone. I imagine the work we put into FFXI gradually gave us a better understanding of players’ perspectives, so the first part leading up to the Shadow Lord proved to be quite the learning experience for our developers.
I’m sure there were major differences between developing standalone and long-term operations games, not to mention many of the staff members were probably experiencing online game development for the first time.
We were neck-deep in tasks and always in a hurry to finish something or another, so it was a tough time for everyone in the team. But I imagine the players’ reactions were what helped them to persevere. Even though we were all exhausted from development, some of us still went home and played FFXI, and I’m sure there were things they noticed from enjoying the game as players. Their awareness began to change as they started to think from the perspective of the players themselves. It was hard to have that kind of awareness with prior games, since it wasn’t possible to make adjustments once a game was released.
It was a new experience for players as well, and their enthusiasm was tremendous, especially early on.
We were constantly surprised by our players’ enthusiasm and how they played the game; for example, content we intended to last for half a year only took players a month to complete, and it was hard to foresee what would happen. There were numerous instances where the quickest players surpassed our expectations of how soon they’d complete a given content. But on the other hand, that didn’t necessarily mean implementing an enemy too powerful to defeat was the right thing to do.
By the way, did you play in the public servers?
I did indeed. Rather than play with other players, however, I spent most of my time looking around. I watched how players devised battle strategies and looked at unpopulated areas while considering what factors may have contributed to their vacancy.
That said, it’s difficult to evenly distribute the player population across all areas. Even if we were to attempt to control the trends to some extent, it didn't guarantee that players would follow our intentions. There was also the fact that each World had their own community hub in slightly different places, so our plans didn’t always work as intended.
Now that you mention it, each World had their own bazaar hub in different parts of Jeuno. Which also reminds me, I imagine the development team had a hard time with how crowded Jeuno was in the early days.
I’d actually predicted the congestion in Jeuno. Before launch, I was the only one who was worried that the story leading up to the Shadow Lord would cause Jeuno to flood with adventurers. I proposed various workarounds after the game had already launched, but by then we were prioritizing urgent tasks and developing new content, so it was difficult for the developers to get around to making adjustments.
Back then, the journey to Jeuno was sort of like moving from your hometown to the big city, and everybody was trying to get there. Moreover, auction houses were only available in Ru’Lude Gardens and Lower Jeuno, and people were particularly crowding Lower Jeuno. I remember it taking almost a minute to change areas there. (laughs)
The world map was structured in such a way that people from each of the three nations would gather in Jeuno, so my ideas at the time were to further divide Jeuno into smaller areas or to add a mechanism that would change the player hub based on player level. It was only after Jeuno was overpopulated that I was told, “It was just as you said, Mr. Ishii.” (laughs wryly) Looking at the root of the problem, I believe I was largely responsible because of the way the world map was originally illustrated, and I regret it deeply. Jeuno became a hub for cross-cultural exchange and had its share of troubles due to popularity, but in a way, its situation was typical of MMORPGs.
* Part 4 will be available on October 26.