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 sat down with Toshio Murouchi, a former Game Master (GM) for FFXI and now Global Community Producer since 2006. In this first part, we asked Mr. Murouchi about his initial experience with MMORPGs and how he ended up joining the FFXI Community team.
General Manager of Square Enix’s Community & Service Division and Global Community Producer for FFXIV. He initially transferred to Square (now Square Enix) from the Japanese GM team for Ultima Online* along with former FFXI Global Online Producer Sage Sundi. Together, they established an online game management team for FFXI from the ground up. Following his roles in FFXI as European Online Producer and Global Community Producer, Mr. Murouchi now oversees Square Enix’s customer service as General Manager of the Community & Service Division.* Ultima Online is an MMORPG released in 1997 widely considered to be a pioneer of the genre.
Becoming a GM to be more involved with Ultima Online
I’d like to begin by asking about your history prior to joining FFXI. What was your first experience with online games?
I think the first online game I ever played was some Dreamcast title, but I only dabbled in it a little. Like many others, the game that really had my attention was Diablo*. It was in the Diablo community that I heard about an upcoming game called Ultima Online, and that’s how I got into that game.* Diablo is a hack-and-slash game by Blizzard Entertainment, considered to be a pioneer of multiplayer online role-playing games.
How old were you when you started playing Ultima Online?
I was in university, so I was around 20 years old.
What were your impressions of Ultima Online?
When I started playing, I found myself standing in the middle of nowhere, a bit far from Britain*, and thought, “Well... what am I supposed to do now?” Although that feeling of being thrust into the world is one of the nice things about Ultima Online, I remember it being a very confusing first experience for me.* In this instance, “Britain” refers to the capital of Britannia in the in-game world of Ultima Online.
As I aimlessly wandered around, I eventually came across a bird and tried punching it, only to have it easily take me out. That’s how my Ultima Online experience began.
Being left in the middle of some large area sounds quite similar to FFXI. (laughs)
But it was on a whole different level with Ultima Online. It’s much less player-friendly than modern games. (laughs)
Somehow, I eventually managed to reach the city, and when I arrived at the main bank of Britain, as it was called at the time, I was wowed to see other players’ conversations come flooding in. In Diablo, you could enter a lobby or a create one yourself and have others join you, so you always knew who’d be accompanying you on an upcoming adventure. But in Ultima Online, I’d be walking around the vast world and strangers would be walking towards you from the other side. I was moved by that aspect of the game.
Ah, so the feeling that there are other people living in the same virtual world as you.
That’s right, I felt that I was part of the world, which got me more and more immersed into the game. Perhaps I always had this inclination, but I started to want to work on the game from behind-the-scenes.
Then one day, I heard about a volunteer program where players could act as counselors and help other players in need, which sounded like fun, so I gave it a try. As I went on as a player helping my fellow players, my desire to become more involved in Ultima Online grew stronger. It was around then that I saw a recruitment ad for a part-time GM position for Ultima Online.
Ultima Online was originally released in North America, but I assume you were recruited in Japan.
Yes, that’s right.* Electronic Arts Square was a joint venture company between Square and Electronic Arts. The company marketed games developed by Electronic Arts in Japan from 1998 until its dissolvement in 2003.
Ultima Online originally launched in 1997, and when it was later released in Japan, Electronic Arts Square* was recruiting for part-time positions, and one of those was for a GM position.
What was it like to get a glimpse of the GM world?
It was just pure fun.
GMs in Japan didn’t have 24-hour support back then and were only active at night. So for a long time, I worked the night shift from around 9 p.m. until morning, but even looking back on it now, I really enjoyed it and it almost didn’t feel like work.
Was it fun to intervene as a GM in a world where players live as avatars?
I’d say so. I think I enjoyed the feeling of playing a role. Sometimes I’d act like a police officer, while other times I just gave directions to people in need, and I just really enjoyed that.
What were your GM duties like, back in the early days when MMORPGs were still new?
GMs are basically a customer service role, so whenever there was an issue that players couldn’t handle on their own, it was our job to show up and talk it out with the players to solve the problem.
Aside from that, we also had the special task of setting up in-game events for our players. The game client for GMs was very well-organized, allowing us to do things like change the colors of monsters or adjust their HP and MP values. We were also able to combine the AI for dragon enemies with the character model for birds to create a bird that attacked players with their fiery breath.
It’s amazing that you had that much freedom. By the way, I’ve heard a rumor that you once got in trouble for playing around too much with the GM commands…
I didn’t actually partake in that myself, but when we held an event on the Japanese servers, the Japanese operations team took the liberty of making a uniquely colored variant of a weapon and awarded it to a player. (laughs wryly)
I’m surprised they were capable of such a thing. (laughs)
The U.S. headquarters contacted us saying, “Why on earth are you making and distributing a one-of-a-kind item without our approval!?” They were absolutely right, and we got in trouble for that. The weapon itself was very cool though. And even then, we weren’t told to confiscate the item from the recipient player, so in that sense, our headquarters was quite generous too.
With that much power, the GMs for Ultima Online almost sound like dungeon masters in TRPGs*. Did you have to go through any kind of training to become a GM, by any chance?* Tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) are role-playing games that progress based on a rulebook and spoken events. In Japan, these are often referred to as “table-talk role-playing games” instead.
There wasn’t really anything like a training course, but we had a good manual.
Was it an English manual that’d been translated into Japanese?
Yes, it was a Japanese translation that we shared within the team.
Incidentally, when I became the first counselor of the Japanese servers, Sage Sundi had become one of the original GMs for Ultima Online. When the Japanese GM team was formed, Mr. Sundi was already employed at Electronic Arts Square as the lead GM.
Was that your first time meeting Mr. Sundi?
I don’t remember the details, but I think we first met online in the capacity of GM and counselor. At the very least, I knew of him as a well-known GM. But we didn’t start working together until I became a GM.
And then you moved to the FFXI team together with Mr. Sundi.
It’s often assumed that our entire GM team transferred over to FFXI, but that actually wasn’t the case.
When Square was going to launch FFXI, they lacked the know-how for providing online services, so they turned to their joint venture company Electronic Arts Square for help. Since both companies were situated near each other in Meguro, Japan at the time, staff members from Square visited us several times to see how we operated and provided support for Ultima Online. As time went on, it was decided that Mr. Sundi would be transferring to Square. When he asked me and another staff member, “Can you come with me?” I answered, “I’ll go!” Some of the other members later joined us within a year, but it was only the three of us who transferred first.
Did that take place before FFXI launched?
I joined Square in December 2001, so it was around right before the beta test.
Then I’m guessing you weren’t involved in the beta test?
There were a few times during the beta where I tested GM features or stood around in cities to show that GMs were present, but I wasn’t all that involved in operations during the beta test.
Assuming the beta test was your first time seeing FFXI’s gameplay, what were your impressions at the time?
All I had to say was, “Wow, the graphics are amazing!”
It’s often difficult to make MMORPGs graphically rich due to their specifications, but FFXI’s graphics were on par with those of offline games. There was also the fact that the game ran on the PlayStation 2, which had me really surprised. I was also impressed by the overwhelming lack of bugs.
A policy of protecting beginners
I imagine a GM policy for FFXI was created alongside the game’s official release. Was the policy basically the same one you had for Ultima Online, with unique additions made for FFXI?
I’d say many of our policies weren’t really unique to FFXI, since many GM policies are just a code of conduct.
But if I were to point out a difference, it’d be that Ultima Online basically had a hands-off approach, almost as if to say, “You can do anything you want, but it’s all your responsibility.” As a basic example, if I were to say to someone, “Hey, I’ll pay you if you give me that item,” then ran off without paying when they handed it over, I wouldn’t get in trouble. And that was because Ultima Online’s standard protocol would’ve been like, “It’s your responsibility, since you chose to believe what the other person said and handed over the item.”
That’s definitely how Ultima Online seemed at the time.
Over the years, however, we started to see an issue where beginners became easy targets for those kinds of scams. Even though the premise was “anything goes,” a consensus was starting to form about where we ought to draw the line, and the mindset of “take care of the beginners” started to take over, which is when FFXI launched.
So with FFXI, instead of saying “everything is your responsibility,” we discussed where we’d draw the line in terms of what players couldn’t defend themselves from, and as a result, FFXI was more protective of beginners than the rules of Ultima Online in the early days.
I see, perhaps FFXI was launched at just the right time.
At the time, the internet was rife with all kinds of stories regarding GMs in EverQuest*, who supposedly spoke candidly when mediating arguments, revived everyone, or gave away money. We didn’t take that approach in FFXI; instead, we opted to minimalize preferential treatment and have every GM address the same issue in the same consistent manner as much as possible.* EverQuest is an MMORPG released in North America in 1999.
As an example, let’s say the owner of a candy store generously included a few extras sweets in someone’s purchase. Especially in Japan, even a heartwarming act like that can be taken out of context and spread on the internet, and other people would be indignant about how unfair it is and demand the same treatment.
Therefore, we chose to go with uniformity in our approach. In hindsight, the policies we ended up with may feel unsympathetic in some areas, but it’s because we were consciously prioritizing consistency at the time.
Does that mean you had a manual detailing the code of conduct?
Our manual didn’t go into that much detail. It’s more things like, “You must not create items for players,” or “You must say ‘I don’t know,’ if you don’t know something,” and so on.
So to a certain extent, the other details were left to the discretion of individual GMs?
Speaking of GMs, I’m sure many FFXI players remember the line, “Do you know why you were brought here?”** A line popularized in the Japanese community through a screenshot taken by a player when a GM transferred them to the Mordion Gaol, an isolated area where GMs talk to players.
In actuality, that phrase is so rarely used that I wonder how many of our GMs today have ever said it. I think it spread because it leaves quite an impression and can be quite humorous when taken out of context.
* Part 2 will be available on November 16, 2022.