Toshio Murouchi Part 3

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 third part, we heard about Mr. Murouchi's experiences abroad as a European Online Producer, as well as his involvement in the Special Task Force (STF) and their countermeasures against fraudulent activity.

Toshio Murouchi

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.

Like the command center of a spaceship

  • Following the release of Rise of the Zilart, FFXI was finally launched in North America in October 2003. Did that change anything about your work?

  • Murouchi

    The most noticeable change was an increase in communications with the North American team. Our preparations with the members of the American branch began in earnest about a year before the North American launch, and we started to hold more meetings together. We also had assistance from Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), the company behind EverQuest* at the time, whose staff helped us form a 24-hour GM team just like the one we had in Japan.

    * EverQuest is an MMORPG released in North America in 1999.
  • Were there any differences in methodologies when working with the staff from SOE?

  • Murouchi

    We had them follow our policies and such, but our ideals and theirs had a common origin in Ultima Online, so they understood quickly and our conversations went very smoothly. Furthermore, all of them were experienced veterans, as their team had been involved in EverQuest's operations for years.

    I was really looking forward to working with them, so I was thrilled when visiting the SOE office.
    I had this wild assumption it'd be like a secret base. (laughs)

  • You mean like the intelligence agencies they have in movies? (laughs)

  • Murouchi

    The actual office was really cool, with the typical roominess of an American office and pale lighting.

    Back then, SOE's Network Operations Center (NOC) was this dimly lit room with many monitors, and it looked like the command center of a spaceship. Whenever there was a server failure, a mechanical voice would announce, "(Server name) is down." I was really jealous of that and wanted something similar for our company, but as you might expect, we couldn't imitate the spaceship look. (laughs)

  • That really sounds like something from a movie.
    By the way, I've been told that Square Enix has an alarm that goes off when a server issue occurs.

  • Murouchi

    We do!

    Since we couldn't watch the monitoring tool 24/7 and needed something to draw everyone's attention in the event of an issue, the first thing we did was make a siren. We also thought it'd be cool if we had flashing lights to go with it, so we tried to install a rotating beacon. (laughs)

    One of our engineers managed to create a mechanism to set off the siren, but I couldn't think of a convincing argument to have the company purchase a rotating beacon. So I went to buy one myself, quietly brought it in, and asked one of our engineers, "Hey, could you make this light up in sync with the siren?" And that's how our first beacon came to be.

  • You paid for the first beacon yourself? (laughs)

  • Murouchi

    Yes, so it was mine. (laughs)

    We now formally maintain a beacon after more people understood its necessity, but the flashing lights haven't been as useful for grabbing everyone's attention these days.

    The audio cue, on the other hand, remains as important as ever. Since more of our staff members have been working from home since 2020, all of us were given a live feed of the monitoring equipment, and sound has been essential for noticing issues in the current situation.

    With the recent rise in online services, however, we're running out of distinctive sounds. Our staff still rely on the audio cue to identify the service experiencing the problem. There's a specific sound for FFXI, another one for FFXIV, and so on, so my current concern is how it's gotten progressively harder to tell the sounds apart intuitively.

  • By the way, I've been told that the emergency alarm for Dragon Quest X Online was the sound that plays when you put on cursed equipment.

  • Murouchi

    It was for a time, but it was very unpopular and discontinued soon after. Apparently the sound made everyone feel depressed. (laughs) It's a different sound now.

What I learned from my time in Europe and our first Fan Festival

  • You also worked in Europe for two years as European Online Producer. How did that come about and what kind of work did you do?

  • Murouchi

    In North America, our joint venture* with Electronic Arts was dissolved in 2003 when we established an in-house publishing environment, which enabled us to launch FFXI there. Our European branch, however, didn't have such publishing capabilities. As such, Square games were sold in Europe by first-parties, other distribution partners, or through our North American branch.

    * Square Electronic Arts was a joint venture company between Square and Electronic Arts which marketed games made by Square in North America until its dissolvement in 2003. Conversely, Electronic Arts games were marketed in Japan by the joint venture company Electronic Arts Square.
  • In other words, the European branch couldn't handle online game operations on their own yet.

  • Murouchi

    That's right.

    Around 2004, however, our company finally decided to establish a publishing environment in the European branch as well, and I was assigned there to assist with the groundwork. My role in Europe was no different from what I'd been doing in Japan since joining Square in December 2001.

    We were completely lacking customer support and other necessary functions for providing online services, so we assembled a whole service team. Our team was ready to go when Chains of Promathia and the Xbox 360 version of FFXI were being launched, so FFXI became the first title we published in-house in Europe.

  • How long were you in Europe?

  • Murouchi

    I was there from 2004 to 2006, so in terms of FFXI, that'd roughly be from Chains of Promathia until Treasures of Aht Urhgan.

  • Did you notice any differences in the player base in Europe, or in the way they interacted with you as a GM?

  • Murouchi

    I'm afraid my answer isn't very interesting for an interview, but in fact, there wasn't much of a difference. (laughs wryly)

    I believe that was because European players also saw FFXI as "their game." From a Japanese perspective, we might see FFXI as a Japanese MMORPG that's being played by a global audience. But our overseas players didn't seem to hold that view as much, and many seemed to feel FFXI was made for them in their respective languages. Of course, FFXI is part of the FINAL FANTASY series and I'm sure everyone knows it's a game from Japan, but its Japanese origins didn't really hold it back in terms of context.

  • Perhaps the concept of living out your adventures in Vana'diel was one that transcended cultural barriers.

  • Murouchi

    One struggle we had was how all of our announcements in Japanese required a buffer when being relayed to overseas audiences. Likewise, feedback from our overseas audiences couldn't be directly conveyed to our Japanese developers. That was something I found frustrating.

  • How did you address the situation?

  • Murouchi

    We had our operations team in Japan serve as our hub for communications and were really thorough about publishing notices in all languages together. As a general rule, aside from exceptional circumstances, all outgoing information was to be uniformly available in each of our four supported languages: Japanese, English, French, and German. The actual publishing process was all handled in Japan, so that part wasn't much of an issue.

    That said, dealing with the transactions for subscription fees proved to be a bigger problem in Europe than publishing announcements. There were numerous issues we were unaware of when working from Japan, such as the extremely low credit card retention rate in Germany, or the need to support certain debit cards and bank transfers.

  • The first official event, FINAL FANTASY XI Fan Festival, was held on March 2006 in Santa Monica. Were you still working in Europe at the time?

  • Murouchi

    It did overlap with my time in Europe. I flew from London to the U.S. in order to attend that Fan Festival.

  • I believe that was FFXI's first full-fledged and large-scale community event, but do you remember anything about it?

  • Murouchi

    Back then, when it came to Fan Festivals and other events, there were still many skeptics in our company who were like, "What's the point?" Those opinions obviously didn't come from the FFXI team, but I remember having a hard time trying to get the cooperation of our colleagues who weren't as involved in FFXI's day-to-day operations.

  • Perhaps the idea of fostering a community hadn't caught on yet, and the events were seen as more of a marketing scheme.

  • Murouchi

    It might've been the lack of games that emphasized a sense of community. Whenever we held the Square Enix Party events in Japan, for example, the enormous crowds in the FFXI section were spurred by a different motive from those in other sections. The same goes for our booths for FFXI and FFXIV at Tokyo Game Show; MMORPGs attract tremendous enthusiasm from attendees and require an atypical approach to event operations compared to other titles, which was quite hard for us to accommodate.

  • Even if we collectively refer to them as "game events," events for standalone titles and MMORPGs still have many differences, don't they?

  • Murouchi

    I'd say the differences are very apparent. First, some attendees will have already played the game, setting it apart from announcement events for a new title. We typically see a lot of hardcore fans at these events, and it'd be absurd to not cater to them.

    At Tokyo Game Show, from an event management perspective, it's more convenient to have our booth as close to the corner of the venue as possible, on the opposite end of the main lines of traffic. These and other factors we have to consider, like setting up our booth away from those of other companies', only show how passionate our attendees are.

  • With all of that in mind, how did you feel when you saw all those fans at that kind of event?

  • Murouchi

    At events, I was impressed at how every single one of our attendees had their attention focused in the same direction. Of course, the same sort of thing happens at concerts and plays, but to see it happen at a game event was something else. As everyone eagerly watched the developers' panel and roared excitedly as the Star Onions performed, I felt this tremendous energy throughout the venue; at the same time, it filled me with this determination to do my absolute best. Nowadays my presence at these events is all but guaranteed, but back then, it was one astonishment after another for me.

  • Official FFXI events were later held in Japan as well.

  • Murouchi

    After being involved in Vana★Fest pretty much every other year up to 2012, I feel as if "event organizer" was added to my list of responsibilities. We still regularly hold events for FFXIV, but between then and now, I'm glad I was working behind the scenes in my Vana★Fest days. (laughs)

  • After all, you've hosted and interpreted for FFXIV events, and recently you've even danced onstage for live music events.

  • Murouchi

    It's quite the conundrum. (laughs)

The purpose of the STF

  • The STF* is also part of your responsibilities. When did these countermeasures against fraudulent activity begin in earnest?

    * The Special Task Force (STF) is the team responsible for cracking down on the use of third-party tools and RMT (activities related to trading in-game currency or items for real money). The STF was originally referred to as the "Special Task Team" when they were originally established.
  • Murouchi

    We were aware of their necessity since the beginning of operations. The actual team was formed in 2006, and in their early days, they specialized in countermeasures against RMT. The problem with RMT is that, even if it's prohibited in FFXI, it's extremely difficult for us to control transactions taking place outside the game. It’s also a problem how their reckless gil farmers have a large impact on normal players who are just trying to enjoy the game.

  • And those are problems with RMT that persist today.

  • Murouchi

    When we recognized the need for a specialized team, there were suggestions to expand the GM team and have them take over the new role. However, GMs are an extension of customer support, which requires a completely different mindset from tracking down and eliminating bad actors.

    Having a single team handle both roles would call for drastically different stances depending on the job. With their duties split between eyeing people with suspicion and providing support, that discrepancy could manifest an inability to see players as customers to assist. Therefore we gathered several members with GM experience and formed a separate team within the same division.

  • Wouldn't it be difficult to get rid of these so-called "RMT vendors"?

  • Murouchi

    Eradicating them completely would be nigh impossible, but our goal has been to keep them suppressed to a very low level of activity.

    To elaborate, one of the STF's primary tasks is continually analyzing logs to identify patterns in RMT transactions. Another crucial role is forming internal rules to remove those who engage in certain problematic behaviors. Even if a behavior isn't listed in our User Agreement, that doesn't mean you can do it as you please; actions deemed to be objectively problematic must be addressed pertinently, or we'd lose control in a situation if something were to go awry.

  • Sounds like there needs to be room for flexibility.

  • Murouchi

    We discuss our definitions of bad actors at length with our legal department, and those determined justifiable are added to our list of internal rules, which has progressively grown over the years. Even today, we’re actively arming ourselves with new knowledge in our continued efforts to eliminate RMT vendors. But we can never underestimate our enemies; they're always searching for new loopholes, which means we need to constantly develop new countermeasures.

  • It goes to show that the history of FFXI is also the saga of the STF's battles. Speaking of which, when the STF held their presentation at Vana★Fest, their tools had unique names like “RMT-PWNER V1.337” and “The Gilded Tomb,” and there were interesting phrases like "On the Verge of Resignation."*

    * For more information on each tool, see this Special Task Force Report.
  • Murouchi

    They may have been unusual, but those were the kind of distinctive names we used internally, and I'd say they served us well in leaving an impression with the players about the STF's activities. (laughs)

    Back in those days, it was easy to see how vendors went about their business. Examining the logs made it evident that there were sizable criminal mafias. One character held onto the gil, others farmed and deposited their earnings, while another distributed the gil to buyers, and so on. In that sort of manner, their methods were quite obvious, and we were able to crack down on entire organizations at once with RMT-PWNER V1.337.

    Nowadays, however, vendors have become harder to locate as they’ve minimalized their in-game presence as much as possible, so it’s up to us to continually adapt our methods and keep catching them. As you can see from our FFXIV announcements, it’s an ongoing battle; we're still cracking down on thousands of accounts each week.

* Part 4 will be available on November 30, 2022.

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