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 Matt Hilton and Anthony Caraway from FFXI’s North American Community team. What were their perspectives on FFXI as they relayed announcements and organized fan events in the West? In this first part, Matt and Anthony shared their stories on how they joined Square (now Square Enix) and came to work with FFXI.
Senior Online Community Director of Square Enix America. As leader of the North American Community team for FFXI and FFXIV, Matt has hosted various events in the U.S. and is a familiar face to Japanese players as well.
Senior Online Community Manager of Square Enix America. Having been born and raised in Japan, Anthony translates between English and Japanese in both his public and private life. Known as “Tony” by fans and within the company.
Growing up with Square’s games
How did the two of you come to join Square Enix, a Japanese game company?
I was born and raised in Japan, so I grew up playing Japanese video games. I especially enjoyed Thexder* and King’s Knight*, which contributed to my fondness of Square. At some point, a friend let me play their copy of FFIII and I really loved it, and that’s what made me determined to work at Square some day.* Thexder is an action platform game by Game Arts originally released for the NEC PC-8801 in 1985. The Nintendo Entertainment System version was released by Square.
* King’s Knight is a scrolling shooter RPG by Square released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986.
So your encounter with FFIII turned out to be a pivotal moment for your future aspirations.
When my family moved to Hawaii, I thought I’d have to give up on my dreams of joining Square, but they turned out to have a studio in Honolulu too! But I had no luck during my time in Hawaii, and it was only after working at various businesses that I was finally able to join Square Enix in 2014.
My favorite games growing up were Square games. I was a huge fan of the FINAL FANTASY series and Chrono Trigger on the SNES, and I was also really into FFVII when it was released for the PlayStation. I always knew I wanted to work in the video game industry and had my sights set on joining Square specifically, so that’s what I strove for when I was a young teenager thinking about my future.
Sounds like both of you fulfilled your early dreams of joining Square.
Well, in my case, I always wanted to be a game programmer at Square, but I was working office jobs at other companies before I was hired in 2014.
FFXIV version 1.0 was what eventually led to me joining the company. At the time, the English-speaking player community didn’t have any prominent members who could translate Japanese, so I volunteered to take on that role and did that for a while. My friends saw my work and encouraged me to apply for a job at Square Enix, so I gave it a shot and fortunately made it in.
For me, it felt like fate that Square had their offices in Los Angeles. I was already living in Los Angeles, and I was really lucky that I didn’t have to move my entire life to join the company. I joined Square in 2001, so I’ve been with the company for over 20 years now.
Looking back at FFXI’s launch
Both of you are currently part of the North American Community team. Have you been with the team since you joined the company?
I actually started off in Operations Support Group, the department that translates official announcements for mobile titles, support, and hotfix notices for FFXI and FFXIV. I was there for about a year when I applied for an open position in the Community team and ended up transferring over.
Matt, since you joined in 2001, does that mean you were immediately assigned to work on FFXI when it launched the following year?
Yes, it wasn't too long after I joined that the project began the research phase. I originally joined the company as a QA tester* for titles like FFX, Kingdom Hearts, and eventually went on to lead projects like Crystal Chronicles. When development on the global version of FFXI began, I worked on testing connectivity to the servers in Japan and PlayOnline. I also played the Japanese beta version of FFXI to test network conditions from our U.S. offices.* Quality Assurance teams, often referred to as “QA,” are staff members who evaluate games to locate and report any flaws.
And you’ve been watching over FFXI ever since, for these past 20 years. What were your thoughts on FFXI when it launched?
As we all know, FFXI being an MMORPG was a major change at the time compared to previous titles in the series. FFXI was not only an online game, which was still uncommon back then, but also essentially the first of its kind on game consoles. It was going to be a huge experience for many of us who grew up playing standalone RPGs alone in our rooms, and I was really looking forward to it. It was awesome how the latest title of the Japanese FF series became a global online phenomenon and provided everyone with the chance to meet other people around the world.
If you were playing during the beta test, that’d mean you were playing the Japanese version of the game.
That’s right. I played before launch as a QA tester, but I’ve also been playing my personal character since the level cap 60 era, so sometime before Rise of the Zilart was released. There were hardly any game strategy websites back then, so we had to do our own research for everything. I began to study and learn Japanese to better understand other players and also ask questions about anything I didn’t understand, and thanks to that, I was able to clear the Limit Break quest.
Wasn’t it difficult to learn Japanese?
It definitely was, but I figured there was no other way I’d be able to play FFXI and did my best. Back then, my friends would ask, “How fluent are you in Japanese?” and I’d respond, “I can read kanji—if it shows up in FFXI!” (laughs)
Anthony, you were a regular player when FFXI was released. Were you still in Japan at the time?
No, I was already living in Hawaii by the time the PlayStation 2 version came out. That made it difficult to get my hands on a PlayStation BB Unit, so I decided to wait for the Windows version to be released. Incidentally, my PC at the time wasn’t very powerful and I wasn’t sure if it would be able to run FFXI. But my then-girlfriend, now wife, gifted me a brand-new PC, which allowed me to play the Japanese version of FFXI.
The North American version was later released, bringing English players into the same Worlds as Japanese players. There were a lot of Japanese players who had no idea what the English shouts were saying, so as someone who’d been playing the Japanese version beforehand, I decided to step in as the mediator between the two parties and translate for both sides.
Between the Japanese and English versions, which do you find easier to understand?
They’re about the same for me. But personally, I feel that I ought to play Japanese games in their native language, so I play most of them in Japanese. That said, I play in both languages nowadays since I’m part of the Community team.
Do you have any memories from when you first started playing?
I started the game in Windurst, but when I was level 8 and only had 100 gil to my name, I ran from Mhaura to Selbina and set my home point there. I was stranded and only made it back to Windurst thanks to a gentlemanly Japanese Tarutaru wearing a subligar, who inspired me to become a subligar gentleman myself. (laughs)
* Part 2 will be available on December 14, 2022.