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The New Direction Of Final Fantasy

by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 31, 2016 at 12:53 PM

For decades, Final Fantasy reigned supreme as the primary pillar of the RPG genre. With every console since the NES, it innovated and set new standards for the genre, from the cinematics of Final Fan tasy VII to the fully voiced cutscenes of Final Fantasy X. However, within the last decade, the franchise has started to fall from grace.

[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #276]

Final Fantasy XIII was divisive, and was worse off for being drawn out over a lackluster trilogy. Final Fantasy XIV, an MMORPG, was such a disaster that the game had to be essentially remade and relaunched as A Realm Reborn. Seven years after it had been announced, the long-awaited Final Fantasy Versus XIII morphed into Final Fantasy XV. Fans lost trust, and Square's name no longer held the same weight as it once did. In the meantime, Western RPGs, such as Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls, and The Witcher were innovating the genre in unique ways while the Japanese market stagnated.

All eyes are on Square Enix's next move to see if Final Fantasy will once again be an RPG powerhouse. Two men in particular have been tasked with reviving the franchise for a new generation of gamers: Hajime Tabata and Naoki Yoshida. Tabata is directing Final Fantasy XV, and Yoshida continues to head up Final Fantasy XIV after his successful revamp with A Realm Reborn.

After visiting Square Enix's offices in Tokyo, it became even clearer how these different personalities are driving the brand forward.

The Revolutionizer

Long before Naoki Yoshida even enters the room, I hear heavy footfalls from his combat boots and the jangling of his metal jewelry. From his chains to all-black attire, Yo shida has his own style. In many ways, Yoshida has already proved himself, with fans calling him the man who saved Final Fantasy XIV, but he has the task of keeping the MMORPG afloat and entertaining for years to come. 

Yoshida is matter-of-fact and doesn't skirt around the issues. This was evident when he went on stage at the 2014 Game Developers Conference and candidly spoke about the failure of Final Fantasy XIV's first launch. He admitted to all its faults, citing a server that would go down up to 400 times per day, a lack of content and bare-bones story, and the team spending more resources on graphics than the gameplay.

It was an eye-opening talk, where Yoshida said Square tapped him to fix the mess. He knew his only option was to rebuild the game entirely. Enter A Realm Reborn, which holds a Metacritic score of an 86 on PS4 and 83 on PC, a far cry from the initial launch score of 49. The recent first expansion, Heavensward, came out to much success, enabling the game to maintain a subscription-based model, something most MMOs outside of World of Warcraft can't sustain.

When I bring up the project, Yoshida flat-out refers to it as a failure. He believes the only way for Square Enix to come back from Final Fantasy XIV's disastrous first impression is to be up front. "It's easy to look away from your mistakes, but then you're bound to repeat them if you don't address them," he says.

Yoshida's solution to Final Fantasy XIV was to "make it feel like a Final Fantasy game." He addressed this in numerous ways to various callbacks such as moogles, chocobos, and jobs like the black and white mage. "I wanted to make a giant Final Fantasy theme park, and that means bringing anything in from the series and having something for all fans, all generations of the series," he says.

One of the things Yoshida is known for is interacting with the players and making sure their voices are heard. While he admits he can't put everything they ask for in the game, he's made it a point to be open with the fans since he took over. This open approach has been a different tactic than the Square Enix of the past. The company had a reputation for not being communicative with its fans, but Yoshida thinks it's essential and has been happy with the results. "I like to look at it as playing catch with a player and be in communication that way," he says. "They give us ideas and we tell them why we can implement them and why we can't."

To keep up with the changing times, Yoshida has spent his time thinking of ways to make an MMORPG for this generation of gamers, who don't have a lot of time on their hands. He says the slow grinds of EverQuest and Ultima aren't feasible in this landscape. "One of the best things about our game is that even if you're a very busy person you can play this game and be rewarded for it," he says.

If all goes according to plan, Square Enix and Yoshida will be involved with Final Fantasy XIV for the long haul. His plans are simple: have frequent updates, stable servers, and copious content. "I've played a lot of MMOs, and I look at it as if an MMO can last a decade then it's a success, so that's our current goal that we can get it to 10 years," Yoshida says. "Saying we want to have this game out for 10 years is easy, but creating a fan base that will stick with the game for 10 years and having a game system that will support the game for 10 years, that's part of our plan - having something that will be viable in 10 years' time. So, we've already started working on the next expansion."

Even as he's earned much success with A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, Yoshida is modest and realistic about it, saying, "I will also admit that the Final Fantasy IP has a strong fan base that will willingly pay money for quality content, so if we create that quality content we have this fan base that will support us, and I think that gives us a little advantage over other MMOs."

While Yoshida is dedicated to Final Fantasy XIV after its cleanup, he also hopes he can bring Japanese game development back on top. His plan? It all goes back to his original philosophy when openly admitting Final Fantasy XIV's shortcomings. "Japan was once great when it came to games, but the West has now caught up and distanced themselves from Japan," he says. "And to bring Japan back up to that level where the West is now it's about finding out what you can do better by looking at those mistakes and learning from those mistakes. As Japanese game makers, we have our pride as well. We don't like it that the West is [ahead]."

PKed: Naoki Yoshida’s First Venture Into Ultima

Naoki Yoshida is an honest guy who isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself. When asked about his first ventures into MMORPGs, he was quick to bring up Ultima Online. “It shocked me just like the first time I played original Mario Bros. back when I was eight,” Yoshida says. In fact, it was in Ultima Online where he chatted in a game for the first time...with a guy who had repeatedly PKed him.

“The first time I played, I saw this guy come with a red name and thought, ‘This is someone in the world coming to play with me,’ and then he killed me,” he recalls laughing. The inexperienced Yoshida kept clicking revive and getting killed. “After this went on for three times, the guy sent me a message: ‘Dude, stop! You shouldn’t be doing this. You’re a newbie, right? If you keep doing this, your skills are going to go.’”

The other player took pity on Yoshida and gave him tips, but Yoshida was just amazed that he was chatting with someone inside the game and discussing it with them. “And that’s when I learned that in an MMORPG anything is possible,” Yoshida says. “It is the players that are creating that world, and that for me was very, very exciting.”

Click to the next page to learn all about Final Fantasy XV's director, Hajime Tabata, and why he pushed for a more open world....

The Big Thinker

If Hajime Tabata is feeling the weight of having the next big entry in the Final Fantasy franchise on his shoulders, he doesn't show it. When we meet, Tabata is all smiles and wearing a collared shirt - a more straight-laced dresser than his cohort, Naoki Yoshida. While the two are different, they both are in similar positions. Tabata could be the next savior of the series, filling a similar role to when Yoshida stepped in to rescue Final Fantasy XIV.

Tabata is collected, but he also takes his responsibility of making Final Fantasy XV seriously. He took over the project from Tetsuya Nomura just a few years ago, and since then has been doing everything in his power to give fans updates on the project, from Active Time Reports to releasing the Episode Duscae demo, and even patching it with an update based on fan feedback. His project has a long development history, one that has caused many skeptics. While it's only been about three years since the reveal that Final Fantasy Versus XIII is now Final Fantasy XV, gamers have essentially been awaiting for this entry for close to a decade now, and since then the fans have grown up as well.

"We can't assume that everyone is expecting or desiring Final Fantasy," he says. "This is the current state of Final Fantasy, and we need to bring all our efforts together in order to communicate what Final Fantasy is about and the good aspects about it."

That doesn't mean that this title won't involve its history and have influence from the classics, but Tabata says his team couldn't just focus on that. They needed to band together to deliver "a new type of experience and advance the series forward." Expectations are high as the series has a reputation for making an impression on what can be done with the tech each generation. With the Western market upping the ante with RPGs like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Fallout 4, Tabata knows the task before him is difficult and he's tried to adjust his staff's thinking to ensure they're up for the challenge.

In the past, the series could get away with focusing more on mastering its technical prowess than progressing in other areas, but that won't work anymore. "We are no longer the only triple-A RPG out there, and ever since the PS2 and onward, a lot of the Western [developers] have gained prominence both in size and in terms of technological progress," he says.

He knew he had to be communicative with the consumers about the state of the Final Fantasy XV, but he also realized he had to align expectations for his own staff. "A lot of the staff on the Final Fantasy development team have been with the franchise a long time," he says. "They have this sense that they're special because they're developing a Final Fantasy title and whatever they create will be well received. That kind of mindset had been ingrained in them for a very long time, and so we had to start by resetting everything to create something that would appeal to the current generation."

A lot has happened in the years since Final Fantasy XIII debuted. Most notably, the scope of games and this generation's trend toward open-world adventures. One of the big things he wanted for Final Fantasy XV was to make it open world. In the current landscape, Tabata doesn't think you can compete with the top RPG makers without one. "We felt it was very important to deliver an open-world type of environment, so the development team decided to go in that direction and really commit to it," he says. "To push this title out globally, it was essential to have an open world."

Previously, Tabata worked on Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Type-0. Both of these titles are noted for their more poignant moments, such as Crisis Core's ending sequence, where you must accept Zack's fate.  An emotional connection to the game is integral to Tabata's design style. "I like to create games that are in sync with real life and reality to a degree...something that drives your emotions that you can really feel," he says.

This is something Tabata has been adamant about crafting into Final Fantasy XV. According to him, much of the game is focused on the human drama of the main character, Noctis. "The player is with the character through and through and sees the growth of the main character," Tabata says. He uses an example of seeing him fish for the first time and then watching him grow up to love fishing. He also says to expect flashback sequences to give you a better idea of how Noctis became the person he is. "A lot of [previous] titles focused on one time in adulthood, and in this title you'll understand his childhood and growth from a boy into a man," Tabata says.

He hopes this helps the player form a connection with Noctis, which plays into one of his biggest goals for the game. "I want to create a very emotional ending to the game and want to make as many people cry as possible," he says. "You're spending so many hours playing the game, so when I finish a game and it ends on a sour note and it doesn't move me, it gets me disappointed. At least make me cry or give me some emotion! I want to give a moving ending for the consumers who invest so much time."

His other goal is a bit more ambitious. Tabata recalls the impact Final Fantasy VII made on the industry, and says his objective for this team is to create a similar reaction when Final Fantasy XV releases. "There are some team members that were here for VII," he explains. "They're taking on the challenge of trying to exceed that title once more, which is a great motivator for them. VII sets a very high goal for us, but it serves as a good goal. It brought in new audiences, sales, and more."

An Unpredictable Road Trip

Time will tell if both Tabata and Yoshida reach their larger goals, but it's clear both are thinking realistically about the state of the RPG genre and their company. Everybody loves a comeback story and seeing Final Fantasy bring the innovation, awe, and confidence it once did would be refreshing. But as we've seen, this generation doesn't come with any promises for any developer. Expectations are constantly rising and new bars are continually being set. 

Getting Into Final Fantasy

Both Hajime Tabata and Naoki Yoshida fell in love with games with a little help from our favorite red plumber in Super Mario Bros., but they also recall fondly their admiration for Final Fantasy and have their favorites for different reasons.

Yoshida has two favorites. Based purely on gameplay systems, he’s a big fan of Final Fantasy III, but he also loves Final Fantasy VII for its story. “When you look at earlier Final Fantasy games, you think of the ATB system and the job system. Final Fantasy III was the first to have all of those in a complete form, and that’s why I look at it as a perfect system,” he says. “And with Final Fantasy VII, it being one of the first 3D RPGs, as well as the amount of content and type of content, it felt like an MMO, all of the things you could do in the game. I know Final Fantasy VII inspired a lot of people in the West.”

Tabata talks fondly of his time with the first and second entries, remembering when the title screen hits after the first boss in the original Final Fantasy and how the second game opened with a boss battle that impressed him, making him feel he was a part of an action movie. However, Final Fantasy VI also remains at the top of his list, “For VI felt like they delivered a really unique story and they were doing something challenging and new and being very confident with showing it to the world.” He came to appreciate Final Fantasy VII even more because he was a developer at the time and realized how much the game was helping push the genre forward.