As the Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood expansion finally nears release, bringing with it a number of key changes for the game, we were lucky enough to go hands on with a portion of the new content, and speak to director Naoki Yoshida at a roundtable press event where we discussed some of the decisions behind the changes and the state of Final Fantasy XIV today, alongside Vaughn Highfield from Alphr and Laura Kate Dale from LetsPlayVideoGames.
While there’s a huge amount of new story content, Stormblood also brings with it some welcome changes to the control scheme that aims to streamline the way players interact with the game. As well as raising the level cap, adding new areas to explore and two new job classes there’s also a clear emphasis on bringing in new players with the addition of level boosting and campaign-clearing items that will help to get players straight to the heart of the action.
TSA: The development path of Final Fantasy has been one of constant reassessment, improvement and self appraisal, but now with the release of Stormblood do you feel you’re getting closer to completing the project?
Naoki Yoshida: Actually, there’s no specific goal for developing games, particularly an MMORPG, the actual end will be when the servers close! How far we’ve come is really difficult to answer, of course we have to put lots of content in so the player will be satisfied and enjoy. So for developing Stormblood we gathered and collected ideas and had lots of support from players and on the development team side as well. There’s no actual goal yet, we just want to keep progressing.
LetsPlayVideoGames: With Stormblood a lot of the changes that are being made to balancing, to simplify mechanics and to encourage new players to jump in with more ease, do you foresee any negative reaction or pushback from established players who have gotten on well with the complex systems and perhaps don’t like it being reduced in complexity?
NY: Making something simple is not making something easy, but I think they took it from that point of view. We don’t make contents too easy to beat and we haven’t made the job’s control too easy. If you’re a core player you don’t need to worry about that. It’s going to be challenging so please don’t worry! Because I myself am a core gamer I don’t want to make something too easy, otherwise it’s not going to be fun.
Alphr: With Stormblood all the systems have been streamlined, and you are driving to get new players involved. Is that a reaction to seeing numbers dropping or that you now want to drive it home as a bigger game on a global scale?
NY: It’s not either of those reasons. Actually, we are growing our player base continuously, so we’re not in trouble at this time at all. The current version that we’re at is 3.57 and if we add more complexity to it, it’s getting harder and harder and might overwhelm and discourage players to get into the game. Also levelling will become more difficult so we don’t want that kind of situation to happen.
If you’re struggling with levelling or want to get to the end content but you have to acquire the necessary level, it makes it a core game rather than a casual game. The casual players may suffer from the situation so you’re not going to get the new players coming into the game, and what we want to do is to bring this game to the next level, to evolve this game. That’s why we made the decision to make these radical changes at this time.
TSA: The scenario shortcuts and the job level boost are a great way of bringing those newcomers in. Was there any fear amongst the team about including them, and will players that use them be differentiated in any way from the players that are already there?
NY: The one point that we are concerned about, where we’re thinking carefully, is if for example you’re already playing World of Warcraft or other MMO games you’re kind of familiar with this type of system or items.
However, we have those players who are just starting playing MMORPG’s where it’s so much effort starting Final Fantasy XIV and having those items is a new experience. Say for example you’ve already progressed on your journey to get to level 60, but now with these items installed to the game there is this fear that you’ll be surrounded by these new players. Even though they’ve just started they’re now level 60, and your party play may be influenced so much that they’re going to change all of the system.
We’re not concerned about these items being released, but what we are taking seriously is how to communicate to those who may have concerns about the launch of these items and we make clear what our message is.
Actually the [scenario shortcuts and job level boost] were available for the Chinese and Korean versions of the Heavensward expansion, so we know how other players react to them and we’ve collected the necessary data. Once the items were released and the initial reaction calmed down when they first heard about this news they were so panicked, they were not so concerned about what would be happening. But, if you compare to those players who have never tried some dungeons in the proper levelling and were just farming Fates up to level 60 the situation would still be the same for those players.
Again, we want to make it clear that it is really rare that you haven’t played Final Fantasy XIV, that you don’t have any experience of MMORPGs, you haven’t even played the free trial; those player wouldn’t buy these items. There may be a small number of people that do that, but that amount of people would be really, really small, so we don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Those who are going to want to buy these items are those who have already touched a little bit of FFXIV but want to do the end contents.
LPVG: When you level a job up to 60 naturally, you get your abilities one at a time. Is there anything in place for those players who’ve suddenly got new abilities all at once to learn how they synergise with each other, to not be overwhelmed by suddenly having all these new tools?
NY: So if you purchase the job boost item only, you won’t have unlocked all of the main portion of the story, meaning that you have to progress from scratch. The first dungeon will be the opening level 15 dungeon so you’ll actually be progressing quite naturally in that way. When the content is below your level, the level will be synced so in that situation we don’t worry so much.
So, if you buy both the job boost item and the story shortcut item the information we have says they’ll have some experience playing MMORPG or they’re confident they have player skills to progress through our game, so we don’t really think that a totally new player will use those items and go straight into those level 60 high end dungeons anyway.
However, what we’re concerned about is if you’re a player with experience of other MMORPGs and the concept of your role might not be clear. What we think is important is to let you know what your job is and the role you’re categorised in, which is why we’ve included the Hall of Knowledge so you can learn roles.
Alphr: What have you learned from releasing Heavensward that’s led into the development of Stormblood?
NY: So personally the biggest lesson was that the comments from players about the difficulty of dungeons is not something we can rely on!
During the 2.X series we implemented the Binding Hall of Bahamut, but player reaction was, “Oh that’s too easy, I can just do it easily”. So, for Heavensward, we made two versions: a Normal and a Savage version. Feedback then showed that Savage was just to difficult and too hard to beat. So, we intentionally make something difficult and the only response is that “Oh my god this is so difficult, why did you make it so difficult?”
We implemented the last floor of the Alexander the Creator dungeon and, difficulty wise, it’s a little tougher than the last hall of Bahamut and so a lot of players managed to clear it. The feedback we got was, “Oh man, that was just so easy”. We learnt that the best difficulty for raid dungeons were ones that many players could still beat, but still delivered a bit of a challenge. That’s a threshold we want to keep for the future.
However, we know the need from those hardcore players that they really want brutal, extremely hard modes, so for the 4.0 version and beyond we want to have the really difficult content implemented in the odd numbered patches. This is officially for super-skilled players! However, we want to remind you, please do not make any comments that they’re still too easy!
TSA: How have you balanced serving your fans, and serving the needs of the game in Stormblood?
NY: For the user interface improvements we took lots of feedback from players because they’ve spent so much time playing the game, and they’re really, really useful for us. The more you’re a hardcore gamer, the more your feedback is stronger or more vocal.
However, if you’re playing FFXIV and you’re satisfied, you don’t comment that much, so how loud the feedback can be isn’t something we really try to take that much into account and so we’re really really careful in that case.
What we are doing is to check and to refer to the player data. We always take both data and community feedback into account, and also I play FFXIV as well so I have my opinions. We include everything and then see overall.
However, if the players are crying out about some content, we don’t ignore that feedback, we always want to give clear reasons why we’re not doing something or why we are.
Alphr: What would you say has been the biggest challenge in developing Stormblood?
NY: Volume! And an extremely short development schedule!
TSA: Are you now finding it easier to bring in more classic series elements to Final Fantasy XIV?
NY: So, take Final Fantasy VII where the fan base is really strong, the community really loves it, and the focus is on characters. We are really careful how to take a concept out from the game and put it into Final Fantasy XIV. So when we added Gold Saucer from Final Fantasy VII we actually asked Mr Nomura and Mr Kitase that made that game.
If you’re talking about the really old Final Fantasy games, say I, II, or III, there isn’t as much there to have a similar discussion as we did with VII. However, we pay so much respect to those games, and we also experienced playing through them, so the difference is if we have the people that we can talk to about them.
If you remember our collaboration with FFXIII Lightning Returns, we actually asked the FFXIII development team to write the scenario, and we talked to Mr Toriyama. So it depends on the title that we want to take an idea from, and we look at them case by case.
LPVG: Considering there are two audiences who might be interested in FFXIV, MMO fans and traditional singleplayer, story-led Final Fantasy fans, how do you manage balancing the expectations of those two very different audiences?
NY: It’s difficult! This is the hardest question on the tour! We actually don’t think of those two separately. So FFXIV is an MMORPG, however it’s also a numbered title from the Final Fantasy franchise so the story, the scenario is the core of the game. If you don’t stick with that general idea then there’s not any meaning to being a Final Fantasy game.
So we are putting our focus, our effort, on the side stories and the main story, and it’s not intentional to cater for solo players but if you take a look at our results then we kind of satisfied both those audiences. I am an MMORPG core player, so I know if there’s a trend to solo without joining any guild or Free Company.
Alphr: Traditionally the Final Fantasy series setting is very European, romanticised, what was the decision to bring in the Far Eastern element into XIV?
NY: Talking about it in terms of experience, the Final Fantasy games you’ve played before when we talk to Western players their starting points tend to be Final Fantasy VI or VII. Before that, Hingashi – the area in FFXIV – was actually talked about in the series before. If you’re looking at the recent titles, the setup is typically in [a fictitious] Europe. However, the focus on the Eastern side was there before VI and VII.
The reason why we wanted to expand from the romantic European style areas was because we’re making a global MMO game and we wanted to let players experience a world that was really huge. Your understanding is actually more planet size, it’s about understanding the existence of the world.
The focus of Heavensward was more high fantasy, there were dragons etc. in that. If you keep going the same way, there’s no surprise left for players. What we wanted here was a mixed culture so players can experience something new. In the continent of <look at continents for best fit name> we made hints around Japanese folklore, so you may see something hidden there – take a look, you may see something!
TSA: What one element are you most excited for players to get their hands on?
NY: From a producer/director point of view, we like to think that Stormblood makes us the latest in the Final Fantasy series. Of course, Final Fantasy XV was released last year, but our expansion makes us the latest entry! So, if you can enjoy the main story, then that is our main focus because it’s a Final Fantasy game.
From a player’s point of view, my main focus is PvP. We made some major changes to the systems and, it may look simple, but it’s really, really deep. If you want to get into it, it’ll take time to master it. Battles are really speedy and, when we do play tests, we can’t put it down!
Come back tomorrow for our hands on impressions from the Stormblood expansion.