Reconstructing a Classic - A Candid Talk with Final Fantasy XIV's Sage Sundi

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Five minutes into my hands-on demo of Final Fantasy XIV at PAX 2010, I’m entirely convinced that the game has seriously wandered off the beaten path of mainstream MMORPGs. But even in this currently innovation-starved category, I’m not entirely sure that this is a good thing.

Here is a game that deliberately hasn’t learned any of the major lessons of the past five years about accessibility (no active tutorial, no hot tips, nothing to get you started), pace of gameplay (oh! the cutscenes), or intuitive user interface design. Case in point: even with a dev helping out, it takes minutes to draw my axe, then figure out that a blinking UI element (to this moment I still don’t know what it was) is preventing me from swinging it at a nearby mob.

Having played literally hundreds of MMOs including in no small measure Final Fantasy XIV’s predecessor, Final Fantasy XI, I’m a little mortified. Fortunately, SquareEnix’s Sage Sundi is on-hand to tell me how FFXIV is such a different beast, and why that’s by design.

Ten Ton Hammer's Ethec and Sardu talk to FFXIV Community Development Manager Sage Sundi at PAX 2010

We started with some softball questions while I shook off my MMO come-uppance. What, to him, makes FFXIV not just unique, but better than what’s on the market right now? “Everyone talks about the game systems, but to me the biggest difference with Final Fantasy XIV is that we share servers, not only between two platforms [PC and PlayStation 3] but globally. US, Europe, and Japan can play together on one server… it feels global. You don’t have to play with people that speak another language, but it’s nice to have that in the background.”

That’s not to say that language is necessarily a barrier in Final Fantasy MMORPGs. “We have an auto-translation system.” Sage explains. “When we introduced it in Final Fantasy XI, that it’s going to be something that players occasionally use. Instead, it’s become a main tool to communicate with other players.

Sage noted that SquareEnix also saves on server costs and delivers a more consistently populated server feel because peak times are staggered almost equally between each major region. “The time difference between North America, Europe, and Japan is almost eight hours between each. If we had regional servers, we’d have just one peak time. With a global server, we have three peak times during the day.”

All that globally cross-platformy timey-wimey stuff won’t come at once, however. As was recently announced, the PlayStation 3 launch will be delayed. “It’s going to be around March – it’s a sad thing.” But Sage notes that the PS3 launch, though delayed, will be revolutionary in its own right. “With Final Fantasy XI, we introduced it in North America a year after the Japanese version. Then two years later we introduced it to Europe, and they don’t even have the PS2 Hard Drive. This time, with Final Fantasy XIV, we can launch simultaneously around the world. That’s great for communities – no one feels like a second-class citizen.”

So that’s the plan for the PS3, but what about the long-rumored Xbox 360 version. It turns out FFXIV’s insistence on global reach is the chief hangup. “We’re still talking to them, but still no good answer. That was the plan, to release on Xbox 360. In XI we could do it, but so far, no luck.”

One concession between the PC and console version of the game, Sage explained, was the controller. PC gamers can pick up a PS3 style controller (FFXIV branded controllers were at demo stations at PAX) and switch between the mouse and keyboard without making any changes on the options screen. But that’s about the limit of peripheral support or extra features. For example, no integrated voicechat will be available for the game.

Since Sage is on the community end of the development team, I asked him what kind of feedback he was getting from XI’s still-rabid playerbase. “Most of the closed beta testers were from Final Fantasy XI, so we got a lot of feedback from them. They feel that it’s a different game, but there are enough similarities between the two games that it feels familiar. We get a lot of feedback about the user interface. So the last couple phases of the beta concentrated on UI changes – it’s getting better.” Sage knows that the vast differences in minspec between 11 and 14 are no joke, too. “A common request is that we make the minimum requirements a little bit lower.” No word on how or if that will be accomplished.

Switching gears a bit, we talked at length about some of the common complaints for the Final Fantasy-uninitiated. First up: the rampant, lengthy cutscenes that pervade the game. Such cutscenes do put you and your groupmates in the starring roles and add a lot of Final Fantasy flavor, but Sage explained that if you wish to skip a cutscene, it’s as simple as hitting escape. If, however, if you want to skip the cutscene and your groupmate does not, you’ll sometimes have to wait for them to finish before the next stage of the encounter.

Final Fantasy XIV Collector's Editions come with a lot of nifties, but over a week of early access is probably the nicest thing in the box.

Another common complaint about Final Fantasy XI is the grind. We’ve heard a lot about how FFXIV punishes a grindy playstyle. The system, commonly (and, we think, accurately) referred to “fatigue,” limits the experience gained after eight hours of play in one week down to nil after 15 hours of play. SquareEnix has been asked to death about fatigue, so we asked Sage if the game tackled grind from an alternate direction, perhaps by presenting players with different ways to progress.

He pointed out the guildleve system. Guildleves allow players and groups to travel to normally restricted content. In other words, guildleves are a little like keys to instanced areas given by NPC questgivers. “The main reason to bring the guildleve system is that you don’t need to grind to raise skills and levels. You don’t just need to go to kill that one-thousandth monster.” I’m still a little confused on how guildleves are different than dungeon instances, but Sage smiles. “It’s a little different, but worth trying.”

Finally, we got into the thorny subject area of how Final Fantasy XIV and its predecessor relate to the relate to the rest of the MMORPG category, namely World of Warcraft . Sage makes it clear that SquareEnix is going for differentiation at all levels, not just on story. “You have to realize that this is a different product… this is not World of Warcraft. System-wise, if we take all the feedback from the testers and customers, that’s going to be World of Warcraft or like any other major MMO that tends towards World of Warcraft. We’re not going to go that way. “

But isn’t it worth making some concessions to mainstream MMO gaming? After all, some thirty-odd million players over the course of the past five yearshave been trained to play MMORPGs a certain way, with a certain control scheme. Isn’t venturing off the beaten path of mainstream MMORPGs a gamble? “I’m not going to say it’s a gamble, but there has to be a different way to reach the audience, and not just [WoW] fans.

“Our main target is Final Fantasy fans. Then, if we’re successful, maybe it’s a good way to reach World of Warcraft fans. But if [Final Fantasy XIV] is the same, maybe you’d just want to go to play World of Warcraft.” As for that 30 million number, Sage raises a good point: “Millions of people have played Final Fantasy XI, XII, XIII on the console too. “

So with those millions of fans, Final Fantasy XIV marches toward release at the end of this month. One thing’s for sure: SquareEnix makes no apology for defying the WoW-platform approach to first-person MMO design and catering to its existing fanbase.

Time will tell if SquareEnix has enough mojo among both XI players (to upgrade their PCs) and among mainstream North American gamers (to hurdle the apparent accessibility gap). As for me, I appreciated SquareEnix’s bold approach enough to carve out some more demo time, and this time I swung my weapon on the first try.

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