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The death and rebirth of Final Fantasy 14

On November 11, 2012, Final Fantasy 14 officially shuffled off this mortal coil after over two years of service. The "Grand Finale" event was apparently epic, featuring the descent of the dragon Bahamut, the presumed destruction of the world, and the white-haired Louisoix hurriedly transporting players to parts unknown for safety.

"To be honest, I'm relieved," said FF14 producer/director Naoki Yoshida in this week's Famitsu magazine. "I took on the old FF14 midway and just tried to do the best we could what what we had at hand. There were always conflicts between ideals and reality, but I feel that we've still managed to reach the conclusion that we were aiming for. It feels like we've finally piloted a large ship back to the dock."

FF14, of course, launched in September 2010, only to be universally slammed as buggy, incomplete, and overall unplayable. Two months later, producer Hiromichi Tanaka resigned, Yoshida took his place, and Square Enix posted an official apologize for the sorry state of affairs on its website.

If gamers were angry, things were decidedly worse behind studio walls. "Right after the service launched, in early October of 2010," Yoshida recalled, "I give this word of advice: 'This is never going to work unless we put our entire company's resources into this and revamp it. We're treating MMORPGs too lightly, and it's crazy to think we can just leave things as is for gamers.' We went into full launch mode after giving only the vaguest of responses to player feedback during the beta test. Part of me thinks that we should've been a month quicker. If we had pulled the trigger a month earlier, we could have shut the entire system down and go from there, since players wouldn't have had a chance to raise their character levels much anyway. If we had been a month earlier than that, we would have had the option of continuing with beta testing, too."

So how did Tanaka and Square Enix let things get so bad in the first place? "To put it bluntly, I think it can be summed up by saying we were conceited," Yoshida said. "We had server troubles, technical troubles, a lack of international marketing and research, a lack of communication with gamers. There were many problems, but they were all caused by the general idea that 'we're okay, it's the FF brand, we made FF11 work.' That was the feeling not just with the FF14 team, but with Square Enix in general. That's why I said that, before anything else, we had to apologize to gamers, so that's where the official announcement in December came from."

Yoshida called the idea of shutting things down by the time he was appointed director "unthinkable as a choice for me," but the alternatives he and his team faced weren't much more palatable. His ultimate decision: Keep upgrading the current FF14, but put their full efforts into FF14: A Realm Reborn, essentially a full reboot of the game.

"First," Yoshida explained, "there was the value of FF in my mind, especially an officially-numbered FF title. Second, there were the latest trends in MMORPGs. I thought that we needed a title in our line that put these two concepts together. In order to do that, we needed to discuss features to add to the old FF14, then take the time to decide whether it was feasible to implement them. We'd do research for eight or nine hours a day, then have a report meeting at night. After exploring all the possibilities, we came to the conclusion that it'd be faster to just start over. It's something backed up by solid research; it's not at all a spur-of-the-moment decision."

This couldn't have been easy. It also couldn't have been cheap. "We lost all that customer trust with the seeds we had sown ourselves," responded Yoshida, "and my take was that this was the cost of making up for that. You can't get trust back overnight, and it's not something you can buy back, either. You can only become friends again by showing that you've changed and sustaining that change. To get people to see that we're sincere, in a way, no price is too steep. So for that, the company basically said 'Go all the way you can with that' and to some extent the decision-making went pretty smoothly."

So FF14: A Realm Reborn is in alpha testing right now, and assuming Yoshida is telling the truth, it could be that his two years of nearly thankless effort may have been worth it. "We're seeing it work out better than I imagined," he said. "What's making me the happiest is that a lot of the tester feedback we're getting is along the lines of 'I really didn't expect this from an alpha test' and 'Why don't you just make this a beta?' and so on. This is a title that's got a negative image right at the starting line, so we tried to show off exactly how much of it is complete; we placed the quality bar really high for an alpha."

A Realm Reborn is due out next summer worldwide, and if it's a success, then Naoki Yoshida will have engineered one of the most astonishing turnarounds in video-game history. "This may make me a failure as a businessman," he admitted, "but to be honest, sales are secondary to me. My drive here is to regain the trust gamers had for us. I have confidence [we'll succeed], or else I wouldn't have taken on this project in the first place."