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For Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida, only one direction to go: Heavensward

Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn director Naoki Yoshida has, for all intents and purposes, already conquered the world.

In 2010, he found himself placed in charge of one of Square Enix's greatest failures — the original version of Final Fantasy 14. This is like being placed in charge of a runaway train after it had already gone off the tracks.

His solution was as outrageous and it was impossible: While keeping the original version of Final Fantasy 14 running, he built a new MMO to replace it from the ground up. Against all odds, he succeeded in creating something wonderful. Even as Yoshida has explained the process multiple times, it's still one of the most unbelievable underdog stories in the modern game industry.

Yoshida brought Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn to PlayStation 4, creating one of the most successful console ports of a massively multiplayer game ever. The game hit a milestone of four million registered players worldwide. It has consistently surpassed all reasonable expectations. What more is left for him to do?

As the release of Final Fantasy 14's first expansion pack, Heavensward, approaches, Yoshida has an answer: more, better and more unique.

Final Fantasy 14: Heavensward dark knight attack

Work ethic

"We want to introduce something that's never been done before," Yoshida says. It's the Monday morning of Game Developers Conference, a little less than a week from a big string of Heavensward announcements at the Penny Arcade Expo. A representative from Square Enix has just shared some of those reveals with us.

The average creator standing on the verge of showing off all this new stuff might be nervous. Yoshida, though, is cool and collected.

"We definitely want to bring a different kind of excitement from what was offered with A Realm Reborn," he says. "The launch of Heavensward is building that foundation. It's a launch pad for where we can start our evolution."

"It's a launch pad for our evolution"

According to Yoshida, the biggest and most requested part of that evolution is the introduction of three new classes: the damage-dealing machinist, the healing and buffing astrologian, and the tanky dark knight. The Final Fantasy 14 team faced a challenge not only in building and implementing these new classes, but also making sure that each plays differently from its counterparts.

"We want to make sure that each job has a different, unique gameplay experience, even if they're fulfilling a similar role," Yoshida says.

He uses Final Fantasy 14's tank classes as an example. He describes the paladin as a "very one-on-one" tank whose specialty is taking all aggression from a single powerful target. Meanwhile, the warrior tank can do more area of effect abilities and has a higher damage output.

"The third job within the tank role, the dark knight, is similar to neither of these," says Yoshida. "It will feature its own specific mechanics that make it unique. The dark knight uses the power of darkness, sort of like magic, for his abilities. It will be a totally different experience."

If players choose to switch to one of the new jobs, they'll need to raise it from level one. However, Yoshida notes that the new jobs won't have base classes requiring leveling up first.

"In that aspect, it may be faster for them to level," he says. "If you want to raise all your jobs to the maximum level of 60, it's going to take quite a long time to get there." He laughs, knowing that plenty of the game's dedicated players are likely up to the challenge.

To the skies

Another major addition to Heavensward is the ability to fly. In addition to flying mounts such as dragons or black chocobos, players can acquire and even build single-rider airships. At first these flying mounts will only be usable in the new areas introduced in Heavensward.

"This relates to the game design itself," Yoshida explains. "A Realm Reborn was not intended for flight, and that's how we built the maps for that area. With Heavensward, our primary focus was being able to fly around. The maps are intended for flight. If we wanted to have players be able to fly over the Realm Reborn areas, we would have to make adjustments to the map."

Yoshida notes that the developers already have the tools to use flying mounts in older areas. But because of the design issues, graphics don't actually appear correctly when they're in the sky in these zones.

"On top of that, the level design isn't meant for flying over, so you wouldn't have much to enjoy anyway," he says. "That being said, we don't intend to forbid players from flying in those areas forever. We're considering making those adjustments. But for now, we want players to enjoy the world of Heavensward first."

Part of the reason for the switch to flying is the size of zones in Heavensward. Square Enix has gone out of its way to make areas much larger in the expansion than they were in the original game.

"In terms of level design, we look at it from both the perspectives of ground travel and air travel," Yoshida says. "When we get to a rough mock-up stage of an area, we calculate how long it will take to get from point A to point B on a ground mount versus a flying mount. We make sure to calculate the pacing at which you get to a certain location."

"Even if you're traveling on ground, we don't want it to be bland"

Even before players have earned a flying mount, the zones will hint at what awaits them in the skies.

"For example, if you're traveling on foot and look up, you'll see floating areas that make you think about how you'll have to use a flying mount to go up there in the future," he says. "Or if you get to the edge of a cliff and there's no way to travel on foot, that triggers the thought that there's more beyond that once you get the flying mount. We want to help the players' imaginations. Even if you're traveling on ground and it takes a while to get to places, we don't want it to be bland or boring."

In addition to regular flying mounts and single-rider airships, free companies, the Final Fantasy 14 version of guilds, will be able to build larger company-wide airships. This will be made possible via a new system called "free company crafting," and it will start with building a workshop in your free company's house.

"Once you have the workshop, you decide on what you want to make," Yoshida says. "For example, if you're going to build an airship, you go part by part. You start with the engine. Your free company teammates gather the materials necessary to build the engine. The crafters within the free company form a party, and then it's a group effort to build the engine."

Yoshida says the free company crafting system will grow and expand throughout content patches for the expansion — what he is calling the "3.X series of updates." To create their ship, free companies will have to combine different engines, bodies and other parts. The ships will have different stats depending on the combinations made, leading to unique ships for different groups depending on their focus.

"Having as many options as possible is a good thing," he says with a smile.

Final Fantasy 14: Heavensward dragon

Never losing steam

One of Yoshida's focuses for Final Fantasy 14 has been an aggressive schedule of very large, free updates. He says this will continue once Heavensward launches.

"With the 3.X patch series, we're trying to figure out how to bolster the community," he says. "We want to get them involved in something more public and open."

Part of this is tied to how Square Enix wants not only to get players interested initially, but also keep them invested across a longer period of time. Yoshida reveals that the number of lapsed players who resubscribe to Final Fantasy 14 is very high, especially in the United States.

"With the older generation of MMORPGs, they have a tendency to tie down the user," he says. "You have to spend a long time playing a certain kind of content. You have to belong in a community or you feel left out. They provoke that fear of being left behind.

"But nowadays, players' lifestyles have changed. Everybody has gotten so busy, and so many different kinds of entertainment have been introduced. Having content that ties a person down to a game works to a disadvantage. People quit because they don't want to feel so committed to it."

"we're trying to figure out how to bolster the community"

For Yoshida and crew, this doesn't mean making a "casual" MMO that only has light or easy content. Rather, it means discovering a balance, a way to create content that can appeal to both casual and hardcore players.

As an example, Heavensward's raids — traditionally the hardest of hardcore content — will come in two flavors. Normal mode will be approachable and completable for even the less skilled players, while hard mode will provide continued challenge for the cutting edge, best-geared characters on the server.

And it's not just raid content that Square Enix hopes can appeal to all player types. Yoshida points to the recently-launched Gold Saucer, a new area full of mini-game attractions that normally would be considered for less serious players. However, he says both hardcore and casual players have been enjoying the Gold Saucer. The Saucer also showcases how the game gently pushes novice players toward group content.

"The Gold Saucer's Triple Triad card game seems very geared toward solo play," Yoshida says. "But at the same time, there will be elements where you go into a dungeon with a party to be able to obtain certain cards."

As Square Enix continues updating Heavenward with new content, it's looking for ways to improve communication so players who leave the game will always know what's waiting when they come back and won't have much trouble catching up.

That doesn't mean the expansion will be small, though. Yoshida once told me that his approach to expansions is to make them as big as the core, original release of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. He says they've accomplished that with Heavensward. "There's so much content to play that you'll definitely get your money's worth," he promises.

Yoshida has been working on Final Fantasy 14 in all its iterations for five years now. He's created what amounts to two stand-alone games worth of content, plus massive free updates. And with the expansion nearing launch and a whole new series of updates to plan for, there's no sign of slowing down any time soon.

And yet, he is not bored or tired of the game.

"I want everyone to be passionate about the work that they do"

"I'm not only the producer but also the director, which is very rare," Yoshida says. "It means I can make the game freely in the direction that I want to take it. I'm always building new content, whether it's patch updates or expansions, so it doesn't feel like I'm always working on the same game all the time. It's a brand new experience. I'm building a brand new game."

For his team, he says he tries to keep morale high by taking special notice of when individual developers are eager to try new tasks. He allows them to rotate between different positions, which helps them stay motivated and nurture their career.

"I make sure no one is stagnant or stuck in one place," he says. "I want everyone to be passionate about the work that they do. That's something I want to keep doing in the future."

And what about Yoshida? Does he feel passionate still?

He says yes, and the fans are to thank: "I have the opportunity to attend many gaming events. I get to meet with fans and players and media and interact with them directly," he says. "That's very important and big for me. You can't experience that if you're building a stand-alone game.

"I don't get that sense of being burnt out. I don't wish I was making another game."

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