I don’t envy those who are trying to get into Final Fantasy XIV for the first time in 2020. The mammoth MMORPG from genre darling Square Enix has been steadily growing in scope and player base size since its successful relaunch seven years ago. At the time of writing this the game offers up the equivalent of several Final Fantasy campaigns as well as all the bells and whistles associated with an MMO – essentially, you’ve got hundreds of hours of content awaiting you in a rich, vibrant fantasy world.
So naturally, I’ve dived in headfirst.
I’ve been wrestling with A Realm Reborn for a couple of weeks now, trying to keep track of the game’s impressive interlocking systems and surprisingly resonate narratives. Novak Solano, my intrepid Hrothgar Pugilist Monk, and I are hot on the trail of cults, bandits and a whole variety of wild goose chases with no end to our quests in sight. Even in a world where our time at home has drastically increased, the sheer amount of content in XIV’s opening campaign alone can be a little overwhelming.
Fortunately for us newcomers, the game’s director Yoshida Naoki and his team are lowering that barrier to entry with the latest patch for the game, 5.3. Thanks to the magic of Zoom I was able to have a lengthy chat with Yoshida about the upcoming changes to the game, what drives the decisions behind them and, of course, the addition of tanks.
A Realm Reborn Again
Despite the largely positive reception to A Realm Reborn, especially as a reboot of the game’s initial campaign, the content has begun to show some signs of aging. When I first began playing XIV one of the most common notes I would see on helpful Reddit threads was how much A Real Reborn could feel like a bit of slog. Not bad as such, but far less refined than the generally beloved campaigns which follow it. Part of this is due to the repetitive nature of the quest design that led some players to feel like it was padded with superfluous content – the dreaded MMO busy work that keeps casual audiences away.
This kind of apathy from the player base is reflected in the data that Yoshida and his team have been pouring over for some time now and Patch 5.3 is set to tackle it head-on. 5.3 comes with several changes that players can look forward to (we’ll get to that soon enough) but the headline here is a streamlining of A Realm Reborn’s content. Yoshida tells me that while it may not be a complete rebuild of the content, 5.3 will adjust the game’s quest design to make it more accessible.
So it may be safer to take this as more of a maintenance rather than revamping the ARR portion. We wanted to keep the existing elements as is, but we wanted to figure out and make it smooth for the parts that may not be necessary. So we wanted to take the balance here as well.
It’s evident that Yoshida and his team are no strangers to hard work; the 2013 reboot alone was a massive undertaking and in the years since, XIV has been regularly updated with new campaigns and patches. When the latest expansion, Shadowbringers, successfully launched there was a window of opportunity for some retrospection. “Speaking about the development time for the refining of the ARR portion, it took about a year, but it’s not that we completely focused on just one thing for this year.
“The reason is that the development team’s also working on the major patch release updates and creation of the expansion as well,” Yoshida explains. “So, when we have the pocket of time that we can work on A Realm Reborn portion, then we refined it. So it took about a year, but finally completed and the timing that we will finally be able to release was just 5.3.”
Reworking something as ingrained in the experience as A Realm Reborn is no small task, even with the development team’s balanced approach to workload. Yoshida offers an example of this streamlining by explaining how small changes can make a big impact. “There are two types of works that we have put in for this refining element. We listed all the quests and we figured out which quest doesn’t really damage or affect the game experience. And so we took them out,” he tells me.
“So it’s actually just 13% of entire questline for A Realm Reborn, and once we’d done that, and we tried to reshuffle and then make sure that the story dovetails. We did reduce the tasks involved in each quest. For example, taking one quest; the players were asked to go from A to B, then at point B, they have to do some menial, errand quest, and then you have to go into the next place, which is called C. And you have to come back to A, so it’s quite complicated and there’s so many tasks involved and it’s time-consuming as well.
“By keeping the game experience that they can get from it we wanted to reduce the number of tasks that involved with one quest.”
Watching the interview recording back I noticed that I could not help but let out a quiet chuckle at this answer. Yoshida, knowingly and unsurprisingly, hits on an issue that is lurking somewhere in my notes from my time with A Realm Reborn – sometimes you just wonder why the game asks you to do so many menial tasks. This streamlining of the more “fetchy” quests is a welcome change in 5.3 but it begs the question – what about the players who are currently playing through the soon to be changed content? Yoshida answers my question before I can even ask it.
“First of all, there are the three types of different audience with regards to A Realm Reborn. Those who already cleared A Realm Reborn’s contents and they have all the achievements and clear flags for that.
“Also those people who have already started, but at the early stage of A Realm Reborn and those who are still continuing,” Yoshida notes after explaining the content changes. “So, that’s something that we also worked on, but at the same time, what we have to consider is that there are people who are actually playing that quest, taking that quest right now. So if we change drastically, it will affect them massively. So we need to do kind of add the text or information in-game to follow up.
“Okay, from now on, this quest will be changed so-and-so, so please go to this NPC and then continue the quest. So, we made sure that the follow up will be also implemented in-game so that we can guide them through. So all the work was really done in detail with extra care and the development team has put a lot of effort into it, and I really appreciate that.“
Listening to Yoshida talk about 5.3, and XIV in general, it’s evident just how much care and thought have gone into crafting this experience for players. Beyond the technical integration concerns for streamlined content, Yoshida also notes that player favourite NPCs who may have been associated with the older menial quest designs will remain in the game regardless of the streamlining. These elements were protected as the team recognises the narrative investment from players is crucial to the experience and thus the story itself will not see any changes.
There will be no change in the story itself either. The work that we did for A Realm Reborn is just to streamline the flow and the player journey. Even a new player starting A Realm Reborn now, or after the change, will meet important NPCs and the key characters there.
The game experience will remain unchanged. There will be no addition of new content or the removal of existing content.
If there are people talking to each other about A Realm Reborn, one of them could be someone who already completed it seven years ago…another person may be still new and is still continuing but they can still talk about the same thing and there won’t be any difference in the beginning experience at all.
Which isn’t to say that story changes were entirely out of the question for this A Realm Reborn revamp. “To tell you the truth, seven years ago when we were releasing A Realm Reborn for the first time we wanted to actually add Ramuh at the level 27 content, but we didn’t really have enough time to create that and then squeeze into the storyline, Yoshida said. With this revamp, we actually had the discussion whether or not to add it in between, because if we have the Ramuh in between there, the rhythm, the cadence of the Primals will be better.
“We discussed that we wanted to put Ramuh in A Realm Reborn from patch 2.3 to somewhere between level 27. We didn’t go in this direction. The reason is that if we did that, we have to change the patch 2.3 contents and also the stories and everything. And if we did that as well, then the concerns and an issue that we may see is that the players who already experienced everything real-time and the experience for the new players who will be tackling all the battles and stuff will have a different game experience.
“And we didn’t want to make any discrepancy in the experience there, so that’s the reason for not changing anything for the current or A Realm Reborn portion.”
And while some may be disappointed to learn that 5.3 offers no additional story content, there are others (like myself) who will breathe a sigh of relief. What makes XIV so alluring to first time MMO players is its reputation for being one of the more focused experiences in the genre, essentially offering a Final Fantasy story just delivered slightly differently. I enjoy multiplayer as much as the next person but the time commitment of most MMOs is often cited as daunting for new players and Yoshida is keenly aware that for many (again, like myself), the main quest line is our focus in XIV.
“We did all the necessary balancing checks with this A Realm Reborn refining elements, and we also reviewed all the rewards and EXP amounts and everything. Just going through the main scenario quest, playing through that, you will be able to gain the level enough to move up to the next quest and the next quest and so that you can continue to play through without any stress,” Yoshida tells me as I raised concerns about those ‘main-quest-focused players’ and balancing issues.
“That’s something that we would like to reassure you; it’s very smooth. It can be the same for the gear as well. You don’t really need to buy extra from the market, or you don’t need to craft. You will be able to get those as a reward, so you can swap back with the upgraded gear and then you can tackle the new quest easily.
“And speaking about the gear or rewards and dungeon drop gear, there are certain types of gear drops from the Stone Vigil and also the Dzemael Darkhold. Probably if you were the veteran players who play through the content already, you know how the design of that gear looks and some of the concerns and feedback from players is that that gear doesn’t look strong or powerful for the level that you are,” Yoshida breaks into laughter here, no doubt reflecting on the aesthetic level gripes of a vocal fan base.
“For that, we added new gear designs as a dungeon drop so that the new players playing through now can get that new design of items rather than the older less powerful look”.
Stairway to Heavensward
With patch 5.3 streamlining the content of A Realm Reborn it will likely entice a new group of players to try out this hugely popular, freshly tweaked experience. It’s the kind of attention you’d want to capitalise on and realising the potential for a new player base here, 5.3 will also allow players to access the second campaign Heavensward as part of the Free Trial.
“Initially we had this plan to make A Realm Reborn completely free, however, we’ve released Shadowbringers and this is highly praised and we gained a lot of reputation. We often use the analogy of a TV drama series refer to Final Fantasy XIV,” he explains.
“Let’s say, for example, we call A Realm Reborn season one of a TV series. Heavensward would be the second season. We thought that because now there’s still lots to do up until Shadowbringers anyway, why don’t we just free up season one and the season two?” Yoshida tells me.
If those players played the ARR portion and the Heavensward portion and then if they’re hooked and if they want to continue playing FF XIV, then we would like them to continue subscribing to the game.
Naturally, Yoshida and his team must consider the financial realities of making this much content available to players as part of the Free Trial mode but talking to him you get the sense that his confidence in player retention is unwavering. Pairing this with that genuine passion and love for the game, you see a refreshing balance of pragmatic developer and earnest artist, the kind of person the industry could do with more of.
“Rather than just thinking about the revenue side that wants to make money from players, what we had as a core concept that we want to deliver this game to as many players as possible.
“We want to provide an opportunity for players to get into the game and enjoy the experience there. In a way, we can make everyone happy in terms of the revenue side and also player experience.”
Yoshida goes on to note that “…Heavensward’s main scenario quest line was also well received, so, there are people who are praising that as well. So we thought that it would provide a really great amount of fun to the player’s experience.”
On the topic of the player experience, Yoshida tells me that when making decisions about what to improve in XIV the data tends to speak for itself. Less focused on the potentially unreliable anecdotal information across places like social media, instead, this raw information dump allows the team to precisely see where and how elements of the game need to be changed.
“We have the player data here, statistics and everything. From that, we can find out what kind of quests people tend to drop out of halfway, or which quests they take so many times to complete.
We didn’t really receive verbal feedback from the community directly, but we are seeing all the data and information and we’ve pointed out the areas that we may need to refine and then rework,” Yoshida says about the idea of feedback. “With the data, it’s really interesting that we can see which quests are unpopular and are infamously so and which are popular.”
Patch 5.3 will be making some other noteworthy changes to the Free Trial portion of XIV. With the inclusion of Heavensward and all subsequent Patch 3.X series content, the level cap has been raised from 35 all the way up to 60. The Au Ra race will now be available as part of the trial along with the Machinist, Astrologian and Dark Knight jobs. The beloved dungeon, Palace of the Dead, has also been blown wide open as Free Trial players can now traverse the dungeon down to floor 200.
As a relatively fresh-faced player of XIV, I must admit that the minutia of the job system and dungeons is still slightly overwhelming to me but fortunately 5.3 is also teasing something I can wrap my head around – tanks. In Yoshida’s latest Letter from the Producer, there is a sketch of what can only be described as a very cool looking tank vehicle and I could not leave the interview without asking about this magnificent beast.
“Unfortunately, I can not go into detail at this point because it would be a spoiler for certain content and the story revolving around that. But what I can say now is they will be the mounts that you will be able to ride at some point in future.”
Yoshida is outright laughing at this point and frankly, I feel very connected to him as we both revel in the joy of a new toy. “Once the time has come, then I would like all the players to be on the mount and riding around and travelling all around the world with it, doing all the roleplay elements and enhancing the roleplay.”
The official site for Patch 5.3 is live now and full of interesting notes for long time players to look forward to but I would have been remiss in my duty as an interviewer if I didn’t press Yoshida on one of the most asked questions regarding the game – can we expect to play XIV on next-generation consoles?
“Our philosophy, or the concept, is that we want to deliver the game to as many players as possible in the world. This philosophy is in the blood of the development team and operations team, so we are aspiring to expand our game on different consoles as well.
That’s why we are still continuing our conversation with the platform companies. And that topic also includes the expanding of FF XIV on the new next-gen consoles as well,” Yoshida explains, also noting that “However, we don’t really have any solid answer or solid conclusion that we can provide at this conjuncture. If we have some more development in a conversation, and if we get the right timing, of course, we are happy to share the information to players…so you can be on the lookout for it.”
Keep an eye on PowerUp! For my impressions of Patch 5.3 as well as my ongoing journey with Final Fantasy XIV.
We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Yoshida Naoki for his time and insight, as well as Kondo Mizuho for translating.