Final Fantasy 14’s Naoki Yoshida on Shadowbringers, Yoko Taro and winning back the trust of fans

Naoki Yoshida has become synonymous with Final Fantasy 14 in recent years. Following the disastrous launch of the MMORPG in 2010, he was brought in as director to salvage the project, bringing it back from the brink – a task many thought impossible.

Fast-forward eight years, and A Realm Reborn has become one of the world’s biggest games, drawing in millions of fans with no signs of slowing ahead of its third expansion: Shadowbringers. I had the opportunity to sit down with Yoshida at a recent event and pick his brain about his journey and that of Final Fantasy 14; both of which will be forever linked.

“The original 1.0 version of Final Fantasy 14 was in a very poor condition. Honestly speaking, I played about 5 minutes of the game and couldn’t go any further,” Yoshida tells me, lamenting the state he found things in many years ago. One thing was clear, everything needed to change; it couldn’t be fixed through continuous updates.

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FFXIV Shadowbringers

Neglecting modernised MMORPG design and placing too much focus on visual quality, FF14 1.0 was clumsy, frustrating and simply wasn’t fun to play. Compared to World of Warcraft and other contemporaries in the genre, it felt prehistoric. So, the team set out to build A Realm Reborn, a fully fledged sequel set for release in 2013. However, for Yoshida, this was far more than a professional courtesy.

“I think with the original being such a disappointment to fans and players who believed in the Final Fantasy franchise and betraying their trust, our biggest challenge was to regain that,” Yoshida said of the relaunch, ensuring he mended bridges previously burnt with 1.0. “I was actively making sure I was communicating with players, members of the media to make sure we were able to rebuild with the players in mind.”

Yoshida describes this as one of his proudest moments of working on Final Fantasy 14, a commitment that has taken up almost a decade of his life to this point. This journey has brought him to Shadowbringers, an upcoming expansion with very high expectations amongst fans. Perhaps the highest among them is a partnership with Yoko Taro, acclaimed director of NieR: Automata.

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FFXIV Shadowbringers

“This is the first time I’ve worked with Yoko Taro-san directly, and what I’ve noticed is he makes decisions very quickly,” Yoshida says of the director, touching on planned Alliance Raids and endgame content based on Taro’s works. Teased with little more than an image thus far, what these dungeons will entail is something we’re very eager to uncover. 

“You don’t see him mulling over certain decisions; he isn’t the type of person who’s adamant to have his vision realised exactly as is. But he’s really good at utilising what already exists. If there are any limitations on costs or resources he will utilise or repurpose elements or use what we already have. He’s brilliant about that.”

“You may see it in his games – he brings a lot of surprise in what he creates. Sometimes, he’ll take the combination of things we put together due to limitations and flip it upside, or even break it apart, to bring that element of surprise. I think it can only be done because he sees that limitation and knows how to manoeuvre through it. It’s unique and he’s really good at it.”

As for what the NieR: Automata content will contain, Square Enix remains relatively hush on the subject. This includes a potential collaboration between both game composers, Masayoshi Soken and Keiichi Okabe. Although not confirmed, a teasing glance from Yoshida gives me a feeling that they’ll do all they can to make it happen. Fingers crossed for now!

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Given the colossal scope of Shadowbringers, I couldn’t help but ask Yoshida about his influences, especially given how he came from a world of western MMORPG experiences such as Ultima Underworld and Everquest. “I’ve stopped comparing Final Fantasy 14 and its position to other titles. My main focus and drive is to see what we can add into Final Fantasy 14 so more people will join us; what will make players enjoy it even more?”

Despite lofty ambitions, Final Fantasy 14 is held back by its origins, namely an engine that originally ran on PS3. But with Shadowbringers, Yoshida is aiming higher. “The graphics engine is something from two generations ago. We also need to consider how we support technology when so many characters are being rendered on-screen. It’s a matter of selecting what’s appropriate for our platform. From that aspect, I do need to make sure my knowledge as a developer and engineer don’t degrade over time.”

Final Fantasy 14 is technically an open-world experience, but it’s also fully online, and thus vastly different from much of the genre we see today – and it turns out Yoshida has a particular favourite from this generation.

“I do look to modern games from that perspective. One I play a lot is Spider-Man. It’s really good in terms of mechanics, and the creators loved the material they worked with. It’s important as an engineer to keep up with modern games – and setting that bar, that hurdle we want to surpass. It’s really difficult to create an open-world game!” 

“I’ve been so fond of Spider-Man, I’d mention on livestreams that I’m playing it and people should play Spider-Man. I may have sold about 5000 copies in Japan because I was plugging it so much.”

Oh, and pretty please don’t spoil Game of Thrones for Yoshida-san:  “I’m also missing two episodes of Game of Thrones because of this media tour. No spoilers please! I’m avoiding the internet!”

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FFXIV Shadowbringers

Even after its tumultuous origins, Final Fantasy 14 continues to bring people together. I’ve seen people meet, get married and move across the world to be with one another because of a relationship that spawned in-game. So, I was eager to see what Yoshida thought of this phenomenon. 

“I feel it isn’t because MMORPGs are a good place for people to come together. It’s no different than enjoying football, going to a stadium and meeting somebody you find attractive. You decide you wanna talk to that person and you hit it off, end up married and living together.”

“People have told me ‘we met in-game and now we’re going to get married.’ I’ve seen more and more players having those kind of encounters. There’s a reason behind that and it’s because we have more and more players who aren’t just about the battle content. People of different perspectives are coming into the game. Some people enjoy taking screenshots, while others are enthusiastic about housing or furnishings.”

While you’ll need to do battle with monsters and work through dungeons to progress the main story, days can be lost in Final Fantasy 14 simply learning a trade or investing in real estate with your significant other. This is a world made to be lived in, which might explain why so many players form lasting relationships. You can even purchase wedding packages, choosing a theme, number of guests and gifts. Even if it’s virtual, it still means something to people.

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FFXIV Shadowbringers

“There are so many ways you can live and play – even in your own way – in Final Fantasy 14 and thus this brings in so many different people with different perspectives. It’s become a lot easier to find people you have something in common with. I don’t think it’s a matter of people looking for that kinda thing; it just so happens we have more opportunities. It’s wonderful that we can continue to create that world and continue to spread it.”

My time with Naoki Yoshida ends with an adorable anecdote. “When A Realm Reborn launched in 2013, there was a couple that got married after meeting each other in-game. They would come to all the events. Since then they’ve had a child and now they too are interested in playing games. Seeing them with a controller in their hands is such a joy.”

I’ll always be marvelled by games such as Final Fantasy 14. The game itself tells as many stories as the developers that created it. Since 2010, it’s been on a journey that few games have, changing hands and coming out the other end unscathed and better than ever.

Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers launches for PS4, PC and Mac on July 2, 2019. 

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