This blog serves as a space for my general musings on games (digital and analog), technology, education and whatever else strikes my fancy. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Death and Resurrection of Final Fantasy XIV

This is a story about failure and redemption. It's about how the pressures to produce a game can sometimes lead to bad decision-making. And it's about how listening to and involving game communities in the development process can not only result in better games, but can buy you a great deal of forgiveness. 

Final Fantasy is one of the most beloved, popular, and recognizable brands in modern video games, boasting an intensely loyal and devoted fan base that numbers in the millions.  So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Square Enix launched the poorly built Final Fantasy XIV MMO in September 2010, fans reacted with vitriolic disappointment and anger. Within days of its release, community forums filled up with criticism surrounding a laundry list of issues ranging from an unintelligible interface to broken mechanics (FFXIV Impressions, 2010). Even the normally overly-gracious game review sites gave the game poor marks (Final Fantasy XIV Online, 2013). The CEO of Square Enix eventually (not until September 2011) admitted that the game had done significant damage to the Final Fantasy brand. For many, it remained unclear whether or not the franchise would be able to recover.

Yet, Square Enix was able to successfully relaunch the game and at least fade (if not erase) the black mark against the franchise. Six months following its release in August 2013, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn had a reported 1.8 million subscribers (Final Fantasy XIV The Lodestone). More importantly, players were once again singing the praises of the game on forums across the Internet. Normally, a disaster such as this would have had long-lasting repercussions even for a juggernaut like Square Enix. So how did they manage to turn around an unqualified disaster and come out smelling like the proverbial rose? This analysis attempts to explore the underlying decisions and consequences surrounding the failure and subsequent resurrection of Final Fantasy XIV in an attempt to illustrate the importance of the relationship between game publishers and players.

Fall from Grace
FFXIV was not the first MMO in the Final Fantasy franchise. In 2002 Square Enix (at the time it was simply Enix) released Final Fantasy XI, which went on to be relatively successful in a highly competitive fantasy MMO market. By 2006, anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 players were logging into FFXI on a daily basis with an estimated total subscriber base exceeding 500,000 active players (Statista, 2014). In comparison, World of Warcraft, which has long represented the juggernaut of the MMO world, had an estimated 6 million subscribers in 2006 while Everquest had an estimated 210,000 subscribers (Statista, 2014). While FFXI was not dominating the MMO industry by any stretch of the imagination, it did have a respectable following that generated profit for Square Enix. Thus, the decision to launch FFXIV represented an attempt to capitalize on an already profitable market by launching a more contemporary version of the game that better leveraged the technologies of the time while maintaining the core elements of the franchise.

FFXIV was officially announced in 2009 as part of the annual E3 conference. By this point, the development team had already invested approximately three years into the development of the game, although it is unclear how much time was devoted exclusively to FFXIV (Eisenbeis, 2012). Alpha testing lasted from April to June 2010, while Beta testing commenced in July 2010. Beta testing for FFXIV was to last a minimum of four months but was concluded after only 3 months (Yoshida, 2014). While no information has surfaced surrounding this decision, it is worth noting that the beta testers urged Square Enix to delay the release of the game due to the prevalence of critical bugs and glitches. While publishing games with known bugs is relatively common in the industry (and in the software industry as a whole), the magnitude and severity of the issues in FFXIV warranted a delay if only to avoid a public relations nightmare. Available information, however, suggests that Square Enix ceased soliciting or even accepting feedback immediately after the close of the beta test (FFXIV Impressions, 2010) and opted to release the game for the PC on September 22, 2010. Needless to say, it was met with immediate negative criticism.

Many of the failures and shortcomings of FFXIV can be understood as a function of resource decisions that were made during the development process. The Final Fantasy franchise has always placed a great deal of emphasis on graphics. Historically, Square Enix was able to outmatch its competitors in this area by employing a labor-intensive methodology akin to the ancient art of swordsmithing, which has a long-standing tradition in Japan (Yoshida, 2014). In this model, teams of highly specialized programmers and artists devote painstaking hours in the creation of each and every graphic element within the game. For example, an ornamental flowerpot used as decoration in FFXIV required approximately the same number of polygons and lines of shader code as the player-characters for the game (Cunningham, 2014). While the resulting graphics were utterly amazing for the time, they also pushed system limits and required higher than average Internet speeds in order to render effectively. The issue was exacerbated by problems surrounding server optimization and load balancing. Lack of attention to these areas resulted in a highly inconsistent and kludgy game experience with even top-of-the-line machines experiencing high levels of lag and random game ejection events.

The lack of attention to functionality and content development plagued other facets of FFXIV, as well. The core questing structure was criticized for inconsistency and overall lack of cohesion (FFXIV Impressions, 2010). Players noted that key quests in the storyline were inaccessible, glitchy, or missing altogether. Some quests could be initiated but not completed because key NPCs failed to give players the appropriate information or trigger specific in-game events. Players were also unhappy with the introduction of the so-called “fatigue” system in which the amount of experience points and drops declined in proportion to the amount of time the player was engaged in continuous combat. The developers suggested that the mechanic was designed to prevent RMTs (real money traders) from level grinding characters and mining rare objects (Van Duine, 2012), but clearly they had failed to consider the effect of the system on the player experience. They had, in essence, robbed players of any incentive to engage in prolonged play.

While Square Enix certainly made a number of missteps in how they allocated resources, the largest and most costly mistake resulted from their approach to play testing. In a classic development model, beta testing (one specific type of playtesting) is a process for collecting feedback and identifying bugs and design flaws. It is generally conducted near the end of the development cycle once developers are generally confident that the overall design and functionality requirements have been met. As such, it can be understood as an attempt to incorporate the player into the design process. However, even under the best circumstances, this form of beta testing is a highly limited methodology.

While companies can opt for either open or closed beta testing, most tend to rely on closed testing in which access is granted only to select group of players that are generally given access to a limited portion of the full game (Davis, Steury, & Pagulayan, 2005). The entire process is highly controlled and managed. Beta testers are normally required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that bars them from discussing what they see with outside parties. They generally work independently of one another, emailing their feedback to a central person who manages the process. The feedback is collated, analyzed, and prioritized according to the requirements specifications and the amount of labor involved in addressing the issue. Consequently, while we can acknowledge that game publishers have historically taken advantage of players to improve their games, they have done so in a highly limited manner.

The FFXIV example illustrates a number of breakdowns in the beta testing process that were instrumental to the game’s ultimate failure. The product that they released for testing was not ready for that stage of development. More importantly, however, Square Enix failed to pay heed to the feedback they received, which suggests that they either did not trust the process or were already aware of the state of their product but were unable to stop the train from leaving the station. Given that beta testing was concluded early, the latter explanation seems more likely. Regardless, the breakdown of the process exemplifies the fragility of the development cycle overall and opens up discussion surrounding alternative methods. As we shall see, there are emerging paradigms for incorporating players into the development process in a much more open and collaborative manner that also better protect game publishers from these types of breakdowns.

From the Ashes
In October of 2011, Square Enix announced that Naoki Yoshida would lead the relaunch of FFXIV as both director and producer. The former producer of FFXIV, Hiromichi Tanaka, left Square Enix shortly following the release of FFXIV. While he cited health issues as explanation for his departure, it is hard not to conjecture that he was asked to leave the company due to the poor performance of the game. The new version of the game would be entitled, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in an attempt to differentiate itself from the original.

In a 2012 interview, Yoshida (Van Duine, 2012) highlighted his unconventional approach to rebuilding the MMO by directly involving the player community. The fact that a version of the game was already active presented an opportunity to leverage players in conceptualizing and testing the necessary changes. Yoshida extended the free play period to encourage players to stay on and assist. He also introduced online forums where he regularly communicated with players on changes they wanted to see and their general experiences with the game. The feedback he received was discussed and operationalized by the development team and swiftly rolled out to the game via software patches (Yoshida, 2014). Immediate improvements were made to the core questing system, the combat system, graphics, the experience reward systems, monster difficulty, and magic casting. In addition, new content was added in areas such as travel, synthesis of goods and products, and combat. Although these changes represented real and substantive improvements to the game, they were inadequate for addressing some of the more fundamental issues.

In January 2011, the development team began redeveloping FFXIV: ARR from the ground up. A completely new game engine was constructed based on the Luminous platform used in other Square Enix games. The new engine allowed for better scaling of graphics which decreased the heavy computational requirements for rendering (Yoshida, 2014). Character animations were reworked both to better fit the improved game engine and to be consistent with the new game story. A new server infrastructure was also implemented and thoroughly tested to ensure effective load balancing and optimization. Other important developments included a new controller-friendly user interface, a player-versus-player option, new geographic regions and maps, and new classes and jobs.

Yoshida continued his commitment to including players during the development of FFXIV: ARR. The alpha testing cycle, which ran from October through December of 2012, incorporated a number of players from the original game as part of the process. Feedback resulted in a number of significant changes to the game during this phase (Yoshida, 2012a). For the beta test, a four-phase approach was adopted. The first three phases were closed but once again, players of the original FFXIV were invited to participate (Yoshida, 2012b). More interestingly, the fourth phase of beta testing was open to any and all players who wanted to participate. When the fourth phase formally opened on August 17, 2013, a record 150,000 users logged on, causing unexpected congestion problems on the servers (Server congestion and trial period extensions, 2013). To their credit, Square Enix immediately responded by extending the beta test period and opening up additional servers to handle the overload.

Perhaps the most meaningful acknowledgement of player contributions to the project came in the form of something known as the Legacy Campaign. In January 2012, the billing cycle for the original FFXIV officially began. Yoshida, recognizing the value of continued player involvement, promised that those players who had paid for at least three months of service would be rewarded with a discounted monthly subscription rate and exclusive in-game items. They were also formally recognized by name in the credits of FFXIV: ARR, a symbolic gesture acknowledging the vital role they played in the process.

FFXIV: ARR launched for PC and Playstation 3 on August 27, 2013, while the Playstation 4 version was released in April 2014. Since its initial release, over 400 million hours of game play have been logged by over two million unique subscribers, a record for the franchise (Final Fantasy XIV, The Lodestone). FFXIV: ARR was named the best MMO of the year by Game Informer, ZAM, and Massively, while RPGFan honored it as the 2013 game of the year (Game Informer Best of 2013, 2014; Game of the Year Awards, Pt. 2, 2013; Joyce, 2013). More importantly, fans and players expressed their appreciation and excitement over the game in online forums. One fan summed it up nicely:

The loyalty and dedication of the development team really shines through. They didn’t give up on the game even when they easily could have. And I for one am glad they didn’t because this is the best MMO I’ve ever played. Thanks for sticking it out with us. (FFXIV Makes Everything Else Meh, 2013)

In November 2012, when the original FFXIV was being permanently taken offline in preparation for the release of FFXIV: ARR, players who logged on were met with a brand new cutscene. The cutscene depicted the conclusion of the main scenario of the original game in which a war between the Garlean Empire and the Eorzean Alliance resulted in a catastrophic event that laid waste to much of the world. The last desperate move of one of the principle heroes of the story, Archon Louisoix, was to teleport a few select members of the Eorzean Alliance’s army away from the catastrophe. In the opening story of FFXIV: ARR, the player-character suddenly “awakening” with no memory of his or her past. As the story unfolds, the player discovers that they were transported five years into the future by Archon Louisoix. Their quest is to rediscover their own past in an effort to prevent history from repeating itself.

There’s something distinctly poetic about the way in which Yoshida married the two versions of the game story. The in-game story serves as a metaphor for the real-world transformation that took place. The story of FFXIV’s fall and resurrection should be held up as an example of how communication between game developers and players can lead to extraordinary outcomes. The original FFXIV was a complete disaster on multiple fronts. It would have been easy enough to sweep it under the rug and move on. But instead, for whatever reason, Square Enix empowered a young producer to tackle the problem. Yoshida’s strategy was profoundly wise. By leveraging the player community he was able to simultaneously identify and prioritize short-term fixes and rebuild the game from the ground up, all while promoting a deeper and more open dialogue that treated them as co-developers rather than merely consumers. In the end, the game and the community surrounding the game were better and stronger for it.


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