Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fanwank Corner: Why Naoki Yoshida Needs to Run Square Enix

Yesterday at the Game Developer's Conference (GDC), "Final Fantasy XIV" producer Naoki Yoshida took to the stage to give a small PowerPoint presentation on his philosophy of gaming design and production.  Halo floating behind his head, Yoshida floated down from the heavens to bless us lowly peons with his divine presence.  The presentation reviewed why "Final Fantasy XIV 1.0" failed, how Yoshida's rebuild saved it, and then concluded with a subtle point of "Naoki Yoshida is the coolest man in the universe".  Yes, there was a small amount of gloating involved in Yoshida's speech, as he triumphantly noted that he saved "Final Fantasy XIV", turning it from a bloated boondoggle to a streamlined success.  That's like taking Kristin Stewart and turning her into Eva Green, its a miracle.

Naoki Yoshida never sees to act like the rest of the major Square Enix directors.  The rest of that crew are extremely tight-lipped, only willing to give press conferences if it is exactly the very last option available.  Its a secretive club, and we, the fans, can only look on when we are allowed.  The Square Enix way is to be as quiet and vague as possible.   Top secret NSA spying programs were more visible to the general public than the status of "Versus XIII" until just last E3.  Yoshida has never acted like that.  He's never just thrown out a trailer and stayed quiet for years like Tetsuya Nomura.  No - he releases design documents online, interacts directly with fans, seems to love their input, and is entirely transparent about his plans.  If he was the director of "Final Fantasy XIII", he would be showing off the linearity of the game and explaining proudly why it was to the game's advantage, unlike Motomu Toriyama and Yoshinori Kitase, the actual directors, who sheepishly hid that aspect of the game until release and could only respond to fan outrage with excuses and apologies.

One of the great things about Yoshida is that he's probably the first major Final Fantasy director to be a Final Fantasy fan.  All of the previous games have been created by long-term Square Enix insiders who have been with the company since the SNES era at the latest.  Its mostly been an insider club of Kitase, Nomura, Toriyama, and Hiroyuki Ito ever since Hironobu Sakaguchi resigned a decade ago.  The first producer of "Final Fantasy XIV" was Hiromichi Tanaka, a man who had been with Square literally since the beginning, having worked on their very first game, "The Death Trap".  But Tanaka was an insider and extremely protective of his product, allowing almost no fan feedback, ignoring QA, and releasing the game early.  Naoki Yoshida only joined Square Enix in 2004, he's a huge "Final Fantasy III" and "Final Fantasy VII" fans, and legitimately wants to make great games that matched Final Fantasy's golden age.  And who should be surprised?  "Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn" wound up being Square Enix's best Final Fantasy game in nearly a decade.  Because Yoshida could look beyond the corporate mind-set, see what was broken, see what worked, and fix the real problems.

The White Elephant


(I'll have to apologize for the crappy quality of the pics, they're all borrowed from a Siliconera article on Naoki Yoshida's presentation.  I wasn't actually at the speech, so I'm relying on them for content.)

The original "Final Fantasy XIV" had its graphics built upon Crystal Tools (AKA: The White Engine), Square Enix's primary graphical engine for the Seventh Generation of consoles.  Unfortunately Crystal Tools/White Engine was built entirely around Square Enix's increasingly unhealthy obsession with cutting edge graphics above all else.  The White Engine managed to create some of the prettiest graphics the PS3 and Xbox 360 were able to churn out in "Final Fantasy XIII".  But to get those pretty skyboxes, to accommodate this White Elephant, the devs had to compromise just about everything else - open world gameplay, towns, interesting environments, and fun. 

It was bad for "Final Fantasy XIII", but it managed to make money.  For an MMO, the compromise was far worse.

"Final Fantasy XIV" in its original state was basically unplayable.  The rush for completion was so bad that the game was released with almost no economy, bad gameplay, glitches, repetitive environments, and an incomprehensible interface.  This happened because the resources that normally could have been used to balance the game, and ease players into its world, were instead use to put 1,000 polygons into a single background flowerpot, as Yoshida shockingly revealed.  "Final Fantasy XIV" was in development since 2005, in some form or another, as this tech demo reveals, yet on release, critics savaged the game for feeling like it had been rushed together in a matter of months.  But at least the potted plants were really pretty.

Naoki Yoshida, however, using an engine was not Crystal Tools, managed to churn out "Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn" in just a couple of years, while simultaneously running the original "Final Fantasy XIV", patching it extensively, and preparing its fanbase for the switch over to another game.  This was accomplished by doing a simple thing:  not focusing on graphics above all else.  Instead Yoshida made sure his team was ready to build a new world, knew their engine well, and had a clear rational plan to make a fun game that players would enjoy.  And ultimately, the feedback for "Final Fantasy XIV 2.0" has been overwhelmingly positive - its the biggest success story Square Enix has right now. 

Four Dos


It seems like these four things are not even worth writing down.  Something so obvious and natural to any game producer, such as "KEEP IT FUN", should not even need reminding.  But, curiously, this is actually something Square Enix really needs to learn again.

"Never forget the fans." - Square Enix has generally ignored fan feedback and requests for years now.  Or they only listen to the parts of the fanbase that reinforce their own preconceptions.  So millions of people hated "Final Fantasy XIII", and really did not care too much about Lightning, yet Square Enix plowed forward with two sequels with rapidly diminishing returns.  They actually do have testing phases for their games, but seem to ignore the feedback every time, especially if the testers are Western, and thus unworthy of giving opinions on a game created by the Divine Yamato Race.  Where were the things fans wanted?  "Kingdom Hearts III"?  "Versus XIII"?  "Chrono Trigger 3"?  Held back by other projects, lost in development hell, or ignored entirely.

"Fun comes first." - No.  Sorry.  For the most of the industry - especially Square Enix - graphics come first.  And then there's games like "All the Bravest", where fun basically does not exist at all.  Micro-transactions come first.

"Never back down." - I'll give Square Enix this, they never back down.  They've had a very rough Seventh Generation, suffering so many major projects in development hell, and they never gave up any of them.  Well, they did back down when it came to remaking "Final Fantasy VII"* and the English translation of "Final Fantasy Type-0".  They do always aim to amaze... except with "Lightning Returns", which aimed solidly for mediocrity.

"Don't forget your roots". - "Final Fantasy XIV" is a wonderful celebration of Final Fantasy's history.  The game is filled from beginning to end with references, loving homages, and cameos, from "Final Fantasy I" to "Final Fantasy XII".  As for the rest of Square Enix... "Lightning Returns" is barely recognizable as a Final Fantasy game anymore.  It feels as much like a sequel to "Final Fantasy I" as it feels like a sequel to "Dance Dance Revolution".  "Bravely Default", an RPG that was specifically exiled from the Final Fantasy brand, feels more like a proper Final Fantasy game than the newest releases.  Probably because somebody's head is so far up their ass they now breath farts for air.

Three Don'ts

 
Another three things that honestly should not need discussion.  But amazingly, two of these are actually massive recurring problems in modern gaming.  "Lack of MMO knowledge" is basically a "Final Fantasy XIV 1.0" issue, its shocking considering how Square Enix was running a successful MMO at the time, but not really a cancer eating away at the company.  The other two though, these are real problems that gamers are suffering, and are crushing the industry.

Everybody is generally coming to the same conclusion that graphics are tearing this industry apart.  Its gotten to a point that to make a video game you need a small army of programmers, artists, writers, and millions and millions of dollars.  Development times get stretched out, games wind up having less content to make room for more graphics, and the industry becomes less stable as rising investment costs overtake profits.  "BioShock Infinite" was a great game, but it still wound up killing its production company after making more money than God.  This is especially bad for Square Enix, who build giant superpowered graphical engines without bothering to figure out basic stuff like... do these engines actually work?  Doesn't matter, the game looked pretty!

Worse, when you have thousands of people making a game, they end up becoming less unique, more safe, and more generic.  Its the same problem with Hollywood blockbusters:  when they all cost 100 million dollars, nobody wants to risk their investment making something controversial or innovative.  They turned "RoboCop" into a superhero origin movie, because that's a proven product.  "Castlevania" turns into "God of War", because "God of War" is a proven product.  Ubisoft wouldn't make a cool pirate game without basing in the safe brand of Assassin's Creed.  "Final Fantasy XIII" looks not to the series roots for inspiration, but to "Call of Duty", of all things.

Worse, the graphics mindset leads to another problem - patching.  Games are released often in terrible condition with the assumption that all of it will be fixed later.  "Final Fantasy XIV" was one of the worst cases, released with almost all of its content missing.  So many games today get released with huge bugs - there seems to be one major save file destroying bug in every Nintendo game - that QA never notices, or simply ignores them to kick the game out the door.  Because games are so huge now, they cannot be finished with the same fidelity they used to have.  But there's small little patches, and then there's some of Square Enix's releases, where fun could never be patched in, no matter how hard they tried**.

So maybe Naoki Yoshida doesn't just need to run Square Enix.  He needs to run gaming in general.  A game might be cutting-edge graphically for a few years, but inevitably its going to look old.  "Final Fantasy VII"'s graphics today are little more than embarrassing - but its still the most beloved game of the series, and a landmark of the RPG genre.  The best you can do is make the best game within your means, keep the game fun, and make sure your players are enjoying themselves.  It has to remain a GAME - and graphics don't make the game, they merely color it.  Actually interact with the community, instead of lording over them.  Don't tell them what kinds of games they should be playing, make games they want to play.  

Naoki Yoshida understands that.  When will the rest of Square Enix catch up?

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* To be frank though, that's one thing they should ignore the fans with.  Remaking "Final Fantasy VII" will kill Final Fantasy.  They will never be able to move on beyond that game if they give in on that request.

** Also look at like half of the Steam releases these days, which are always kicked out the door early, with 10% of their intended content, and they still expect players to pay money for this.

7 comments:

  1. Those are actual screenshots and presentations from the meeting? Jesus Christ, Square if someone has to make power point presentations on the most BASIC OF GAMING KNOWLEDGE. Good job Mr. Yoshida, show those head douchebags that they need to get their heads out of their asses.

    And speaking of XIII-3, I like how on they throw poor Nomura under the bus by just putting his name under the title menu. Not Toriyama the games directer and designer, just Nomura the guy who was pretty much forced at gun point to make clothing for a character that no one particularly cares about. :3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oddly enough that behavior reminds me of the XIII apologists attempts to scapegoat Nomura's shonen obsession as if its worse than Toriyama's youknowwhat. I'm not even the biggest fan of his writing or designs (outside Parasite Eve and maybe TWEWY if you get past the twig limbs since the characters dress in a fashion I can actually see viable) but at least he has a clear vision.

      As for the article, while I have never been an MMO person it's quite promising to see someone in SE might help set some sense back into the company. Maybe..... *looks at new CEO's mobile plans from earlier* pls

      Delete
  2. What worries me is what if people like Mr. Yoshida who know what should be known and what should be done in a certain industry get their voices and influence drowned out by by the big-shots who focus on trivialities like GRAPHICS and FANSERVICE? Maybe that's just me being a pessimist, but I hope that doesn't happen anytime soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's already been happening for a while now.

      Delete
    2. Well, crap.
      But is it irreversible? I keep getting the feeling that the way things are can't be changed by mortal hands anymore.

      Delete
  3. I think Final Fantasy needs more of quirkyness back, like the old school RPGs. Although i know movies and games today try hard be serious. but the game's storys not that great anyways, they should poke more fun into the holes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The only person that should be running single-player, mainline FF is Hiroyuki Ito. He has worked hands-on with a FF since 2007. I really want him directing FFXVI.

    ReplyDelete