‘FFXIV: Stormblood’s Writers Believe Gameplay Should Always Come First

Jeremy Ray
Games PlayStation
Games PlayStation PC Gaming Final Fantasy

It’s been over six years since Final Fantasy XIV was released, and the MMO has been going strong, keeping players engaged with the “A Realm Reborn,” “Heavensward,” and “Stormblood” additions.

Since then, scenario writers Natsuko Ishikawa and Banri Oda have written an official lorebook, Encyclopaedia Eorzea – The World of FINAL FANTASY XIV, a 300-page tome that seems to be highly popular among its niche audience.

We had the opportunity to ask the above authors about their approach to writing MMOs, and crafting marathon narratives when very little can be assumed about the player.

FANDOM: How must the story for an MMO be written differently to a normal videogame story?

Natsuko Ishikawa: There are similarities, but there are two big main differences. One is that the design of an MMO is usually one that requires large amounts of gameplay, so even just following the main scenario will take a fair investment of time.

Therefore, as the nature of the game means re-doing something when choosing the wrong option is impossible, it makes it difficult to incorporate something like multiple endings when it comes to the plot. After experiencing ending A, you aren’t going to want to do it all again to experience ending B, are you?

Natsuko Ishikawa, Main Scenario Writer
Natsuko Ishikawa, Main Scenario Writer

Secondly, the player can choose their character’s gender, race, and background, which is perhaps different to a single player RPG. (But there are many open world games nowadays in which you can freely make a character in-game.)

Therefore, when making the scenario, we have to be sure to keep in mind that there is no such thing as “what the protagonist is exactly.”

Did you ever feel limited by not knowing the player character’s age or sex, or was that seen as an opportunity?

Natsuko Ishikawa: There are advantages and disadvantages. If, hypothetically, the settings for the protagonist where fixed, then players would not be able to form an empathy if they didn’t have anything in common with them. On the other hand, as the frame of the protagonist is less clear, it can be harder to write about them.

However, that does also mean that players have the space to imagine the rest for themselves. Perhaps it’s the very point that players feel an empathy with the Warrior of Light – because it’s a part of them as the character.

FFXIV likes to stay vague on the player character’s reactions, to avoid it clashing with the actual player’s reactions. As time goes on, the player will have more and more of the story up to their own personal interpretation. Does this ever create a cycle of needing to be more and more vague?

Natsuko Ishikawa: We have been taking care from “ARR” to leave the thoughts and feelings of the Warrior of Light open to the player’s interpretation. Just as I answered in the first question, it’s a difficult title to offer alternate branches to the stories, but we can set up various options to express one’s thoughts.

If you are the Warrior of Light, what would you do in this situation, what kind of words would you choose… That’s one aspect of role playing, and we hope you enjoy it.

MMOs in particular are games that need to stand the test of time. To what extent would you intentionally withhold information so players as a community can take their time to explore, discover, and solve narrative puzzles?

Banri Oda: I’m constantly worried about how much information we should let out. Myself, Ishikawa and Yoshida are constantly debating this.

However, we feel that the policy that stands for not only the scenario, but for everything in the game, should be “necessary information should be obtainable without extreme stress, but time can be taken to explore and discover nuances that are less critical.”

Our impression of FFXIV’s development process is that it’s very gameplay first, and the story is built around that. How do you use story to enhance a style of gameplay or level design being built?

Natsuko Ishikawa: Yes, we do indeed put gameplay first, and build the story about that. To put it simply, if I wanted to write a wonderful story, I would write a novel. In order to provide an experience that can only be done in a game, we need gameplay to be the axis around which that experience pivots.

Therefore, as the action of flying being provided was decided for 3.0, the story took to the skies. In 4.0 the action of swimming and going underwater was also added, so we started to explore the seas – as with the Ruby Tide – an important thing.

Also, things like the level cap, the number of dungeons to challenge within that, the number of boss battles etc. are all decided first. The scenario is then considered based on that. On the other hand, because the level design and battle teams take over after the scenario plot is created, for things like each area, each dungeon and bosses, etc., you could also say that the scenario and game design are created at the same time.

“Stormblood” had more of an Eastern influence. How did you approach that when making a game that the rest of the world consumes as well. Do you marry some Western and Eastern elements to make it more palatable? Or do you dive in headfirst and trust in the new direction? How did you find the reaction?

Banri Oda: When it comes to the adventures in an MMO world, you want to step out and adventure into unknown lands, right? It’s not as important as to whether that is an Eastern land or a Western land, we place more importance in whether or not it feels new and fresh.

On the other hand, in the making of the story that was held in the Far Eastern lands of FFXIV, we avoided making it too stiff, and definitely placed an element of importance in making it easy to understand. For example, the story of Shisui of the Violet Tides is something based off of the major Japanese fairy tale known as Urashima Taro, that any five year old in Japan has heard of (and is also similar to a legend that remains widely in China).

When making a game for the domestic Japanese market, we want to avoid any majorly obvious motifs, but when considering that we are creating this for the various other players of the world we opted for a rather straightforward approach. However, when asked if Kugane and Doma are just replicas of Japan and China, I would say that they are not. We were careful to arrange those places as having their own Far Eastern fantasy world.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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