The Secret Ingredient That Saved ‘Final Fantasy XIV’

Michael "Ethys" Asher
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming Final Fantasy PlayStation

It had one of the most disastrous launches in MMO history. The barren, boring landscapes of Final Fantasy XIV saw the game’s Metacritic rating fall below 50. The game, along with players’ trust in Square Enix, seemed irreparable. It wasn’t just technical issues — it was hubris.

Yet at the recent Fan Fest in one of Paris’ most spacious halls, surrounded by thousands of fans, we see only evidence of a thriving – growing, even – FFXIV scene. It’s a complete 180-degree turnaround from the launch, and the journey rivals that of any Warrior of Light.

Erected in the centre of La Grande Hall De La Villete was a great, glowing Aetheryte. In Eorzea, the massive world of Final Fantasy XIV, this crystal is a lighthouse for the soul. Wherever Aetherytes are found, communities flourish. So it was in Paris this February.

This biennial tour of revelrous gatherings stretches proverbial bridges between the fanbase and developers. Four and a half thousand attendees in Paris, five thousand in Vegas; fifteen thousand in Tokyo. All sold out within minutes.

How did FFXIV and its community go from such a catastrophe in 2010 to such a thriving and impassioned celebration of success in 2019?

FFXIV Shadowbringers Paris Fan Fest Aetheryte
The Aetheryte, lodestone for the FFXIV European community.

Signs of a Thriving Fanbase

Many of our fellow attendees had been around since the very beginning of this incredible journey. We spoke to them about how we got here, while a crowd around us endlessly cheered for content announcements, cosplay, and even musical performances from the developers.

Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida made his spectacular first entrance to the stage, revealing an upcoming job through the work of a community cosplayer.

Artist Ayumi Namae designed so many of the characters that players love to cosplay. The reciprocated delight at seeing her costumes brought to life over the weekend was palpable. The convention floor space featured displays of Namae’s own work alongside community artists.

The event’s frenetic PvP championship was organised, driven, and shoutcasted by community members.

FFXIV Paris Fan Fest 2019 Moogle Post Warriors of Light
Moogle Post for the Warriors of Light.

Strangers queuing up together for battle challenges became fast friends. Two attendees got engaged. Someone we had just met offered us a handmade pendant and a total stranger pressed a letter into our hands addressed to the Warrior of Light.

At the end of each day was a concert to put Distant Worlds to shame. First, a grand piano odyssey with Susan Calloway and Benyamin Nuss interspersed with the comical madness of XIV’s dedicated composer Masayoshi Soken.

FFXIV Paris Fan Fest Masayoshi Soken Benyamin Nuss
Masayoshi Soken and guest pianist Benyamin Nuss (credit SE)

Then came The Primals, Soken’s hard rock band dedicated to arrangements of the FFXIV OST. Yoshida himself got involved, belting out the vocals for ‘The Jade Stoa.’

Having attended three Fan Festivals since 2016, we can confirm that the atmosphere never changes. It delivers a sense of intimacy and warmth that should not be possible amidst a crowd of several thousand strangers, but a sense that is nonetheless quintessential to XIV’s community.

FFXIV Paris Fan Fest Yoshida rock band
Literal rock star, Naoki Yoshida (centre) with Soken (left) and Koji Fox (credit SE)

Intimacy, warmth and a surprising diversity. Gathered here in this commodious Parisian hall were representatives from a broader range of cultures and communities than you would expect from most conventions, let alone one dedicated to a single title.

But diversity in gaming is banal these days, right? Public proposals at conventions are commonplace; families and spouses play games together all the time; events give people an inflated sense of solidarity! Isn’t seeming to be community-oriented and community-driven just a business tactic?

FFXIV Paris Fan Fest European creators and streamers
An eclectic group of European content creators, streamers and community leaders for XIV

It’s hard not to be a little skeptical. Today, player-developer relationships are so often defined by adversity. Players see developers and publishers as the enemy, a greedy and contemptuous obstacle. But not here.

The relationship of FFXIV fans towards producer and director Naoki Yoshida is what a cynical outsider might describe as a cult of personality.

The Yoshida Effect

Ayumi Namae has been working on the art team for FFXIV since before the Yoshida era. She reminisces with a laugh about how she first met the man. When then-CEO of Square Enix — Yoichi Wada — announced before the assembled team that their replacement producer and director would be Yoshida-san, she and many others assumed that Wada meant the other Yoshida, renowned SE veteran artist Akihiko Yoshida.

No one had really heard of this youthful eccentric, bound in leathers and silver rings. Who is this guy? After the turbulence and poor reception of the project so far, they were doubtlessly wary.

FFXIV Yoshida media tour photos
Yoshida, immediately following the FFXIV European media tours in 2013 (left) and 2017 (right)

So it was for the players. “Funny enough, our reaction wasn’t that different from Namae-san’s,” Andrew Copeland aka FusionX (producer for GamerEscape, a FFXIV-centric hub) elaborates; “ ‘who the hell is Naoki Yoshida?’ It was a weird feeling of yes we knew the game was bad but holy shit…it was huge. We felt bad for Tanaka but at the same time, we knew XIV wasn’t in a great place.”

Japanese gamers on various forums initially referred to Yoshida as “The Duck,” a derogatory moniker, before they felt he had earned the deferential “-P” suffix as “Yoshi-P.” This honorific — usually reserved for pop-culture icons — was the first recognition of Yoshida’s approachable personality and of the community’s willingness to give him a real try.

Yoshida knew that 1.0 had been defeated by internal conceit and complacency. It’s Final Fantasy! Of course players will love it; FFXI did fine after all.

As we now know, the initial launch of XIV was a barely-mitigated disaster. It had a Metacritic average of 48. For a narrative-driven IP, it had very little story content. The zones were empty, lifeless, and full of invisible walls. The control scheme and UI was deeply unintuitive; the combat tedious and unrewarding. An obsession with graphical fidelity resulted in flowerpots with over one thousand polygons — only the highest-end PCs could expect a stable FPS. The servers would crash literally four hundred times a day.

The magnitude of the game’s inadequacies in 1.0 can never be overstated.

FFXIV v1 launch Hiromichi Tanaka Sage Sundi
Former Producer Hiromichi Tanaka and Global Online Producer Sage Sundi taking the heat after 1.0 launched to an overwhelmingly negative reception in 2010.

After taking the helm in December 2010, Yoshida made his first principle clear to all: to win back the trust of gamers lost by the initial launch. He claimed that this was more important to him personally than actual sales — he would work his ass off and hold his team to the same standard until players finally felt that they could once again believe in the project.

Rather than just pushing a couple of arbitrary post-launch patches and monetising the project as much as possible before abandoning it with a skeleton crew and moving on, Square Enix allowed Yoshida to completely remake the game from scratch, to no expense for the current players. In the meantime, Yoshida and team would make what improvements they could to the current iteration and begin to set the stage for A Realm Reborn.

First, all monthly fees were suspended for the remainder of 1.x and every legacy player would be provided a copy of ARR for free. To this day, all legacy players receive a discounted subscription rate. Next came the daunting task of winning back the hearts of a community betrayed. Work ethic aside, Yoshida had a secret weapon — charisma in spades.

FFXIV v1 legacy tattoo
All 1.0 players’ characters bear the Legacy Tattoo: a brand that marks them as survivors of the Seventh Umbral Calamity at Carteneau Flats.

Letters From the Producer

“He started doing the Live Letter which was really quite unique for MMOs at the time,” Twitch partner and community personality Healme Harry explained from the floor of the Paris Fan Festival. “I know other MMOs did similar things but it was never the producer, it was always a PR rep or someone being told what to say. I don’t think they went into it intending him to become a rock star… but then he saved the f—n’ realm!”

Saving the f—n’ realm wasn’t so simple… and Yoshida knew it wasn’t enough for players to take it on faith that his team was determined to turn the ship around for 2.0 — there wasn’t any faith left. Nor did he think we would accept solely the reassurances of Square Enix PR and community reps. So in January of 2011, Yoshida published the first Letter From the Producer — the beginning of a direct and unfiltered conversation between himself and the players.

These letters were a vehicle for the inclusion of players to every aspect of the development process: poll data and analyses regarding player habits, desires, and expectations moving toward 2.0; direct Q&A for player concerns; photos and screenshots for content in production; personal interviews with various members of the team… most importantly the constant, adamant demonstration that all player sentiment and feedback was not only being heard, but understood. The rate and detail of these letters only accelerated once servers were taken offline following 1.23b in September 2012.

FFXIV live letters Yoshida
Live Letter I (Oct 2011) and XLIX (Feb 2019)

The even more obliging ‘Letter from the Producer, Live’ began in October of 2011. From here and right through the down-time, reboot, and continuation of FFXIV, Yoshida has sat down at least once every few months to spend two or three hours elucidating live with whomsoever cares to watch about the state of the game. These days, every episode receives tens of thousands of views live on Twitch and constitutes the primary source of news and discussion for the playerbase.

Most of the Live Letters have included a Q&A section where Yoshida has personally addressed even the most trite and tedious inquiries of players — when can we have butt-sliders? Can Lalafells and Roegadyns breed? Where are the peaches?

He congratulates outstanding player achievements such as world firsts for each raid tier. When feedback indicates that particular content has been implemented sub-standard, he literally prostrates himself and asks for forgiveness.

FFXIV Frankfurt concert Yoshida Primals Frankfurt
Yoshida rocking out to The Primals with fans in Frankfurt, 2017 (credit SE)

The Live Letter thrives whilst similar community-engagement initiatives in the industry flounder. There is something about this strange recipe of organic and largely unscripted discussion, Yoshida’s uncommon charisma and genuine desire for a reciprocative discourse in favour of the waterfall model of development. It’s a subtle, ethereal thing; but it’s very real and very powerful.

Even when fans are unhappy with Square Enix, they will always trust Yoshi-P.

Bridging the Player and Developer

Of course, Yoshida did save the f—n’ realm… he and the incredibly industrious developers and various staffers working the sails that have proved almost unwaveringly reliable ever since. Yet the vast majority of ARR’s record-setting ninety-eight minute credits sequence is dedicated to the legacy players. Their undeserved faith, dedication and critical feedback is what Yoshida always cites as the true cause for XIV’s rebirth.

Yoshi-P isn’t the only progenitor of the XIV community — so many of its quirks come from the Final Fantasy franchise itself. There are so many different types of players, subcultures, and communities populating Eorzea and cohabitating — for the most part — quite happily… but if Final Fantasy is the thread which binds them, Naoki Yoshida is the needle.

FFXIV PvP PlusOne Frosty Barb Paris Fan Fest 2019
PvP shoutcasters PlusOne, Frosty, and Barb in Paris.

“There are some horrible parts of the community,” PVP shoutcaster Frosty insisted when we asked him what he thought was the best part of the community. “Alright, so it’s kind of the worst and best, I guess. The game is so spread out, it’s super diverse — you all want different types of things playing the game and then some people get jaded by other parts of that diverse community… You have all these opposing opinions but they all still play this game, just from a different perspective.”

He’s not wrong. The Final Fantasy franchise has a broader appeal than most IPs that have been developed into MMOs. It is the first foray into MMORPGs for many players attracted by the brand. Inversely, it is the first Final Fantasy title of many hardcore MMO veterans.

Some people make their home in Eorzea so they can access a beautiful Final Fantasy sandbox for casual play, socialising, and RP. Some play only for the story and approach any cooperative content with reluctance, if at all. Some want hardcore raids to rival the most challenging of WoW’s Mythic instances. Some want a long, low-APM grind reminiscent of FFXI.

FFXIV story mission quest dialogue
Many casual players treat FFXIV as a serialised drama with a side of combat instances.

Each of XIV’s patches will cater to some of these sub-communities, but few will provide fresh content for every type of player. Sure, this creates some friction. Some people think that content which isn’t for them isn’t for anybody at all.

We all know the old adage that if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one. This is particularly true for the industry today — games that fail to focus on or carve out a niche tend to sink pretty fast.

FFXIV is the demonstrable exception to this rule, but why? Hardcore raiders don’t love that most odd numbered patches won’t scratch their itch (apart from the occasional Ultimate fight), but they know that every even numbered patch will. The patch cycle is reliable and predictable and upcoming content well communicated. They know that there will never be more than three months between major patches and that they’ll get their dose of a new Savage raid tier at least twice a year. In the meantime, they know that they get to participate in an active discussion regarding feedback and future implementation of the content.

FFXIV hype train Yoshida Soken
The unstoppable “Hype Train” of Naoki Yoshida and Masayoshi Soken is always on time.

The players are directly plugged into the development process, as Yoshida has made clear since before ARR. This is true for every sub-community.

Often, these different types of players will be funneled into content together. You can find posts most days across community spaces ranting about abrasive interactions between hardcore and casual players in roulette or pug content from both sides. No online community is free from toxicity, but FFXIV has evolved an ingenious way of handling it.

A Self-Moderating Culture

The core of the veteran community is rooted in the experience of 1.0 through 1.23b, the dedication to stick with the project despite its flaws and hold the devs to their promises. The pending calamitous destruction of the realm and the hope that it might be reborn into something great generated solidarity.

There grew a real sense that the community was responsible and accountable for the success or failure of ARR; they were an implicit and integral part of the game’s continued development.

FFXIV Great Goobue Wall calamity ul'dah
The famous “Great Goobue Wall” of players defending Ul’dah from umbral horrors in the final days of 1.23b. Legacy players weathered both a developmental and diegetic calamity together.

When waves of enthusiastic new faces began to arrive, most legacy players saw themselves as ambassadors for the realm and happily took these wide-eyed adventurers under wing. In so doing, they imparted the values of inclusivity, communication, and camaraderie that had held them fast through the turbulent past. The new players who stick around for long become a part of this culture in turn and perpetuate it for each subsequent migratory wave.

The signal for this established FFXIV culture is massively boosted across media by its reflection in influential community figures like Mrhappy and the fruitful, inclusive networks which grow around them.

FFXIV Mrhappy Michael Poveromo
Members of the dev team with the ever-jovial Michael “Mrhappy” Poveromo, trailblazer for the FFXIV community on Twitch and YouTube.

It’s no surprise that this cultural organism actively repels toxicity. Some parasites slip into the more isolated corners, but the community successfully corrects or excises the most offensive individuals, groups, and attitudes rather quickly. This proclivity might make the community seem cliquish, but it actually breaks up the need for cliques and instead lubricates the interaction between subgroups.

Colours of the Realm

We already mentioned that the Final Fantasy IP has appealed for over thirty years to a pretty broad spectrum of folks. This significantly includes the disenfranchised, underrepresented, and other people to whom the mainstream of gaming narratives hasn’t always readily spoken.

Some years ago, Ethys spoke with FFXIV players who had grown up with the Final Fantasy franchise helping them make sense of and thrive through the trials of sexual and gender identity as well as Autism Spectrum Disorders and other experiences that would otherwise have been far more difficult to reconcile. Final Fantasy also collects a very well-documented LGBTQ audience. Our chat with Harry in Paris drifted back to the topic.

FFXIV Healme Harry Team Crystalium Paris Fan Fest 2019
Healme Harry (second from left) with fellow members of Team Crystalium in Paris.

“The males weren’t all depicted as these big, macho, typically “western” types… they were more in touch with their emotions and that was something that I hadn’t really seen in media before. But I immediately felt connected to it. Like Tidus, for example,” Harry explained when we asked him what first drew him to the franchise as a young gamer.

When we asked him why he continued to return to FFXIV over WoW, Harry surprised us. “Their community is horrible, it’s not good. I went back recently and tried my hardest to find a LGBT group to play with and I couldn’t find a single guild on the Oceanic Data Centre that was LGBT focused. In XIV, they’re everywhere. I was really surprised… I went back to WoW and I couldn’t find a single guild or community that I felt like I belonged in.”

By contrast, XIV is the very first video game sponsor for a Pride parade float at the 2019 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.

FFXIV Vegas Fan Fest 2019 Aetheryte
We thought that attuning to the Aetheryte in Vegas last year might save us the cost of a return trip...

The Final Fantasy brand draws in fans from an exceptionally wide scope; with every new expansion, FFXIV offers players with a wide variety of habits and needs an ever-improving home in which to flourish together.

At the garbage pile of 1.0, the community rolled up their sleeves and made compost. Here the seeds of rebirth took root and with diligence and faith they tended and coaxed forth a verdant grove. Fan fest is a symbol for the fruit of this long labour that we might enjoy, share and celebrate together. It is an event like no other in the industry.

Perhaps we’re being bullishly sanguine, but the XIV community is a part of our family and every chance we get to party with them is an absolute privilege.

There’s no doubt that when Shadowbringers launches in July, it will introduce a whole new generation of prospective adventurers to this strange and wonderful community and we can’t wait to welcome them all.

Michael "Ethys" Asher
Streamer, occasional YouTuber and freelance lore fanatic. I'm holding up your dungeon run analysing that carving on the wall.
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