When hearing about video game success stories, it’s tough to not tell the story of the well-documented development cycle of Final Fantasy XIV. With the game’s latest install, Shadowbringers, players were treated to what is being regarded as one of the best MMORPG expansions to date. This is largely thanks to the additional areas and scenario created for the expansion as well as the entire team’s eagerness to improve.
In order to learn more about this expansion and the creative team in general, we had the opportunity to interview Main Scenario Writer Natsuko Ishikawa and Art Team Lead Takeo Suzuki to answer some of our burning questions.
AL: Was there pressure on you when starting such a large project, especially one that is constantly growing?
Natsuko Ishikawa: No matter the scope of the title, whether it’s a long scenario or short story, I’m always nervous when writing new material. I find myself in the park late at night with my head in my heads trying to find my way.
AL: Does this end up helping you in any way?
NI: A little. laughs
AL: With Shadowbringers being regarded as one of the best expansions of Final Fantasy XIV, how do you return to work and try to create something better?
NI: Not just with Shadowbringers, but with other stories that my team and I have written there have been previous expansions and stories that we were building from. There were ideas that were foreshadowed as well as feelings and thoughts put into the narrative elements that were put into the game up to this point. For future content, whether it’s me or another team member writing, we want to build upon what we already have and what we have established that fans have come to know and love. I think that’s how we continue to one-up ourselves and improve, which is all based on our previous efforts in the past. We also pay attention to player’s feedback to know what they enjoyed about the storyline and what parts about the story that they’ve grown attached to.
I’m sure players have plenty of unanswered questions, particularly about the Ascians. So there are still elements that we can speak to and depict in our narrative.
AL: Where typical Final Fantasy titles have a stand-alone campaign to tell a complete story, do you enjoy writing a story that is continuous like in Final Fantasy XIV?
NI: Oh, I enjoy it very much. But of course, I feel that stand-alone titles are fun to write for as well. However, with something like Final Fantasy XIV, we can touch on key aspects about the lore including how some things came about, which is a rare opportunity, but I get to write about it. This feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m enjoying it.
AL: When creating the art of Final Fantasy XIV, are you able to work alongside the writers?
Takeo Suzuki: Definitely, the art team works closely with the scenario team as well as another group of people who primarily handles creating the lore of the game itself. The members of these two teams will come to the art team with different character settings or factors that they want to incorporate in the next adventure and where the story is going to take place. If it weren’t for those elements being delivered to us, I don’t think we would be able to establish some of the notable worlds that we have right now.
What’s interesting about Final Fantasy XIV is that its a game where we have the opportunity to showcase the variety in what we provide to our players. We can also expand on different elements and we believe that contributes to the quality of the game. Sometimes it might not be a direction from the planning or design team, it could also be one of the art team members bringing up how it would be cool if a minion appeared in a certain area or introduce a new type of monster to be part of the realm. There’s always that two-way conversation.
AL: After working on previous Final Fantasy titles, how have you seen yourself change and improve in your skills?
TS: My roots stem from an animator background. When I started my career with the company, I thought, “How do you I become a better animator?” Throughout the different titles that I worked on, including Chrono Cross and The Bouncer creating cutscenes, I would always be trying to improve animations. I then found myself working on Final Fantasy X with the same mindset, but when I joined the Final Fantasy XII team I started to think about things from a game developer’s perspective, such as, what elements would be necessary to incorporate into these games.
The reason why I expanded my vision was that I was able to work with such a large group of talented animators and developers on the Final Fantasy XII team such as the former lead animator from The Bouncer and lead animator from Vagrant Story and developers from the Final Fantasy XI team and Brave Fencer Musashi, there was just so much talent around me. At the time, there wasn’t a job position that involved technical artist, but I felt there was a need to learn how to utilize the technologic advances we were making so we can provide a better visual representation. It’s because of this that I wanted to expand my expertise.
After this, I was able to join the research and development team to study more about graphics engines and how we can visually represent animation utilizing the functionality of a graphics engine. This all played into how we can present the different races and how their outfits are designed then how we can blend that into the motions.
You may already be aware, but the original Final Fantasy XIV had a miserable start. It’s through my desire to improve that led to Yoshida-san and I being added to the Final Fantasy XIV project so that we could rebuild it. What I learned about game development at that point was that the gameplay experience is a huge part of the overall package of a game. No matter how good your graphics may look. If your game isn’t playable it isn’t going to be fun. It’s from these learnings that I became more conscious and mindful when I’m working on backgrounds, characters, or cutscenes. I am always mindful of how to make the gameplay experience fun for the player.
AL: Are there any projects that you’ve worked on in the past that you’d like to return to? I might be just trying to talk about Chrono Cross with that question.
NI: I’m interested too.
TS: When it comes to Chrono Cross, I was involved in creating player animation and different tools for the engine. That was pretty fun for me and it’s something that I look back fondly on. It would be nice to do something like that again. There are so many talented developers that joined the company since so it might be better for me to just pass the torch onto the younger talent.
AL: When did you decide that you wanted to write for video games?
NI: That would probably be during elementary school. When I was in class we had to write an essay about what we wanted to do in the future, so I actually wrote, “I want to be a scenario writer at Square Enix.”
TS: A dream come true then?
AL: So this is all very exciting for you then?
NI: I would describe myself as being very patient and I always look at things in a long term perspective. That way, even if it takes ten years to get something done, if it’s my dream, I will continue to pursue it. Even if it’s 20 years, I’m fine with slowly progressing towards it.
AL: Since this has been a part of your dream, how have you improved since you started writing?
NI: Before Square Enix, I was with a smaller publisher who would create RPGs. When I arrived at Square Enix, I had the opportunity to talk with team members who have been with the company longer than I have to hone my skills and discuss ideas. These were steps that I took to improve my self. One other thing that I did is practice whenever I can like when others were sleeping.
AL: Final Fantasy XIV is a global title, do you feel you that you take into account each region when you write or does you and your team take the story where you feel it needs to go?
NI: For the scenario team, we have a goal of bringing to the table something that we are confident is interesting and fun to play through. We don’t think about things like, “oh, this particular element is popular in this region.” and we don’t try to jump on any bandwagons.
At the same time, we want to deliver our story to as many people as possible and we hope that it resonates with players. It’s for that reason that we work closely with the localization team to make sure that we are double-checking on certain ways we express things as well as check if something is conveyed correctly.
AL: The conclusion of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is really good, I won’t spoil it for this interview, but it is. When your team finished this story, did you all look at each other knowing, “This is it, we just created the best expansion.”?
NI: I would love to tell you that we were that confident, but we didn’t know at the time. So I would just be in the park at night with my head in my hands. There was a moment when I was thinking about the concept of each of the areas that the players will be able to travel too. When I imagined what kind of journey players will experience, I thought to myself, “Well, I know this isn’t going to boring.”
AL: What keeps you both motivated to continue to work in this industry and create these adventures?
TS: I think this ties into your previous question about improving and changing, but a lot of what I have done to keep my motivation up was to focus on honing the skills I’ve developed over the years and improve. From there, my perspective changed to presenting a good gameplay experience and learn new ways to make a game interesting, which has always been fun for me and keeps me motivated. Things like, patch updates and expansions have me excited. This why I’ve enjoyed working on Final Fantasy XIV because I have a content schedule and I get to constantly reflect new ideas from myself and player responses in them, which is just fun.
NI: I enjoy taking in information and then outputting that, which allows me to pick up on key technical things that I find cool and project that in my own way. This also reflected in gameplay elements that I enjoy, which includes creating my own interpretation of it that helps keep my motivation up. Of course, it’s not always fun and games with inputs and outputs, there are times when I have been disappointed in my myself and I don’t know where to go or I’m confused about what to do next. However, I realize that I’m not the only one who feels this way and those who aren’t in my position also go through these kinds of struggles. I try to look towards external sources to lift my spirits and regain any lost motivation.
AL: If it helps, the stories you both create have a positive impact on players globally and mean a lot to a lot of people, so I’m sure they’d love to be here to tell you, “Thank you for your work.”
NI: Thank you!
TS: Thank you.
AL: I guess I just put some more pressure on you.
For someone who has worked on stand-alone games, do you enjoy working on a game like Final Fantasy XIV that is always evolving or do you see yourself returning to developing stand-alone titles?
TS: Sometimes I get the feeling of wanting to do a stand-alone project. Using tools like Unreal or Unity allows game developers to create games a little more casually. While we do have these tools available to us, I’m okay with where I am now, but maybe a stand-alone title is something I can consider after retirement.
If there’s a huge demand for me on the next title, then it’s a possibility and I’ll put in the thought.
NI: Maybe the next Chrono?
TS: The Final Fantasy XIV team has a lot of talented people on staff and opportunities will arise that we don’t wont to be ignorant of. There’s nothing definite in the future…
looks at Ishikawa-san
…including the next Chrono. We aren’t even sure if there’s going to be a next Chrono.
AL: While creating characters for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, are there any success stories you can tell us?
TS: From a visual aspect, the Hrothgar race was something that we took on as a challenge and it was quite a struggle for us to get right. I am of proud of the achievements that we were able to make with that race.
AL: Were there any moments of the story that you are most proud of creating?
NI: I believe it would be the final parts of Shadowbringers once you’ve gotten to level 79 and defeated Innocense. There’s just so much packed in there and I was able to do everything that I wanted to do and convey. Seeing players experience that final part made me feel like I accomplished what I wanted to do.
TS: Since I oversee the creation of cutscenes, we wanted to make sure that the cutscenes were inline with the gameplay experience in Shadowbringers. So we worked really closely with the scenario team to convey these scenes and I was really proud of that.
AL: Is there anything you’d like to say to fans of Final Fantasy XIV?
NI: I want to thank our players. We’ve received an overwhelming response from the players telling how they’ve enjoyed the narrative. Our team’s concept of Shadowbringers was to connect the dots of the story as well as carry things from previous expansions to future story elements. The voices that you’ve raised is something that we take to heart and implement it into a new story. Returning to what we spoke about before and how our creations have had an impact on players is something that I take to heart and I continue to use that and put it into the game.
TS: This might overlap, but from the art team and staff in general, we are very thankful to hear all the positive responses from players. The fact that so many players have been expressing their enjoyment of the Shadowbringers is getting more players to enter this world to create an even larger community. Our circle of friends has become large. I will continue to work hard so that we can enjoy this together.
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