It's odd to think that any one game could inspire players from all walks of life to set aside two days and flock to one location in celebration, but MMORPGs are unique in that they are as much instruments for social networking as they are video games. Because of this, perhaps it isn't all that surprising to see such fantastic devotion as we've seen here at Final Fantasy Fan Festival (say that five times fast), Square Enix's annual party celebrating all things Final Fantasy XI.
The event, limited to just 1500 attendees, also doubles as a launch party of sorts for the MMO's latest expansion, Wings of the Goddess, which ships on November 20. Goddess adds a number of interesting changes to the existing formula, including two new jobs – Dancer and Scholar – as well as takes the setting back in time to let players take part in, and possibly change the events that helped shape the history of Vana'diel. To find out more about this game, as well as the other changes Square Enix has in store for the MMO, we went straight to the horse's mouth, and joined a handful of other journalists in a private interview session with the game's development team, including Hiromichi Tanaka, Akihiko Matsui, Mitsutoshi Gondai, Kouichi Ogawa, Kenichi Iwao, and Sage Sundi.
As we sat down in the posh Anaheim Hilton hotel suite, we asked the team about the unique challenges presented in developing Wings of the Goddess, which takes place some two decades prior than the events depicted in previous Final Fantasy XI adventures. Ogawa, who served as the director on not only this latest expansion but Treasures of Aht Urhgan as well, immediately chuckled at this. "One of things that was challenging when creating this system," recalled Ogawa via a translator, "is that you're only going back in time twenty years, and so you can't do something that's too dynamic because then something so big would really directly affect the present. Trying to come up with things that are exciting for the players but also aren't too big because of the limited time [was a challenge]."
He further explained: "As for doing things in the past that will change the situation in the present, for the first patch and this first update there won't be many things that will affect it yet, but we plan on adding those in future patches."
Describing some of the impetus for creating the expansion's new jobs, Mitsutoshi Gondai, Final Fantasy XI's planner, commented that the team created the Dancer to be "a front line character that could also do healing as well," while the Scholar is designed to be "a back line magic user-type player that focuses more on abilities than just magic." Gondai also noted that both jobs "will have a lot of benefits when used as support jobs because they have a lot of abilities."
"On a whole we felt that there weren't enough pure back line players like the White Mage and the Black Mage," continued Gondai, "and so with these two new jobs you'll have a pure magic user with the Scholar and also a front line player that can also use White magic." Talking about the Dancer specifically, the team noted that the class is designed to work well in smaller parties, such as groups of 3 "where you don't have enough people but would still be effective so you wouldn't have to get a White Mage."
One thing that really got the crowd screaming with excitement during the event's opening ceremonies was the unveiling of an official windowing utility for Final Fantasy XI, which aims to replace unsupported third party tools such as Windower and allow players to run the popular MMO within a scalable window rather than just in full screen. Final Fantasy XI producer Tanaka called the addition a "natural progression" given Microsoft's Games for Windows branding, adding belief that "probably most all games are going to be using these windowed modes now."
But does this mean that Square Enix plans to begin enforcing any sort of ban on the the current Windower and other similar tools? The producer wouldn't go that far, though Tanaka did comment that Square Enix has been "trying to crack down on the uses of the tools that aren't made official by the FFXI project on a whole."
This is understandable given that many players do use these utilities to cheat, though other players simply use these third party tools to overcome a number of legitimate interface issues in the game in order to make playing certain classes in particular much easier, a benefit Tanaka downplayed, stating that there will be "no support on our side" for such interface-enhancing plugins. However, Tanaka did state that the team plans to "increase the number of macros so that people will have up to 4,000 macro buttons."
"Probably the trickiest thing about these tools that a lot of the players are using right now is that they're pretty dangerous programs," explained Tanaka, who called the official option a "much more stable a safe tool" than those not supported by Square Enix. "We're hoping that a lot of players who happen to be using those will move to this new one because it's a lot more stable and shouldn't have problems with their systems."
Wrapping up, the interview was concluded on a lighter note as the team was approached on a topic on the minds of most end-game communities, namely how to kill Absolute Virtue, considered to be the MMO's toughest monster. This question got a rise out of the whole team as everyone began to laugh. The developers admitted that they intended to bring a video to the event showing how to defeat the notorious creature but they simply ran out of time. "There are still plans on making it," chuckled Ogawa, "but we don't think we'll be able to kill it in the working hours so someone's going to have to do overtime."