Final Fantasy XVI

"Final Fantasy is the freedom to create what you want": We caught up with Naoki Yoshida to talk about Final Fantasy XVI

Ahead of next month's launch, we caught up with Yoshida and co. to talk about the essence of Final Fantasy, the new direction, snowboards, and bad Japanese bacon.

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As he steps onto the stage, confident and in black, there's no doubt that Naoki Yoshida is the star of the three-week press tour that is taking the Square Enix team from the UK to Australia to push the marketing of Final Fantasy XVI across the finish line. Today, Paris is hosting the preview event, and through an interpreter, Naoki Yoshida, or Yoshi-P as he also goes by, sets the scene for the four hours of Final Fantasy XVI we're about to play. Game developers are usually more reserved than, say, musicians or actors, but Yoshida has an almost rock-star aura about him that makes him compelling to listen to - even if you don't understand a word of the Japanese he communicates almost exclusively in.

The next day, I meet him in a room at the designer hotel that makes my own temporary address in the city of light pale considerably. As I said, the producer, best known and loved for revitalising Final Fantasy XIV, is the star, but he's not alone. He is joined by Art Director Hiroshi Minagawa and Localisation Director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, who also acts as interpreter for the two Japanese developers. Interviewing through an interpreter (actually two in this case) is always a slightly awkward situation because the conversation never really flows and it's hard to react quickly to interesting information, but thanks to Naoki Yoshida's lively answers and Michael-Christopher Koji Fox's obviously deep knowledge of the game and the universe, which far exceeds the level I've experienced with interpreters before, the awkwardness quickly disappears.

First, though, we need to stay in the awkwardness for a bit. I ask Naoki Yoshida, who is known for his work on the MMOs Dragon Quest X and especially Final Fantasy XIV, what the difference between developing single player and MMOs is, and if it has been difficult to adapt to the former, which prompts a small laugh and an explanation that he is often asked about that, but he started out making single player games and now has quite a few under his belt. With that out of the way, he embarks on a longer answer involving metaphors about solo play in the sandbox vs. football with friends, and more concrete examples such as how layers and communication between server, player and game complicate the development of MMOs, while single player games come with higher demands on the visual part from the players. With that out of the way, we go in a different direction and move the conversation to something the three gentlemen would rather talk about. The spirit and characteristics of Final Fantasy.

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"I've asked this question myself to the father of Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi-san, and what he said to me is that Final Fantasy is basically whatever the person making it at the time thinks is best for the series. There are no rules, you have the freedom to create what you want. That's what Final Fantasy is. So I think about that when I create my Final Fantasy." - Naoki Yoshida

Over the past 25 years, we've seen the Final Fantasy series take many different forms, both in terms of environment and gameplay. It has moved from steampunk to classic fantasy, from fully linear to open world, from turn-based to real-time. So what defines a Final Fantasy game in your eyes?

Hiroshi Minagawa: "Before I started working on Final Fantasy, I played it and I always remember being very impressed by the graphics. And then the series always has a great opening that sucks you into the story from the first moment. Now that I'm working on Final Fantasy, those are the two things I want to bring to the games as well. We have wonderful graphics and a wonderful story, and these things are backed up by well-designed characters and world. This "complete package" is something I've been striving for on this project."

Michael-Christopher Koji Fox: "Every game in the series is a new, unique experience because the world is different, the characters are different, the story is different, but there's always the Final Fantasy essence. The games have this Final Fantasy feel, things that carry over from game to game. Little things like spell names, monsters or special characters. So you don't have to have played the old games to understand the new ones. But if you have, you can enjoy the references, and I love drawing on old Final Fantasy titles to put in Easter eggs that fans of the series can find and enjoy."

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Naoki Yoshida: "I've answered this question many times, and to me there are many things that make up a Final Fantasy, but as long as you have those things, you have a Final Fantasy: a deep story, top-notch graphics, and moving music that ties it all together. Then you need a deep and complex battle system, and on top of that, you need a ton of content. And when you have all that - as long as you also have Moogles and Chocobos - all is well."

He pauses and thinks.

"I've asked this question myself to the father of Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi-san, and what he said to me is that Final Fantasy is basically whatever the person making it at the time thinks is best for the series. There are no rules, you have the freedom to create what you want. That's what Final Fantasy is. So that's what I think about when I create my Final Fantasy."

And Yoshida's version of Final Fantasy turns out to be a particularly violent one. Bodily fluids are unleashed as blood splatters and two central characters share what is, for the series, a historically horny moment.

Final Fantasy XVIFinal Fantasy XVI
Final Fantasy XVIFinal Fantasy XVI

We've known for some time that Final Fantasy XVI has a darker, more mature and serious tone than previous games in the series. How did you land on this tone?

Naoki Yoshida: "It's not like we started development with a plan to have a lot of brutal and sexual elements in the game. That's not how we approached development. When we started development, we did a lot of user research. We got a lot of positive feedback on the series, but there was also a lot of negative feedback that stood out. One shocking thing for us to learn was that a lot of younger players, people in their 20s or 30s, didn't play Final Fantasy anymore or had never played a game in the series because the series didn't speak to them. They thought the pacing was too slow and the stories were too childish. We made games that simply didn't speak to the younger players. And we actually got a lot of the same feedback from the older players. They didn't think the series was for them anymore. When you've got a series that you want to continue and you want to keep up with the times, and you've got players who reject it or don't want to give it a chance... That's not how you make it grow bigger. So first of all, we had to create something relatable for those players, a story that resonates with them. And to do that, we can't just present a wonderful, happy fantasy world, so we decided to create something that was closer to the real world and show both the good and the bad, so that people on this earth can relate to it a little bit more, and that way bring them back to the series.

"In the world of Final Fantasy XVI, resources are scarce, and so people fight for them. They're risking their lives and fighting for their family's survival. So when you're showing this war, if you do it without showing blood, death, swords breaking and armour being ripped apart... you can do that, but how real does it feel? War is a very dark and grim thing, so if you don't show these things while you're trying to say something about war, it ends up feeling cheap because it doesn't feel real. Because we all know the truth about war. So by not looking away from the darkness, we can emphasise the light, because even though Final Fantasy XVI has a very dark story, there's always a chance for hope, there's always a chance for rescue. We want to show that to the players, and it will only be meaningful if we show both the darkness and the light."

You mention that many players no longer identified with the series. Did this realisation also lead to the new combat system, which, for the first time in the series, is completely action-based?

Naoki Yoshida: "There are two simple reasons why we decided to go full action with the combat system. One is exactly what you said: That we got feedback and realised that also the action part has to reflect our new approach. We have these very realistic graphics, we have Clive in full armour and he's running towards the enemy and screaming and stopping in the heat of battle and waiting for a command [from the player]. That doesn't align with the realism we wanted to give the game."

"The other reason is that we're all gamers as well, and we're also looking at what we like to play these days. And a lot of the team play ARPGs, action games and first person shooters. Those are the games we love. Yeah, we grew up with turn-based games, we love them too, and a lot of the team have created a lot of them. But when we look at what we play now, it's action that we love. And then we think back to what Sakaguchi-san said about creating what you think is best for the time you're in. What's the best now? Right now, we love these action games, and we think a lot of other people do too. It's the best decision for us right now, and if we make what we love, we know it's going to be a great game because we love it."

From here the conversation turns to Eikons, and the oddity that they are always called "summoned beast" in Japanese, but in the localised versions change name from time to time, prompting some friendly banter from Yoshida towards Koji Fox (who is responsible for this naming) about what's wrong with "summons". "Maybe he really hates the word?"

We also touch on things the three are particularly proud of. For Hiroshi Minagawa, the epic opening sequence, the content of which I'll refrain from going into detail about. Michael-Christopher Koji Fox loves the active time lore system, which lets you pause the game and learn more about the characters and locations in that scene - not unlike what we saw in Pentiment last year. And Naoki Yoshida? Well, as a true leader, he's obviously proud of the whole team and the work they've put into the game. However, he also emphasises the game's accessibility feature, which lets the player wear different rings, each of which makes the game easier in its own way. One, for example, makes it easier to time dodges, while another makes you take significantly less damage.

Of course, while a three-week press tour is primarily hard work, there has to be room for relaxation too, so in closing, I ask what each of them likes to relax with. The fact that Hiroshi Minagawa likes to game was perhaps not the most surprising answer given his profession. Fortunately, the other two have slightly more fun answers. Michael-Christopher Koji Fox cooks and, in frustration with Japan's poor smoked bacon (his words!), has taken to smoking his own. For Naoki Yoshida, the question elicits the interview's only English-language response: "Snowboarding!" In fact, it turns out that he's brought his own snowboard from Japan on tour, and plans to hit the Alps as soon as he can this coming weekend. For the remainder of the press tour's good humour, let's just hope there was some snow to be found on the Italian slopes.

Read our latest preview of Final Fantasy XVI right here.


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