Collection of surprisingly candid comments from FF developers

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TresDias
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After my memory of this interview with Yoko Shimomura and Tetsuya Nomura was refreshed during a recent discussion with @ChipNoir, I've decided to compile a number of the more surprisingly frank comments we've seen out of Final Fantasy developers in recent years -- such comments being rare as they are among Japanese game developers in the first place, and among Square Enix employees in particular.

Seeing as it was comments illustrating Nomura's characteristic aloofness and general detachment from colleagues that prompted me to compile this assortment of quotes, we may as well go with some from this interview next, containing as it does a rather startling self-assessment on his part:

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It's quite a famous story, how the idea for a collaboration between Disney and Square was born in an elevator during a conversation between Shinji Hashimoto and a Disney staff member. What prompted you to propose to take charge of the project?

Nomura:
This event took place during the period between the development of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. It was after the release of Super Mario 64, when the industry was transitioning from 2D sprites to polygonal graphics. When I played Super Mario 64, I was very impressed by the world and how you are able to move freely in an open environment.

As I worked on Final Fantasy, I thought our combat system could work perfectly in such an environment, so I began to think about the possibility of creating a 3D action game. I spoke to my colleagues about the idea, but there was a problem: Mario is a famous icon all over the world, and to create an equally recognizable game, I'd need to use characters that are on that same level such as Disney characters. When I heard that the executives at Disney and Square were considering working on something together, I immediately put my name forward. I knew I had to do it or else I'd never have another opportunity. There's no other reasoning behind it.

Did you have any advice from Hironobu Sakaguchi at that time? What did you think about the project?

Nomura:
When I started working on the first Kingdom Hearts, Sakaguchi gave me a little suggestion. He had asked me what kind of game I was going to create, and I told him that I wanted to make a simple adventure, at the end of which the protagonist would have defeated a witch. He told me it was not a good idea, and I needed to create a story that would appeal to fans of Final Fantasy, so there was no need to keep things so simple. That was the only warning he ever gave me, and he never gave me any feedback after the game was released. Before leaving, he simply told me: "I do not need to play your game because I know it will be done well and it will be fun. You do not need any suggestions from me."

Sakaguchi is considered the father of Final Fantasy, as the one who created the series. In our office, few people have met him and many who work on Final Fantasy have never worked with him. My generation is probably the last one to have worked directly with Sakaguchi. Maybe at the time I was not too nice, and I imagine that he may have seen me as someone that is difficult to work with. He has had many students, and among all I was "the strange one", but I think I was also the only one who inherited and continues to carry on his spirit of making games. But these days, we are no longer in touch and it will have been a few years since we last heard from each other.
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It's unclear how "it will have been a few years since we last heard from each other" fits into the same reality as this collaboration between Nomura and Sakaguchi the previous year (there's even a picture of them shaking hands ...). We saw in that joint interview with Shimomura linked at the beginning, though, that attentiveness to colleagues isn't Nomura's strong suit. =P

Anyway, the ironic, appropriately awkward set of quotations to follow up Nomura's opinion of himself then comes from this interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hajime Tabata:

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--"Tabata-san, how did you come to grips with what a Final Fantasy game is about?”

Tabata:
Working together with Kitase-san and Nomura-san probably influenced me the most. The passion with which the two worked gave me a good sense of what Sakaguchi-san expected from a Final Fantasy title, and what challenges he tackled in its name - including what it takes to be worthy of the Final Fantasy banner.

Sakaguchi:
Great to know Kitase had been doing his part too. (laughs) As far as I'm concerned, he’s the one I handed the torch to. It’s heartwarming to know that Kitase's values are living on through you.
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Later on, that same interview yields a bit of irony where Sakaguchi and Kitase are concerned as well, though:

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--”Aren't you worried that you're going to show him the final game and he'll tear it to shreds?” (laughs)

Tabata:
That might well happen. (laughs) But Sakaguchi-san created and produced the Final Fantasy brand; there aren't many people around with that level of know-how. I count myself lucky to be able to go to him for advice. (laughs)

--”Sakaguchi-san, did you ever share your opinions on any of the previous numbered Final Fantasy titles?”

Sakaguchi:
I did. I spoke to Matsuno when he was working on FFXII, and both Kitase and Toriyama visited me at my home in Hawaii as part of a holiday trip. We had an intense discussion in a yakiniku restaurant. I’m pretty blunt with my opinions, but Kitase doesn't flinch either, so he was probably shaking his head at the old guy asking for the impossible again. (laughs)

Tabata:
Kitase-san is a tough debater. I was witness to a heated exchange, where Sakaguchi-san was pointing out that Kitase-san knew in his heart what he should be doing, yet not doing it, while Kitase-san’s argument was that some efforts are simply not realistic.

Sakaguchi:
I recall saying something along the lines of “Nothing is impossible, you're just not trying, break the box and think outside it!“ (laughs)
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Really, that whole interview consists of interesting frankness. Here's another example:

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--”Sakaguchi-san, what did you think of Tabata-san’s take on Final Fantasy?”

Sakaguchi:
Up until FFXIII, the games were made by members originally from Square, including Kitase, so FFXIV and onwards constitute a new generation of Final Fantasy. Although calling them a 'new generation' may be a stretch, I do feel that the series is evolving into something new. For FFXV, I played the demo and was shown raw footage of the game, and was moved by their dedication to the franchise.

Tabata:
You even told me so back when we met.

Sakaguchi:
Final Fantasy is my baby in a way, so seeing you working hard on it really makes me happy.

--”The team’s passion for the series must have helped deepen your discussions.”

Sakaguchi:
Indeed. I also realized that things probably aren't easy for Tabata-san. It was the same for Chrono Trigger; taking over from someone else and rebuilding a project is hard work. So I was commending him on his effort; “It's actually pretty rough, isn't it?” (laughs)

--”Those words must have been encouraging to Tabata-san.”

Tabata:
They were. I was really happy Sakaguchi-san felt I was part of the effort to look after his baby. But what I really appreciated was, when we met before the Uncovered: FFXV event and Sakaguchi-san asked me how I was tackling FFXV, his delight on hearing that I was hoping to return Final Fantasy to its challenger roots.
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Check all of it out sometime.

Moving on, here's more from Sakaguchi, this time on his especially rarely discussed departure from Square Enix. From issue #314 of "Edge" magazine:

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The reason I decided to leave Square Enix was related to the film's performance, of course, but that's not the sole reason. From around Final Fantasy VII onwards I stopped being involved in the programming work and moved more into production and business management. My job continued moving in that direction and I started thinking that this wasn't the reason I joined the industry. So when the film project was such a massive failure it was a good chance for a reset that would allow me to get back to the things I wanted to do in the gaming industry.
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From the same issue of "Edge," Sakaguchi and Tabata on the equally obscure topic of the relationship between Sakaguchi and Square Enix during the decade following his departure:

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Sakaguchi:
After moving away from Square Enix there was a need to remove my influence from the Final Fantasy series for various reasons. I’d started a new studio with Mistwalker, and there was a risk people would want to follow me from Square. As such, the CEO at the time wanted to remove any influence I had from the series. There was a long period where I stayed away. That changed with the arrival of the new CEO, Yosuke Matsuda. His thinking is different.

He acknowledges that I am the creator and the originator of Final Fantasy and could see that, from a promotional point of view, it would be good to have me on board again to send a positive message. That was about the time Final Fantasy XV was in development. Masuda introduced me to the director, Tabata, and we had dinner together. It was the first time we’d met.

Tabata:
We spoke at length and Sakaguchi had some critical points to bring up, which he shared. He always has a lot more to say when he’s drunk. I have to take him out properly if I really want to get some information out of him.

Sakaguchi:
He said to me that night: “In my team we believe that a Final Fantasy game is a place to try new things.” This guy, I thought to myself, he says some good things. Maybe I can get on board with him? [...]

So you see, while there was a long dark period, I am now allowed to talk pretty freely to Final Fantasy people. When I set off on my own path, Final Fantasy seemed to follow me around; it almost felt like a burden. But I’ve been making games away from Square for about 15 years and it’s better now. It’s a little like if your daughter gets married to a man you really can’t stand. And then they have a grandson together and he’s cute and it brings you back together. That’s kind of how I feel about Final Fantasy now.
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More from Sakaguchi in that same interview:

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Nobuo and I often talk about what might have been different if we had taken a different direction with the seventh game and, instead of going down a more realistic route, had continued in the classic style. How might it have evolved and, crucially, what might have been retained that, I think, was lost somewhere in the later games? It’s not about one approach being better than the other. It’s about the style of play. It’s just different. In the old 2D Final Fantasy games you’d look in every gap and nook and cranny for secrets. In 3D games there doesn’t seem to be the same need or desire to explore.
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Nobuo Uematsu, in the same issue of "Edge":

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Up until about Final Fantasy V, the pay at Square was terrible. Programmers made a handsome living, of course, because they were seen as the most important guys. But the more creative roles — musicians and artists — did not. In truth, the pay was so bad that at one point I considered getting a part-time job at a convenience store. From Final Fantasy V onwards the upper management changed their way of thinking; they knew they had to reward the art and music guys as much as the programmers. My salary almost doubled overnight, which took the pressure off and meant I could even start to save a little. [...]

I continued to work at the company for about two years after Sakaguchi left. It wasn't so much out of a sense of loyalty to Square so much as the fact that, after Sakaguchi left, it started to get boring without him around. Lots of people say lots of things about Mr Sakaguchi but, for me, and other people who know him well, he is like a kid: someone who is pure and honest and who follows what he finds interesting. He is wonderfully straightforward in that way.

While Sakaguchi was at Square Enix the company followed in that mould. We made games that we found interesting and exciting. That's what we chased. Sure, we had to think strategically from a business perspective, but after Sakaguchi left money seemed to become the highest priority. The first question was always, "What will sell?" That attitude made me lose interest, a little. [...]

I really like what the new composers on the series are doing. Hitoshi Sakimoto, Yoko Shimomura; they are such a good fit, especially for the more modern games. These are supremely high-quality musicians, and have an approach that works much better than what I could produce.

I’m so grateful for my work with Square, though. Thinking back, as someone who never studied music formally, it’s almost like Square Enix was my music school. They gave me 20 years where I could learn to play music and how to compose. What’s more, I didn’t have to pay any tuition fees.
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Yoshitaka Amano, in the same issue once again:

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Even after Sakaguchi left, Square Enix continued. And looking at the series after his departure, I can still sense this ongoing energy. I think that comes from the next generation: those people who grew up playing Final Fantasy are now the people who are creating it. That power, and that continuing love, imbues this tradition with new energy.
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Shinji Hashimoto, same issue:

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Everyone was doing what they thought was right with these projects. Nobody was deliberately trying to grind the company into the dirt. But there are some things where the problem only becomes clear once the games take shape. Sometimes you only realise where you’ve gone wrong after the work is finished. [...]

I trust these new guys. It’s far better to have them in charge rather than the older generation.

I know that now the series is in safe hands. I have done nine games in the

Final Fantasy series, and there have been ups and downs, but I’m very happy that we have made so many games under my watch.
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Hajime Tabata, same issue once again:

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In 2012 I took a phone call from our previous CEO, Yoichi Wada. He told me that there was a great deal of trouble with Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a separate project to Final Fantasy XIII. He told me that he was considering whether or not to cancel the project. If he did, he said, then he’d want to really start it up from scratch again and take it off in a new direction, and maybe have me take on that project.

There are problems with every videogame project, of course. But with Final Fantasy Versus XIII the period of trying to fix the issues just went on way too long. It had already been in development for six years by that point. It couldn’t carry on in the same way. That was when I became involved and started to change the project towards becoming Final Fantasy XV. [...]

I didn’t actually say “Yes” straightaway to the offer. I took it to my team and we discussed it all. In actual fact, about 90 per cent of the team were opposed to taking it on.

There was a lot of antipathy, because my team didn’t want to merge with Tetsuya Nomura’s, and they knew about the snags the project had encountered.

It took about six months to reduce resentments and take control. Creating a team where we could all work together and be on the same page when we entered the pre-production stage for Final Fantasy XV was crucial, so I paid a lot of attention to making sure the team integrated well and worked together. [...]

One of the big things in doing a project like this – a numbered Final Fantasy game, such a big part of the overall business strategy for the company – is that you really do come to realise how all the different departments in the company are supporting a project. People who aren’t involved at all in the actual development of the game, how they’re involved was something that really struck me.

Also, the way that the difficulty level of developing a project just expands so rapidly when it becomes a project of that level. To meet the needs of the fans, and give them what they want, is always going to be a hard thing, whatever level you’re working at. But when you’re moving onto the higher technical level, the scope of the project becomes so much more difficult. It’s as if you’re making a toy rocket, for example, and then moving on to make a much more professional, proper rocket – the technology, the level of detail and design that is involved in that, is just so much higher.

I had dinner with Naoki Yoshida, the director of Final Fantasy XIV, a little while back, and we were discussing our experiences of our two respective projects. What we both came to agree on very quickly, and a dilemma that both myself and he seemed to have, was how a lot of people in the company don’t seem to understand how hard making a top-level triple-A game using current technology is. We really were talking about the best way to get more people in the company to understand that.
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Yoko Shimomura:

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Final Fantasy Versus XIII was the first Final Fantasy game that I composed music for. Because it was a spin-off game there wasn’t the pressure I might have felt with a numbered [mainline] game. It was a gentle way in, although of course the game then morphed into a mainline title. When the game changed to Final Fantasy XV it was a big moment for me. Some of the pressure was mitigated by the fact some of the music I had written for Versus XIII had already been accepted. Had I been asked to start again from scratch it may have been far more intimidating. About a third of the music I wrote for Versus XIII made it into XV. [...]

There were some clear differences between the two directors. With Nomura it took much longer to get the okay on a new piece of music. He would think very deeply about the piece, and often request changes. But once he told me that he was happy with a piece there would be almost no changes thereafter. Tabata, by contrast, often gave the green light very quickly, but would then require more and more changes at a later date. They have different ways of working that reflect their personalities; both present their distinctive challenges.
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Yoshinori Kitase:

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The way Final Fantasy VII's story was written was interesting. We split the responsibility between myself, Nomura and Kazushige Nojima. We would each take a week at a time to do a pass on the script. So I'd write a plot and then, after a week, pass it to the next guy. They'd then change bits, add scenes and tweak it to their tastes and ideas. In this way we took it in turns to build up the story.

We wanted the way the player related to the character to change. Up until that point there had always been a one-to-one equivalence between the player and the character in Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest games have always been like that too: the player is exactly the same person as the protagonist. We wanted to move away from that and have a side of Cloud the player didn't see till later: you thought he was you, but then we pulled back the curtain and players could see that he was someone else. [...]

There wasn't any debate as to whether we should kill Aerith or not. Obviously the story writing was a collaborative effort, so we all agreed we wanted to go that way. I had a personal reason for wanting Aerith to die in that way. At the time the results of a survey had been published in which they asked children whether or not they thought people could come back from the dead. More than 50 per cent of children answered in the affirmative. Why is that? It must have something to do with fairytales: the idea that the princess dies and, with a kiss from the prince, is revived. Likewise, in RPGs, players are often killed off then magically revived. I started to feel self-doubt about how people were extrapolating from fiction into reality. I wanted to get across with Aerith's death the idea of loss: the feeling you only realize the importance of people when they're gone, and you feel the loss and sadness. [...]

In games, a character dies and everyone thinks she'll come back later, even more powerful than before. I wanted that weight of a death, and to make it feel real and proper. The reason we had Aerith die was not because I'd had experience with death; it more felt like a responsibility on our part. If children believed people came back from the dead because of our games, in some way, then we had a chance to change that perspective. [...]

People look at Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and think it has little to do with the games. That's incorrect. While Nomura, Nojima and I wrote the plot for Final Fantasy VII, there was in fact an earlier script for the game that Sakaguchi had written by himself. Lots of the concepts from that document made it into the game, but the actual original plot formed the basis of the script for the movie. People look at the film and think it's pure sci-fi. But when I see the film, I can see a lot of the kind of things he wanted to do with Final Fantasy VII. [...]

I've since heard, second hand, that Sakaguchi said that he handed responsibility for the Final Fantasy series over to me when he left. That's very flattering, of course, but at the time it wasn't as if there was an official parting speech or handover of the reins. In lots of ways Sakaguchi's departure was like Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII. One day he just wasn't there any more.

There wasn't really a period of grieving, but it was immediately obvious in his absence what a strong hand he had kept on the tiller, and the fact that he was a very strong leader, not just of Final Fantasy but of the entire company. There was a void there left by him, which we had to get used to.
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Sakaguchi and Kitase, discussing FFVIII:

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Sakaguchi:
To be honest, when I heard their idea to write the game like a high-school drama I was concerned. But having told them they could go in their own direction, I couldn't very well take it back.

Kitase:
When Sakaguchi first saw the demo at the school, and a realistically proportioned human character, he said to me: "Hmm, that looks okay, but might you consider doing it with more deformed characters?" He believed that is what the series should look like. I considered what he said, but ended up sticking to my guns.

Sakaguchi:
Because of the approach they took with that game, I pulled the rudder hard back the other way with Final Fantasy IX. I wanted to go right back to the beginning of the series, with a traditional fantasy series: knights, castles and so on. I figured that would calibrate and restabilize the series, somehow.

Kitase:
I wasn't involved in Final Fantasy IX because Sakaguchi and a new team that we had established in Hawaii were making it in parallel to Final Fantasy VIII. Part of the reason it looks the way that it does is because we had a big debate about the art style on the PlayStation. The debate centered around whether we should keep the manga-style, deformed characters of the sixth game, or aim for a more realistic approach and develop in that direction. In the seventh and eighth games the new direction won out, but Sakaguchi really wanted to do a classic-looking game on the new technology, which is where Final Fantasy IX came in.
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Naoki Yoshida:

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When the merger between Square and Enix happened in 2002, there may have been a sort of awkward feeling, because a lot of external people came into the company, myself included. People who were on the Square side, making Final Fantasy in-house, may have felt a little strange having a lot of people coming in from the outside.

I’d worked with the Dragon Quest series for about five years, and joined the Final Fantasy XIV project after 1.0 had launched. Honestly speaking, when 1.0 was going through its testing phases, I heard from outside sources that the game was horrible. But I thought, at that time, because we had Final Fantasy XI, which was a very successful MMO for Square Enix, maybe it was just that the players were comparing it to that. Perhaps it was suffering by comparison. Besides, MMO launches are never smooth to begin with. That was the feeling that I had, not being part of the project yet.

But when 1.0 fully launched, there was so much negative backlash around the world that the company began to scramble to find out what had gone wrong. A team of developers were assigned to investigate the situation. For example, the company asked Hiroshi Minagawa, who was directing Final Fantasy XII at the time, to look at user interface. Yoshihisa Hashimoto, who was CTO during that period, was asked to look at the battle system. We assigned Mr Hiroshi Takai, who was a VFX artist who worked on the SaGa series and Final Fantasy V, to go in and investigate what was wrong with the launch of version 1.0.

That team would often consult with me, even though I wasn’t a part of the investigation at that stage. At night, they’d ask: “What should we check next?” It may have been that those people trusted me as a game developer, and a game director, to provide advice. But I was kind of working on the game on a volunteer basis at that point. Around midOctober in 2010, I consulted with our CEO at the time, Yoichi Wada, and I told him, “We’re in very bad shape. It’s an emergency. We can’t just install a couple of people to fix everything; we’re in a very grave situation.” I tried to bring it up with the upper management.

At that time, I was about to embark on a new project. The CEO thought, ‘Well, we can handle this with the current Final Fantasy XIV team; we don’t want you to go over there.’ The CEO made the decision that I wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t happy to hear that so I fought back. I said, “Okay then. Never talk to me about Final Fantasy XIV again. If you think the problem can be solved with a Band-Aid patched on top of it, don’t talk to me about it ever again.” He was not happy to hear me say that, but he didn’t get angry at me.

Of course, the development team continued to consult me. They were very hard-working about it. I loved the fact that those developers were still working very hard, and I wanted to support them. So I continued to assist for about a month, but the game’s condition continued to deteriorate. I remember it very clearly to this day. On November 26, 2010, at 4am, the CEO officially asked me: “Could you please handle matters on Final Fantasy XIV?” I said, “Well, if you insist, then I’m willing to help.”

At that time I had two objectives. Firstly I just wanted to think about what, starting from a blank slate, a Final Fantasy MMO would look like. I also wanted to take the 1.0 version of the game and do a thorough investigation to determine where its issues lay. Was it technology, or game design? Was it our asset pipeline? Just to see what our ideal looked like, and what our current situation looked like.

In order to do those two things, I realised there was something else I needed to do: give the development team a break. There had been such a negative response to the first incarnation of the game that it had affected the developers. Not only were they tired physically, but they were also under such mental stress. So to find the motivation and the strength to revamp the game, they needed time off. The other reason was that if we were to just continue developing at this pace without a break, I anticipated the team would come back with a lot of questions. ‘What do we need to do next?’ So many questions that there wouldn’t be enough time to do our research on what was wrong. So by having them out of the way, so to speak, it gave me the time to do those two things I mentioned earlier.

We had about three weeks to do it. I would primarily handle the creation of my ideal Final Fantasy MMO, while my core team did the thorough investigation of 1.0. On December 28, I received the results of their work. It was night-time, and we were going through it, looking at the things they’d found.

It was very bad. So bad I ran a fever. I went into New Year’s break looking at the results of their investigation, comparing it to my ideal Final Fantasy MMO, and spent the break looking at what needed to be fixed or updated, and setting some goals.

When comparing the two, the conclusion that I reached was that there was no way to fix Final Fantasy XIV unless we rebuilt the game from scratch. Even if we were to continue version 1.0 and try to fix it, adding content as we went along, the server structure itself was very poorly set up. I projected it would have had to shut down after three years, even if we tried to fix it. The server structure was just horribly messed up; it was not planned as a long-term operation.
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Finally, here are some more blunt comments about FFXIV 1.0 from Yoshida, stated in this interview:

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The failure to supply a sufficient number of servers for [A Realm Reborn's] launch stemmed from Yoshida's belief that trust in Final Fantasy 14 had been irrevocably eroded. "That's how I felt so I assumed most other players would be too." [...]

When he was brought in to fix the original Final Fantasy 14 (a game from which he constantly distances himself: "I was not involved with the original FF14 at all") he perceived what others had not: the game's problems stemmed from deeper issues at Square Enix. During his GDC presentation Yoshida explained that, during Sony's PlayStation era, the company had become "obsessed with visuals." It was a focus that had, he said, harmed its output. As an example of where the development effort had been mistakenly applied, he points out that, in the original Final Fantasy 14, a single flowerpot contained around 1,000 polygons and 150 lines of shader code, "the same amount as the entire player character model."
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