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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2011 10:41 pm 
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Kudos to Elmer at ZAM for releasing this story. So it appears some devs feel Abyssea was not all positive in terms of game development.

Also appears that they want to shift focus back to End Game Linkshell events. (I think this is a good idea tbh.)

Good News to me.

Elmer @ ZAM wrote:
Building the Future of Vana'diel

by Elmer

Final Fantasy XI is fast approaching its 10th year of operation. Its international community remains vibrant, and the virtual world we inhabit continues to change and grow. However, as an MMO, the true experience of FFXI encompasses the world outside the game as well, and Square Enix has grown more active in reaching out to player communities. A YouTube channel for FFXI was recently established, and lucky fans in Japan just enjoyed a special concert showcasing classic compositions within the game.

As part of these efforts to support the game and its players, the development team invited ZAM up to Square Enix headquarters in Tokyo to get an inside look at what makes the game so captivating, even a decade after its launch.

Development Philosophy

First, we discussed the development philosophy behind the hit add-on series Abyssea, and how it compares to more recent content. Many users have lauded the add-ons for bringing new vigor to the sometimes tedious leveling process, but the developers feel they may have opened a can of worms with this one.

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The Legacy of Abyssea

While most players would agree that the Abyssea series of add-ons breathed new life into the game, the consequences of such radical new content still weigh heavy on the developers who created it. Despite the positive response from the fans, Battle Director Mizuki Ito is quick to temper that excitement. "Abyssea wasn't all positive feedback," Ito admits. "There were negative aspects to it, too." In particular, the developers were concerned about game balance. "It became something a little different than what longtime FFXI players were used to. On the one hand, it was great that people enjoyed it, but there is also the loss of game balance to consider. Now we are going back into existing content to re-establish some balance."

So, what exactly disrupted the balance of the game in Abyssea? Ito elaborates, "In Abyssea, the system allows you to boost your parameters way up and just wreak havoc." There probably are not many forum-goers that would have trouble with that, but the developers worry about where that leaves the rest of the FFXI experience. "Users get a taste of that kind of power, and then they have to leave Abyssea and go back to fighting with their regular stats. Having such a huge gap between content is a problem."

One might expect the positive fan reaction would give the development team much to take from Abyssea as they continue to build more content. However, for Ito, the best lessons to learn from Abyssea are what not to do. "The fans consider Abyssea a success, but the developers are very aware of its failings" Ito states. "At this point, rather than reuse aspects from Abyssea, we would like to create something completely new."

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Deeper into the Void

While the recent add-ons may have injected some new energy into the player base, the newest endgame content for Wings of the Goddess, Voidwatch, has received a more mixed reaction. A main complaint amongst forum-goers is that Voidwatch brings back the old grinding days of FFXI with low drop rates and a treasure pool system that keeps items out of the hands of those who need them the most. On this issue, the developers have sympathy for the players, but again, opinions differ between player and developer.

Ito addresses the problem as being another issue of balance. "Originally, Voidwatch was designed as content for an alliance of 18 players. If you go in with 18, there will actually be a higher rate of reward than any other content in FFXI." Essentially, what they have done with Voidwatch is instead of a system where players hash out which members lot which equipment, all players have a higher chance to get something -- it just might not be what they want each time. "Overall, it equals out to a system where you can freelot, but item drops are much lower," says Ito.

Unfortunately, such a system required the developers to disallow trading. As Ito explains, "For example, say each player gets 5 items. You have 5 items times 18 players and they can all trade freely. Now one player could collect 90 items. That's no good." The removal of the trading option was specifically in order to counter item hoarding. Every individual participating in the content has an equal chance to get items.

FFXI Producer Hiromichi Tanaka also weighed in on this issue. During the launch of FFXIV, Tanaka was just as dedicated and involved in FFXI as ever, so he understands what went into Abyssea, and how the new content compares. He, along with the other developers, keenly feels the issues of balance, but Tanaka is also the first among them to hint at some positive changes in store for easing the difficulty of Voidwatch.

"The playstyle of any new content, of any new system, always has some difficult aspects to it." Tanaka explains. "However, I believe that we can work with the players to gradually improve this as we go forward." Tanaka is aware of the importance of the lifespan of content, but at the same time, is willing to meet players halfway to create a less stressful experience. "Right now, we are at the beginning stages of this content, but as we go forward, we can make adjustments to respond to more casual playstyles," Tanaka promises. "If we set the difficulty low right from the start, everyone focuses on that content and quickly grows bored with it. Our style is to give the new content some bite at first, and then start to loosen up, little by little.

Around the Office

Vana'diel is inhabited by a variety of gods, goddesses and celestial beings, which affect the game's story, history and characters. Behind the scenes, though, there is a sea of cubicles where the real magic happens. This decade strong MMO comes to life for players every day thanks to the tireless efforts of the developers, programmers and artists at the Square Enix headquarters in Tokyo. During our visit, ZAM was able to meet a few of the gods who truly shape the world of Vana'diel.

Character Motions

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Youtube:Queen of the Dance

FFXI has always had some of the best cut scenes in MMO gaming. Every year, the detailed movements and expressiveness of characters has only improved. Using the well-known Lilisette dancing scene from Wings of the Goddess Mission 4 - Queen of the Dance as a reference, Motion Designer Ryuichi Onuma took some time to show us how character motions are crafted.

Onuma utilizes two monitors to manipulate and test a character. The left monitor has a 3D model of the character to plot and edit motions, and the right monitor shows how the model will look rendered in-game.

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On the left monitor, Saito can pull up a map of the character's various body parts to manipulate. Each point on the character's model can be dragged into position using the mouse, and all connected parts of the model move accordingly. This is used to place the character into specific poses. Each "pose" then becomes a point on a timeline. Essentially, a character's movements are a sequence of poses, and the computer fills in the gaps accordingly with motion.

One of the most amazing things about this process, considering the complexity of some cutscenes in recent years, is that FFXI uses no motion capture technology. Everything is done step by step, pose by pose. "I try to keep everything original," says Onuma. "I'm sure some inspiration from TV or movies I've seen sneaks in, but I strive to create original motions that I think are cool." For Lilisette's dance, Onuma drew some of that inspiration from YouTube, studying videos of sensual dancing to help make Lilisette's big performance a memorable one. "I was a little embarrassed doing that during working hours," confesses Onuma. "People would walk by I'd have to try and hide the screen."

Coordinating the Performers

YouTube:Whispers of Dawn

Once the NPCs have their motions in order, it's time to choreograph how they work together in the scene. When we caught up with Designer Yuko Hatae, she showed how they put together Lilisette's revival scene from Wings of the Goddess mission 47: Whispers of Dawn.

Scenes, like character motions, are plotted out on a timeline, but as Hatae explains, "It's more like a musical score. Different motions and effects are layered on top on each other and play at different times." Designers like Hatae literally orchestrate the various elements of a scene. For example, a shining ball of light gives way to a twirling flower while sparks of light and feathers float upward. All of these are individual effects that play over each other on different timers until they give way to reveal Lilisette, who then begins her own part of the performance. Hatae watches this over and over as the detailed information on these elements flows down the screen.

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Coming up with all of these diverse effects is a team effort. "First we have a meeting to discuss the general flow of the scene," states Hatae. "We may then get specific images, such as 'make it like a blooming flower,'" in reference to the aforementioned scene in Witchfire Glen.

Camera Work

YouTube: Howl from the Heavens

Once the stage is set and the elements are in place, it's time to add one more key player: the camera. While it may sound simple, the camera serves to subtly define the atmosphere of a cutscene -- the focus, the importance of objects and NPCs, the flow of events -- all these aspects and more are determined by the careful selection of camera angles.

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On Event Director Yoshitsugu Saito's desk sits a small TV that displays detailed information of the inner working of the scene. Using a special dev box, Saito is able to repeatedly play back cutscenes as they will appear on a PlayStation3, XBox360 or Windows PC. He is able to select from over 15 different camera angles to view the action from all sides. When viewing the scene, translucent models for all five races of player character are displayed on the same axis. This allows him to easily see how different sized characters look in relation to surrounding objects and NPCs. For example, during Queen of the Dance, Hume, Elvaan, Mithra and Galka characters stand behind a table to watch Lilisette perform, while diminutive TaruTaru characters sit right upon it. The positioning and motions of fellow tavern-goer Ragelise also need to take this into consideration.

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As Lilisette dances onstage, Saito cycles through cameras placed around the tavern. "The movement of the camera angles should complement the movement of the characters," explains Saito. "The camera angles help drive the flow of the scene and the characters."

Pulling up another iconic cutscene from the Wings of the Goddess quest line, Howl from the Heavens, Saito illustrates the importance also of what the player does not see. "Poor camera angle selection will expose parts of the map beyond what is usually visible to the player." The black void on the other side of the Windurst gate would certainly ruin the atmosphere of Karuha-Baruha's big gambit. Saito makes sure the view of the player is always tightly focused on the action.

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Building the Future of Vana'diel

So, as we head into FFXI's tenth year of operation, what can we expect? The developers at Square Enix's Tokyo office were guarded as always, but let loose a few interesting tidbits to get players excited about upcoming content.

New Challenges, New Adventures

How about new monsters to challenge players? "More will be added to Voidwatch along with future version updates," Ito reveals. "We're going to add a lot of boss-type monsters." Abyssea focused on small teams, but what about large Linkshells that want events to accommodate more of their members? "Large-scale content aimed at Linkshells is something we are actually working on right now," says Ito. Another subset of players still has been waiting for another epic storyline, akin to Wings of the Goddess or Treasures of Aht Urghan. Regarding the next addition to the game, Tanaka states "The major concept of Abyssea was an add-on focused on battle. The add-ons before that had content that focused on story scenarios. For the next version of content, we are considering a new style -- something different from both of these."

A Shift in Focus

Regardless of the new direction, keeping both casual and hardcore players happy is going to be important. For casuals, the process of leveling has changed much in the past year or so, making it much easier for new players to jump in and enjoy a lot of content. FFXI Planner Yoji Fujito explains this shift in design, saying, "Until recently, the adventure of FFXI, the main goal of play, has been getting to the level cap. Now we're coming up on 10 years and not only have Jobs increased, but there is a ton of content to play as well." Essentially, the game has evolved to a state where the focus has shifted from leveling to content completion. Excessive time spent grinding a single Job gets in the way of the meat of the game. Fujito continues, "The biggest danger is that people will be unable to enjoy any of the content we have provided and just give up."

However, this streamlined leveling system works in favor of hardcore players, too. One of FFXI's strengths is in the sheer variety of Jobs available to a single character and the freedom to switch between them. Fujito explains, "Comparatively, it's easier to reach the top level, and this can leave players wondering, 'Now what? 'What is there left to enjoy?' 'What do I strive for?' Players have access to 20 different jobs, so the next step is seeing all the ways these 20 jobs work together and how that can drive new content. That's what has me the most excited."

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Graphical Nips and Tucks

On thing that has evolved significantly over the game's lifespan is the hardware used to run it. "PS2 limitations" has been a running joke amongst PC evangelists to explain why FFXI can never significantly change despite being well overdue for a graphical upgrade. "Several months ago we made what we called 'high resolution' improvements to the game, and there are some other ways we plan to implement high resolution graphics into the gaming experience," says Tanaka. "Right now we're testing other aspects of the user interface." However, Tanaka warns that a complete overhaul would be too much to expect with a world of Vana'diel's scale. "If we were to redo every model to support the newest version of DirectX, just with the massive amount of data that has accumulated over 10 years, it would be almost impossible. So, we will continue looking at individual aspects that we can improve graphically."

Surviving in a New Generation of Gaming

FFXI has already built quite a legacy for itself, but now the MMO faces a new generation of MMOs and social gaming. Will a game from the PlayStation2 era be able to survive? Tanaka is confident that it will. "Even now, hundreds of thousands of people are enjoying the game on a daily basis. First, we must strive for nothing less than the satisfaction of all players," Tanaka declares. "Then, just as we relaunched free trials recently, we look to further stimulate the community by enticing new members to join."

MMOs are a huge social experience, so the boom in social gaming and the ability to stay connected with smart phones could provide a big advantage for FFXI. For my part, I suggested apps where the player performs limited functions, such as Chocobo Breeding, Auction House management or Gardening. As Tanaka reveals, Square Enix actually had similar intentions during the game's inception, but ran into some trouble. "Before the iPhone, we had a plan to connect with mobile phones in Japan. This was 10 years ago, so smart phones did not have today's data transfer plans and the infrastructure was nothing like it is today," Tanaka explains. "We were just releasing FFXI, so to develop for mobile on top of that under such conditions was too much at the time."

Now that we are a decade down the road, Tanaka seems to have new hope for the mobile market. Tanaka continues, "However, mobile devices, like the iPhone, for example, they have evolved so much now. That kind of technology opens up the possibility for, say, something like a virtual console that lets you play FFXI." Basically, the technology is there, and it appears the missing piece is actually designing a UI for portable devices with new methods of interaction, such as touchscreens, which, relevant to this year's big rumor, also exist on the Playstation Vita.

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10 Years and Counting

So, we all know that players are excited for what FFXI's monumental anniversary year may bring, but what about the men and women who are planning it right now? What has the developers excited? Unfortunately, they were tight-lipped as usual, with Ito and Fujito simply saying, "We hope you are looking forward to what we have in store." But, we did get some clues.

Tanaka shares, "We released a road map for the latter half of this year into next year, and we are right in the middle of planning a year's worth of content beyond that." According to Tanaka, something special may be in the works to celebrate as well. "It is the 10th anniversary, after all," Tanaka concedes. "We have many of the staff discussing ideas right now. We're all thinking about what kind of offline events, like a Vanafest, we can do, as well as events in-game."

As for upcoming content, Onuma upped the ante and showed off his favorite upcoming addition: Level 99 weaponskills. Onuma loaded up Polearm, Bow, Great Sword and the character models let loose with some pretty badass moves. These were just models, though, no effects, backgrounds, or anything. We then moved back to Hanae's area, where a Ninja tore up a Behemoth with its fully rendered level 99 Katana skill. Though it was forbidden to record, photograph or desperately try to reproduce these motions by crafting some crude flipbook, a number of them have been teased in the official FFXI YouTube channel. Here's the link! Onuma put a lot of work into these moves and is psyched to see players' reactions, so be sure to let Square Enix know what you think! These new moves remind me of my early Dragoon days, spending hours with a friend duo-ing Jotunns in Upper Delkfutt just to unlock Wheeling Thrust and do that cool little spin move.

And that's what FFXI is really about. An MMO that has inspired players around the world for 10 years and counting with its unique style, engaging stories, and passionate community. When asked about what's next, Saito sums it up like so: "We want to continue to push the limits of what we can do with FFXI. For example, cutscenes don't evolve because of technology so much as they evolve through our imagination and our efforts to make each one better than the last. That's how we feel about the game -- it's about pushing ourselves to do more for the players."

Original Link: http://ffxi.allakhazam.com/story.html?story=28416

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 05, 2011 8:12 pm 
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Quote:
"Several months ago we made what we called 'high resolution' improvements to the game, and there are some other ways we plan to implement high resolution graphics into the gaming experience," says Tanaka

What was that, the buttons on the intro screen? lol

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