At GDC Austin, the technical keynote for Thursday focused in on the challenging task of developing the online game Final Fantasy XI. We were treated to a broad but vaguely technical discussion from Hiromichi Tanaka, the producer of the half-a-million strong game world. He was joined by Sage Sundi, the global producer of the game, who gave a fascinating discussion about Square/Enix's battle against real money traders. Their successes have been hard-fought, and are illustrative of the problems facing anyone running one of these games. Read on for notes from the event.Tanaka is one of the original members of Square, was a planner for the first three Final Fantasy games, and has long been the producer of Final Fantasy XI. He spends Thursday some time Thursday morning discussing a history of the franchise, harkening back to the 'poor' sales of Final Fantasy at 500,000 copies. The series has since sold over 75 million games worldwide, up through the more recent PlayStation titles. He references the upcoming FFXIII and Versus FFXIII as the definitive vision of the series for the next few years.
FFXI is celebrating its 5th anniversary, a full quarter of the Final Fantasy series' history (at 20 years). It was released in May of 2002, the first cross-platform RPG (PS2 and PC). It was also a worldwide title, both aspects of which were almost unheard of for online games at the time.
The roots of the game reach back to 1999. The Chrono Cross, Legend of Mana, and Parasite Eve teams were roped together to make the game. In 2001 the public Beta began, and was released in May 2002 in Japan. November 2002 saw the Windows release, followed by the first expansion/US Release in October 2003, the second expansion/EU Launch in 2004, and the latest expansion in 2006. German and French versions were released just this year; it took two years to translate all the content in the game. They made sure as content was released (and the new expansions) that those teams were kept up to date. There are now four languages spoken inside the game world, each inside the same servers.
Early in the development of the game, they were already working on a version for the original Xbox. The main roadblock to the game's success was the small HDD; only 2GB wouldn't cut it. When the game was installed on the PS2 HDD, it reserved 8GB. They view updates as the 'lifeline' of the Massive game. No mass storage, no updates ... no MMOG.
PlayOnline is mentioned, with their concept being a 'portal for entertainment'. It's an independent platform for content, with a common information tool for all game playing options. It's crucial for the PS2 and 360, which don't have web browsers. It allows them to keep tabs on user statistics, as well.
The game is built around the concept of cross-region play. The three regions they support (US, EU, JP) are separated by big blocks of time, allowing them to financially support the concept. There are spikes, but the spike isn't all at once across the board thanks to the 24 hour day. A graph shows the different peaks around the world, with notes that the US peak is smaller than the JP one because of the number of time zones in the country. He provides some interesting stats: there are roughly 15-20k users per world. There's a fairly equal distribution between servers, and the service sees between 200-300k individual logins per day. The number of Hardcore players means that there is quite a bit of overlap between the 'US' timeslots and the 'JP' timeslots.
This overlap can lead to poor behavior for a number of reasons. Killstealing, Player Killing, and Spawn Camping are just three examples. They have tweaked the game's systems to remove some of the most easily-exploited elements. They removed general PvP, granted possession of a mob to the first player to attack it, and put in systems that encouraged cooperation. Their most successful outlet has been the sports-style PvP games. They're team vs. team sports, and give players the opportunity to beat each other 'silly' without causing grief.
The Auto translation feature is another success in bringing communities together. It translates FFXI-related terms to whatever language a player is using. It uses simple word and sentence structures, to avoid confusion. They have tied it deeply into the game to make it easy and fast to use; it's a part of the everyday game for many players. This was crucial to overcome the initial resistance that Japanese players had to dealing with thousands of American players. Despite requests from many points of view to host regional servers, they've always resisted. They see the universal servers as a real strength, a unique feature in the industry.
Unfortunately, they've had real problems with gold farmers. They've become much more aggressive due to the success of the genre, and have rapidly expanded across the globe thanks to cheap labor costs. They're huge organizations, spread across the globe, and seek to exploit weaknesses in an economy whenever they can find them. Mr. Tanaka then turns the floor over to Sage Sundi, the global producer of the game. He worked his way up to his position from a volunteer position with the Japanese version of UO. He's here to specifically address RMT.
There are several ways to deal with the issue: allow it all, the company can engage in it itself, or they ignore it. They chose the hardest option: fighting it. Acting against it is a challenge, and they assembled a task force specifically for the issue. They claim that they've eliminated some 90% of the traders in the game world.
The problems RMT inflicts are: inflation, farming and monopolizing of monsters, and cheating. All of these affect the play experience for normal players. RMT would not be a problem, they say, if the people who engaged in it were polite. They have a great slide showing the huge inflation of the currency wildly out of sync with the new number of players in the game. Around the end of 2005 they detected the upsurge, and investigated.
An RMT organization is made up of several groups: Hunters are the ones who actually do the killing, and send the gil along to Bank players. The Front-End folks deal with customers, and make sure they get their stuff. The website element is also public facing; the biggest groups can employ up to 500 people. The task force went to work last year, and their two primary jobs were to analyze server data and comb through feedback. They examined server logs, customer issues, etc. The task force looks through the logs weekly, while originally they were addressed only once per month
- The biggest RMT groups are connected.
- With a few small exceptions, most larger groups are using common funds to do their work.
- Removing Front-End folks and Bankers is not enough. It is effective in removing large amounts of currency from the game, but it will encourage the Hunters to increase productivity for their new masters.
- The real goal is to eliminate the Hunters. This helps players by removing irritating experiences from the game world. It indirectly weakens the RMT front-end folks by lowering their supply of goods.
- They'll be back. It doesn't matter if they're banned, they'll be back soon with new accounts. The company needs to keep cleaning, despite the 're-spawn' rate.
- You have to maintain a good back-end data system to ensure these people can be identified.
- Systems must be tweaked as often as possible to minimize Hunter success. Security holes must be closed, etc. At the same time, these efforts must be not harmful to the players. As an example: they added a monster to a high-level fishing area to ensure low-level Hunters were kept at bay. He's easy to kill for appropriate-level characters, but the low-level Hunter avatars run to the zone to do nothing but fish are easily destroyed.
- It's critical to construct 'fair' guidelines to determine what is and isn't accepted. You can't ban all accounts from a country, for example. Don't encourage witchhunts among the players.
- It's also important to keep it an internal discussion with the legal department, to get consensus with everyone on board.
Tanaka returns to the stage to discuss their retention policies. They've had a very rapid expansion pack policy (3 in 5 years), along with major updates every 2 months, and monthly events like holidays. Changes and live feedback are their keys to this success. Wings of the Goddess is the fourth expansion coming, with a worldwide release. There are some 12 SKUs associated with that expansion, spread across all the markets.
They still have 500,000 users, and as long as they keep playing they'll keep developing the game. They are worried that the graphical capabilities of Vista and the 360 will make the game look faded. They are working on a new MMOG, also intended to be cross platform/cross region. They're also developing a common platform for all future games, borrowing technologies from their future MMOG and FFXIII. The new MMOG will be a cross-platform title, available for both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360; Tanaka reveals that Nintendo is currently not allowing cross-platform online games. He does, however, say that it's not out of the question from a technical perspective. Soon, he hints, we'll be able to hear more about these upcoming games. With that, Tanaka ends the event by showing us the beautiful Wings of the Goddess trailer, and the keynote is over.