There aren't many games that can boast a development period quite as long as #FinalFantasyXV. Games like Duke Nukem Forever and The Last Guardian spring to mind, but there's not much else. Games get delayed, hiccups bubble to the surface of the development process like that bottle of Coke you dropped down the stairs and were hesitant to open, and sometimes, sometimes... those games ultimately meet the swift and decisive axe of fate's executioner.
Many had thought that was to be the fate of Final Fantasy XV back when it was still referred to as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and while it's true that the convoluted story of its development is enough to make many wonder how the game has even reached release quality after these many long years, it could be the years themselves, along with their myriad changes, that save Final Fantasy XV from becoming "just another Final Fantasy XIII."
Though we have no way of knowing for sure how the full game will pan out, as its release date is still a few weeks away, what we can do is take a look back at the arduous process that produced a gaming giant.
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Is This Thing Still On? The Question that Would Follow Final Fantasy XV Throughout its 10 Years of Development
A long, long, long time ago (or at least it feels that way!), Final Fantasy XV was first announced to the public. Gamers and RPG fans alike clamored at the news of an all-new entry to the famed Final Fantasy series, and at E3 2006 they were teased at the prospect of not only one title, but two—Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
The two were to be completely separate titles linked only by their overarching mythos, and right away the visible and thematic differences between the two were striking. I can still remember myself, as a teenager, overcome with wonder at the two promotional images that could practically be placed side-by-side—one of Lightning on a chair, shrouded in white, and one of Noctis on a throne, shrouded in black.
Indeed, Final Fantasy Versus XIII looked to be a break from the mold of the many Final Fantasy games that had come before it. A darker, grittier, more realistic and modern world, and action-based combat more akin to the #KingdomHearts series that director Tetsuya Nomura was so well known for. In fact, the game was originally to be part of a triumvirate of sorts—"Fabula Nova Crystallis", or the new tale of the crystal, as it means in Latin, a three-part game series consisting of Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Agito XIII (later renamed to Final Fantasy Type-0), and Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
Even a glance at those names, however, is proof enough of how much things can change. The latter two have both undergone name changes and broken free of their ties to XIII, while the original XIII would go on to have two lackluster sequels.
Many would be surprised to hear, however, that when that first trailer for Versus XIII was revealed, when those promotional images were released and the announcement was made, no actual work had been done on the scenario of the game itself. In fact, it would take until 2008 for any information of substance to be revealed about the game-in-development. This was following rumors that Versus XIII's progress had been put on hold while members of its staff aided the original XIII team in order to get the game out sooner. These were, of course, squashed together with the statement:
“Reports that development for 'Final Fantasy Versus XIII' is on hold are false. The truth of the situation is that when free, some staff from the Versus team have been helping with the 'XIII' team on development on 'Final Fantasy XIII.' Development for both titles is continuing as originally scheduled.”
Though the "originally scheduled" part is obviously a gross overstatement, it is true that the game was still in development. Later that year, the biggest trailer yet was released, revealing new characters such as the members of Noctis's entourage, King Regis, and a new blonde girl named Stella.
Of course, after that, in typical Final Fantasy XV fashion, there would be no news for years. The game itself was still in production, of course, though many critics thought otherwise. But a number of developments over the course of the following years would further halt and delay its progress.
For one, Tetsuya Nomura was stretched thin. Very thin. In that short period of time, he was on the team of ten different games, four of which he directed! This would obviously make it hard for him to find time to devote to Versus XIII. In addition, #SquareEnix would experience one of its biggest failures to date—Final Fantasy XIV Online. Upon release, this game was not only criticized, but rebuked to hell and back by fans, gamers, and critics alike, so much so that it prompted the unprecedented. Square Enix would actually go on to completely remake and re-release the game three years later.
A sales report released in 2012 by current president Yoichi Wada revealed that this act, revive, as it did, Final Fantasy XIV, didn't reflect so well on the other games in Square Enix's pipeline (as one might imagine).
"The successful launch of FFXIV caused a negative chain of events in other areas across the businesses. One notable example is the significant delay in the development of new HD Games titles in Japan."
Though no specific games were mentioned, it almost goes without question that at least one of those games was Versus XIII, already six years into its development at that point in time.
It wouldn't be long before rumors of its cancelation would begin anew. In July of 2012, after E3 2012 had passed by without a single mention of Versus XIII, numerous reputable news sites began claiming the game had been canceled, to the point where Square Enix, in the form of Wada, once again, was forced to make another statement. This time, in the form of a tweet:
“There’s someone making a false rumor that Versus XIII was canceled. Haha…just a minute ago, the regular Versus meeting ended. If you saw the presentation of the city it’d knock you off your feet - lol.”
From Versus XIII to XV—The Fresh Face that Final Fantasy XV Needed
It was around this time, however, that a number of big changes were being made to the Versus XIII project behind the scenes—they just couldn't announce them yet!
- Staff from Final Fantasy Type-0 were assigned to the project
- Final Fantasy Type-0 director Hajime Tabata joined the project as co-director together with Tetsuya Nomura
- The Playstation 3 was abandoned in favor of porting to the upcoming Playstation 4
- Final Fantasy Versus XIII, having grown beyond its britches, was renamed to Final Fantasy XV and would become the next main series game
Upon this announcement, fans, of course, were ecstatic, especially as the announcement itself was coupled with an all-new, action-packed trailer showcasing the stunning visuals, fast-paced combat, and graphical quality of the upcoming PS4 release. There was, however, some concern—another blockbuster, Kingdom Hearts III, was announced as well, a game which would also be directed by Tetsuya Nomura. Quite the task directing two of the company's largest titles, yes?
And, indeed, no less than a year later, it was revealed that Nomura would no longer be a co-director for Final Fantasy XV, and Tabata was taking over the role entirely. Current CEO Yosuke Matsuda accompanied the news with this statement:
“As the director of Final Fantasy XV, Tetsuya Nomura has mainly worked on the original concept for the story and universe in addition to creating the characters. Hereafter, he will be focusing his efforts on the production of titles that can only be made possible by Nomura, himself, and delivering products that exceed the quality of past titles, starting with another one of his representative projects, Kingdom Hearts III.”
Was this a good choice? Some new behind-the-scenes info reveals this may have been just the thing Final Fantasy XV needed to get back on its feet.
New Director, New Ideas, New Start
In a recent interview with Tabata about the development of Final Fantasy XV and his role in the process, new details about the team, their dynamics, and the changes made upon Matsuda's departure were revealed. In fact, almost immediately upon Tabata's arrival, the department in charge of FFXV underwent a number of what might be considered radical changes, at least from a Japanese corporate point of view.
"The entire staff was 'deconstructed' in a sense. Tabata created a flat environment; he got rid of the hierarchy. Everyone was put on the same level and had to make the argument for what they should be doing on the game. Some were freed up to do things that they'd longed to do but had previously been unable to take on. Others felt like they'd been demoted."
This is not only unorthodox in Japanese corporate culture, but practically unheard of, and Tabata's ideas didn't stop there. The first thing he did was take his core group of leaders on a retreat to put their heads together and come up with new, key philosophies that the department would not only focus on but live until the game was completed:
- Don't put the brakes on others' work.
- Recognize others' core values; welcome all ideas.
- Make goals clear, and share information with transparency.
- Speak openly and honestly with everyone.
- Go beyond the scope of your duties.
- Cherish your health and your loved ones' happiness.
The last point especially is one that businesses and companies in Japan forego the most, as Japan's corporate culture revolves around work being the most important factor in one's life, oftentimes to the detriment of your health, family, friends, and sanity.
Almost immediately, the environment in the department began to change. No longer were they fearful of what would happen if the game failed or didn't live up to expectations. Instead, they were motivated, encouraged, and enlivened by the thought of what their game could do. They took their own road trips to fully capture the spirit and energy of adventure they wanted to instill into the game. They didn't allow themselves to get stuck in ruts, hopelessly banging away at the same thing for days on end—instead, mixing teams up and changing seats and working on different aspects of the project from one day to the next.
Tabata promoted a greater sense of "transparency" not only between team members but between developers and fans, starting up a web blog where he'd show off bits and pieces of the gameplay and characters to eager fans, wanting to make sure the game didn't once again fall into a hell of cancelation rumors.
All in all, it was the change that Final Fantasy XV needed, and the one that's brought us to this point, today, where we're only a few weeks out from the game's release. Yes, there may have still been a few bumps, a delay or two, but Tabata got this game to where it needed to be, and this game ten years in the making will finally land in the hands of anxious fans all over the world.
So was all that time really necessary?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly some of the game's delays were unavoidable—even Final Fantasy XIII itself took longer to release than had been expected, and who could have predicted the bomb that was Final Fantasy XIV Online?
For what it's worth, however, I'm glad it's taken this long. I'm glad it's no longer shackled to Final Fantasy XIII and has grown into its own entity, its own massive story and world. I'm glad that it took so long it had to be moved to the PS4 so we can experience all it has to offer with that additional processing power. I'm glad that it seems to have procured the director and team it needs to truly flourish. And perhaps some of its unique features, as well, are also thanks to the long wait.
But, of course, I'll have to save my final judgments for the game's release—once I've played it for myself. Whether the game does as well as hoped or not, the massive undertaking, the long years spent in mystery, the shocking changes, the undulating hype, well... they're quite the journey all on their own.
How long have you been following Final Fantasy XV's development? Any stories of hype and disappointment? Excited to finally try the game for yourself? Let us know!