In a podcast presented by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences called Game Maker’s Notebook, various game developers are interviewed regarding a topic in their field of expertise. In the latest episode, Shuhei Yoshida (an AIAS board member), who you may remember as a leading figure within the PlayStation brand as head of Worldwide Studios, interviewed Naoki Yoshida about his role as producer on Final Fantasy XVI and as the head of Creative Business Unit III within Square Enix.
The conversation follows the development of the game, greenlit shortly after the launch of Final Fantasy XV, and with a team that was simultaneously trying to build the future of Final Fantasy XIV. While the initial staff role call only included Yoshida as producer, Hiroshi Takai as director, and Kazutoyo Maehiro as scenario writer, the project grew quickly after the story was largely finalized.
Yoshida talks about the direction Final Fantasy XVI chose, continuing the bend toward action after Final Fantasy XV. However, instead of an open world, the team chose a more linear world based on how they wanted to present the game’s story. An action focus was chosen in an attempt to corner a new audience that may not have given a turn-based game a chance, with action being a more palatable option.
He also talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the game’s development, rearing its head right as the team was about to enter the bulk of cutscene development, a major effort for a story-heavy game in this style. However, in spite of the disruption, and as Square Enix developers were transitioned to a work-from-home environment, Yoshida considers it a bit of luck. The team was actually struggling with creating the cutscenes required for the game, with a script covered in annotations, and involved teams lacking the information the needed to work efficiently – and delays started to happen.
At this point, Yoshida jumped into development alongside the team, not just as a producer, but as a designer, helping to design and streamline the cutscene creation process. What the teams needed to make and who needed to do it, sort it all. In this pause where cutscenes couldn’t be shot, Yoshida and the staff massively streamlined the process so when cutscene creation could continue, the teams making them could work efficiently and with the information they needed.
When asked about what’s next for Creative Business Unit III, Yoshida shared that in addition to developing the remaining DLC for FFXVI, the team wants to further develop FFXIV, and that the experiences that were cultivated during the development of FFXVI could perhaps be used in the development of a different game, too.
Building Final Fantasy XVI with Producer Naoki Yoshida
Seizing the opportunity, Yoshida was asked if his response hints that he won’t be directing Final Fantasy XVII. Smirking, he said that he needed to be careful since he is on Square Enix’s board of directors, but that nothing has been decided yet for the next numbered title in the franchise.
He went on to say that he’s had the chance to work on two numbered titles FFXIV and FFXVI, “so maybe it’s time for someone new, you know. Instead of having the same old guys handle the next one, I think in some ways it would be good to look to the future and bring in a younger generation, with more youthful sensibilities, to make a new FF with challenges that suit today’s world.”
Supposing that a new, younger director takes on FFXVI, what advice would Yoshida have for them?
Reflecting on what Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and FF brand manager Yoshinori Kitase told him, Yoshida replied: “Final Fantasy is about challenging what’s been done before. And while I’m certainly not looking to pick a fight with the older games, we all make FF games thinking, ‘mine will be the most fun!'”
Yoshida continued. “So my advice is to just dive in an first put down on paper what you believe would be the most enjoyable FF before thinking too hard about it. Then, from there, you can decide things like, ‘since FFXVI was real-time action, my FF is going to have both real-time action and turn-based battles! Or, you could go to the other extreme and return it to its fully turn-based, pixel art roots. But you have to sit down and think about what you’re going to spend years of your life on, what kind of experience you want your players to have, and what it is you want the fans to be playing. Lay it all out on the table, and when you’re deciding ‘what should I choose?’ come and ask me again.”
Like the development of FFXVI, Yoshida shares that there are pros and cons to picking a specific direction for a Final Fantasy, and that when it comes time to choose you need to think objectively. Which direction would have problems that you would rather find solutions for? He finds that he’s a good judge when it comes to these decisions, and would be happy to give his input to a new director when the time comes.
When it comes to future projects in Creative Business Unit III, Yoshida notes that both FFXVI and Final Fantasy VII Remake have adopted, if not fully, elements of action into their gameplay, and that at one point Square Enix had a poor reputation for its titles that incorporated action – he’s sure there are many that may still feel that way now.
Yoshida says that he would like to see further developments in the action genre based on the current and recent games that they’ve developed to challenge themselves, to “make what we haven’t made yet, with even greater storytelling, emotion, and impact. Will the next game be another weighty, serious fantasy, or maybe a grand adventure story for a younger audience? Either way, it’s more fun pushing the limits—it’s how we feel, too.”