Naoki Yoshida holds the future of Final Fantasy in his hands.
“For me, Final Fantasy is about having a deep story, rich game design, the best game audio to accompany those aspects — as well as the inclusion of chocobos, moogles, and summons,” Yoshida tells Inverse.
The producer of the hotly anticipated Final Fantasy XVI, set to release on PlayStation 5 in 2023, has also been the director of the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game Final Fantasy XIV since 2010. Yoshida transformed FFXIV from an instant flop to a decade-spanning bop, which has since become the most profitable Final Fantasy game ever made and Square Enix’s biggest revenue driver of 2021, with 25 million registered players.
The man known affectionately as Yoshi-P is beloved for his infectious enthusiasm for all things Final Fantasy, his offbeat sense of humor, and his rare willingness to admit when things aren’t going according to plan.
“I believe the essence of a job is getting paid to do what others find troublesome,” Yoshida says. “The more your job is something people don’t like, or don’t want to do, the more praise and recognition you will receive for accomplishing it. Once you build up credibility, you can take on bigger challenges and will be permitted to spend greater sums of money. As such, my mentality remains unchanged even today.”
Yoshida didn’t rise to prominence overnight. He’s had a lengthy career in the game industry, especially with Square Enix. Starting in 1993, he attended a school run by Hudson Soft, best known for the Bomberman and Bonk franchises. His first game credit was on Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth, a Nintendo 64 title released in 1998. After working at several smaller studios for about five years, Yoshida befriended Yosuke Saito (who would go on to produce the NieR series), which opened the door to a position at Squaresoft just before its 2003 merger with Enix.
At Square Enix, Yoshida directed Dragon Quest: Monster Battle Road, a hugely successful series of arcade games. He then became chief planner on the ambitious MMO project, Dragon Quest X, though was later removed from the project and became one of Square Enix’s “stray dogs” for a couple of years, working on various projects until he was brought on to FFXIV and spearheaded its 2013 re-release, A Realm Reborn.
In those early years, Final Fantasy XIV was an outlier for the long-running series, which had mostly been comprised of single-player experiences. Yoshida predicts those old distinctions between “traditional” and “online” games won’t matter much in the years ahead.
“I think the very concept of online gaming will gradually disappear,” he says. “Though the scale of integration may vary, there’s hardly any video games without some sort of online component these days. I think the distinction will be reduced to whether it is multiplayer or single-player.”
After more than 10 years on the project, Yoshida sees FFXIV sticking around.
“I want to keep making sure that Final Fantasy XIV will be fondly remembered by many as a fun game that gave them the best gaming experience,” he says. “I also want to make sure that it will remain in operation for decades to come.”
“I think the very concept of online gaming will gradually disappear.”
But he also predicts that the MMORPG genre — and video games in general — will see massive changes in the future, many of them driven by technological innovation.
“If we think in terms of the next decade, the development and spread of new devices — such as VR chips — may give way to revolutionary game experiences,” he says. “I’d thought this could happen a bit sooner, but I believe it might’ve been delayed by several years due to the shortage of semiconductors caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors.”
Yoshida also believes widespread use of quantum computing could have drastic effects on game development in the next five to 10 years — and blur the boundaries between real and virtual worlds.
“This would dramatically increase server performance and elements that could be simulated. That could lead to the creation of a living world that resembles reality, or even new ideas that create an actual online world,” he explains. “There is the possibility that game development styles will drastically change and culminate in a major turning point not only for video games but everyday life itself.”
While it’s easy to think about how games themselves will change, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to spend more time thinking about the people that make those games. In the West, game development has taken significant strides toward unionization, as workers at companies like Activision Blizzard and Riot Games organize in an effort to change their toxic workplaces. At the same time, Japanese companies like Bandai Namco are trying to move toward a more healthy work-life balance for employees.
Yoshida says these changes are vital to the industry’s future.
“As long as games remain a form of entertainment, I believe the only solution is to keep examining the issue and meticulously improve management methods,” he says. “No matter how much someone wants to carry on with their work, in order to avoid burnout, it’s important to assign mandatory breaks and have them re-energize before they reach their limit.”
“I believe the series is currently struggling.”
Speaking of breaks, Yoshida could certainly use one. On top of his ongoing duties for FFXIV, the hype train for FFXVI has officially left the station, and the pressure is on for the next mainline installment of the series to live up to Final Fantasy’s formidable 35-year legacy. After the mixed reception to 2016’s Final Fantasy XV, which faltered under the ambitions of a decade-long development cycle, putting Yoshida front and center is a way for Square Enix to signal that the series is in capable hands. (He does, after all, have a reputation for turning disasters into triumphs.)
Despite his enthusiasm for the bright future of FFXIV, Yoshida is characteristically candid about that of the series as a whole:
“In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling. We’re now at a point where we receive a wide variety of requests regarding the direction of our game design. To be honest, it’d be impossible to satisfy all those requests with a single title. My current impression is that all we can really do is create multiple games, and continue creating the best that we can at any given time.”
To Yoshida, Final Fantasy has never been about chasing trends, but setting them. That ideology comes through clearly in FFXIV’s persistent willingness to try new things, especially in terms of storytelling. When the game’s servers shut down in November 2012 ahead of the launch of the ambitious reboot A Realm Reborn, FFXIV treated it like an in-universe apocalypse. (The story resumed post-calamity in August 2013.) More recent expansions, like Heavensward and Shadowbringers, tackle ambitious narrative themes like prejudice and the subjective nature of history.
The love and passion Yoshida has for video games is palpable in everything he does, and it’s made him a rockstar within the Final Fantasy community. But despite his lofty predictions for the future, he’s content to keep making games — any games — for as long as he can.
“I am a game designer, so I always have several ideas for games. I can't talk about them here, but I think that goes for any game designer.” Yoshida says. “I am the kind of person who’s happy as long as they can make games, so while there isn’t anything in particular, I occasionally think that I would like to make one more MMORPG title, from scratch, before I die.”
Inverse Luminaries profiles the most innovative and exciting people in and around the games industry for their insights on the future of the medium.
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