When a big, years-in-the-making game finally releases, it’s common for staff to take an extended vacation. The grind of finishing up an ambitious project often involves plenty of late nights at the office, missing out on time with family, and little in the way of time off. For Hajime Tabata, who took over as director of the troubled Final Fantasy XV in 2013, the year leading up to launch was filled with many sleepless nights. “There is a sense that this is shortening my lifespan,” he told Polygon in 2015. “But it's all worth it."
The game had all the makings of a disaster. Over the course of its decade-long development, which began in 2006, FFXV changed names, platforms, and eventually directors. It went from a spinoff of the PS3 title Final Fantasy XIII to the next major standalone entry in the iconic series. Despite all of the turmoil, it proved to be a success both critically and commercially, reaching 6 million units sold faster than any game in the series before it. One year after launch, the game is still growing with multiple spinoffs, expansions, and updates, many of which are still to come.
The nights may not be as sleepless as they once were, but for Tabata, FFXV still consumes much of his time. “I took my family on a trip and was able to make up for last year,” he says. “However, we are still mastering up every few months, so we’re still busy and are constantly pressed for time.”
In some ways, Final Fantasy XV is a lot like previous entries in the long-running role-playing series. As one member of a quartet of best friends, you set out on a world-spanning road trip, equal parts epic fantasy adventure and buddy comedy. Swords and sorcery combine with a near-future setting, where characters can take selfies while riding giant chickens called chocobos into battle. But Final Fantasy XV is notable for the ways that it’s different from the rest of the series. That’s because Final Fantasy XV isn’t just a game: it’s become the center of a surprisingly vast, constantly changing universe.
That process started even before the game launched. Prior to Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix debuted an anime series that served as an introduction to the main cast of characters, and a feature-length CG movie that told a story concurrent with the events of the game. Meanwhile, the game’s creators have adopted a service model, with a steady stream of updates and expansions designed to keep players coming back. It’s an increasingly popular technique in the multiplayer space, where games like Overwatch and Destiny need to keep people engaged in order to maintain a steady base of players. But it’s a relatively novel approach for a typically single-player, narrative-focused experience like Final Fantasy.
FFXV’s updates have altered virtually every facet of the experience. There are the typical bug fixes and performance improvements, of course, but the team also created an entirely new version of the controversial chapter 13, a section of the game that many players felt dragged on while forcing them to give up their hard-earned powers and weapons. There have also been two standalone story expansions, as well as a massively multiplayer add-on called “Comrades,” that fills in a large gap in the story’s timeline. This month also saw the debut of a virtual reality fishing spinoff, Monster of the Deep, and there are upcoming versions of the game in the works for both PC and mobile.
For Tabata and his team, it’s been a new experience, and tackling so many different projects simultaneously proved to be a challenge. “We set up a plan to develop multiple [pieces of] content in parallel with each other, based on our experience developing the main game,” he explains. “However, it did prove to be difficult to develop efficiently, while also making sure we achieve the quality we want when dealing with the multiple projects.”
One particular challenge, he notes, is maintaining a sense of consistency while tuning each experience for its respective platform. The PC version features high-end visuals, for instance, while the mobile FFXV streamlines the experience with a more pronounced focus on story. “It goes without saying that we will offer the game on as many platforms as possible,” Tabata says. “And when we do that, we will make sure to offer a Final Fantasy XV that has characteristics that fits that platform.”
However, despite the game’s success, Tabata isn’t sure whether or not this kind of service model is something future games in the series will adapt. If there’s one constant in Final Fantasy, it’s change. Each new entry offers up a new world and characters, and drastic shifts are common, whether it’s the real-time gameplay of FFXII or the massively multiplayer structure of FFXIV. For Tabata, the service model offers just one of many potential directions for the series. “I feel that the future of the series will have more freedom and flexibility,” he says. “One thing I can say is that to release a game as a global AAA title, then continuing to push out content under a service model like Final Fantasy XV did, is extremely difficult to do.”
As for FFXV, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The third and final story expansion, “Episode Ignis,” is launching next month, while the mobile version is due out this year and the PC port is planned for early 2018. (That’s on top of the updates coming to the new multiplayer portion of the game.) There’s no definitive end in sight, and Tabata says he does “hope to try to continue offering services for as long as possible.”
When it comes to what’s next for the series, though, there’s a good chance he won’t be involved — at least for a while. The director has already said that his next project will be something completely new. There’s no indication on what that something may be, but it sounds ambitious. “I like to challenge myself to new things,” he explains. “I want to challenge the team and friends that experienced Final Fantasy XV together in creating a world that we have never seen, and creating a game that we have never seen.”