Hironobu Sakaguchi knew what he was getting into the first time he picked up Final Fantasy 14. An avid gamer himself, he had once forced members of Final Fantasy’s development team to play EverQuest under the guise of doing research.
“My first [MMORPG] was EverQuest. I got absolutely addicted to it and forced a dozen or so SquareSoft staff members at the time to play as well, telling them it was required knowledge. Incredibly, most of them got hooked too, which led to [Final Fantasy 11],” Sakaguchi remembers.
“Actually,” he laughs, “some of the staff never made it back to the real world.”
Sakaguchi knew that would be his fate if he were to ever play Final Fantasy 14, which has steadily grown in popularity since its 2014 reboot. But the desire to feel prepared for an on-stage discussion with director Naoki Yoshida in September 2021 finally pushed him to venture into Eorzea. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
“Part of why I’d never played [Final Fantasy 14] is because I’ve always liked MMORPGs,” Sakaguchi says, “and just like I feared, I got addicted to it once I started.”
Goblins by the sea
Early game developers who manage to stick around the industry tend to fall in two buckets. On one end there are the developers who become executives and develop a mercenary outlook on the business; on the other there are the developers who retain a hobbyist’s appreciation for the medium. Sakaguchi seems to fall into the latter category.
Sakaguchi has been making games since the 1980s, one of his earliest projects being The Death Trap – a text adventure released for Japanese PC. Polygon’s Oral History of Final Fantasy 7 describes Square’s office in those early days as less a company than a room where people came and went, and where Sakaguchi designed games while working part-time.
“We treated it like a hobby, not a career,” longtime Square composer Nobuo Uematsu is quoted as saying. “We just wanted to do what we liked. We weren’t worried about our salaries or living situations or thinking, ‘Where is this company going?’”
Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Characters in Final Fantasy 14
Sakaguchi’s always liked games. Even before Dragon Quest burst onto the scene and formally introduced Japan to RPGs, he was playing on an Apple II, where he became fascinated by genre stalwarts like Ultima. That experience would lead him to make Final Fantasy, the series that would go on to define his career.
Now living in Hawaii, it’s been more than two decades since Sakaguchi last worked on a Final Fantasy game, but he retains what seems to be a deep affection for Square Enix’s famous RPG series, even going as far as to call Final Fantasy 15 his favorite game of 2016. When he ventured out of FF14’s Ul’dah for the first time, all of the old memories came rushing back.
“I didn’t get much of a sense of it at first since I was only fighting enemies like ladybugs, but then I started seeing bosses like Titan, and when I got a lot further in, I saw goblins drawn in Mr. Amano’s style,” Sakaguchi says, referring to longtime series artist Yoshitaka Amano.
He would point out details like the chameleons having been drawn by Amano, which he says “shocked” the people he was traveling with.
“The 3D staff have really done a good job modeling the chameleons after Mr. Amano’s original drawings. His art has such a two-dimensional feeling to it, so I was moved on even a technical level by their ability to preserve that sense in 3D. Of course, I did wonder why his goblins were by the sea,” Sakaguchi laughs.
It didn’t take long for word to get around that Final Fantasy’s creator was playing Final Fantasy 14. Sakaguchi used his own name, so fans quickly recognized and greeted him about the world. Some would approach with what they described as “shaking hands,” but Sakaguchi would laugh and suggest they calm down so they could have a “nice conversation.”
The interactions reminded Sakaguchi of the old days, when console games still came with postcards. In those days, fans would correspond with the dev teams, with the most dedicated among them sometimes joining up as playtesters.
“You come to learn relatively personal things about other players in MMORPGs. They might say that their cat is meowing, or talk about their children, for example. You also learn how old they are in these moments. Still, you don’t dig too deep into their lives, right? It’s almost like a new form of relationship, where you know just a bit about someone’s private life,” Sakaguchi says. “On the other hand, though, you talk to them in depth about the game, like ‘You need to start with rings there, not legs,’ or ‘I need to get my crits up.’ It’s those kinds of odd conversations that I like. Someone might type, ‘My hands are so cold that they don’t move…’ only for me to reply, ‘Sorry, but it’s 27 degrees (81F) here in Hawaii!’”
Sakaguchi’s routine has him waking up between 5am and 6am, which is between 11pm and midnight in Japan. “Things are right around their peak just as I wake up,” Sakaguchi says, “so once I meet with everyone and start playing, they’ll leave one by one until I’m all alone in the end. That’s perfect for me, since I get to enjoy soloing for five or six hours after everyone has left.”
News of Sakaguchi’s exploits also began to circulate on social media. Sakaguchi meticulously documented his progress, sharing updates and making off-the-cuff observations, which were in turn shared around social media. Fans noted his rapid progress, which saw him finish the base game and the Heavensward expansion in just over two weeks — a grind that can take more than 100 hours based on HowLongToBeat.
By October 29, 2021 he had finished Stormblood, Shadowbringers, and smaller patch content. He even managed to squeeze in enough time to attend his daughter’s wedding. At last count Sakaguchi has clocked more than 1000 hours in Final Fantasy 14,
“I really shouldn’t be getting this obsessed with a game, should I? I have work I need to do!” Sakaguchi laughs.
“It’s like Disneyland”
Sakaguchi’s embrace of Final Fantasy 14 comes at what may well be the pinnacle for Square Enix’s once troubled MMORPG. Benefiting from years of positive word-of-mouth, Final Fantasy 14 saw a huge wave of new players in 2021, many of whom were abandoning World of Warcraft. The influx of new players overwhelmed Final Fantasy 14’s servers, at one point forcing Square Enix to stop selling new copies online.
Those who love Final Fantasy 14 praise its high-quality storytelling, steady release cadence, and the transparency of its developers. Its success is frequently credited to director Naoki Yoshida, known as “Yoshi-P” to fans, who took over Final Fantasy 14’s development after its disastrous 2012 release. Yoshida is an outspoken fan of both Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft, infusing elements from both games into Final Fantasy 14.
Because of this, Final Fantasy 14 is chock-a-block with references from the larger series, with famous moments including getting the Magitek Armor from Final Fantasy 6 as a mount. Final Fantasy 14 also includes scenarios created by Final Fantasy Tactics director Yasumi Matsuno, who is said to be a hardcore fan of the MMO himself.
In the process of rebooting Final Fantasy 14, Sakaguchi says Yoshida approached him for his blessing on the project. “When I first went for dinner with Yoshida, he asked me, ‘Is it really okay for me to be making [Final Fantasy 14]? How much of your series is it okay for me to change?’
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“I replied, ‘[Final Fantasy 14] belongs to you. I don’t intend on meddling in any way. It’s yours, so do as you like with it.’ It seems like that resonated with [Yoshida] to some degree, and he said he’d really go for it in that case.”
Sakaguchi says that he has since emailed back and forth with Yoshida “a few times,” including a long message with his thoughts on Final Fantasy 14. Yoshida replied that he was reading Sakaguchi’s Twitter account and that the “whole team was moved by the mere fact that [Sakaguchi] was playing the game,” which Sakaguchi says made him happy too.
Sakaguchi’s own favorite entry is Final Fantasy 9, which itself was a kind of nostalgia tour through the series. Sakaguchi was calling it such even before it was released, not least because it recalled Final Fantasy’s early days on the NES – a period that still heavily resonates with him. Final Fantasy 9 has taken on added meaning in the years since; Sakaguchi departed in 2001, and not long after, Square merged with its longtime rival, Enix. With Final Fantasy 9 also being the last entry in the series fully composed by Uematsu, it felt in some ways like the end of an era.
It was not an easy time for Sakaguchi. The failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which nearly bankrupted Square, is said to have left him feeling depressed and burned out, and it was years before he released another game. Sakaguchi finally reentered the games industry in 2004, his first project for his new studio, Mistwalker, being Blue Dragon — a traditional JRPG featuring the world of artist Akira Toriyama, who is best-known for his work on Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball.
Sakaguchi’s work in the years that followed would often be driven by nostalgia. Lost Odyssey, Mistwalker’s next project, drew comparisons to 16-bit era RPGs and was referred to by some fans as the “real” Final Fantasy 12. ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat drew inspiration from old-school tactics games like Fire Emblem and Daisenryaku. Even Last Story, which attempted to marry Gears of War-style cover-based combat with action role-playing, was a not-so-subtle nod to Final Fantasy.
It’s no wonder then that Final Fantasy 14 – itself one big tribute to Final Fantasy – resonates so deeply with Sakaguchi.
“It makes me feel so nostalgic,” Sakaguchi says. “Like the Magus Sisters, for example [three famous boss characters from Final Fantasy 4]. Just seeing them made me jump for joy.”
He adds, laughing, “Though I was a little disappointed that they left before even showing us their actual faces. I’d like to see more of them.”
In the course of tweeting about Final Fantasy 14, Sakaguchi would point out characters like Ultros, the octopus-like villain from Final Fantasy 6, writing, “Ultros! You were at the opera, weren’t you?” He talks about riding a Chocobo in Final Fantasy 14 and how it reminds him of “[Final Fantasy 3] or the opening of [Final Fantasy Tactics]” and references Yoshida comparison’s of Final Fantasy 14 to a “Final Fantasy series theme park,” agreeing that the development team has “done a good job of creating that.”
“It’s like Disneyland, even in the ways they hold back,” Sakaguchi says. “Disneyland is able to create its own kind of reality through detailed rules like not allowing two Mickeys to be in the same place at the same time, right? I love the way that the game pays close attention to its own kinds of rules that let you enjoy it as a [Final Fantasy] theme park, rather than just stuffing everything they feel like into one place.”
It’s in analysis like this that Sakaguchi’s multi-decade career as a game developer becomes apparent, and he admits that there are times where he can’t help but look at Final Fantasy 14 with the eye of a professional. At one point he talks about how there are points where the systems will struggle to keep pace with the story, pulling him out of the experience.
“It happens in waves, but [Final Fantasy] has always been like that,” Sakaguchi says. “Shoving a story down a player’s throat can lead to them saying things like, ‘That dungeon wasn’t any fun.’ You can’t have a successful fusion of story and systems without moments like that, though. You don’t want the two drifting too far apart from one another, but I think it’s all about finding just the right balance.”
He describes adventuring with other players as being a “big group dance” in which players move in sync, which he credits to the advent of modern internet connections. “Encounters aren’t fun if you can just brute-force your way through them, but on the other hand you’ll always have players in environments that result in lag, so you don’t want everything to be attacks that require strict timing. I imagine there was a lot of trial and error when it came to what mechanics to emphasize.”
“I imagine that everyone moving together to make it through a bunch of mechanics and defeat an enemy feels a lot like performing a perfect dance routine in a group of 10 or so,” he adds.
One reason it’s interesting to hear Sakaguchi discuss Final Fantasy 14 from the viewpoint of a developer – indeed, Final Fantasy’s creator – is that in recent years it’s been unclear how invested Sakaguchi has been in actually continuing to make games. When he announced Terra Battle, a mobile game, in 2014, it seemed to outside observers as if he was headed into semi-retirement. The announcement trailer for the project consisted in part of colleagues holding up drinks and promising content for the game, as if he had ambushed his friends over beers with an impromptu cell phone video.
Sakaguchi and Mistwalker made good money from Terra Battle, pulled in roughly 1.8 million downloads but otherwise settled into relative obscurity at around the same time that Final Fantasy 14 was taking off in popularity. Its sequel proved disappointing and was quickly shut down, with the original following suit in 2020. When Sakaguchi reemerged in 2021 to promote Fantasian – a more traditional RPG for Apple Arcade – he talked frankly about the possibility of retirement.
“I think it is certainly possible that this could be my last project,” he told VGC at one point, “and that was kind of in the back of my mind as we were developing it.”
Sakaguchi backtracked in subsequent interviews, saying that he still had ideas of what to create, but that he would be “very satisfied” if it was the “cherry on top” of his long career. In making Fantasian, which drew comparisons to the early days of Final Fantasy, it seemed as if Sakaguchi had finally come full circle.
But if he’s tired of games, it’s not apparent based on how much time spends actually playing them. Sakaguchi dodges questions about playing Final Fantasy 16 by saying he doesn’t really play games, but goes on to talk about playing Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon Forbidden West (not Elden Ring, though, which Sakaguchi says is probably a “good game” but nevertheless worries will be too frustrating for him). That’s on top of his 1100 hours with Final Fantasy 14, where he is immersed to the point that he has created his own in-game “sakaGucci” clothing line.
His retirement plans seem to be on hold for now, with Sakaguchi saying he would like to finish Horizon Forbidden West before moving on to his next project, when he will have less time for gaming. He says that he has already been approached with “two or so offers” and that the contracts are currently being drawn up.
“They’re still in the planning stages, where we’re deciding on how the business will work and putting together contracts, so it’s not as if we’ve started on actual development, but I do think I’ll be working on something,” Sakaguchi says. “Of course, the more concrete those plans start to look, the more I feel like I need to play [Final Fantasy 14] while I still can,”
One thing Sakaguchi is certain about is that he has no interest in being involved with Final Fantasy 14’s development.
“I’m having so much fun with [Final Fantasy 14] that I don’t want to get involved in its production. I wouldn’t want to learn any inside information, either,” Sakaguchi says. “Learning about a game in that way would mean I couldn’t enjoy it as a player. That knowledge would even change how I interact with the users playing alongside me, right? I want them to have a certain sense of superiority when they deal with me.”
“Like, ‘I’m pretty sure you’re doing that wrong, Mr. Sakaguchi,’” he says, imagining one such mock interaction. “’Wait, really?!’”
Hironobu Sakaguchi is a long way from the days when he would work part-time at the Square office over what is now a Doutor coffee shop, and yet in some ways it also feels like he’s closer to that period than ever. In Final Fantasy 14, Sakaguchi has had an opportunity that few people ever get – a chance to look back on his career with fresh eyes.
It’s possible to detect that new insight when he, for example, talks about how Final Fantasy 14 approaches its highly-structured maps, which is predicated on predictable content drops. Between these scheduled beats, Final Fantasy 14 is comfortable letting fans step away, which has the unintuitive effect of heightening loyalty and increasing retention.
“I’d always thought that it was the developers’ job to surprise users with something new,” Sakaguchi says, “but now I feel like you might actually be able to create a more stable base that’s fun over the long term when players can predict somewhere around half or two-thirds of what will come next. It seems like an innovation to me.” He also talks about the music, pointing out how the mixture of classical tunes with more modern music is integral to the game’s mood.
“It’s during the important moments in the story that they use [Final Fantasy] themes. It’s a very smart choice,” he explains. “I felt like the game didn’t need music with vocals in it at first, but now I find myself planning on singing some of those songs at karaoke when I go back to Japan.”
But it’s Final Fantasy 14’s story, arguably the element that wins it the most praise among fans, that seems to have truly grabbed his attention. Sakaguchi is certainly no stranger to high-quality storytelling, but there was a time when he didn’t think RPGs were necessarily compatible with strong stories, sacrilegious as that might sound for a genre that mastered narrative before virtually any other type of games.
“Thinking back to when we first made Final Fantasy, RPGs back in those days were like Wizardry, or if you were to go back to the start, Dungeons & Dragons. In those games, you play a vocational role within a larger world. As far as story is concerned, it really only exists on the level of lore and flavor when heading to a dungeon. I used to think that’s what RPGs are,” Sakaguchi explains.
Over time, his outlook changed amid “trial and error” as Square worked to mix the more systems-based approach taken by the original Final Fantasy with strong writing. “We tried to make RPGs with stories and characters in them since [Final Fantasy], and I feel like that’s something we finally established around the time of [Final Fantasy 4].”
Despite that, Sakaguchi went on believing that MMORPGs couldn’t have truly great stories. Even World of Warcraft – with its sprawling lore and famous characters like Thrall, Sylvanas, and Jaina Proudmoore – is more closely associated with raids, guilds, and loot. Final Fantasy 14 changed that dynamic, prizing the progression of its story above all else.
“I was playing a game in a genre that conventional wisdom said was incompatible with stories, yet it told me to my face, ‘You are the protagonist.’ It does this for every player,” Sakaguchi says. “It made me think that they were doing what we’d struggled with from [Final Fantasy] to [Final Fantasy 4], which is why I think the fundamental makeup of [Final Fantasy 14] is that of a Final Fantasy. They’ve managed to inject story into a system that’s downright hostile to stories.”
He describes Endwalker, the expansion released last year, as a “grand finale or ending for one portion of the game,” praising its “cosmic scale.” Having played for four solid months, Final Fantasy 14 felt to Sakaguchi like one big story, but now it was at an end, at least for the moment. As the series’ creator, he had been “able to predict most of what would happen up until then.”
But in the end, it still managed to catch him by surprise.
“I couldn’t stop myself from looking at it as a professional developer,” Sakaguchi says, “like, ‘Huh, so that’s how they’re going to do it? Of course, that character!’”
Sakaguchi is now fully caught up with Final Fantasy 14’s story, but with a new patch out this week and plenty more expansions to come, Square Enix’s MMORPG is nowhere close to finished. And neither, it seems, is Hironobu Sakaguchi.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.