Final Fantasy XIV continues its successful cavalcade, and its stories continue to map an emotional journey for many players around the world.
Yet, we often forget that these emotions are supported and often even sparked by the game’s music.
To learn more about how the soundtrack is created, Twininite spoke with Masayoshi Soken, a composer whose storied career spans several notable video game IPs including his excellent work on FFXIV.
Giuseppe: Are you still working from home due to COVID-19? Has it changed your workflow at all, or have you met any new challenges as a result?
Masayoshi Soken: Yes, currently I am still working from home, but honestly the only real difference is that we’ve shifted to online communication between members of the development team, so the overall workflow hasn’t changed at all.
This is thanks to both the Square Enix IT department and FFXIV Development Support Team acting quickly and getting everything set up for us when work from home orders went into effect. Creative staff such as myself did require some additional technical setup in order to get development tools and music software set up and running properly, but overall we didn’t run into any major obstacles.
When we shifted to a work from home environment, the company as a whole was also quick to show understanding and provide instruction, plus the measures that were put in place felt appropriate and were quickly implemented—at that time I thought, “I’m so glad I work for Square Enix.”
Giuseppe: Considering the pace of updates Final Fantasy XIV receives, and the fact that each includes its own music tracks, is it challenging to continue to compose music for the same game at this pace for such a long time?
Masayoshi Soken: I feel like I may have become desensitized to a point after many years of being under constant pressure and dealing with development deadlines. Even now I keep on moving forward and don’t have much free time to look back and think about how I did (laughs).
I say this strictly based on instinct and not necessarily based on any kind of data or evidence, but it was never easy to get here, and it can be very hard even now. Even so, I’m enjoying the challenges that I’m faced with. Thinking on it now though, I guess it’s all been pretty crazy.
I don’t get a chance to look back at the past unless someone interviews me like this! Thank you for interviewing me!
Giuseppe: Considering the content of the game, you often bring back beloved music from past Final Fantasy titles. What is your process to breathe new life into these tracks?
Masayoshi Soken: I do think that the music of Final Fantasy is Mr. Nobuo Uematsu’s music. Whenever I reference or arrange a song for FFXIV, I pay the utmost attention to not break the overall feel of the original song. This, of course, applies to the creation of the track itself, but also involves being mindful of the situation or scene the track will be used in-game.
This is because Final Fantasy songs from past titles have already been burned into people’s hearts alongside their own special gameplay experiences. I am very careful to not disrupt these memories of the players, but I also try to deliver new emotional moments and excitement through FFXIV and that gameplay experience.
Come to think of it, I think creating an arrangement track for FFXIV may be more difficult than composing a brand-new song, and I’ve actually borrowed a lot of Final Fantasy songs to make arrangements. I wonder just how many songs I’ve arranged and implemented in-game…I’ve never counted, so I really don’t know (laughs).
Giuseppe: Is there any classic Final Fantasy track that you would really want to bring into Final Fantasy XIV, but haven’t had a chance to yet?
Masayoshi Soken: I’m a gamer as much as our players—I want to prioritize the gameplay experience over everything when I create music. There really never has been a situation where I already had a song in mind that I want to bring into the game.
I’m sure if we were developing new game content for FFXIV and happened to come across a specific element that we felt would be a perfect match for a song from a past Final Fantasy title, we would, of course, reference it and create an arrangement for FFXIV!
Giuseppe: What is the strangest or most unique instrument or sound that you ever used for Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack?
Masayoshi Soken: Hmmm, what would it be…
Perhaps the sound of the bass drum we used in the chocobo racing track? The instrument used here, by the way, was a trash can that was at my desk. I wanted a slightly comical “boko!” sound, so when I saw the trash can, I thought to myself, “Yes! This is it!” and tried it out. The result was great!
Another might be the maracas you hear in the Costa del Sol theme—that is actually the sound of some pills inside an empty cup noodle container.
Giuseppe: What kind of music do you listen to in your free time? What in particular inspires you?
Masayoshi Soken: That would definitely be ROCK by a landslide!!! There’s also nothing like a bit of Bossa Nova during mealtime. It’s very therapeutic, and the music casts a spell that makes the meal taste even better.
Sometimes I’ll cry when I listen to music tied to an experience or memory from the past, but I have also done so when I hear a song for the first time, and it moves me emotionally. I’ve noticed this happens regardless of the song’s genre.
Hmmm, maybe I just cry a lot more easily now because I’ve gotten older? (laughs)
Giuseppe: How do you interact with the development team working on gameplay and story to make sure that your tracks interact perfectly with the game?
Masayoshi Soken: Whenever I start work on creating music, more often than not the gameplay element it will ultimately be tied to is not complete. In these situations, I generally depend on discussions with the scenario writer for the content.
After the music has been implemented, the content will generally be available to play, so I’ll go in and play in order to fine-tune the details, or even sometimes revise the arrangement.
After that, I’ll directly communicate with the staff in charge of creating the content. In this back and forth with the person creating the battle, we’ll make adjustments such as changing the key of the song based on how the battle begins, for example.
After multiple play sessions and going through meticulous adjustments, most of the implementation can be considered complete—then it is finally time for Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida’s review… Sometimes this is where all of our plans get turned upside down, which causes the production team to all feel a bit sad (laughs).
Right now, we have a lot of staff on the FFXIV sound team. I’ve talked a bit about our schedules and timing, but up until around Heavensward we were understaffed, so even if the gameplay elements were ready, I was unable to start composing a song for it, since I had so many other sound-related tasks piled up. That was really hard.
Giuseppe: How long does it usually take to compose and record the music for an expansion on the scale of Shadowbringers?
Masayoshi Soken: When it comes to the production of an expansion pack, there needs to be a deep understanding of that world which we are creating, and to understand that new world takes time.
We have often introduced elements of an upcoming expansion in the later patches of the expansion prior—including that process as part of the overall production sets our production period at well over six months.
Giuseppe: What track in Final Fantasy XIV are you personally most fond of and why?
Masayoshi Soken: I think I’d have to say Torn from the Heavens.
I’m sure everyone is aware of the failure of the original FFXIV, and the development team was very discouraged. We of course had Mr. Yoshida join the FFXIV development team at this time, and while he was enthusiastic to tell the team that we would be rebuilding the game, it was met with adversity and trepidation at first.
Members of the team would say things like, “Who’s this guy and where’s he even from?” or, “There’s no way we can rebuild the game, no matter who works on it!”
It was during this time that I completed Torn from the Heavens—the emotion behind creating this song can only be described as, “just wait and see, we’re going to do this!” We are still able to keep FFXIV going even now because of the development team, including myself, who took on the challenge despite the hardships, and the Meteor Survivors who supported us by continuing to play the game.
This is a song that captures the emotions of these people and of that time.
Giuseppe: The PS5 is coming soon, and it appears to have unprecedented audio features for a console. As a developer working on music, how do you feel about it?
Masayoshi Soken: When we transitioned from the PlayStation 3 to the next-gen PlayStation 4, many systems such as the graphics, game controller, and online systems all evolved greatly—but it felt like the sound side of things didn’t see much in terms of technological advancement.
This is purely from my personal perspective as a game audio developer rather than as sound director on FFXIV, but I am excited for the updates being made to the sound systems and seeing what they can bring to the table.
One of the reasons why I continue my career in game development is because I get to work with the latest cutting-edge technology. I would love to dig deep into this new tech and see what ideas I can come up with to bring a new experience with sound to the people—even now I can’t contain my excitement for these possibilities!
Final Fantasy XIV is currently available for PlayStation 4 and PC. Incidentally, a few days we learned from Square Enix that monthly subscribers are continuing to grow.
If you want to read more details about the upcoming update 5.3 you can check out our report of the latest Letter from the Producer Live.
Speaking of the music, you can also read our report from the latest orchestra concert in Yokohama, Japan.