Naoki Yoshida, Final Fantasy 14's producer and director, has repeatedly described the MMORPG as a theme park for the series, with its wealth of distractions and references to multiple games.
If that's the case, then the Final Fantasy 14 Fan Fest event is the real-life theme park: full of activities, but plagued by queue times.
This was the first in-person Fan Fest event since 2019's event in Japan, and will be followed by similar events in London in October and Tokyo next year. Fittingly this Fan Fest was hosted in Las Vegas, the theme park of America. Thousands of fans wandered the freezing, air-conditioned temperatures of the Las Vegas Convention Centre away from the sweltering 45-degree desert heat outside, like a real-life version of in-game casino The Gold Saucer.
Enter inside and you'll see throngs of fans flocking to activities in its main hall, which is themed around latest expansion Endwalker. There are quest markers on the show floor to locate Gleaners: actors dressed up in character fervently offering quests tied into the activities. A bunny DJs on a disco floor of emoting fans, while cosplayers saunter past, showing off their art. The game's developers are here too, chatting on panel events, while players compete in PVP championships - where one person wears a Dark Souls helmet. The queue for merch is endless and the store quickly sells out. The Starbucks next door is perpetually overflowing.
The main draw of the Fan Fest events are the announcements made by the development team and this year was no exception. Yoshida debuted next summer's expansion, named Dawntrail, which he said promises "the very best summer vacation"; later Phil Spencer took to the stage to announce the game's launch on Xbox consoles. Yoshida wore a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, a hint to future in-game Jobs that had fans speculating all weekend. "I'm so happy to meet all of you Warriors of Light here in Vegas," he addressed the audience. During the expansion reveal he told them to "keep your expectations high," whizzing the crowd into a frenzy.
2023 also marks the 10th anniversary of A Realm Reborn, the MMO's re-launch following its infamous false start. Each new expansion since has taken the game to new heights and drawn in millions of players, to become Square Enix's most profitable game. And its fanatical players are incredibly passionate - none more so, it seemed, than Fan Fest's attendees.
Mere hours after Yoshida's keynote, social media was awash with photos and related memes and excitement over the new announcements. The game's famous trial meme has been extended to include Stormblood. There are tacos everywhere.
The fan reception to the developers was nothing less than rapturous. "Yoshi-P! Yoshi-P!" they chanted repeatedly with boundless affection, while the likes of composer Masayoshi Soken, localisation director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox and lead writer Natsuko Ishikawa were met with roaring cheers. Few other games inspire such devotion from its players towards the entire development team - they are treated like rockstars.
Some of them literally are. At the end of the second day, The Primals took to the stage: a heavy metal band comprising members of the development team dressed all in smart black. They are led by multi-instrumentalist Soken, while the usually sweet and cheery Koji Fox lives out his rockstar fantasy as lead vocalist. The Primals performed songs from throughout the game to a vast sea of fans brandishing glowing batons, their cheers reaching a fever pitch. Even Yoshida leapt into the front row of the audience to watch. You can buy the band's guitars too.
this producer's insane (said fondly) pic.twitter.com/71dJsOP2lK— ☀️🌻 emetspammail (@nightinthebrume) July 30, 2023
The real highlight of the weekend was also musical: a piano concert by Japanese pianist Keiko, joined by soprano Amanda Achen (plus Soken who scuttled on to play the otamatone). This marked the first time the two had performed together live in-person, after featuring on official recordings. Keiko said the Fan Fest stage felt "like home", while Achen said she was "so honoured to be a vessel for the emotion and catharsis this game brings". No recordings or photos were allowed - instead this was a special moment just for those in attendance. The audience was silent, spellbound. It felt magical.
Day 2✨٩(^‿^)۶ #FFXIVFanFest in Las Vegas🇺🇸🐫— Keiko/大嵜慶子 (@keicocopiano) July 30, 2023
今日もPhoto Session（with Amanda❤️）多くのヒカセンの皆とお話出来て嬉しかったです♪
凄い事になるだろうなぁ...！#FF14 #ffxivfanfest2023 #FinalFantasy14 #FFXIV pic.twitter.com/sNAasTnss6
The biggest cheer of the two-day event, perhaps suprisingly, went to the announcement that a future update will allow players to, finally, dye their armour two different colours. This might seem frivolous, but it's the small details that are most appreciated by players. Character customisation is hugely important - fans want to play, and look, their best.
That transfers to cosplay too. Costumed fans were everywhere throughout the weekend, dressed as either their own character or their favourite NPC. Some were dressed as the heavily memed low-poly grapes. Murmurs spread throughout the event: have you seen the stack marker?!
This culminated in a fashion parade on the main stage; not a contest, but a show of pageantry where solo cosplayers or groups strutted across the stage to pose in their chosen emotes. Each was met with elated applause and cheers - and it was clear this is a community that supports one another, no matter what happens. When one cosplayer took a tumble, the audience applauded in support, not laughter.
The fan wall was testament to the community, swiftly filled with written messages from players to their fellow raid groups and free companies: signatures, memes, drawings. So what is it about this community that's so overwhelmingly positive? And why is Fan Fest so important to them?
"They'll come up to me and be like 'you're the reason I started raiding', or 'you're the reason I got into higher difficulty content'. And to me that is the motivation that I need to keep doing it."
She added: "This is the one spot where [fans] can come together and meet each other in real life. And that's such a cool thing."
Mizzteq, like many MMO players, began with World of Warcraft but moved on to Final Fantasy 14 and found the community to be far more amenable and less toxic.
"Maybe because it was a smaller community for such a long time that it became super tight knit," she suggested of Final Fantasy 14. "People didn't put up with toxicity from the beginning, and that stuck around as it grew. We had a huge influx of players for Shadowbringers [the previous expansion] and even with that I feel like people kept being nice and helping people out."
There's a special quality about Final Fantasy 14 that she can't quite put her finger on. Twitch streamer Rook, who focuses on Final Fantasy 14 and other MMOs, suggested the inclusive messaging of the game has filtered into the community.
"The game itself reinforces [positivity] in its narrative, in its empowerment of characters, in its theming and messaging of coming together," said Rook.
"I think all of that does have an effect on players. We've seen a huge diverse gamerbase built around that and there are ongoing discussions about how can it be even more diverse and have even better representation, how can we have more in-your-face LGBT+ characters, how can we continue to do these things? The basis and groundwork of that positivity, inclusivity, this message of love, was so powerfully a part of FF14 to begin with, players picked up on it."
It feels like the community has continued to reinforced that positivity ever since. Said Rook: "With FF14, because that groundwork was already there and the community themselves made a precedent of keeping it a space that's like that, if you go into a duty and you're rude to somebody it's more likely than not that you'll have somebody say 'hey, that's not cool' and actually speak out about it.
"There's always going to be that pocket [of negativity] but it's overwhelmingly positive because we as players make it that way and the game and the devs themselves reinforce it."
For Rook, MMOs are all about their community: taking journeys together with people from around the globe. "And Fan Fest is so perfectly in spirit with that," she said. The pandemic also had a major impact on the community - and the popularity of this particular Fan Fest.
"It was so hard I know for many of us and for the developers during that time to be apart but games gave us a haven," she said. "And to be back together again, it feels even more treasured to be all together in a place and get to see all the faces behind the characters I share this wonderful world with."
A huge thank you to everyone who attended the #FFXIV Fan Festival 2023 in Las Vegas this year! We had an amazing time and we hope you all enjoyed the festivities.— FINAL FANTASY XIV (@FF_XIV_EN) July 30, 2023
See you in London in October! 🎊🎊 pic.twitter.com/gr1CTN1TuL
As I spoke to Rook, one community member next to us was handed a spare merch queue ticket by another who squealed with glee and ran off. This is the community in action: strangers coming together for a common goal, be it saving the world or procuring a sold out Moogle.
The warmth, passion, and solidarity of the community overflowed into the closing ceremony following The Primals concert. Each developer took to the stage to say a few words and the tears fell on both sides. It's clear how much this game and its community means to the players, but being able to meet those players face-to-face was a major moment of pride for the developers. "You are the best fucking community in the world," shouted Koji Fox, able to swear as the cameras were switched off and the livestream ended. Both Yoshida and Ishikawa could barely speak through sobs, their translator also choking up.
Their enthusiasm is infectious too. I arrived back home desperate to continue my own adventures in Eorzea, a journey that can take hundreds of hours. Xbox players beware.
Final Fantasy 14 has been a 10-year passion project for its development team, Yoshida in particular. Can we expect another 10 years of magical worlds, emotional storytelling, and community support?
"I intend to continue until I die," said Yoshida at the keynote. "Or even afterwards."
But to this community, Yoshida is already immortal.