Analyzing FF14's Pay to Play Transition
by Jessica "Allahweh" Brown, February 21 2012
It would be an understatement to say that Final Fantasy XIV was off to a rocky start when it launched in September of 2010. The game felt more like an early alpha build than it did a beta, let alone a game that was ready for a commercial release. Many gamers wondered what happened to the game that was meant to be the next great follow-up to Final Fantasy XI, an MMORPG that had met with commercial success in Japan and around the world. In fact, the release was so questionable that Square-Enix offered an official apology for the state of the game and extended the included 30-day trial period indefinitely until they felt that the game was worthy of charging a recurring subscription.
There were many reasons for why the game felt so unpolished. For one, the game ran excessively sluggishly, and the issue wasnít due to getting a low frame-rate in the game. Rather, character movements and animations seemed far slower than they should have been, and in some cases combat was painfully slow-paced. The gameís user-interface also left a lot to be desired and unfortunately it wasnít all that customizable. Preferences as a whole were not easy to change in the game with simple things like graphical options having to be changed outside the game, and even so the options were extremely limited. Yet, worst of all perhaps was the fact that the game felt like it offered no real direction for the players to go in. Square titles are usually known for their exceptionally fun and deep storylines, yet outside of the guildleve system the story was quite lacking. The game seemed almost sandbox in its direction (or lack thereof), but this was most assuredly unintentional on the part of Square.
In late-2011, Square-Enix made the announcement that on January 6, 2012 the game would be changing to the original pay-to-play model as intended by the developers. The gameís design team claimed that Final Fantasy XIV had come a long way since its release over a year prior and said that the game was getting much closer to what they originally had in mind for it. Square had monthly server costs to take into account and a team of designers, artists, and other talented folks that had been working hard to get the game into an enjoyable state to finance. They felt it was time to bring their game into the Pay to Play age but decided to do so at a discount. While the initial plan for Final Fantasy XIV called for a $14.99/month fee, they decided to only charge $9.99/month.
As January 6 approached, discussions on the Lodestone and other major hubs of activity for the Final Fantasy XIV community were ablaze with talk about the impending changes to the billing style of the game. Many at the time felt that despite the work that had gone into the game since release and since the team was reorganized the game was simply not yet ready to become a full, subscription-based MMORPG. These people felt that going pay-to-play would just be the final nail in the gameís coffin. Others were more concerned with the fact that the game had been free-to-play for nearly a year-and-a-half and that transitioning to a subscription model would drive far too many players away from the game.
Final Fantasy XIV player Aylis Crescent (@MithraDragoon on Twitter) recently provided interesting insight into the game post-January 6. Aylis has played since the gameís release in September of 2010 and has noted that there havenít been any drastic changes to the game since the transition. In her own colorful words, she had this to say about the change:
The day it happened, having eagerly logged in to explore Ul'dah, without a doubt the games most populated central hub I was surprised to see just how little has changed. The streets were crowded, the halls were full, the same familiar faces and names about. People out adventuring and weaving their tales of triumph and conquest. All while listening to the pleasant chatter over link pearls. Granted I can't deny a portion of people have left this world, I just have to ask if billing did play a major role in peoples choices.
Aylis brings up a good point when she reflects on whether billing was the primary thing that drove those that left away from the game. Speaking from personal experiences my primary group of friends that chose to move on from the game decided this action long before the topic of billing was even mentioned, she says. Having judged server population by vision I really have to question if the majority of players that chose to leave had already decided to leave and if billing was but a mere afterthought. Itís very possible that she is correct in her observations and that those who chose to depart around January 6 would likely have eventually left the game regardless and the transition to a subscription-based model was merely the final straw for them. It is worth nothing, though, that Aylis played on the unofficial role-play server with others who were likely so invested into their charactersí histories, personal interactions, and overall development that the actual quality of the game wasnít of as much concern to them. Thus, they would gladly pay the monthly subscription fees in order to continue having the fun they had been having for so long already. Aylis's story does seem similar to many of those told through online forums about their server situation as well. Perhaps Final Fantasy XIV will survive the P2P transition?
It is worth taking a look at the other side of the coin. As it turns out, Square-Enix has decided to merge eighteen of the servers of Final Fantasy XIV down to ten on March 27. This was discussed back in December, after Square had made the announcement that the game would be going pay-to-play in early-January, and at the time executives in the company stated that the merges might be temporary measures until the release of 2.0. Yet, on February 9 the company announced that after looking at post-subscription server population numbers, it was in the best interest of the company to cut the servers by 40%. One might make the argument that the decline in population or the mergers might be unrelated to the subscription transition, but seeing as how the merger was directly stated to be due to server numbers it would seem that the transition is a large part of it. It is hard to say at this point whether or not 2.0 will revitalize the game enough to bring back the lost players or pique the interest of new ones, but that will remain to be seen within a year's time.
Still, those that quit the game on January 6 were ultimately of little benefit to Square-Enix anyway. Square already had their money from their initial purchase of the game but beyond that they werenít bringing in any money for the company. Some money is certainly better than no money from the business point-of-view, and so Square would much rather see a drop in players if those that remained would actually garner a profit for the company from a game that until that point hadnít been very financially successful.
This will all, in many ways, be moot within the next year or so as Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 is planned for late-2012 or early-2013. Square has been rather tight-lipped about what this new version will entail, though it is quite clear that the game will be essentially totally different Ė a new game. The suspense though has had a positive impact on the game. Prior to billing, literally just two days before billing started Square Enix in a really smart move put in a small GM event in the game further baiting the story line as to the terrors befalling our world of Eorzea, Alylis says. It was just enough of an impact to raise several debates about whatís going to happen to lead into 2.0, along side the newer Grand Company quests players have pieced together theories and speculations as to the future. The transition into 2.0 will likely bring about the full $14.99/month cost for players as well. If Final Fantasy XIV can survive the transition from free, it seems likely that a further dramatically improved version of the could pull that off as well.
It looks like the Square writers are back at the task and are trying to build up something suspenseful as to what is going to be the reason for the changes brought in 2.0. Will it be some cataclysmic disaster or war? Will it be something totally different and unexpected? The latest tidbits of the gameís story seem to point to a few possibilities, but for now active players must sit back and watch the game grow and see what happens within the next year. Square-Enix has done something revolutionary in taking a Free to Play MMO game to Pay to Play. It will be an interesting story to watch develop if for no other reason than to see if it can work.