Ragar examines whether a subscription-less model would work for FFXIV
Hello and welcome to the 22nd edition of the Eorzea Examiner, ZAM’s column on Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. For this week’s column, I’m going to be looking at that most common of complaints/suggestions for modern MMOs: going Free to Play. If you read articles about nearly any MMO, watch YouTube videos, etc, there’s a couple of comments that keep showing up on those posts. “I’ll check it out once it goes F2P.” “They’re crazy to use subscriptions! No one pays a monthly fee these days!” “I give it two months tops before it goes F2P.” All of these commenters see the F2P model as either the savior of the modern MMO/gaming industry or this absolute final destination for all of those games once they’ve gotten that silly “asking for money regularly” thing out of their systems. The question is: are they right or is there room in the MMO world to ask for a subscription fee?
So I Get More Money By Giving Away My Game?
To start let’s take a look at how a F2P model works for those FFXIV players out there who might not have tried any MMOs without a subscription fee. The basic premise behind the F2P model is that it is by definition free to download and play that game. At no point will you be required to pay money for the privilege of logging into their game and there’s always something available for you to do without paying cash. Of course the question there is “How do the developers get paid?” The answer is that now instead of a forced monthly fee, you’ll be presented with a storefront offering various goods, services and conveniences. Depending on the game, those items may go for straight cash or they may obscure it behind a secondary currency like Neverwinter’s Zen, Guild Wars 2’s Gems or Marvel Heroes’ Gs. Some games will even offer an exchange service of sorts, allowing players to trade one of the normal in-game currencies acquired from questing/PvP/etc. to other players who have purchased some of the cash currency. Those players with more time than money can now buy some of the items off the cash shop, while those time-strapped players now have in-game cash without needing to spend the hours required to farm it up.
There would be some advantages to a F2P system were FFXIV to change over from subscriptions. First and foremost is that it does bring in new players – convincing someone to drop cash upfront for an MMO isn’t always an easy sell unless their friends are already playing, but when the only cost is hard drive space, they have nothing to lose. I know there are quite a few games I’ve installed over the years that were only put there because it was free to try them out. We’ve already seen that FFXIV has the content to keep someone playing for a while after that initial install, so making it easier for someone to impulse try the game would mean a larger potential pool of players willing to spend money.
Speaking of bringing in new players, there’s another source of new players that would greatly benefit from a F2P transition, PlayStation 3 and 4 players. Those of us who game primarily on PC are accustomed to seeing games with monthly subscriptions, but if most of your time is spent on a console, subscriptions aren’t something that comes up very often. There’s FFXIV, its predecessor Final Fantasy XI, The Elder Scrolls Online and DC Universe Online prior to its F2P transition a while back. Other than this handful of MMOs, the only subscriptions a console player would be likely to see is their Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus memberships – the games themselves tend to stick to an upfront cost with DLC packs down the road for interested owners or they’ve gone the full F2P model with unlockable content. Games like PlanetSide 2, Warframe and DCUO offer PS4 players a chance to get their MMO fix without spending anything for the download. Once they’re on and you’re in, that’s when they can start showing off the various shiny things available for money and make it easy for you to purchase.
That brings up the biggest perk for transitioning to a F2P system: when it’s done well, it can bring you a lot of cash. When a player considers a game with a subscription fee, often it leads to some mental rationalizing and debate. “If I spend $15 a month on this, what do I need to cut out? Can I afford to do this on more than one game or do I need to cancel my other MMO sub? What else can I get for the money?” A subscription often feels like a fee for having fun and thus has to be justified. With a cash shop however, it’s a one-time fee so you have an easier time justifying it: “Sure this mount costs $15, but I’m not paying a sub so that’s basically breaking even!” or “This content pack may cost $20, but the devs gave me the game for free so I’d like to support them!” When you add up all of those little “It’s not that much…” purchases together, it can often be more than you would have spent on a subscription. I know I’ve fallen for this a few different times. I spent $60 or so on a supporter pack for Firefall during its early beta days. Marvel Heroes has taken more of my money than I really want to admit to spending – I think for money spent, it’s about tied with FFXIV and only behind World of Warcraft and that Lifetime sub for DCUO at this point. A subscription would have saved me money overall.
With the right game and the right cash shop design, a F2P system can be good for both the developers and the players in an MMO. The developers get higher account numbers to show off and potentially more income, while the players have a game that doesn’t require consistent spending and where they could reasonably play through the whole thing without spending a dime. With all of that said, the big question is would F2P work for FFXIV? Honestly, I have to say no.
Insert Tokens For Job Unlocks
After listing all of those positives for a F2P system, some of you are probably wondering why I’d be against the switch. To explain that, let’s get into the downside of F2P games – namely, the parts that actually cost money. In order to make money, a F2P game has to have at least some features either locked away or restricted in some fashion in order to encourage players to spend real money. These can range from the benign (costumes and other superficial changes) and convenience (experience potions) all the way to the tempting (character/bag slots) and obnoxious (dungeon/PvP/other feature unlocks).
All F2P MMOs have some method of using these purchase areas to pull money from players and FFXIV would have to do the same. Certain areas are seen by players as more acceptable and more likely to pull in money. In general players are very accepting of cosmetic items and convenience boosts with F2P MMOs – you’ll still get some complaints, but most will see these as perfectly acceptable ways to ask for money. The tempting category of character and bag slots is slightly more frowned upon, but in general seen as a necessary evil for F2P. That last category is where the danger comes in. Sure, it’s far more enticing to lock something like a dungeon, a class/job or a major feature behind a paywall, but that’s always going to cause a storm of complaints with your player base. Player imbalance from the haves/have-nots for major features, guilds where only a portion of the members have purchased the newest dungeon unlock, etc – problems like these are forum storms waiting to happen and many of the F2P MMOs out there have tried to move away from this. At worst you may see something like a timed exclusive for people who preordered.
Assuming that Square Enix wanted to avoid yet another housing-scale forum flame war, that would leave us with benign, convenience and tempting options for monetizing a F2P version of FFXIV. Costumes and other benign changes are always possible, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see FFXIV add them to an in-game shop at some point, but there’s already a wide variety of costume items and varying gear appearances in the game. Combine that with the Glamour system that allows you to change your gear’s appearance and all of the costumes provided by the various in-game holiday events and you have a somewhat tough sell for getting players to pay money for new clothes. Sure you’ll get some sales (TERA and The Secret World manage to sell clothes to its players after all), but it’s unlikely that you could support all of an MMO’s development off this small amount of cash.
The next obvious step would be to look at those convenience items: experience boosts, potions, etc. None of these are strictly necessary, but for players looking to powerlevel a new class or catch up with their friends, a few bucks here and there to save a few hours sounds like a tempting trade. Similar to the benign items, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see some of these show up in an in-game shop one day either, but I can’t really see funding a game of FFXIV’s scale solely off these and cosmetic purchases. Aside from the whole “you’ll eventually run out of characters to level” limit, it also causes conflict with some of the other boost items that exist like the crafting/gathering bonus XP consumables from the Grand Company vendors. For many high-level characters, these give them something to spend all of their Seals from grinding FATEs on combat classes. If you want those max-level characters to buy convenience items as well, that list of consumables and end-game Seal sinks from the Grand Company vendors would need to expand.
That leaves us to tempting items: character slots, bag slots, and so on. Character slots are a big one with many F2P MMOs; players usually only have a couple on each server, so if they want to try a new class, they’ll have to pony up for that extra slot or delete one of their existing characters. The problem with FFXIV is that while we have other character slots, the game itself is designed such that a second/third/etc character isn’t actually necessary. Unless you wanted to see the starting chunk of the main story quest for all three Grand Companies/cities or you need an alt with more retainer space, there’s no reason to have more than one character. You can level every class and participate in every activity in the game on that one character. With the whole game of options available to a starting character, those extra slots are a bit of a hard sell. Bag and retainer slots would work (I know I definitely ran out of space on my retainers on a regular basis), but that “one character for all” feature hurts this as well. Often when you buy that extra character slot in another MMO and start putting time in, you’ll end up spending the cash for those extra slots like you bought on your main; when you’ve got the convenience on your main, it’s hard to say no to it for your alts. With a single character necessary, that means either you bump up the costs to make up for the loss, which would impact impulse purchases and lead to complaints, or you have to look elsewhere to bring in the money.
The real reason I don’t think FFXIV can or really should go the F2P route is because of where I think they’d need to turn after those other three groups didn’t bring in enough income: the unlocks. Locking any individual feature in the game behind a paywall not only goes counter to the whole “you can do everything” mentality of FFXIV, but it would risk both blocking character progress as well as causing class/job imbalance. Lock a dungeon behind a paywall? Hope you’ve removed any attunement or quest chain links to it or else you’re going to have a lot of angry players stuck on their main story since nearly everything is gated by that. Asking for cash for certain jobs or classes past your 5th or 6th one? Something like this may be fine in games where each class is self-contained, but FFXIV is built around players mixing and matching cross-class abilities and trying everything. No one’s going to be happy to find out they need to drop $5 to unlock one of their job’s cross-class options because they decided to try Blacksmithing. So many restrictions on what they can charge for with pitfalls awaiting them everywhere if they decide to charge for the wrong thing or don’t have enough players willing to purchase the safe items – sure seems a lot safer to just ask for the $15 a month, huh?
As tempting as the idea of a free MMO is, where a small percentage of players pay for the vast majority and the game’s development is paid for with purely benign purchases made to support the game they love, a well-done F2P game has a ton of research performed beforehand with regards to item cost vs. demand vs player reaction and so on. Transitioning a subscription-based MMO to F2P is arguably even more so with potentially bigger risks. Locking features behind a paywall may draw ire from new F2P players, but how do you think the old subscribers are going to feel? They’re used to simply having this content available to them whenever they felt like doing it. Any restrictions you place upon them compared to whatever they had available as a subscriber can just lead to animosity against the new F2P model and against the developers for changing their game.
That’s it for this edition of the Eorzea Examiner. What do you think about F2P games? Do you like the subscription fee or would you prefer to spend money on a-la-carte unlocks and convenience items? Does the sub make it harder for you to convince friends to try the game? If you were going to make FFXIV a F2P game, how would you go about it? Tell us in the comments below. If you've got any requests for column topics, add those as well. Until next time, see you in Eorzea.
Michael “Ragar” Branham