Final Fantasy and free-to-play

Subscriptions are dying. There’s no two ways about it. Star Wars: The Old Republic is switching over, and whether or not they liked the game, fans of Final Fantasy XIV have no room to throw stones about the game’s success. That leaves a handful of holdouts in the normal subscription space, and that doesn’t include the next major release on the horizon, as Guild Wars 2 is under the same buy-to-play model as its predecessor.

Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI are two of the holdouts. And in a world increasingly dominated by games without subscription fees, that’s pretty significant. So the question becomes whether or not the games will embrace the free-to-play option, whether or not they should, and how this sort of option could work in the game’s favor rather than against it. After all, there are some roadblocks to making the system work quite right, but there’s a lot of pressure on the market for a change.

On the plus side, it would be really seductive to see all of this and then be told you can play it for free as much as you like.

I’m going to go ahead and say right off that a free-to-play option would be in FFXIV’s best interests because if there was ever a game that needs people to get in and playing, this would be it. If you’re still playing, you’re no doubt a fan of the game like I am, but you are also probably acutely aware that there’s a lot of bad information floating around and a lot of bad blood spread by those either disinterested or bitter.

Seriously, there are people still complaining about the fatigue system. That hasn’t existed for a long while now, but the resentment is still there.

Putting up a subscription wall makes it that much harder for people to start playing the game and find out that no, these problems aren’t sticking around. Letting people just install and try the game will make a world of difference. I’m aware that there are people who never like a free-to-play option, but this game needs a lower barrier to entry. Badly.

Final Fantasy XI is a different story. It’s an aging game that’s long since made back its investments, so there’s no real need for Square-Enix to worry about expanding the playerbase. That being said, opening the game up is the surest way to get the early levels populated again, and it could dovetail nicely with Seekers of Adoulin. So it’s not a huge imperative for FFXI, but it could definitely work out to the game’s overall benefit.

Unfortunately, converting one or both to a free-to-play model raises some issues. First and foremost, the games lack an abundance of options for cosmetic items.

This might seem irrelevant, but it’s part of why models work for games like Star Trek Online and City of Heroes. It’s possible to toss a lot of items in the cash shop that have little to no effect on gameplay but have a big impact on your looks. Even games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 have systems for major cosmetic upgrades, the former with adaptive modifiable armor and the latter with dyes and the like. You can conceivably buy stuff and use it without breaking the game’s statistics.

As it stands, neither FFXIV nor FFXI has any sort of cosmetic options. There’s holiday gear, sure, but no one wants to spend five dollars for an outfit that stops being useful as soon as you hit level 3. And you could add in furnishings, in theory, but FFXI has so many decorative furnishings that they would get lost in the shuffle. FFXIV, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: We’ve all been waiting on housing since the game launched. Tell us that the furniture for our houses requires extra cash and there will be riots.

On the down side, imagine finding an aetheryte node that was only for paying players.

So there would need to be some way of working in a wardrobe. There would also need to be more than just outfits, though; something to boost leveling speed in both games would doubtlessly be welcome, and mounts are an option in FFXIV. Buying respecs wouldn’t work unless we get some much more robust options for specializing our characters in the first place, and we already pay for extra character slots in the unlikely event that we need them.

Both games, in essence, suffer slightly for the fact that neither has been designed to operate in a world where the entry price for most games is “nothing.” You’d need to retrofit and expand both to make the system work, which is a major undertaking by itself. And that’s beyond the usual concerns of making the game fair when played for free rather than unbalanced toward paying players.

Mind you, several of these systems are things that I’d like to see, up to and including a free-to-play option. I really think that FFXIV needs it, and I don’t think it would hurt FFXI. But there’s a lot of work involved, and right now the teams seem to be centered on a new expansion and a new relaunch. There’s not the space left over for a business model shift, especially one that requires a lot of work.

Will it happen? That depends. Naoki Yoshida strikes me as a very astute gentleman, so I’m sure he sees the writing on the wall. What he’ll do with that information remains to be seen. From what I understand, it’s not a popular model in Japan, and Square tends to have a degree of reactionary behavior when it comes to new business models. But it also recognizes that it does need to win back hearts with FFXIV, at least, as evidenced by the year-long free trial.

Bottom line: FFXIV should go free-to-play, if not at the 2.0 launch then shortly thereafter. With a subscription option, sure, but the core should be in place. And I’m hoping that the powers that be recognize that.