Square Enix says FF XIV will still require a subscription when it relaunches. Andrew Testerman asks whether that is wise in the new MMO landscape
MMOs stand apart from nearly every other game on the market. From the persistent online world to the notion of entertaining hundreds of thousands of players simultaneously, MMOs face challenges unseen in almost any other genre.
Perhaps the most unique conundrum MMOs face is that of their business models. MMOs need continued sources of revenue because they are continually in development; new content patches and maintenance on the game make it imperative for modern MMOs to earn money beyond the initial box purchase. Deciding how to charge players for the privilege of playing is one of the biggest, most crucial choices an MMO can make. Though it seems superficial, the kind of payment model taken by a game can impact it all the way back to the initial design decisions. It’s an important choice, and not one to be taken lightly.
Sometimes, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you choose poorly. But if you had the opportunity, would you make the same choice again?
During an interview with the Penny Arcade Report, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn director Naoki Yoshida said that the new reinvigoration of the MMO will continue the subscription model first used in the original FFXIV. The decision was made based on the need for stability, and that the stability subscriptions provide would help pay for Square Enix’s operating expenses.
Yoshida argued that free-to-play models don’t provide the stability he and his team need to continue supporting A Realm Reborn, saying, “With the free-to-play model, you’ll get huge income one month, but the next month it depletes.”
He added, “Most MMOs have investors in the background, and the company uses the profit and splits the profit with the investors. But, if the game’s not successful, and it doesn’t reach the target, then they have to switch to free-to-play to try to get just a little profit from it. Among the MMOs in the market, only Blizzard and Square Enix are making money without investors in the background.”
Stability could certainly help A Realm Reborn and Square Enix recover from the initial Final Fantasy XIV debacle. Final Fantasy XIV was a complete bomb with critics, with review scores delving will into the 4/10 range. Square Enix tried to give players incentives to stick around by waiving the subscription fee repeatedly until January 2012, but it was eventually shut down on November 11, 2012. With the myriad changes being made to A Realm Reborn for its 2013 relaunch, a subscription model could help provide the reliable rate of income that Yoshida says his company needs.
However, while a subscription model could potentially be a safer payment model than free-to-play, it’s also a vestige of the original Final Fantasy XIV. For players burned by the original game, Square Enix’s adherence to older ideas might give off the vibe that A Realm Reborn hasn’t changed enough, that it hasn’t learned its lesson just yet. When even Square Enix chief executive Yoichi Wada said that Final Fantasy XIV “greatly damaged” the Final Fantasy brand – the entire brand – distancing A Realm Reborn from its predecessor should be taken into consideration.
Moreover, Yoshida’s reasoning for rejecting free-to-play because of its unpredictability seems tenuous. It makes sense that Square Enix would try to mitigate as much risk as it can with Final Fantasy XIV’s pay model, but Yoshida seems to be swapping an unknown, though potentially positive option for an known one that didn’t work for them last time. Perhaps it’s a tall order to take such a risk, given the extensive resources that Square Enix has spent developing Final Fantasy XIV, but the notion of going back to the old subscription model again after failing to earn the necessary capital seems daft.
Yoshida did defend the viability of using a subscription, saying, “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong for having a monthly subscription model or free-to-play model. Games like [Star Wars] The Old Republic and The Secret World, I don’t say those games would’ve been more successful if they had been free-to-play, for example. The subscription model was unrelated to the success of the game.”
The comparison doesn’t necessarily hold water, though, because both The Old Republic and The Secret World eventually dropped their subscription model, with SWTOR going free-to-play and The Secret World switching to a one-off purchase cost. Yoshida isn’t out of line when he says that choosing subscription over free-to-play isn’t inherently “wrong,” but given the obstacles Final Fantasy XIV needs to overcome before it can reach financial success, surely using a subscription model doesn’t help its cause.
The truth is, it’s a difficult landscape for MMOs right now, especially MMOs with a subscription fee. Outfitting an MMO with a subscription fee nearly always invites comparisons to World of Warcraft, and the nine years of content that Blizzard has developed for it so far. More acclaimed and higher-selling subscription MMOs than Final Fantasy XIV have either gone free-to-play or shut down entirely, and even recent high-profile MMOs have struggled to maintain their business model.
Today, there are no shortage of MMOs that started out as subscription-based and converted to free-to-play – beyond Star Wars: The Old Republic, games like Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan: Hyborian’s Adventures, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and APB: Reloaded. Even other more recent games like Tera and DC Universe Online have embraced free-to-play, both less than a year after their initial launch.
And with good reason, too. Converting to free-to-play often brings an enormous influx of revenue to games that can successfully make the transition. Lord of the Rings Online tripled its monthly revenue when Turbine first switched it over to free-to-play, and DC Universe Online saw its revenue shoot up 700 percent. With several gameplay enhancements and a new free-to-play model, APB: Reloaded is now sitting among the top five free-to-play games on Steam - not bad for a game that was shut down 79 days after its initial launch pushing Realtime Worlds, its initial development studio into administration, before Reloaded Games rescued the MMO and brought it back to life as f2p. Yoshida is likely correct in his assessment that the gains from going free-to-play happen only during the first month, but there is a case to be made for actually earning money with the free-to-play model, rather than earning nothing at all with the subscription one.
Free-to-play isn’t a guaranteed success, though. NetDevil’s Lego Universe started as a subscription game before moving to free-to-play, but the switch did nothing to prevent it from shutting down in 2011. The actual free-to-play execution is just as important as the switch itself, as well, and can impact how the game is perceived. When Star Wars: The Old Republic relaunched as a free-to-play game at the end of last year, it put several restrictions in place on base mechanics like sprinting or the number of skills players could access at one time, and was met with harsh words from fans and critics alike. Developer BioWare has since lifted or loosened some of its initial limitations, but the clumsy beginning won’t do The Old Republic’s reputation as a free-to-play game any favors.
Though the actual results may vary, free-to-play design still has a solid track record of improving game revenue in MMOs. With the benefits of going free-to-play in mind, as well as the potential hazards subscription-based MMOs faces nowadays, perhaps Square Enix could reconsider its stance on adding an option for free-to-play in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
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