Wisdom of Nym: Final Fantasy XIV’s cash shop and the existential horror of monetization

    
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Sing a song of madness.

The fact that there’s a cash shop in Final Fantasy XIV is something that is absolutely impossible to discuss in a value-neutral fashion. Simply mentioning it is going to inspire people in one camp to point out that the game already has a monthly subscription fee so the cash shop is wholly inappropriate, while the other camp points out that it’s optional and every game has a cash shop so it doesn’t matter, and at some point I assume gunplay is basically inevitable. It’s something that prompts a lot of vigorous discussion, in other words.

You don’t need to be told about this fact. If you’ve been in the community for any length of time, you’ll have seen the debates over whether or not this is fair or equitable or all right or anything else, and while the addition of the Cruise Chaser mount has brought it up again, it’s not in any way a new discussion. Nor do I think it’s necessarily possible to thread the needle on this and argue that it’s a necessary part of the game… and I also don’t think that it’s really all that bad at the same time.

Let’s discuss it anyhow.

The simple reality of monetizing MMOs is that it’s actually not simple at all. We can all point to games that have gone far over one side or the other into being exploitative, but beyond that I think we’ve all accepted that to a certain extent, our personal biases and desired investment are going to determine which things we see as problematic and which ones are basically fine. That, at least, is value-neutral. Some people absolutely hate games that let you use a currency exchange to buy in-game money via real money; others basically don’t care about it. Whether that’s over a line for you is going to depend on your personal lines.

FFXIV‘s cash shop has been with the game for a long while now, and it sells a pretty straightforward assortment of items. You can buy various mounts or costumes, with all of these purchases either being from prior holiday events you may have missed, lore-specific costumes/items that belong to specific characters but are rigged for players if you want them, or cash shop items from the game’s Chinese and Korean editions that players want. It decidedly does not sell power; while you can buy character boosts, they boost you only to the start of the newest expansion and aren’t the expected or preferred way to level or advance.

What’s important to note about these items is that none of these things is necessary for players from a functional standpoint. You do not need the Cruise Chaser mount by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t mean that simply in the patronizing broad-strokes sense of “these are pretend things in a pretend game.” I mean that the functional benefits are available through other means and this is not a necessity.

Robots.

But of course, it’s not actually that simple. The Cruise Chaser mount is just the latest flashpoint in asking whether or not these are things which could be added to the game through other means, since the time was clearly spent rigging this model to be used as a mount. Why not make it obtainable through some means in-game, instead of putting it up for sale?

The answer, generally, seems to be twofold. The first is that most of the stuff on the cash shop has a reason for being there, often being adaptations of existing models that wouldn’t make much sense to be obtainable in-game (for example, the Sleipnir mount) or a commemorative item that went along with specific events (the fan festival mounts). The second is… well, the cash shop has to sell something, and this stuff is the least invasive stuff to sell.

But this also raises the question of why we need a cash shop in the first place. Why does anything have to be sold at all? Why can’t it all be earned directly through gameplay? Wouldn’t that be more fair? And from there it’s a short slide into claiming that all of the game’s effort goes into adding new things for the cash shop rather than adding new things to the core game.

Let’s start by addressing that one because it’s obviously wrong. Even a surface-level examination of the things added to the game on a regular basis makes it clear that the designers add a lot of stuff to the game without any accompanying monetization. Usually this sort of critique arises when, say, one event or another seems underwhelming, pointing to a disappointing seasonal event or two as clearly just pushing people to buy things in the cash shop.

And hey, I will definitely agree with anyone who has found event-specific rewards to be a bit on the boring side for the past year or so. It’s almost like there’s been some other worldwide event that would disrupt work patterns and lead to a bit less effort going into seasonal content compared to everything else going on in the game. I just can’t put my finger on what that might be…

But beyond that, the fundamental question is sound. Why do we have to buy things? Why can’t past event rewards just be bought from the new seasonal event? And the answer, as near as I can tell, is that the cash shop isn’t optional from a development standpoint.

Oh, right, more freaking sky pirates.

Yoshida has mentioned in his usual way that he is not directly in charge of the cash shop beyond his role as producer and director. I tend to believe him on that point. It would make more than a little sense if the cash shop’s very existence was not something that he was consulted on and allowed to give approval or denial to. Considering that he was given insane amounts of leeway and power to adapt FFXIV and change things from 2.0 onward, it makes a certain amount of sense that this would be the check on his freedom.

If you look at this as something that is a corporate mandate above him, it actually makes a lot more sense. Yeah, it kind of sucks that you have to buy seasonal event rewards if you missed the year, but putting seasonal rewards in there allows him to do so in at least a relatively fair fashion; you could have earned this for free. It looks like most of what’s being sold is stuff that takes minimal design time to put in the shop, so the shop pulls fewer resources away from the core game while still being desirable.

This is, of course, cold comfort for basically anyone who likes the game but doesn’t like the cash shop or has a limited income with which to purchase these sorts of discretionary items. I get that. I appreciate that the game does its best to make the cash shop unobtrusive, but I also can understand people being annoyed that the cash shop even exists for a game with a subscription fee.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers here. Monetization is complicated. However much the designers might want to make a game without worrying about it, the corporate side of Square-Enix does care about these things, and it’s very clear that it wants the cash shop to be there and keep making money. That means that if you’re upset because a mount you want is in the cash shop, it proves that the cash shop is doing what it’s supposed to do, selling you things you don’t need to play the game but definitely want.

If I could ask for anything from the community on this particular discussion point, it would probably be just acknowledging that neither side of this particular debate really has a moral component to it. From where I’m sitting, FFXIV has about as ethical of a cash shop as you could ask for (no lockboxes, for one thing), and it also is still a subscription game with a cash shop. Whether you like it or you’re fine with it, at the end of the day, it has more to do with the need for additional monetization than with any sort of moralistic imperative.

Feedback, as always, is welcome via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com or down in the comments down below. Next week, let’s wrap things up by looking at the new abilities Endwalker can add to the game’s melee DPS jobs.

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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Zero_1_Zerum

A cash shop on top of a subscription fee? That’s stupid. I could almost understand if it was B2P game like ESO, gotta get money when there’s no new expansions or DLC. And, obviously, F2P games are built with cash shops in mind. But, a subscription game having a cash shop is pure money grubbing greed.

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FailingToComply

If you don’t like the cash shop, don’t buy anything from it. There’s NOTHING in there that is needed to play the game from start to finish… just fluff.

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IronSalamander8 .

I really don’t like cash shops in games, especially one like FF14 where the game has a box/expansion price (although this is a bit different now than it was when I played prior), and a sub fee, but I have bought some items from it, including the Cruise Chaser mount.

I do tolerate it better than other game’s shops, largely because it indeed doesn’t sell actual power and I have no desire to buy skips even if I am behind in the story right now. For some reason it just doesn’t irk me like it does in PW games or WoW, but I still am not a fan of it being there, even if I do use it at times.

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elenie

Two things I specifically don’t like about FFXIV’s cash shop:
1. Paying a monthly sub for extra bank space (via retainer). That feels really greedy in a sub game.
2. Having a bunch of cash shop exclusive emotes. For some reason it irks me that not all players can use the same set of emotes (and yes, there are a bunch of emotes that are earned in game and I’m not terribly fond of that either. It felt weird not to be able to respond to my friends’ emotes in kind until I finally got to the point in the MSQ where I got the emotes).

I do feel like FFXIVs cash shop feels more greedy than other games since it’s sub only and clearly already doing very well. A bit of a sour note in a great game.

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Bannex

“How I justify a cash shop I don’t particularly like in the game I like.”

Cash shops in games that require a sub to play totally and unapologetically suck.

I hated it in WoW, I hated it in ffxiv.

It’s 100% double dipping.

“How can we squeeze out a little more money from our most rabid of fans without losing interest from the more casual ones.” That is the only explanation which he finally points out in his last sentence.

I can appreciate the cash shop pets that donate to certain efforts, that’s a great idea.

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Toy Clown

As long as a game doesn’t monotonize (monetize!) things that I feel should be earned through gameplay, then I can be largely forgiving of a cash shop, especially on a sub model. Using FFXIV as an example, I rarely spent cash on their shop because I didn’t enjoy the aesthetic of the costumes they came up with. Same with mounts. The most I spent cash on was the odd emote and Fantasia once or twice a year. On top of that, you can earn lots of nice glamours, furniture, mounts, and holiday items within the game without spending cash – unless one misses a year and picks the holiday fare up the following year, but it’s still cheap.

Where my issue is is when a game monetizes the heck out of a game’s itemization and tosses it behind a paywall, to the point you can’t earn anything in-game. BDO was a great example of that. I was frustrated for years with being unable to earn outfits in the game. Sure, they added a few later on, but by that point, I was nearly done.

When a new MMO releases, the first thing I check out is if there is a cash shop and how monetized it is. I know my weak points, which is outfits. I want my characters to look good. If a cash shop monetizes outfits, I’m going to be in for a rough time so I’ll skip them over. I had some interest in playing Eloyon (sp?), but when they released the cash shop items and prices, I backpedaled so hard and fast because I knew I’d be spending too much money on the game.

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jmor maple

Thank you for making this article. Bringing up a polarizing topic without demonizing one side is appreciated.

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sirradoria

Great article as always Mr Eliot

Jibrille
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Jibrille

I prefer a cash shop any day of the week over lootboxes. At least with a cash shop you get what you want, no BS random chance. I’ve bought all of two mounts, two pets, and two outfits since the start of the game. I was glad there was an option to buy them. I’ve also bought a CD for an in-game pet and some stuffed animals with in-game pets from Comic-Con. However, I never needed to buy a single thing in order to enjoy the fantastic options in the game.

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Andrew Clear

I totally agree with you on that.

While I haven’t purchased anything from the FFXIV cash shop (since I sub, and that is how I support the developers), I have purchased items from the GW2 and Neverwinter cash shops, and some f2p mobile games. I understand the cost it takes to create these games, and I feel that if I am consuming a lot of the content in a game, and spend a lot of time playing those games, that I need to support the game financially some.

My issue usually comes in the items most of these games sell, and how I don’t really find anything to be worth buying.

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Jibrille

Yep, same for me. I mean I look at the MogStation right now and there are maybe 2-3 things I *might* want, but I feel no need to buy them. I can’t imagine wanting half the stuff up there, but obviously everyone has their own tastes and if they want to throw money at something: good for them. I seriously doubt anyone, other than extreme collector types, feel the need to purchase every item ever. None of the items are pay-to-win. Also, some of the items have been available in the past in game and are no longer available, so for those who missed an event, or haven’t been playing since the start, I am sure it’s nice to be able to grab a missing item. I know they don’t even list ALL the items; for example there was a big Yo-Kai Watch event where you could get a bunch of pets and weapons. That was only an in-game event and the items were never available for sale. Basically, I think FFXIV is one of the better game-related stores and I believe that monetization is going to happen whether we like it or not, so if I had to choose it would be more this model than lootboxes or “PTW” type options.

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Andrew Clear

I don’t have a problem with cash shops in games, even if there is a sub fee. I think of it kind of like a concert, I pay a fee to enter the venue and be able to watch the bands playing. After that, there are a lot of optional items that I could purchase, such as food, shirts, CD’s, drinks, etc. Hell, these days we can spend a few hundred dollars to meet the band as well.

So, with a game I either pay a sub, and I know exactly what that sub is providing me, or I am playing a game that is “free” to play, and know exactly what I get for free. I am not entitled to get whatever I want, and I don’t have a clue of the inner financial workings of the companies that are making these games. I do know that they must make a profit, or people will be let go, and less content can be made. That is just how life works.

I understand a lot of people would want items from a cash shop, but do not want to spend the money to purchase them (or in some cases, they cannot afford to), and that makes them bitter. But, why be so bitter at optional purchases for a game, when they aren’t bitter at all the optional purchases that they encounter everywhere else in life?

That’s just my two cents. Everyone is different, and we all hear, think, and feel (see what I did there), differently. No one is right or wrong in their opinions of cash shops, and if a developer wants them to exist, then they have every right to have them, just like we have every right to not purchase items from them.

At the end of the day, a simple economic law is in effect here, and that is…if there is a demand, someone will find a way to supply that demand. There is definitely a demand for the items in the cash shop, and thus, it exists.

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Jon-Enee Merriex

This.

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Rick Mills

Well put.

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FailingToComply

Indeed. Better written than the article above.