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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