Well that was surprising. In case you somehow missed it, Square-Enix took a heretofore unprecedented step this week, announcing that not only would Final Fantasy XIV be giving out additional free subscription time to compensate players for login issues but that sales of the game and advertisements for it are being pulled temporarily. The title is currently so popular that the server queue issues have reached a point wherein it’s been decided that the best option is to straight-up stop selling the game for the moment.
This is big.
First and foremost, I think the timing of this needs to be considered. This is a rare case of a developer pulling its product from shelves (digital and otherwise) when Christmas is just around the corner, an extreme situation that I can’t recall having seen basically ever. Every bit of conventional wisdom is that you want your big video game release to be there and available around Christmas, and while the expansion upgrade will still be there for players who haven’t already bought Endwalker, in all other respects the title is planning to pull back both its sales engine and its advertising efforts.
That’s a lot. But compounding that is the fact that we’re also getting more compensation time. It’d be one thing to say that the effort here is to focus on existing players over attracting new ones, and that’s still true as far as it goes, but it’s noteworthy that the existing players are also moving from being moneymakers to money pits. This is a lot of money that Square-Enix is passing up.
How much? Hard to say. But the revenue of subscriptions for nearly an entire month, plus any new box sales, plus whatever extra money is being funneled into getting new servers (which is still a thing that’s happening)… that’s a lot. (Especially when you consider that server hardware is expensive at the best of times, made even more so by the scale of servers needed to support FFXIV servers and the current supply chain issues.)
This is a pretty powerful PR move, without a doubt. It’s basically throwing down the gauntlet by voluntarily giving up a pretty big chunk of potential profits. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also a sensible change being made to address a very real problem, even if that very real problem that is also easing up at least somewhat.
Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found my queues decreasing this week after all, albeit perhaps not quite as fast as I would like. This is, of course, not unexpected. I play on a heavily populated server, but it’s always been a known fact that the queues would start decreasing over time as people who just play through the MSQ and/or are just checking the game out start to move on. That’s not to say the queues are going away entirely, of course, just to note that they’re lowering with time, but clearly not fast enough.
As a move to improve the game’s image in the eyes of players, this is a big one. Someone clearly did the math and decided that ultimately the additional boost of goodwill generated by reducing revenue for a bit was more valuable than the simple additive profit by not doing that. And that’s kind of a big deal in and of itself because it reminds us all of something we should already be aware of: FFXIV’s developers are aware of how they are viewed by players.
I don’t just mean this in the sense that the team follows memes and stuff like that; we all know about that at this point, sometimes resulting in some hilarious memetic mutations. (“Do you know… la-hee?”) What I mean is more in the simple sense that the team is aware just how much goodwill and positive reputation has helped the game at this point.
More so than with most other MMOs I can think of, there’s an understanding (or appears to be one) that the game and its popularity are in part a back-and-forth relationship with players and fans. While a strict reading of the situation would imply that there’s more money to be made by continuing to exploit the game’s popularity, the free subscription time and the temporary pull from sale indicates that there’s an understanding of that long-term stability, that by giving up a little more money now the team can ensure that more people are likely to remain subscribers later.
This is honestly kind of business 101; your customers are more likely to keep being your customers if you leave them happy, and repeat/consistent customers are valuable. What strikes me as a bit unusual is that we more rarely see this happening within the MMO space. It seems more common (or at least feels more common) that most companies assume subscribers are going to continue subscribing based on inertia if nothing else, that no major additional effort is needed to keep your existing community so long as you keep putting out reliable and liked content.
Make no mistake, the reception of Endwalker has been excellent. I’m far from the only person to praise it, and the main community debate seems to be about whether it’s better than Shadowbringers or not, with everyone having different takes on that. (Which is fine, I should note; I don’t see people who rate it as a bit better as being wrong, just having a different reception.) From a “provide solid content” standpoint, FFXIV is doing just fine even without compensation.
The compensation, then, isn’t really about managing congestion. It’s about managing the appearance of response to congestion. As I mentioned earlier, the queues definitely seem to be easing up a bit over time, but more than just seeing letting the queues decrease over time, people want to feel as if Square-Enix is taking this situation seriously and isn’t just, well, chasing higher player counts, congestion be damned.
From a cynical standpoint, then, this is amazing messaging. Like, you could not ask for a better advertisement on one level than pulling your ads because you’re so successful. That doesn’t just say that people should try the game; it says that so many people have already tried your game that it’s literally overloading the servers. That makes people want to see what is causing all of this once it goes back on sale, and it lets players believe congestion issues are being taken seriously.
But even from a non-cynical standpoint, I think this speaks volumes about the team we actually have in charge of this particular game. It’d be easy to just relish the success with no major changes, and the fact that instead players are getting more compensation says a lot. You get the community you build for and you model, and Naoki Yoshida here has helped make a move that models a focus on community and supporting players rather than treating them as a disposable resource.
That’s probably going to pay off bigger dividends than just the subscription fees would suggest.