A long while ago, I wrote an article about how your favorite MMO is going to die. This is because your favorite MMO is going to die. Of course, in the very same article I noted that I was not somehow immune to this effect and that Final Fantasy XIV is also going to die some day. But that was a while ago, and the thing is that the arc of history bends in interesting ways. That doesn’t mean somehow FFXIV has become the first truly immortal MMO, but… well, things are more complicated now than they were in May of 2017.
But in order to analyze this, we actually need to analyze something else too, which means we actually need to travel back to Final Fantasy XI and the initial launch of FFXIV version 1.0. While there are always catastrophic possibilities we can’t foresee, we can assume that the most likely version of the future involves understanding where FFXIV is in its overall life cycle… and to do that, we need to understand what Square-Enix and CBU3 know about its predecessor’s lifecycle – and also why that isn’t helpful.
Whether you like to count the start of FFXI’s history at the game’s launch in Japan or its launch in North America affects your picture of the game a little because it’s easy to forget if you’re stateside that the game actually got five expansions. Rise of the Zilaart was included for free when it launched in North America because it was already out in Japan and the company decided – correctly – that very few people would be happy about the idea of buying an expansion for a brand-new game.
Still, if you had access to all of Square’s information, there was at least a comprehensible arc to how things worked for FFXI. The game launched to strong sales in both Japan and North America. Unfortunately, the very next expansion was Chains of Promathia, which was received… contentiously, at best. (“Poorly” would be a more accurate way to put it.) Fortunately, the next expansion, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, was considered the high-water mark for the game.
Unfortunately, by that point audiences were moving on to other games, and the next expansion was… not disliked but definitely not as well-loved. That was followed by some special DLC campaigns, then the fifth expansion of Seekers of Adoulin coming out roughly around the same time as FFXIV’s relaunch. And that brings us up to here; the game is in supposed maintenance mode, we did in fact get more story but not more expansions and are unlikely to get more.
If you were working at Square-Enix and had access to all of this, you wind up having a pretty clear picture of how long an MMO is likely to last in the solid mid-tier space. An active expansion period of about a decade followed by low-energy smaller updates is, let’s face it, not a bad pattern. It’s solid. Things only really differ if, say, you’re suddenly no longer in the mid-tier.
Hey, welcome to FFXIV.
For a long time, even in 2017, this was kind of how things were expected to go. But things… changed for FFXIV. 2017 saw the release of Stormblood, followed by Shadowbringers in 2019. Based on patterns, Shadowbringers feels like it should have been the start of a downward slope… but it wasn’t. In fact, Shadowbringers was another high-water mark, not just the best expansion but also responsible for bringing a huge new groundswell of players into the game in the first place. And then Endwalker came out in 2021, and the game started to… still keep gaining players.
Think for just a minute about how strange this is on some level. We’re on our fourth expansion, the fifth is getting announced this year, and there’s space to debate over whether Endwalker or Shadowbringers is the best expansion. General fan consensus is that Stormblood was the worst expansion. But that’s worst, not bad. Heck, even that isn’t a big groundswell of “nobody likes Stormblood” so much as being the expansion that is most contentious among fans; very few people would argue it was awful.
That’s unusual. And it’s even more unusual in that while FFXIV may very well be at its height now and on its way to a fifth expansion nobody likes – or even a fifth expansion that’s not nearly as good and presages lowered engagement – it’s far from certain what the future will hold.
If you were running on the FFXI playbook for planning the future, FFXIV has already thrown that entire playbook out. It does not wish to play according to those rules. And this is not fun if your job is trying to plan for the future, since it means you no longer really have any predictions beyond a shrug emoji.
But the premise for this article was about what the end looks like. How is this game going to end? And I think we’re going to know more with how the next expansion goes and seeing whether or not the developers are betting big.
It seems all but a foregone conclusion that the game’s popularity is going to start slowing down. That’s just to be expected. That doesn’t mean the game is going to die in five years; remember, we’re celebrating 20 years of FFXI alone, and it’s far from the only MMO to pass that mark. But we are going to hit a point when the game does not have the budget allocation to keep releasing new expansions.
So the smart thing to do is not to build up the same kind of long decade-long story that we had for the Ascian storyline. Indeed, Endwalker can offer a model for this, with the story concluding at launch and the subsequent patches building up a new story for the subsequent expansion. It’s the logical and reasonable thing to do, a way of future-proofing when things get messy.
But having said that, I don’t see the writers going for it.
I think that the next expansion is going to start another familiar cycle, resolving in the midway patch before leading up to the next expansion. I think that the game is going to end its next long-term arc when it has to, wrapping up with what the team knows will be the last expansion, but riding out the popularity as long as it can.
So what will the end look like? I think it’s going to look more similar to FFXI than not, some form of maintenance mode at the perpetual level cap, a slower but still repeatable sequence of things to do for as long as people want to maintain their houses and keep up roleplaying and enjoying the game. A quieter time, living in the epilogue.
And hopefully another MMO built by the same team – or most of it – from the ground up. But we’ll have to see.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to email@example.com. Next week, we’ve finally got patch 6.35 here, so let’s talk about all the new content added with it as we usually do. There’s a lot this time, it might even take two columns. We’ll have to see.