Monday, November 22, 2010

We'd be ashamed to take your money for this

In the complicated game of public relations and customer relationship management between MMORPG companies and players, giving out free play time to your subscribers is one of the stronger signals. Thus the decision by Square Enix to grant players not one, but two 30-day extensions of their original 30 free days that came with buying Final Fantasy XIV raised some eyebrows. Other companies hand out maybe a few free days as compensation for servers having been down, but Final Fantasy XIV players receive 60 free days as compensation for the game not being well received. Final Fantasy XIV has a miserable 51% review score on Metacritic, and sold only 630,000 copies worldwide by November, a result that disappointed financial analysts and contributed to Square Enix’ share price dropping by 15%.

One good thing in this story is that Square Enix obviously got the message the players were sending. Not only do they let buyers of the game play 90 days for free instead of just 30, but they also announced various major patches to address the main points of criticism, adding for a example a search function to the player economy, and promising to improve the tutorials. Unfortunately all this will take time, with some of the improvements scheduled for November, others for early 2011. And, as always when a MMORPG has a not-so-stellar launch, questions abound on why these obvious shortcomings haven’t been addressed earlier. It wasn’t as if the beta players weren’t sufficiently vocal about the game’s flaws.

Now optimists might claim that between major improvements and free months of playtime, Square Enix might be able to turn around Final Fantasy XIV, hold onto their 630,000 players and gain some more, to get to an overall quite respectable and profitable number of subscribers. Final Fantasy XIV is still planned to be released on the PS3 next year, and it isn’t as if Square Enix could silently drop a game with the “Final Fantasy” brand name on it. The pessimistic interpretation is that the 630,000 subscribers are a pure book value, because none of them had to actually pay for a subscription yet, and that the moment Square Enix will actually demand money for their game, that number will drop precipitously. With both WAR and AoC having lost two-thirds of their subscribers after the free period ended, that would hardly be unprecedented.

There isn’t exactly an abundance of console MMORPGs, and it appears logical that console players might have different requirements, and are used to different control schemes, than PC players. Thus the PS3 launch of Final Fantasy XIV might still be a success. On the other hand, even console players might check out the reviews of the PC version before paying for this game, and those reviews aren’t exactly likely to encourage people to buy it. So my best guess at this point is that the future of Final Fantasy XIV depends on the success of the PS3 version. For the predecessor Square Enix said at the time that they broke even at 200,000 subscribers, a number that is still well within reach of Final Fantasy XIV. So all isn’t lost yet, but as it stands Final Fantasy XIV is likely to be remembered as one of many MMORPGs with a botched release, and not as an instant success.

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