Imagining a Free-to-Play FFXIV: Eorzea Without Commitment

Final Fantasy XIV is not a free-to-play game. Beyond the cost of the base game itself, which is currently $19.99, there’s also a recurring subscription fee of at least $12.99 a month.

Unless, of course, you take advantage of the game’s exceedingly generous free trial, in which case you get access to that entire base game (A Realm Reborn and the first expansion, Heavensward) with just a few inconvenient restrictions, almost all of which have to do with the sort of intrusive capitalism that I come to fantasy MMORPGs to avoid.

In the free trial, you can do all the quests, all the crafting, all the available jobs from those two games, and level all the way to 60. The only thing missing is the timer, that unfriendly reminder that if you don’t finish all the content this month (and want to), you’ll have to reup.

My approach to this sort of transaction is not dissimilar to that of getting a gym membership. The difference is that while paying a monthly fee is a sometimes necessary financial incentive for those opposed to exercising, it is an unhealthy one when it comes to gaming. It transforms an activity that should ideally be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

A monthly fee makes an activity that should be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

As a free-to-play experience, the grind isn’t as noticeable, because it’s at my own pace. I never feel compelled to rush, because I’ve removed that invisible incentive to do so. I can’t imagine ever completing a Relic weapon under the confines of a subscription, brutally checking and rechecking spreadsheets and external sources to find the most efficient ways to accomplish FATEs or dungeons. Adding a subscription’s deadline alchemizes a joyful pastime into deliberate work.

The limitations of the free trial also shift the way in which players must engage with the game, which is to say: by becoming more significantly immersed. There are no shortcuts in this version; you can’t pay people to gather resources for you, or simply purchase the final HQ result. As a result, you’re more invested in what you’re actually doing: you come to understand not the economic forces but the level of detail that goes into how each item is crafted: how it works, where it comes from. The geography of the land takes on that much more detail. It’s no longer just a collection of pretty landmarks, but also a geological and ecological one as well. You get a sense of what it must be like, even to be a creature living amongst these resources, or a fish amongst the clouds, dunes, or aether.

The limitations of the free trial shift the way in which players engage with the game: they make it more immersive.

Restrictions on inventory space (no retainers) and a monetary cap of 300,000 gil also turn crafting into even more of an efficiency puzzle, for those who like those types of things. You learn to gather just enough for what you want to do while you’re there, so you don’t have to make return trips, and then also craft things as quickly as possible so that you can get the items out of your inventory and into (usually) your glamour chest. And because you can’t take that money with you, you actually contribute a lot more to the world’s economy. You splurge on the fancy beast-quest mounts. You buy up frilly shoes in Ul’Dah, not because they’re useful, but because you’re at the cap and can desynthesize them for the Demimateria III you need to craft items for Master Tomes.

I’m perfectly fine spending money on Final Fantasy XIV; in fact, I want to support the game’s active and continued development. But I’d feel healthier about an option that allowed me to eschew the monthly fee and just pay per expansion, treating the portions of patches that aren’t global like add-on DLC, much like the free trial currently blocks off certain quests that I don’t have the necessary content unlocked for. Maybe gate certain cosmetic functions, like housing, behind a premium monthly membership (similar to what Plus does for Dota 2), or continue to keep certain PvE functions like the Party Finder off-limits, though I’d say that the game would be better overall if Free Company (guilds) could still function without everyone being a subscriber, since the end-game raids are largely impossible with random pick-up groups.

Recurring payments encourage binging, and if that’s how you want your content consumed, go for it. If you’re switching between platforms each month, whether that’s All Access, Apple TV, Peacock, Hulu or World of Warcraft and FFXIV, you’re incentivizing–in some players–an unnatural rush. I don’t want yet another form of monthly rent that, to some degree, dictates what I do in that time. I don’t want to feel as if I’m working in a video game to “earn” free playtime or to justify the money I’m spending. The latest patch of FFXIV has added an Explorer Mode that lets players do exactly that: take it easy, running through completed dungeons with photo mode on and enemies off. I suggest maybe the next step would be to add a permanent “Free” Mode that lets users similarly chill.

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