Final Fantasy XIV originally released on September 30, 2010 to overwhelmingly poor reception from both players and critics alike. With a Metacritic score of 49, one would only need to type “ffxiv 1.0” into a Google search to discover various articles deliberating the failures and shortcomings of Square Enix’s second Final Fantasy-themed massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG). However, on July 2, 2019, Final Fantasy XIV released its third major expansion, Shadowbringers, to 16 million registered accounts. World of Warcraft, once hailed as the king of the MMORPG genre, is estimated to currently have approximately three million subscribers. Developer Blizzard has not openly discussed the subscription numbers of their game in some time, leaving users only to deduce and guess, so take that number with a large onze of salt. While we may not know the absolute truth, this much is certain: Final Fantasy XIV is one of the largest traditional MMORPGs on the market right now.
The success story of Final Fantasy XIV is no surprise by now. Most players in the MMO gaming sphere know all about the game’s infamous failure and unprecedented successful relaunch on August 24, 2013—nearly a year after the previous iteration shut down in 2012. This grand turnaround, to my knowledge, has never occurred in modern gaming history, at least to this level of success and praise. So one might be keen to ask, what is it that makes Final Fantasy XIV such a good game? While I cannot say I know all of the answers, I would like to highlight several defining characteristics of the game and its team that I believe contribute heavily to differentiating it from its competitors, especially in the standardization of today’s game market. So, why does Final Fantasy XIV continue to enjoy success almost nine years after its original release?
Defying Modern Monetization Strategies
Final Fantasy XIV requires users pay a subscription to play. In today’s market, this is a somewhat wild idea. While this was common practice for almost all MMORPG games nearly 15 years ago, the industry today has shifted almost entirely to free-to-play or even “pay-once-to-play,” a strategy that requires users to pay for the game up front and then possibly make more purchases in the form of expansion content and / or cosmetics. These monetization strategies are often the cause of great controversy such as in products with wildly expensive in-game markets like Apex Legends or the notoriously exploitative Star Wars Battlefront II.
Yet, when I try to court people into playing Final Fantasy XIV with me, I am frequently met with the same response regarding the price:
“Wait… I have to pay a subscription to play?”
It can be quite baffling at first glance. What some may consider to be a dead monetization strategy somehow has not bottlenecked the game series from reaching 16 registered accounts and some of the greatest success it has ever seen. In regards to the monetization, I think this is because players who pay to play the game soon realize that there is nothing else required of them and they respond to that well. The game does not have an in-game cash shop, nor does it have any loud and intrusive advertisements about the additional content they can purchase, such as cosmetics or new emoticons. And even though the game does have extra things you can buy, I have never once felt like they were pushed on me, nor do I know anyone else who has had a poor experience regarding their purchases. Perhaps something can be said for the integrity of the in-game world that the development team wants to uphold, as it is a fantasy game after all. Maybe the game caters to an audience that is tired of being reminded of all the premium content they can buy, and wants their players to just enjoy themselves in the game instead.
So yes, you have to purchase a subscription to play the game, and that is on top of the initial cost of buying the game in the first place to install it on your PlayStation 4 or PC. However, whenever a new expansion is released, Square Enix also releases a bundle that includes every game in the series for just $60, so if you are just getting into the game, there is no need to go back and purchase each expansion individually—a cost I am sure would deter new players from playing. And of course, there is also a completely free trial that allows users to try the game with no time-limit, just a smaller level and content cap, so you can truly try before you buy. Regarding monetization, I am no expert, but I do know that it at least feels good to play a game free from the commonplace practices of other industry leaders, and I think other users may feel the same.
Final Fantasy XIV Releases Large Amounts of Content Regularly
Final Fantasy XIV is an enormous game, and part of this is due to the game’s regular release schedule that has been nearly the same for six years. After the launch of a new expansion, the team tends to release major content updates approximately every three-to-four months. These releases are packed with content. So much so, that they often feel like miniature expansions. The major updates often include things such as new dungeons, new standalone bosses, new equipment, new raids, and the continuation of the main story of the game. They also tend to include enhancements to existing features, new crafting and gathering additions, new character customization options, quality of life changes, and even sometimes mini-games.
The game also features a very extensive housing system which allows players to buy houses in designated neighborhoods and decorate them endlessly. The Final Fantasy XIV housing community is so big that I believe it’s actually quite larger than the end-game raiding community.
Also, the game has had Triple Triad, a card game introduced in Final Fantasy VIII, since the A Realm Reborn expansion, which is always being updated with new cards.
This cycle tends to repeat until five major patches have been released, which culminates in the release of an expansion pack. Players love new content, and fresh content is an easy way to ensure that the player base keeps coming back to explore and experience everything the game has to offer. Since the game is on such a regimented schedule, it is also easy for players to expect exactly when they will receive new content, something that can be difficult for game developers to keep to. The patch notes for each major update can be quite long, and I think that speaks for itself. The regular stream of content (and bug fixes) keeps the players engaged, satisfied, and never without things to do. Because the players can trust that the Final Fantasy XIV development team is reliable in their release schedule, and never have to guess when their game will have new content. Regular releases keep games and their communities alive and thriving, and Final Fantasy XIV is no exception.
Final Fantasy XIV Possesses The Expected Square Enix Polish
This is a Square Enix game and there is no doubt about it. Square Enix is an industry leader of software entertainment, and for good reason. They cemented themselves in the early 90’s as one of the titans of the RPG genre, and as they matured, they worked hard to create memorable experiences that had a very fine coat of polish on almost every in-house release. It might go without saying that Square Enix is best known for creating visually stunning graphics, something that sometimes hasn’t been a good thing. But from their tech demos to their retail releases, Square has made a reputation for themselves for making games with high production quality.
Final Fantasy XIV is no different. Not only does the game look great, but it plays like you’d expect from a Square Enix game. The interfaces are intuitive and all of the aesthetics are visually clean. The game even allows you to change the UI by dragging around all of the interface elements and organize them in whichever way makes you feel most comfortable. While the game is not completely free of bugs or problems, it’s well refined, and the game is extremely responsive, which is important for the genre.
On top of all of this, the launch of the most recent expansion, Shadowbringers, was very smooth. The prior expansion, Stormblood, did not have the best praise when it initially released due to rocky server problems, as well as an in-game controversy where players were unable to continue with an instanced portion of the main quest because the server instances were filled to capacity. The community was anticipating the worst for Shadowbringers, expecting long server outages and connection problems, but this did not occur. Save for one outage that lasted approximately an hour, the entirety of Shadowbringers early access, as well as its official release, went off without a barrage of complaints, the same kind you might find plague many MMO launches. It appears the team was able to learn from their mistakes to prepare adequately. This is no small feat, especially when you consider that the number of subscribers is even higher than it was when Stormblood launched.
Admittedly, I am not the biggest Square Enix fan, but I do love this game, and I think it shows that the development team truly cares about their product, and so does Square. Oh, and about the development team…
The Development Team is Always Listening and Always Communicating
If you have ever been a part of a gaming community that was frustrated with the lack of communication developers share about their game, especially when it comes to existing problems or highly requested features, Final Fantasy XIV is not that community. The game’s director, Naoki Yoshida, known among the community as “Yoshi-P,” has acted as a paragon of what managing a game community should be. I would like to stress these next few points, as I believe this is one of the ultimate reasons why Final Fantasy XIV is doing so well.
Yoshida hosts a web stream once every two-to-three months called “Letter From the Producer Live.” During this web stream, Yoshi-P and his team announce upcoming features and changes to the game and show off teasers for other things to come. He will also frequently address user feedback and give updates on the state of hot items, sometimes with detailed deliberation that is uncommon for most other development teams to share. These are sometimes accompanied with slightly technical but very honest explanations such as, “We’re having trouble finding a way to implement this feature given the current allocated effort of other features.” To date, there have been 52 different Live Letters in the six years since A Realm Reborn first launched.
In addition to these web streams, Square Enix also hosts an event every two years called “Final Fantasy XIV Fan Fest,” which is basically a large convention to celebrate the game. Fan Fest has also been used to announce the next major expansion pack and allow players to try upcoming content before it is released. During these events, Yoshida hosts a special Letter from the Producer Live in front of players who are able to physically attend. During these sessions, there is a Q&A that almost always involves Yoshida genuinely asking for player feedback regarding new features they’d like to see and existing features that aren’t as good as originally hoped.
Perhaps this seems obvious and redundant, but there is something especially refreshing about it. Yoshida does not talk to the fans like they are consumers. When a player proposes a feature or enhancement, Yoshida will poll the crowd to see how popular the request is, and tell them that he takes the request seriously and will figure out the logistics of it with his team so they can devise a timeline for implementing the feature. Yoshida has also apologized for features that did not quite live up to expectations—him and his team own their mistakes. This type of interaction brings me back to a point I made earlier.
I believe that the fans of this game genuinely believe the development team cares about them. I think it is through the relationship that Final Fantasy XIV has with its player base that Square Enix has cultivated a unique end-to-end experience that is quite unlike other games in the industry. The fans appreciate this, and return in kind by spending countless hours in the game world that Yoshida and his team lovingly created. Final Fantasy XIV is not a perfect game and is not without its problems, but I do think other studios can learn from the example Final Fantasy XIV has set.
From the monetization strategy to the massive updates and community management, Final Fantasy XIV exists as an exception to an otherwise very common industry culture. I think it is rare that you find a game that is able to deliver on all of these areas, and I believe that makes Final Fantasy XIV a gem in an otherwise large and sometimes muddy marketplace. And it appears that Square Enix has no intention of slowing down. If the 2002-released MMORPG Final Fantasy XI is still receiving updates with its dedicated player base, who knows what the future holds for Final Fantasy XIV? If you have not yet tried Final Fantasy XIV, give it a chance. It may pleasantly surprise you.
Matthew Frassetti is a former contributor of Gematsu and a current Final Fantasy XIV enthusiast. He plays as Cyncro Sarova, a Red Mage / White Mage on the Leviathan server. You can follow him on Twitter and ask him questions @VariaMatt.
Editor’s Note: Corrected “subscribers” to “registered accounts.”