Written by Scott "Thayos" Pesznecker and Bret "Elmer" Mayer.
Relax -- Final Fantasy XI will be just fine.
That's what the development team said two months ago, right after Square Enix announced the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XIV. Although the news was embraced across the MMO universe, many FFXI players voiced concern over how this would affect their game. The development team reacted quickly, saying they already had a year’s worth of updates all planned out, and that they had no intention of stopping after that.
But is everything OK in Vana'diel?
In the weeks following the announcement -- a time when Square Enix should have been reassuring its FFXI fanbase -- scores of players were suddenly banned from Vana'diel. They temporarily banned droves of players for selling gardened goods to NPCs. Then they started banning people who did so little as to change their billing information. Then, with their playerbase already in a frenzy, they changed their longtime billing rules with less than one day of notice.
Whether they’re trying to crush RMT or simply trying to make accounts more secure, the folks at Square Enix have dealt some serious collateral damage to their fans through this wave of hastily implemented security measures.
These gaffes by Square Enix could not have come at a worse time.
Many of these players were reinstated, but Square Enix never gave an official explanation as to why the bannings took place. Through conversation on various forums, players began to realize that most who had been banned had gardening mules on their accounts. Players suspect the bannings were an unintended result of Square Enix's patented "RMT-PWNER," an automated program designed to punish and ban RMT.
Then came the credit card bannings. Some players noticed they had been billed twice by Square Enix, and some said they were banned after attempting to correct the issue through their banks or financial institutions. Some players were reportedly banned for "irregular activity" on their credit cards; others banned for the same reason were not specifically told it was regarding their credit cards, leaving them to guess what exactly "irregular activity" means.
Given the nonsense of the previous two months, is it surprising that people freaked out when Square Enix announced a sudden change to the terms of service? And with just one day of notice?
Starting immediately, all North American Final Fantasy XI players must register their credit card with VerifiedByVisa or MasterCard SecureCode. However, there are many Final Fantasy XI players who might not possess their own credit cards. Furthermore, as many are discovering, their cards may not even be eligible for the service. What are players supposed to do? Square Enix has provided a bare minimum of explanation, and people across America are left scrambling and asking questions - a situation that is all too familiar.
Makes you wonder, will players be faced with similar hurdles in Final Fantasy XIV?
What is Square Enix trying to accomplish here?
There is a trend in Japanese business (and around the world) to become more and more internationalized. Square Enix has subsidiaries located in North America and Europe, recently acquired Eidos Interactive, and has also made a deal with French gaming company Ubisoft to distribute foreign games in Japan. They appear to have the savvy to play on the world stage, but do they have the cultural know-how required to support this diverse set of customers?
According to the most recent change to the terms of service, the answer to that question is a resounding "no". This new provision seems to only affect players in North America. While the change may reduce the number of credit card billing errors (and subsequent knee-jerk bannings), many players are growing weary of jumping through hoops to play a video game. Meanwhile, in Japan, a player can stroll into any number of convenience stores and throw down a little cash for electronic "Web Money" to fuel their account. There is no signature or ID required; you can buy it like any old bag of squid-flavored chips.
Perhaps Square Enix added the credit card verification requirement to reduce errors in its North American accounting process. Recently, Japanese companies have been pressured by their government to keep impeccable financial records. Financial reports, once compiled twice a year, are now required to be submitted to the Ministry of Finance and Tokyo Stock Exchange four times every fiscal period.
Regardless, improving overseas customer service should be a top priority, especially with the global launch of a new flagship title looming on the horizon. If Square Enix cares to improve its global image, then why are North American players being treated so differently than Japanese players? There seems to be a large difference here between the type of customer Square Enix may be used to in their home country versus those around the world - customers they never had to deal with in the intricate way an MMO demands.
The gardening bans didn't help in that department, either.
For years, SE has been methodically eradicating RMT from Vana'diel. Gil sellers used to camp every spawn point in sky, monopolize most NMs, manipulate the auction house, fish on every shoreline and mine 24 hours a day. Now, the RMT left in FFXI are just shadows of their former selves. Most players only really notice RMT when they get a /tell advertising a gil-selling site.
When looking at the big picture, Square Enix deserves praise for carrying on its relentless attack against RMT.
However, not one legitimate player should have been banned when SE decided to scorch the flowerpots of the gilsellers. The gardening bans were blind, careless and showed a complete lack of regard for the well-being of the playerbase. There's simply no valid reason why innocent players were carpet bombed in order to get at the RMT.
The people at Square Enix are trying to change. Premier sites such as Allakhazam are getting more attention. Fan Festivals are now regularly planned to occur in North America.
Still, there appears to be this lack of sensitivity to foreign players that has not caught up with the times and continues to cause these baffling situations. If the company hopes to maintain and grow its global MMO audience, then there are some basic truths that SE must embrace:
1. We want to hear from you. If you're going to ban legitimate players, they have a right to know the reason. Don't expect to be forgiven until you explain your actions.
2. We want to be heard. Players have made several suggestions over the years that would have significantly improved gameplay while also quelling the RMT and account security issues. By and large, we feel we've been ignored.
3. We will not tolerate being banned for no reason. Your terms of service may give you the right to do so, but to us, that's an unacceptable way to treat a longtime customer -- even if it's only temporary.
There's more, but that's a good start.
We're willing to cut SE a little bit of slack. They've shown that they're interested in better serving our needs. When players hear Tanaka joke about "meeting players halfway and partying in Hawaii for Fan Fest," or see Sage Sundi with a BlueGartr cap at the Developer's Panel, they cannot help but smile. It displays some humanity from the mysterious creators of Vana'diel and a connection with the players that transcends cultural boundaries and boosts our confidence in the product.
The recent gaffes are frustrating not only because they discourage us as customers, but because they severely undercut Square Enix's efforts to move forward as a global player in the MMO world. With their new MMO title scheduled to launch next year, these are mistakes they simply cannot afford to make.