It seems fitting, in light of all of the gilselling issues that we've gone through in Vana'diel, to take a look at the sordid history of the currency in the game and at how likely it is to translate to the new kid on the block. I don't think the problem lies so much with the sellers as with the environment that Square-Enix unintentionally created, as well as with the perfect storm of circumstances that devalued the currency of the game to near-worthlessness with no alternatives. That's right -- it's time to look back six years or so to the launch of the game in the U.S.
For those few unfamiliar with the tale, FFXI didn't launch worldwide all at once. It launched in Japan first and took two years to get stateside. The gap was wide enough that the game's release came with a free copy of the first expansion, and that alone might give readers a fair idea of what was going to happen when the game went live. It's a saga as old as MMOs themselves, the neverending specter of endgame inflation, and it was far worse in FFXI than in most other games because players kept going back to low-level areas.
If you only have 1000 gil, you don't really want to buy a Leather Vest for more than about 700. At 10000 gil, though, you won't mind dropping a flat 1000, even though that's a significant price jump. As you level in any game, you accumulate more and more money, and the relative prices keep falling -- from your perspective. Similarly, if you have low-level items you need to sell, you tend to increase the price to make a more significant amount of money -- something that other endgame players will pay, because they have the funds.
You can see it in any game in the world, and it's very pronounced in World of Warcraft. Low-level crafting supplies sell for amounts that are a little pricey for max-level characters, but absolutely obscene if you're a new player trying to just buy a little extra cloth. It becomes worse in FFXI because characters keep going back down to the low-level areas. If you buy that Leather Jerkin for 1500 gil, there's no way you'll sell it back for 700 just to even out the low-level economy.
Now enter the North American launch with the knowledge that all this is in place. The game has had two years for players to accumulate massive amounts of funding, and the prices have deformed accordingly. Then factor in two elements that make things even worse.
First, there were players among the existing Japanese base who did not look kindly upon the influx of foreign players. I don't believe this was a majority opinion, but it did exist, and so for players who felt that way it became a trivial matter to buy out low-level items (with their much larger bankrolls, remember) and list them at significantly higher values to serve as a leveling roadblock.
Second, the newbie areas were tuned in such a way that, at launch, most areas would not let players obtain crystals because there were so many players dying that the beastmen controlled the region constantly. On the Japanese release, this wasn't an issue because a steady supply of crystals hadn't yet formed a backbone of the economy. On the American release, though, selling stacks of crystals on the auction block was one of the main ways for a low-level character to make enough money to purchase anything... but low-level characters were usually not able to obtain crystals following launch.
The result? An enormous wall of economic unfairness that's produced lingering bitterness to this day. Making money was ruinously difficult, and if you wanted to play with the expected gear, you either needed to farm like a maniac, or...
Well, there's the rub, isn't it? You could just bypass all of that garbage and just get the gil you need to start off at an even point with all of the existing players. It wasn't the game's lending itself to RMT so much as the conditions creating a picture-perfect demand, a scenario in which money was exceedingly important while at the same time difficult to obtain in the needed quantities. Twenty dollars no longer seems like such a big deal when it lets you buy the Emperor Hairpin everyone expects from you, right?
Of course, this just resulted in the problem's getting compounded. Even more money enters the economy and becomes the default, while players who didn't drink from the poisoned chalice (so to speak) are falling even further behind the curve, which in turn increases the pressure to just buy a little bit of gil -- come on, it's not that big a deal, right -- and so forth. And then a few months later, the American version of the game launched on the PS2, which produced the exact same problem all over again.
In short, through no real intent of its own, Square created an environment in which selling money could not only exist, but thrive. The game just wasn't demonstrating any other way for a new player to keep up with the higher-level players, because they had deformed the market just by their nature. And naturally, once those players realized what was happening to the market, there was every reason to drive it up even further.
So, the million-gil question: Is the same sort of thing going to happen in FFXIV? Even if the auction house were ported over wholesale, it's fairly unlikely. Crafting materials are available for a cheap enough cost upfront that crafting isn't the burden it was in FFXI, and that makes goods much easier to obtain or make for yourself. Plus, the game has launched worldwide at the same time, so the only real influx will come with next year's PS3 release. And as things currently stand, we can only hope that by then we have a decent auction block running. Or that the market wards have been massively cleaned up. I'll take either.
That's all for this week; next week will either focus on some definite negatives of FFXIV (such as the market wards) or the second part in that experiment column I started forever ago. As always, comments, praise, and questions may be left in comments or sent along to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send along offers to donate an Emperor Hairpin. I still don't have one.
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.