Phantasy Star Online 2: a glimpse of the future through the prism of the past

All I want is to change those wedge heels for some flatformers, and PSO2 gives me no opportunity to pay to do this.

Phantasy Star Online 2 is set to become the game I love to criticise. Before I launch into a tirade, I should quickly note that I actually really enjoy this game; it’s campy, it’s saccharine, it’s one of those perfect shoot-spiders-feel-awesome games and it has pretty accurately rebooted the original game with up-to-date graphical splendour.

That’s not the only thing Sega had in mind, though. PSO2 is supposed to be a heroic step towards the future of free-to-play games; artful, unobtrusive and enjoyable for all, it is a virtual world with incentivised commerce, supposedly a paragon of F2P game design that the world simply might not yet be ready for.

At the same time, Sega has announced that from now on it will focus on its four key ip, finding it not lucrative to develop new ip in the foreseeable future. Their job will be to recycle the past.

Sega have absolutely no grasp of the present; they can only reproduce the past and simultaneously, like with the Dreamcast, try to be one step ahead of some imagined future so that we will all remember them fondly in years to come, when, like the Dreamcast, their greatest projects have withered on the vine.

Phantasy Star Online 2 risks being too forward-facing and too rooted in the past.

First of all, let’s assume that PSO2 truly is the F2P game of the future – so what? Free-to-play is, first and foremost, a business strategy. It’s distribution and monetisation. Secondarily, it is a game design challenge, but I cannot believe that it is fundamentally a game design framework. You can’t make the F2P game par excellence from a purely aesthetic standpoint. You can apply F2P well, and you’ll know if you have done because you’ll have a fuller belly and shinier shoes. The question of whether the game would have monetised better if it had been released ten years later is a bit pointless.

Secondly, I hesitate to go along with this idea of PSO2 as the apotheosis of F2P design. For one thing, the character creator is too good. My character looks perfect already at level 1 – even I, who loves to buy items for vanity, cannot think of anything I could possibly want to make my character look more cool. In the USA and Europe, vanity items are not the highest-revenue IAPs, but in Japan they are considerably more important. So even if weapons and power-ups are high-earning items in their own right, by giving me no incentive to customise my character beyond the initial build Sega have left money on the table, and spoiled some of my fun while they were at it.

Also, after playing the game for five hours I still didn’t feel annoyed about my inability to buy currency as a foreigner. Purchases were not mentioned at any point in the tutorial, and no upgrades have been offered to me at any point. I gather that buying the premium package gives you access to an exclusive ship just for premium players – why not offer me that at the ship selection screen? It’s one thing to say that your IAP policy is unobstructive and that you’re not going to pester players to pay up, but it’s quite another for your only mention of the ability to spend money is a banner ad on the loading screen informing me that there is a 50% off sale on items whose benefit I don’t even understand.

The banner ads are another thing that makes this game seem uninnovative. It’s just a petty design point, but seriously, banner ads? I’m conditioned to not care what banner ads have to say at the best of times, but when you use the same font and palette as the shopping malls I used to use to shelter from the weather on my walk home from work in Japan, I will immediately associate your banner with pointless tat. With the average Japanese home piled to the rafters with clutter – mostly cheap gifts bought from shopping malls that people don’t have the heart to throw out – digital commerce offers a chance to spend money on experiences and emotions, on things that are genuinely cool, without paying an aesthetic price in your daily life. Your marketing could reflect that, but instead, you’ve reiterated the same visual strategies as every other form of consumerism in Japan since the 1970s. Let’s hope this is because it actually works because it sure doesn’t feel innovative.

On to the game design itself; PSO2 is very faithful to its predecessor in world design. This is wonderful and reassuring in many ways – I love the Phantasy Star aesthetic of loud, neon space opera with ridiculous anime characters and relentless electronica. However, they have completely ignored fundamental game design lessons that have been learned in the 14 years since PSO was first released.

Most notable is the structure of quests. Quest systems drive addiction by always giving you something else to do. In most RPGs, different quests have different lengths of task completion, so that at any given time there are always a few quests on the go, one of which seems like it will only take a couple of minutes, one that will take a few days, and a few in between. It’s a brilliant retention mechanic and it’s glorious, escapist fun. This isn’t applied in PSO2. PSO2 isn’t an absorbing adventure; it’s a manufacturing job. You check into the quest desk, select a quest, go out into the field to complete it, then return to collect your bounty. You cannot save your progress partway through a quest, though you can save your character’s status; in principle, you go and do your job, then you come back to base camp and sign out.

Every other game I can think of that does something similar to this reveals that your boss is in fact evil. Or it’s obvious from the start that you’re being manipulated by some overaching power. Think Assassin’s Creed or Portal. Phantasy Star Online 2 is built as though everybody was happy with their employment situation and nobody in the world was feeling resentful due to being overworked or underpaid. The fictional economics fails completely to consider the real-world context of players and thereby misses a chance to give them an emotional outlet.

So first of all, the game design reflects an assumption about adventuring that is completely out of date – it is behind the times on effective game design strategies, and it is behind the times on the kind of labour pattern most players are familiar with. This isn’t a service job, or a job in the information economy; it’s shift work, and it’s shift work that the players are supposed to carry out gladly with no suspicion of their fictional corporate superiors. While other RPGs have become increasingly artisanal over the past twenty years (see my essay on Final Fantasy) PSO2 is resolutely Fordist. For a game made both for the internet and on some level about the internet, this is aesthetically insane.

Secondly, the architectural structures built into the world design to support this archaic quest system reflect an outdated notion of what the internet is. In the late 1990s, the idea of a big information hub where quests could be chosen, items bought and team-mates could meet up – both the ship of PSO and the cyberspace of the wider internet – was unquestionably tied to a single location. Mobile internet was on its way in, but it was much more primitive than domestic internet – and that’s saying something during the 28kb dial-up era. The internet was still something that mostly happened in a fixed console. The Vaio was still new, so laptops were still a luxury, and the main topic of speculation on the internet was how it was going to change the permanent fixtures of the home – the whole internet-in-your-fridge thing.

This is far from the case now, and once again, it’s particularly insane for a Japanese-made game to miss this point, with the majority of internet browsing and email communication happening from mobile handsets in Japan. The big information hub in one fixed location is an outdated metaphor. You do not have to go home and boot up your computer to check your email or make a purchase, and likewise, it is foolish to expect characters to wait until they have returned to the ship before they take on new quests and receive and spend their bounties.

I really want PSO2 to succeed. I love it deeply, like I love Coronation Street and chip butties. There’s a place in the world for gaudy tat. But PSO2 is not the F2P game of the future – it’s a blast from the past, as quaint as S Club 7. I just hope it stops taking itself so seriously and starts offering me some nice ways to show my love for it with money.

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2 thoughts on “Phantasy Star Online 2: a glimpse of the future through the prism of the past

  1. Pingback: Watch Dogs « alifeofcasualgaming

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