How Sega took eight years to bring Phantasy Star Online 2 west

Over the past five weeks, we looked back at Sega’s groundbreaking Phantasy Star Online with a series of retrospective interviews. We started with producer Yuji Naka, then went in-depth with director Takao Miyoshi, composer Hideaki Kobayashi, script writer Akinori Nishiyama/effects designer Takanori Fukazawa, and a trio of programmers.

Now, to finish off our series, we turn our attention to Phantasy Star Online 2, which recently arrived in the West two decades after the release of the Dreamcast original — and eight long years after PSO 2’s release in Japan. Western audiences often wondered whether the game would come to North America at all, yet Phantasy Star Online 2 is now available in the West on Xbox One and Windows PC.

Additionally, Sega has announced a new, open-world PSO 2 update called New Genesis, due out in 2021. This update is being released in lieu of a new episode to bring the 8-year-old graphics engine up to date, worldwide. Details on New Genesis are light at the moment, but Sega says it will reveal more in the Tokyo Game Show timeframe later this year.

Meanwhile, we recently spoke to Yuji Nakazawa, PSO 2’s North America producer, about the game’s long-awaited arrival in the West.

Polygon: Please introduce yourself and in your own words describe your role on the PSO 2 team.

Yuji Nakazawa: My name is Yuji Nakazawa, and I’m part of Sega’s No. 3 development team and I’m the producer of the North American release of PSO 2 — and I worked as the liaison with various teams for the development of the North American version.

How long have you been working on PSO 2, or with the team in general?

I’ve been on and off of the team. I started with Phantasy Star Universe in Japan and then also [worked on] the release of the North American Xbox version of PSU.

What other projects have you worked on at Sega?

I’ve worked on some smaller titles but otherwise worked mostly on mobile games.

Why were you assigned to handle the Western release of PSO 2?

I am the director for the U.S. release of the Xbox version as well as the Asian release of PSO 2, which was released prior to the U.S. version. So I’m sort of the localization specialist.

Is it a relief now that PSO 2 is finally out in the West, for all the English-speaking PSO fans who have been asking for it for years?

There is a sense of relief [because] there was a lot of planning that went into the development; for example, Sega U.S. and Sega Japan took surveys from the fans about what they wanted in the game. But as an online game, I feel the real challenge will be in maintaining the service going forward.

What is your impression of how the beta went in the U.S.?

So in February, we had the closed beta, and there was an unexpectedly high number of participants. We heard a lot of players say they’ve been waiting eight long years for this release. [laughs] So we were really happy about that.

Is this one of the reasons that the Western servers are separate from the Japanese servers? So that you could roll out the later episodes at the appropriate pace, rather than dump all the Western players onto the same servers as players in Asia, who have experienced all of that content already? Or did it have to do with the consideration of data speeds?

It’s a little bit of both. The reason why we put it on a different server for the U.S. release was to control the rolling out of the stories and also due to server capacity. The ease of play is one of the selling points of the game, and the distance of the servers to the players affects latency, so we knew we wanted to have the servers physically closer to our players in North America. And although there are hardcore fans [who will play regularly and explore all the content] in the North American region, there are still many who are not familiar with the franchise, and we didn’t feel it would be fair to release eight years’ worth of content at once. So it’s a little bit of both.

As you say, PSO 2 did come out eight years ago, and people are wondering why it took so long between the Japanese release and the Western release. Did it have to do with the microtransaction system and in-game purchases being very different for Japan?

The in-game transactions were not the reason. We wanted to release PSO 2 in North America shortly after the release in Japan, but our reason for the delay of the U.S. version was the structure of the operation team necessary to operate an online game. We couldn’t risk releasing the game in a new territory without the right infrastructure in place, so it took some time to set up operations for North America. […] Things like a way to communicate service updates, policies for in-game promotions, communication tools for maintenance notifications, having a team in place for monitoring both the servers and users, as well as a customer service team. These operational tools were not in place or were below the standards of what was offered for PSO 2 Japan.

Urban legend has it that the localization was actually done a long time ago. Were there other technical reasons for the delay?

The issue was not technical and in terms of the localization, it was completed recently in preparation for this release. The biggest problem is we weren’t able to facilitate all aspects of the operation.

Is there any content that you had to adjust for the Western release? Presumably, you won’t be bringing over the Japan-specific collaborative content, like convenience store branding or drinks. But do you have any plans for Western-themed items or collaborations?

We aren’t able to roll it out in the same way we did for the Japanese release, but we are open to cross-collaborations in the U.S., as well. We probably won’t be doing the cross-promotions with convenience stores and drinks, as we did in Japan, but we are interested in doing some cross-promotions with other anime programs or franchises. In Japan, you have convenience stores on every corner, but in the States everything is so much more spread out — so in terms of [those] collaborations, probably not. But in terms of people or branding, we would be interested in doing that kind of sponsorship.

Besides the added depth of customization options, and the more nimble gameplay — players can jump, finally — the game still very much captures the spirit of the original PSO, which other Phantasy Star games released since have not. What do you think PSO 2 brings with it from the original PSO, and what specifically do you feel is unique to PSO 2?

As you mentioned, the jumping, and the special combos, and the relatively short battles and quest times are things that we brought to PSO. [Ed. note: The original PSO often subjected the player to long, drawn-out quests that could take upwards of an hour and a half in solo play.] It also maintains the sense of community through the icon chat. Another example is that even if you are playing solo, you can read the dialogue of other players in the chat box, so it doesn’t feel so lonely. Symbol chat is another feature we’ve preserved from the original. We felt that these features enhance the social aspect of the game — these communication systems that were all inherited from the original game. For the NA release, we expanded on that even more by adding voice chat, which isn’t offered in the Japanese version.

Did you have to make changes to any visuals in the game, or adjust for the localization of the Western version?

For the Xbox release we had to make it 4K-compatible, so there were graphical enhancements we made.

Did that create a lot of work for the development team?

It wasn’t a lot of work, but the team was surprised by how beautiful the enhancements made the game look.

Was it helpful to be able to develop and optimize for a fixed platform like Xbox One, rather than the myriad permutations that gaming PCs might present?

For the Japanese version it was a multiplatform release, on PC and PS4, so PSO 2 was already optimized to provide the best results regardless of which platform you’re playing on. The focus was more on how to bring out the strengths of the platform.

Are you planning any PSO 2-related merchandise or physical versions for the West?

Not currently, but if there is a demand for it, that might change. And if we organize offline events and we want to have a merch table, we might consider making merch for something like that. There isn’t really a channel or a way for selling merchandise, but that might change in the future so that we can sell our Japanese merchandise to our North American users.

You’ve already done the Xbox collaboration, where players could unlock an Xbox-branded T-shirt in-game. Presumably you have more crossover content planned like that?

Yes, absolutely.

Will you be able to move your character from ship to ship, in case your friends are on a different ship than you?

It’s not possible right now, but we’ve heard this request from others, as well, and it is something we plan on rolling out. It’s possible currently in Japan, but even in Japan, you can only move servers or transfer data once a week during maintenance. There’s a specific window and frequency at which you can do this, and that will remain the same for the North American region as well.

When the original PSO came out, online games weren’t really established yet. PSO changed all that. With PSO 2, playing games online now is practically the standard, so now that you did the hard work in pioneering things 20 years ago, you could really focus on the design of the game. What were the design priorities for PSO 2?

The first thing that we expanded in PSO 2 was in the character creation system that wasn’t previously possible in MMOs. The next focus was that we wanted to make it as easily accessible to players as possible. As mentioned earlier, since there are a lot of solo players in the game, we wanted to make the communication features as seamless as possible so that players could join other players with ease and not have to spend a lot of time gathering a party. In PSO 2, we’ve created a “party area” where you can just join parties in progress without the downtime spent organizing a group that you might have had with the original game.

Another area that is new with PSO 2 is the cross-platform play. The Japanese version already has it — on PC, PS4, Vita, and Switch (and PSO 2es, which is the mobile version), you can play the same character across these different platforms. Nowadays this might not be so unique, but eight years ago, it was quite revolutionary. For the U.S. version, we’ve just announced the Windows 10 version in May and that you’ll be able to play across Xbox and PC, and we hope in future platforms, as well.

This really shows respect for a player’s time, since you basically make the game as accessible and accommodating as possible. This leads into the next question, which is about the decision to go free-to-play for PSO 2. It makes a lot more sense now, since a person can easily download the client for free on whichever platform they want to play on, and move over to another version easily, without having to pay $60 for each. Was this all part of your strategy — to get people playing across as many platforms as possible?

That was naturally part of it. Eight years ago, when we first began preparing PSO 2 for release in Japan, when you think of RPGs, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are the predominant Japanese role-playing games. So we had to think, “How do we compete with those titles?” And the key to that was the ease of access. Two things we came up with were to provide it on multiple platforms, so we could offer it to people with any game console, and the second idea was to make it free-to-play, which makes it easy to enter because there’s no charge upfront.

Also, eight years ago, most of the MMOs were coming out of Korea and China, and they were pay-to-win style. By providing PSO 2 as free-to-play, we wanted to keep the quality of the game, but also to make it a profitable business. We wanted to prove that free-to-play was a viable business format that could be profitable. As a trend, I think we were right in our target to make it free-to-play, and you’re seeing that a lot more in the industry these days. We were pioneers in offering free-to-play without compromising the quality of the game.

Back when PSO 2 was first released in Japan, there was a lot of controversy around free-to-play games, because kids were racking up huge charges on their parents’ credit cards in games like Puzzle & Dragons, so much so that the government actually stepped in and cracked down on the random item generation business. Now, PSO 2 was not really that kind of game, but did those added government regulations affect the monetization design of PSO 2 in any way?

It didn’t really affect the way we designed the game because we weren’t focused on the gacha style of gameplay.

We’ve been waiting so long for PSO 2 to come out in the West — eight years now — that it’s interesting that you decided to release it here first on Xbox One. It’s interesting, because the Xbox One is basically in the last year of its life as Microsoft transitions to the Xbox Series X. Did you launch on Xbox One because you knew that the Xbox Series X would be backward-compatible, and that people would be able to carry their progress over to the next console? Or did Microsoft approach you because they’re hungrier for content than Sony is for the PlayStation 4?

Microsoft was very cooperative in releasing PSO 2, and to expand on that, they were interested in PSO 2 and in providing us with Agile, their programming software. It’s not really a technical reason — because in terms of moving the game over to Xbox, it wasn’t any easier — but they really supported putting the game on Xbox.

It’s not that the Xbox is specifically difficult, but there were some features that had to be adjusted specifically for Xbox. It was originally developed on PC, so it is relatively straightforward to bring over to any other system.

Credit: How Sega took eight years to bring Phantasy Star Online 2 west