News/Phantasy Star Online prototype
Hello everyone! Today we have a bit of a treat for you. Presenting, a prototype of Phantasy Star Online for the Sega Dreamcast! This prototype is brought to you by us and Laurent from Sega Dreamcast Preservation Games. This particular prototype was compiled over a month before the final Japanese release but sometime later after the Network Trial Editon (NTE). Unlike the NTE though, the entire game is accessible from start to finish in all three difficulty modes. What’s more, the prototype was actually compiled with English localization, which was being worked on while the game was still in development in Japan. This prototype contains A LOT of changes that were made just a month before the final game went gold in Japan. So hold on to your seat belts because it’s going to be a long one!
The Sega Dreamcast itself needs no introduction at this point, as it was possibly one of the most influential consoles in regard to online gaming. While it wasn’t the first console to have online capabilities, it was the very first to be successful at doing so. During its short lifespan, it garnished a very large selection of titles that had various internet capabilities, such as online multiplayer, leaderboards, and even downloadable content. What made the Sega Dreamcast’s online attempts more adaptable at its release was the fact that a modem was included in every Dreamcast sold, enabling all users the ability to hop online with almost no additional hurdles. It would eventually be the first to introduce a broadband adapter (BBA) to enable those with cable/DSL to connect online as well. The efforts of Sega’s implementation of online play paved the way for the console online gaming that we see to this very day.
At this time, online gaming in general was becoming more popular, particularly for personal computers. Games like Quake and Diablo were some of the more popular games PC gamers were enjoying online at the time. One of the more promising online genres to arise from this time period was the introduction of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. Unlike other online games that were restricted to a fixed cap of online players in a given amount of time, MMORPGs could present a gigantic world with thousands of players worldwide playing in real-time, 24/7. This provided gamers with seemingly an entire lifetime of experiences to enjoy in a world that was constantly growing.
However, traditional gaming consoles at the time couldn’t hope to facilitate games of that size and caliber. The majority of MMORPGs created at the time were developed mostly by developers in the West, while all gaming consoles that were still relevant at the time of the Sega Dreamcast were developed in Japan. This meant that many Japanese developers had to do a lot of experimentation and development in order to figure out how to produce online games and content.
Sonic Team, one of Sega’s flagship developers even to this day, started experimenting with internet connectivity at the beginning of the release of Sonic Adventure. While Sonic Adventure did not support online play, it had an internet component by utilizing a website that allowed users to download additional seasonal content, participate in contests, participate in rankings, and upload Chao data for additional perks for those who were interested in raising their Chao. The website even ran a bulletin board (or messaging board) and even hosted its own IRC channel. While minimal, the attempt at adding internet connectivity to an otherwise already ambitious game was Sonic Team’s first indication of where they wanted to go with the online capabilities of the Dreamcast hardware.
Sonic Team would get their first chance at developing a true online game in late 1999 with the release of Chu Chu Rocket!, an online action puzzle game that involved having to place arrows on a board to lead mice, dubbed “ChuChus”, into escape rockets while avoiding nasty orange cats called “KapuKapus”. The game was sold at a lower price in comparison to other Dreamcast titles so that the adoption rate would be higher. While the game’s online functionality was still operational, players were able to compete with one another in real-time while also having the ability to upload and share custom puzzles with other players. The game provided an opportunity for Sonic Team to learn more about developing network-based online games for Dreamcast, enabling them to pursue bigger projects that took full advantage of the potential that online gaming could offer.
Little did anyone know that Sonic Team’s biggest venture yet was just around the corner…
While the Sega Dreamcast was in development, Sega chairman Isao Okawa knew that online gaming was the future and had wanted a flagship online game for Dreamcast since the beginning. None of the departments internally at Sega of Japan wanted to work on such a project in the beginning, but eventually, the project would land on Sonic Team’s lap despite their initial reluctance to work on such a project. Their hesitance was mostly due to their initial experimentation with getting Burning Rangers, the team’s previous project on the Sega Saturn, whose online capabilities ended in failure. Since online gaming wasn’t necessarily popular in Japan at the time, Sonic Team had to draw inspiration from western titles for ideas on how to approach the project. Yuji Naka and his crew drew inspiration primarily from the three biggest online games in the RPG genre at the time, EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Diablo. While creating a game in the same size and scope as actual MMORPGs like EverQuest and Ultima Online was out of the question for the Dreamcast hardware, Sonic Team decided to create a game that was in similar size and scope to Diablo. However, not only did they want to replicate the addictive nature of Diablo, but they also wanted to surpass it in graphical fidelity by developing the game in full 3D.
Since its inception, the game always had a science fiction-fantasy theme. However, the game was not developed with a particular franchise in mind. The game’s working title during its early beginnings was “Third World”, which was initially designed to be more “comic-like” rather than realistic than the final results would end up becoming. Up until this point, the Phantasy Star series had lied dormant for a few years with its last major console release, Phantasy Star IV, having been released on the Sega Mega Drive almost six years prior. Yuji Naka, who was the main programmer on Phantasy Star I and II, was reminded of the series after reviewing Satoshi Sakai’s concept drawings of a dragon. Since Yuji Naka had always wanted to develop a multiplayer Phantasy Star game, this led to his decision to change the direction of the game to become an indirect follow-up to the Phantasy Star series.
And thus, Phantasy Star Online (PSO) was born!
PSO is an MMORPG originally developed for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. In the game, after discovering that their home planet was in danger of being destroyed, refugees from the home planet boarded a spaceship called the Pioneer 2 in search of a new home. After some time, they discover a habitable planet by the name of Ragol, which a group of colonists has been sent to colonize the planet so that it could be habitable. After establishing contact with a group of colonists that were sent ahead on Pioneer 1, a mysterious explosion occurs on planet Ragol that destroys the colonies that were established on the planet. On top of that, vicious hostile monsters have suddenly taken over the planet. You play as a Hunter (an equivalent to a hired mercenary), an avatar that you create, who is hired by the head of Pioneer 2 to search for his daughter, Rico Tyrell, and to investigate the disappearance of the habitants from Pioneer 1.
The gameplay of PSO follows a similar style to Diablo, mixed with gameplay design from Midway’s Gauntlet series. The goal of the game is to clear waves of monsters that appear in each room across four separate areas to get to the stage’s boss. Every room contains waves of monsters and puzzles that you and up to three other players must solve in order to get to the end. Like Diablo, the game is known for loot that you collect from various monsters and item boxes that can be found on every map. The game encourages you to keep replaying the same content over and over in order to level up your character and find rare item drops. The game also features additional content in the form of individual quests that can be completed for additional rewards and story-based content. The game’s online functionality was able to provide additional experiences in the form of limited-time contests, events, and quests.
Online play was delegated to connecting from a number of various lobbies where players could roam around freely and converse with other players. From the lobby, players could create rooms and invite others to come and join. Aside from the quests featured in offline mode, all of the game’s content was available for all players to enjoy together. Players could spend an indefinite amount of time clearing dungeons, gathering loot, and playing quests together.
Despite being a relatively simple and straightforward game, the game itself carries a lot of forward-thinking features that aided in the game’s goal of offering global collaboration and communication for all players across the world. Producer Yuji Naka wanted to make sure that there were systems in place that could break language barriers and allow people from all over the world to communicate with each other as they play. Word Select, a feature that allows players to select from a list of prewritten sentences and word combinations, was implemented to allow automatic translation of the same phrase into several different languages to make communication easier. The game also introduced a feature called Symbol Chat, where players can create and design their own emoticons combined with sounds that can help communicate to other players non-verbally without the need of knowing the other person’s language.
With the theme and setting of the game chosen, Sonic Team began preproduction work on the game in Japan, sometime after the development of the initial Japanese release of Sonic Adventure was finished in 1998 (the US release would be developed by the newly formed Sonic Team USA). From the very beginning, Sonic Team was given the freedom to depart from the story of the previous entries in the series and was free to simply use the setting and theme as a platform to go in a different direction. Since many of the staff that worked on the previous major game in the series, Phantasy Star IV, had left Sega over the years, Sonic Team decided to abandon the art style of the previous entries in the series and go in a different direction while still following the science fiction feel. This would help PSO differentiate itself from past Phantasy Star titles and also help find a unique identity of its own by creating its own art style.
PSO marked a significant turning point in Sonic Team’s department structure at this time. For instance, after development on Burning Rangers was complete, everyone at Sonic Team became involved with Sonic Adventure. After the development of Sonic Adventure wrapped up in Japan, Sonic Team was split up into different subteams that began working on separate projects. Around 120 people were working around the clock on Sonic Adventure, with many of them having the ability to make decisions for themselves without the need for approval from another director or manager, which is what lead to Sonic Adventure being finished at a neck-breaking speed. Thanks to the experience and talent of the staff who worked on Sonic Adventure, the PSO team was able to put the game together in a very short amount of time.
Despite having the talent and the executive freedom to make decisions, some of the more challenging aspects of the development of PSO came from the lack of standardized toolsets to help aid in development. All the tools that were used to develop PSO were made in-house, so it took time to add additional content to the game if a scenario occurred where new content had to be added on short notice. As a result, artists would work directly with programmers to decide how assets were to be used and applied in-game. This also lead to many planned features being cut or underdeveloped due to the lack of time and the need to make sure that the game was polished enough for a full release on time by its release near the end of the year 2000.
Due to time constraints, the development of the game was very hectic. The game was initially developed for a simultaneous worldwide global release on March 2000. But the game was delayed for several months to add additional features so that additional time could be spent testing and localizing the releases outside of Japan. Global releases of games at the time were very rare, as most games developed in Japan were released in their home country first, then many months were spent localizing the game, and then marketing would be planned for the game in specific territories. As a result, the game’s localization outside of Japan actually began partway into the development of the original Japanese release. The text was first written in Japanese, then Sega of Europe would be given the Japanese text to be translated into English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The text would then be sent back to Sonic Team where it would be implemented in the game. The development schedule had no time budgeted for the localization and had barely any time for the completion of the Japanese release, so the localization had to be done simultaneously. Even the Japanese text had no extra allotted time for drafts either.
Click the image above to see PSO at TGS 1999!
Phantasy Star Online was introduced to the public for the first time during the autumn 1999 Tokyo Game Show, which ran from September 17-19. At the show, the game only had a trailer and was not playable. In the trailer, it appears that the game just barely started development at this point as only a few areas are shown and rendered on actual hardware with no footage of actual gameplay. The trailer was enough to get the message across that the game would focus primarily on collaboration and communication with other players, but the story, gameplay, and how the online play would be integrated were not disclosed at this point. After the small showcase at TGS 1999, there would be radio silence about the game for several months with no news or further details.
Click the image above to see PSO at E3 2000!
PSO would reappear once again at the 2000 E3 showcase which ran from May 11-13. This time, the game was running on actual hardware at the show running alongside a brand new trailer. The demo of the game was unique as it was completely automated and nonplayable but spanned across four separate Dreamcasts running simultaneously in a simulated online-connected setting. It isn’t clear how the effect was achieved, but it’s possible that the game was running synchronously across the four Dreamcasts at the show using a well-timed start so that all sessions would be in sync. The demo rotated from showing an early Pioneer 2 where players conversed with each other to plan a quest. The demo consists of at least 6 scenarios, from planning a quest on Pioneer 2, playing various scenarios in Forest 1, and eventually fighting the Dragon boss. The entire demo was translated into English, suggesting that localization had begun even this early on. A Japanese version was also demonstrated as well in Japan, featuring the same gameplay as the demo.
The game had another somewhat lengthy period of silence following the showcase at E3 2000. The game likely had additional coverage in Japan, but word outside of Japan was minimal at this time. However, sometime in late 2000, Sonic Team offered those who preordered the game an opportunity to test the game’s servers early by releasing the Network Trial Edition. The Network Trial Edition was an online mode-only version of the game that allowed players in Japan a sneak peek into the game and to experience a small slice of what the final game would be like. Despite being a beta test, the version used as the basis of the Network Trial was compiled on October 25th, 2000, almost a month and a half before the final game was to be finished in Japan. Despite being a relatively late prototype, this build of the game contains a numerous amount of differences that would eventually be changed in just a few weeks after. Players have almost all access to the final game’s feature set except for the majority of the content, which was locked to only the first two areas of the game (Forest and Caves). This was done in order to test the game’s server capacity and to iron out the remaining bugs that might’ve plagued the game’s final release if gone uncorrected. Supposedly, Battle Mode (which would eventually be seen in Version 2) was also present during the Network Trial but was dropped before the final release due to balancing issues and the need to emphasize the game's cooperative design. Approximately 10,000 players in Japan participated in the Network Trial in the end.
We were able to acquire a prototype that reflected a point in the game’s development where it was still being actively developed in Japan. The prototype is presumably meant for US publications, as prototypes similar to this build were featured in various magazines and IGN’s video previews for the game. The prototype that we have to share with you today comes just a few days after the Network Trial Edition was compiled. Despite the prototype being in English, most of the text is still untranslated, and it reflects a point in the game’s development where the game was still being heavily rebalanced and worked on. The prototype we have was compiled on November 1st, 2000, just a little over a month before production would wrap up on the Japanese release. And in that time, the game still lacks much of the balancing and features missing from the final release. For instance, the final bosses are barely implemented, quests will frequently crash the game, item drops aren’t randomized, quality of life features are missing, game-breaking bugs (such as the bank and the weapon shop) are present, none of the other difficulty modes have been fully fleshed out yet, along with many other differences. It’s a miracle that the game came together near the end! Thankfully, unlike the Network Trial Edition, the full content of the game is accessible from start to finish and isn’t restricted to just the Online Mode.
Phantasy Star Online wrapped up development in Japan on December 6th, 2000. The game was released in Japan first on December 21, 2000. The United States release would follow suit, being completed on January 20th, 2001 alongside the European version with the game released to retail on January 29, 2001, in the US and February 23rd, 2001 in Europe. The game missed its planned global release target due to additional testing of the United States version and for marketing purposes. While the game was free to play online in the United States, the game was pay-to-play in Japan, requiring Japanese players to purchase 30-day or 90-day subscriptions (although a 30-day trial was included in every sold copy of the game). PSO sold 500,000 copies in Japan alone and over a million copies worldwide, meeting Sega’s expectations almost exactly. At one time, the game’s active population reached 26,000 players connected simultaneously with over 270,000 registered users by May of 2001.
The success of the game is not without its flaws, however. Because PSO was one of Sonic Team’s first serious attempts at creating a persistent online game, there were many oversights that plagued the game since launch that couldn’t easily be remedied. Because the game did not rely on patching or client-server side communication, cheating was very rampant. While Sonic Team did their best to moderate the Japanese servers, as support for the game dwindled, moderation also diminished as well. Players were also aggravated by the design of the game when it came to item distribution and trading. Since the game had no formal system in place for trading items, people could grief other players and steal their items and loot. Originally, when you died in the game, you dropped both your Meseta (in-game currency) and weapon on the floor so other people could pick them up. Since the game did not save any character data server side and did not routinely automatically save progress, this meant that item loss was very frequent. Things got so bad that users in Japan would call Sonic Team directly or visit the offices in person to demand their lost items back.
To help remedy some of the bugs caused by the original version, Sonic Team began work in a very short period of time on a follow-up called Phantasy Star Online Version 2, which was only in development for about six months after the release of the original PSO. The game featured new content such as new weapons, Challenge Mode, the return of Battle Mode, an increase in the level cap, fixed bugs, and the introduction of Ultimate Mode. The game was completed in Japan on May 20th, 2001, and was released on June 7th, 2001. Like Shenmue II, since the game’s release fell after the announcement that Sega would be discontinuing the Dreamcast and going 3rd-party, Sega of America was considering putting the release of Version 2 on the chopping block in favor of the follow-up release on the upcoming Nintendo GameCube. However, the game would eventually be finished on August 28th, 2001 for a United States release on September 24th, 2001 with a European release following on March 1st, 2002.
Throughout the years, Phantasy Star Online would appear on various other platforms. In 2002, Phantasy Star Online Episodes 1&2 were released on the Nintendo GameCube, marking one of the very few titles released on the system with online play. The game would eventually be ported to Microsoft’s Xbox, and two separate PC ports (a port of Version 2 and a port of Episode 1&2 with an added Episode 4, titled Blue Burst). A sequel of some sort was released in 2006 called Phantasy Star Universe, which follows in Phantasy Star Online’s footsteps in terms of gameplay but while adding a more elaborate single-player offline experience. In 2012, Phantasy Star Online 2, the first proper sequel in the PSO series, was released in Japan with a North American release following many years later. Ironically, PSO2 proved to be a huge financial success for Sega of Japan, and while PSO2 New Genesis might not be as good as the original PSO2, it can still be a fun game to play.
Even after the closures of many of the game’s servers, the series continues to live on to this day. Private servers like Ephinea, Schthack, and Ultima are still operational to this very day, allowing everyone with a Dreamcast, GameCube, PC, and even the Xbox to relive the game (maybe even this prototype might be supported someday!). While the community isn’t as big as it once was, the game still has a tight community with dedicated players that continue to support the game to this very day. The game's innovative gameplay, immersive world, and a strong sense of community helped to make it one of the most popular games on the Dreamcast, and it continues to be remembered fondly by players today.
In conclusion, Phantasy Star Online was a groundbreaking game that helped to pioneer the MMORPG genre on home consoles. The game's development was a challenging process, but the talented team at Sega was able to overcome these challenges and create a game that was both engaging and accessible to a wide audience. The game's success helped to pave the way for other MMORPGs on home consoles, and its legacy continues to be felt today. Despite its flaws, PSO remains a beloved classic that will always hold a special place in the hearts of Dreamcast fans.
Before we end this article, we’d like to thank Laurent from Sega DreamcastInfo Preservation Games and ehw for extensively researching this prototype. This prototype has a TON of changes in comparison to the final, and so it took a lot of work to find most of the differences (we even have a full playthrough on our YouTube channel so be sure to check it out!). Finally, we’d like to thank Sazpaimon for taking the time to dump the prototype for us and for his work on experimenting with different drives to dump prototypes with. We hope that this prototype was as interesting to you as it was to us, and hopefully, there are many, many, many more differences and discoveries left to be made!
Until we meet again, see you next time!
NOTE: The dump of this prototype was created using DiscImageCreator in accordance to Redump.org’s standards. This is so that the prototype will become accepted into Redump and be added to the Dreamcast set. As such, the prototype is in .bin/.cue format. Use something like GDIDrop to convert the prototype to .GDI, but most modern emulators can use the .cue just fine. More information about this and GD-Rs will be coming soon in an upcoming article. Please don’t bug emulator developers to get anything working, especially the creators of any private servers. Thanks!