My own story of why the highly anticipated Massively Multiplayer Online component of Phantasy Star Universe was a massive failure.
It all started when I first got the game. After shelling out a large sum of money for the PS2 release, an empty memory card to hold updates and a new PS2 network adaptor, I got online only to realize that I couldn't sign up for an account. I decided to put off signing up for a month, under the assumption that registration servers were overloaded. A month later I was still getting the same error.
We're sorry - an error has occurred
This transaction has been flagged as having a high risk and has therefore been rejected. This type of rejection is generally caused by incomplete of incorrect information, and so the first step should be to retry your purchase ensuring that you enter completely accurate information. If the problem persists, please contact customer services.
I followed the "incomplete of incorrect" instructions and retried my purchase with another credit card. And retried. And retried. After getting fed up, I searched for their elusive customer services. I found two forms, one on the PSU site and one on the SEGA site. I submitted my billing problem to each. After not receiving an answer for a few days, I submitted again and patiently waited.
PlaySEGA's Questionable Billing Errors
While waiting I searched the PSU forums and found out that several people had the same problem with purchasing accounts. By several, I mean several hundred.
I began to question how safe my information was with SEGA. Users on the forums complained that their credit cards were charged for every single purchase attempt, and there was no way to reverse it. This is horrible practice for people who have low credit, or are worried that their FICO score may be adversely affected.
Also from the forum posts, I learnt that the PC version of the game could easily be downloaded - for free. Since the game boxes did not contain any sort of registration key, PC players had the option of playing without having to buy the game. After having spent $70 on the game and then spending more to get the necessary accessories to play it, one can easily imagine my frustration.
The PSU support got back to me after a week and I received a seemingly automated email. According to the PSU forums, other users with the same error received the exact same email. The mail informed users in several words that, somehow, it must be their fault for trying to sign up and not a problem with the billing system. (Oh that? It's doing its job! Stopping ye fraudulent users from registering!) The mail also told users to "please refrain from attempting to register."
I didn't listen to the email and instead listened to the users on the PSU forums for better advice. They said to retry making an account after getting that generated email, and what the heck - it worked. If it wasn't for the forum users, I'd have been caught in an endless loop.
As for the SEGA Support, I sent a ticket on December 1, 2006. It is now January 29, 2007 and I finally received automated replies redirecting me back to PSU Support. Shadily enough, the emails came to me the day after I cancelled both my PSU accounts.
Repeating Old Mistakes
SEGA isn't new to the online gaming business. Before PSU's release, players loyal to the Phantasy Star franchise were reminded that the previous game's problems, in Phantasy Star Online, stemmed from players modifying their data offline. Since player data in PSU is stored online, the game was supposed to be much more safer.
During the first week of PSU's release it was nearly impossible to get online. That was if you were lucky enough to create a working account. There were no redundant server setups to handle the increased loads. This lack of common sense caused thousands of players to continually hammer the servers.
Not Enough Content
After the trials and tribulations of simply getting an account, I had considerable enjoyment creating characters. Little did I know that the level of character customization was the highlight of the online game.
Within less than a month of light playing, my friends and I on Universe 13 had soon experienced all the online game really had to offer. The offline game had many environments and modes of play, but the online mode restricted access to a small percentage of the content stored on the game disc. Everything boiled down to a handful of different looking environments, monsters and bosses. I could honestly count them off with my fingers. Online players would have to wait months before they could get access to content that was already there.
The online game also lacked several should-be obvious things to make gameplay smoother. In a game that requires a few thousand button presses to level up, a toggle for button spamming and an automatic walk function could have done wonders for tired thumbs. As well, conversation was annoying at best without a decently designed chat window. The chat window was huge and obtrusive, requiring shoulder buttons to simply open it.
You're probably wondering how PSU managed to snag numerous gushing reviews, or how PSU managed to become highly ranked among other online games. There's a simple, age old explanation for the phenomenon: people don't play the games they review.
Blaine, a player who reached the higher echelons of the game, knows best. "I can sum [PSU] all up in one word: waste," he says.
Hackers Rule the Universe
In the short time we played, my friends and I built up what we thought was a decent amount of meseta, the game's currency. We were able to buy most of what we needed and presents from the non-player shops. But no matter what we did, other people seemed to have meseta coming out of their ears or were asking for extravagant prices. It didn't take long to figure out why.
As with the previous PSO game, hackers and dupers are rampant. Items are being bought and sold at player shops for impossible prices. With all that unfairly generated money being introduced into the game's economy, most of it eventually trickles down into normal players' accounts.
So far, players have been banned from Phantasy Star Universe for publicly displaying hacks. Other than the ongoing massive online witch hunt that players are partaking in, there's little being done to put an end to the madness. The PC version had new security guards put in place that did nothing but slow the game down until it was unplayable, even for players with stellar hardware specs.
The End of Phantasy Star
If the shrinking server population was any indication, the end of PSU has been looming for some time. With content additions coming at a snail's pace, game security spinning out of control and SEGA being SEGA, the monetary support from subscribers will eventually dwindle until it's coming from the fistful of hackers and dupers who care to stay.
Online gamers have better options waiting for them.
Title: Phantasy Star Universe
Developer: Sonic Team
Platform: Playstation 2, PC, XBOX 360
Phantasy Star Universe