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The End of the Universe

As Phantasy Star Universe announces it will shut down its online service, I ponder how the game could have survived with a different business model.

Sega has recently announced that it will shut down the PC and PS2 for Phantasy Star Universe, a game I often played but never truly got into. Still, it's a shame that all my progress will be wiped away with the loss of the online-only character data. Online games losing in popularity and shutting down isn't that new a story, but when the game is actually pretty fun (at least, I think so) it seems worth considering what could have been done differently.

When I think of the 6-person-party instance-driven gameplay of Phantasy Star Universe, I'm immediately reminded of another MMORPG that suffered from poor subscription numbers but altered its business model and came back stronger than ever: Dungeons and Dragons Online. DDO's switch from subscription-only to a hybrid subscription/microtransaction system has made the game, arguably, more popular than ever. PSU probably couldn't reshape itself due to the limitations of being a PS2 game, but could the PC version be re-launched like DDO?

The basic premise I'd like to explore is the hybrid subscription/microtransaction model. Assume, for now, that the subscription option would remain much as the game is now, with all content unlocked to subscribers for the duration of their subscriptions. The question then turns to what could be done with the game in a free-to-play model: what is closed off, what is charged for, and how to charge players without alienating them.

Phantasy Star Universe has a lot of content that could be easily segmented and sold on a one-time-puchase basis. For example, the game features 3 basic classes (types) players can start the game with, and another 12 that can be unlocked by gaining sufficient pre-requisite levels. Each advanced type could be instead sold to Free-to-Play players for a one-time unlock fee, and "type bundles" could be made available as well. These would recoup one-time lost charges from not selling the game initially.

The main game is played across a selection of missions, most of which have four or five difficulty levels. The main route to monetization, it seems, lies in this mechanic. There are different approaches that could be taken: entire missions, with all their difficulty level, could be sold or "rented" to players, much like DDO's adventure pack sales. Alternatively - and I believe more successfully - difficulty levels could be sold for missions. For example, the lowest-level (C) rank of every mission might be free to all players, letting players see the missions in the game. But the higher ranks (B through S2) could be sold/rented, requiring players who want to get better items and more experience points to shell out some cash.

Vanity items could also be sold as microtransaction items. Clothing and hairstyles play a fairly significant role in Phantasy Star Universe; adding store-only exclusive items to make a character look different would certainly work well in this game. Likewise with exclusive furnishings for the player's apartment and even exclusive items to boost or change the appearance of the player's partner machine.

As for what should not be sold, DDO learned its lesson about not selling sigils that prevented players from gaining more than 4 levels at a time. Generally, basic mechanics that happen "as you go" (such as gaining XP and leveling up) shouldn't be tied to a microtransaction, as these can be confusing and frustrating for players, especially those not interested in microtransactions (yet!). Rather than hit a brick wall and be expected to pay (OH! You wanna be level 10? Pony up some cash!) the player should run out of free content at their own pace and their hunger for more lucrative content should drive them to start making microtransactions (This mission only gives me 1000 XP a run, but if I bought the next level of the mission I could get 1500 XP!).

Given that content is already so clearly separated in Phantasy Star Universe, applying a series of microtransaction gateways should be a relatively simple matter. Selecting the right prices for selling/renting passage through those gateways would be tricker; but if the prices were right, players would probably flock to the game (and to the item store).

Sadly, two major issues stand in PSU's path to revival: first, that it is a console ported game (a PS2 game ported to PC doesn't leave much room to rewrite the entire UI for microtransactions, especially if the PS2 version is to remain linked to the PC) and second, that it is a japanese ported game (a japanese to english translation doesn't leave much room for the english localization team to re-design the game and its content to fit a microtransaction model). Still, despite the practical limitations in actually converting PSU to a DDO-like business model, it remains an interesting case study for discussion on the possibilities of online game design and microtransaction/subscription hybrid models.

What do you think? Have you played Phantasy Star Universe? Do you think the game would suit a micro/sub hybrid model well? Where did PSU go wrong and could a change in business model have made the game successful?

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