The Game Archaeologist: Who the heck are you and how did you first get into Phantasy Star Online? What class and race did you play?
David: I'm David Lambert, but many people know me better as Branick, host and producer of the LOTRO Academy podcast. I first got into Phantasy Star Online with the original Dreamcast release, which I picked up only about two weeks after it came out. I actually had eight different characters (I bought six VMUs in addition to the two I already had specifically for this purpose), but I definitely favored the HUcast. I wasn't big on using techniques, and the HUcast had the highest attack power in the game.
Yeebo: On the net I go by Yeebo, and I write the blog Yeebo Fernbottom's MMO Love In. I've been gaming as a hobby since the '80s both on the PC and consoles, though I've only been so vainglorious as to write about it for the last few years.
I first played PSO when it was released for the Dreamcast. I had been reading about it for months in these printed offline news sources called "magazines" we had back then. I loved the look of PSO and was absolutely foaming for an MMOish experience on a console. When I finally got to try it, PSO blew my already-high expectations out of the water. I mainly played a RACaseal, a robotic ranged DPS that looked kind of like a robot maid with a giant gun.
Patrick: Well, hello there. I am Patrick Mulhern, best known on the internet for video game journalism as iTZKooPA. I stumbled into PSO mainly because of its status as the first attempt at an MMOG (let the argument begin!) on a console. I was very unadventurous in my original character, a human Ranger, which ended up being the one I spent the most time with. Eventually, I had characters for each class.
David: I mostly played the original Dreamcast game, though I have played a bit of the GameCube release and Blue Burst for PC. I still prefer the original Dreamcast version, so yes, I would consider it the best, despite its flaws.
Yeebo: I've played it on the Dreamcast, the Gamecube, and the PC (PSO Blue Burst). Blue Burst was the definitive version. The storylines in missions were expanded to the point that they made sense, and it included a whole Episode (four new sets of dungeons) that weren't included in any of the other versions.
My personal favorite, however, was the GameCube version. The Dreamcast version was crippled by cheating. You could create rare items using an Xploder or the like to manipulate your save files and take them online. It absolutely destroyed the economy of the game. On the other hand, by the time Blue Burst came out, I had already played enough PSO for three lifetimes. The GameCube version didn't suffer from the rampant cheating of the DC version (though there was some) and came along before I had burned out on the basic gameplay.
Patrick: My most substantial playtime was on the Dreamcast. I was part of the small subset that bought a broadband adapter for my GameCube and enjoyed the extra content, Episodes I & II, on the little 'Cube. Because I am an idiot, I also purchased the game for Xbox and PC, but I never really played either. I think the PC version is still in the shrink wrap.
The community was definitely the best on the Dreamcast, both in terms of official Sega support and the playerbase. The extra content and the availability of a Wavebird wireless controller made the GameCube enjoyable for a time.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of PSO?
David: I still consider PSO to be the best Diablo clone ever made. It took the structure of Diablo, combined it with the Phantasy Star universe, and gave it third-person action controls and fluid combat. The classes all played differently yet were fairly balanced. Evolving Mags and unlocking photon blasts was fun as well. Perhaps PSO's biggest strength was the ability to play the same character both online and offline, something Diablo never allowed.
As for weaknesses, I know of only three. The most obvious was the Gameshark hacking that went on, but despite the horror stories, this was relatively easy to get around simply by password-protecting your games and playing with people you trust. I even started a website (built with the Dreamcast web browser) with an email group to help members set up games. In addition to that, I was in a Dreamcast gaming clan with over 300 members. Though I was aware of the problems with "hacking," they never really affected me or my friends.
The other weaknesses were the limit of one character per VMU and the game's storage of the serial key (required to play online) in the system's flash memory, the latter of which could be accidentally erased by running certain software, including version 1.0 of the Dreamcast web browser. Sega would happily unlock the key with only a toll-free phone call, though, so it wasn't that big of a deal. It was a rare problem anyway, since most people used at least version 2.0 of the browser. I only used 1.0 to test for compatibility since I used my Dreamcast to build websites.
Yeebo: I'll start with some weaknesses: There were essentially only eight sets of dungeon levels, 16 if you want to count the high-level versions (with different harder monsters from then low-level ones) separately. Further, the dungeons were not balanced well in terms of mob density and loot per run. Running only the "best" dungeons could get really repetitive.
The overall power that you plateaued at felt a bit weak in proportion to the strength of the toughest monsters. It was very much a case of "getting weaker by getting stronger," where level 60+ monsters that dropped level-appropriate gear seemed to just take ages to kill, particularly if you were playing solo.
Offensive magic always felt a bit weak to me. A really good weapon did more damage than just about any spell and cost zero mana to use. It hardly seemed fair to the dedicated casters.
There was a lack of server-side saves in most versions of the game. Until the PC version, players were allowed to go online with characters that used data stored locally. You can imagine how well that turned out.
The strengths would be just about every other aspect of the game. Particular items that come to mind: The Diablo-style "murder monsters for random loot" gameplay was incredibly addictive. That alone has sucked me into countless Rogue-likes over the years (I wouldn't want to speculate how many hours I've wasted on Angband, for example).
The fact that there were shared lobbies where you could see dozens of players hanging out and chatting made the game feel very MMOish. It was largely an illusion. Apart from chatting, all you could do in groups of more than four was play an oddball soccer minigame. Even so, in both the DC and GC versions strong communities developed and I made friends. I've played more than one true MMO without getting to know anyone.
The graphics were very good for the time, mainly due to the art direction. The designs of the environments, the weapons, and the monsters were all very interesting. The system for customizing your character's appearance was also really good. In my opinion it was unsurpassed (and unequaled) in any online game until City of Heroes launched.
The way that different weapons handled added a lot to the combat. Each class of weapons had a very distinct rhythm to it.
The MAG system was also really neat. By feeding your MAGs consumables, you could evolve them into all sorts of weird shapes and customize your character's stats. It took ages to max one out, but it was really rewarding to finish one with just the right stats.
Patrick: The biggest strength was what drew me in: the innovative idea and risk-taking to attempt an MMOG on a console. Let us not forget the lack of a subscription fee. The solid graphics and dungeon farming gameplay only made it that much more enticing to my high school brain. The co-op mode allowed me to include vaguely interested friends, which was another selling point. It wasn't until after I had joined that I realized the factor that keeps so many players in their selected titles: the community and camaraderie.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned co-op mode (and the lack of Dreamcast's security in general) ended up a double-edged sword. The gateway to hacks and exploits led to immense trolling and a destruction of in-game loot value. For a title that's all about the shinies, this killed the main lure for me. Twice. Make no mistake -- cheating does ruin games.
David: There are so many! I really can't narrow the list down to less than two, so I hope that's OK. Probably the highlight of my time in PSO was when I met one of the developers in-game. A representative from Sega contacted me and a couple of other prominent community members prior to the announcement of PSO version 2 for Dreamcast to find out what we would like to see changed about the game. It was so long ago that I don't remember much of it clearly, but we chatted for a couple of hours in a private game.
I do remember that one of the features I asked for was a way to switch weapons quickly. Shortly after that chat ended, we all went our separate ways. The feeling I had when playing PSO Version 2 for the first time and seeing this feature implemented exactly as we had asked for is one of my favorite gaming memories from any game ever. I can't adequately describe it, but "bliss" probably comes the closest.
My other favorite memory comes from my very first time playing the game. I jumped right to playing online and was lucky enough to meet a group of players that needed a fourth. The thing that really sticks out, though, was that one of them said at the beginning of one run that we were going to play "Christmas," to which the other guys agreed and explained the rules to me. We'd systematically work our way through the level, killing everything except the boss and leaving all the loot behind. Only when all the enemies had spawned and been defeated, would the leader yell, "It's Christmas! Time to open your presents!" and we'd all race back through to the beginning of the level, each taking our own paths picking up as much loot as we could on the way to meet up back at the entrance. I'll never forget how they taught me to make my own fun. It's something I continue to do in games to this day.
Yeebo: Probably the first time I took down Dark Falkis. That's an insane boss fight. You get to the final boss of the hardest launch dungeon and take him down after what seems like a pretty tame fight. "Hmm, that wasn't so bad." Then you get transported to a new area where the real fight begins.
Patrick: PSO doesn't have a defining moment for me. There was no downing Ragnaros or last-man-standing PvP event that I recall. Perhaps it was just too long ago. But I still have fond memories of my time thanks to the community and the crazy way we managed to communicate without keyboards and across language barriers. That feature's success could be a psychological dissertation, in my opinion.
David: PSO 2 looks to be an MMO rather than a Diablo clone, so I don't expect it to be the same. I know lots of people enjoyed the PSO Episodes added to the GameCube and Xbox releases, as well as to Blue Burst for PC, but I always found they felt too different structurally from PSO. I liked having the single hub of Pioneer 2, with the clear progression from Forest to Caves to Mines to Ruins. Phantasy Star Universe introduced its own problems. But with Phantasy Star Zero for DS, I finally got a PSO sequel that actually felt like PSO, if a bit limited by its hardware.
Now, I'm intriqued by PSO 2. From the trailers I've seen, it looks like it could be a really fun MMO. I think I'm ready to see what PSO would like like as an MMO, as long as it embraces it and doesn't try too much to be like PSO mechanically. The genres don't mix. Afterall, PSO didn't try too hard to be like the original Phantasy Star games, which I also love, and it worked out well.
Yeebo: I do plan to try it. What I'd really like to see is a true sequel to PSO. Phantasy Star Universe included some interesting ideas but really honed the core mechanic of PSO: murdering monsters for loot. Instead of weapons and armor, in PSU monsters dropped a lot of useless knick-knacks you could potentially craft into weapons... but only if you spent weeks screwing with a crafting minigame in your apartment. The easiest way to get a good weapon was to save up money and buy one in a store. As long as the core gameplay is "kill monsters for phat lewt," I think PSO 2 will be a hard game for Sega to screw up.
Patrick: You better believe PSO 2 is on my radar! And not just because I covered the announcement or want to wax nostalgic (or be an old grouch) in the related world. I want to be back in a sci-fi MMORPG cutting down droves of bad guys while searching for incremental upgrades with a small group of friends. Here's to hoping the story gets a little more attention this time.
What would you say is PSO's greatest legacy for the MMO genre?
David: Considering that I consider PSO not an MMO but an action RPG a la Diablo, I would say that PSO's legacy would come in the form of players -- those of us who, like me, experienced online roleplaying for the first time in PSO and found that we loved online roleplaying games more than we thought possible. You hear similar stories from gamers with PCs at the time who started with Diablo II. For those of us with a Dreamcast, we had PSO. It wasn't an MMO, but it gave us a taste and an incentive to seek out something with more substance.
Yeebo: I think it demonstrated that if executed well, a pretty simple design can make for a really engaging and addictive experience. It was Diablo in space with a few MMO elements tacked on. But it still kept me entertained for hundreds of hours and spawned thriving online communities across multiple platforms.
Patrick: Phantasy Star Online's greatest legacy is easy -- it came out. On three consoles and PC, no less. In all the years since, we gamers have seen over a dozen titles be slated for console release only to become vaporware. Outside SOE titles and Final Fantasy, I can't think of a single release to make it to market off the top of my noggin. I suspect the comments will prove me wrong in short order.
Thank you both for taking the time to share these thoughts with us! Next week we'll be revisiting a previous game from this column that's run into a sticky situation indeed.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.