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How Phantasy Star Online 2 plans to become an international free-to-play success

Phantasy Star Online 2 has been out for Windows in Japan since last July, but the real party's only getting started. iOS and Android launches are slated to launch soon, with a U.S./Europe launch and a PS Vita version due in 2013-all available for quick and easy download. Why? Because the game's free-to-play, arguably one of the biggest online role-playing games to go this route.

"The biggest goal here was to broaden the reach of the game," producer Satoshi Sakai told Famitsu magazine this week. "PSO itself was a project that got its start because we wanted to expand the online scene in Japan, and it's always been a series that tries to stay at the forefront of online gaming. PSO2 is the culmination of that, and we decided that going with this style would make the game more accessible and help make online gaming in general more recognized."

This F2P approach must have been pretty hard for some of Sega's board to accept, especially given the lengthy history behind the franchise. "There was some of that, of course, but more people were willing to accept it than we thought," Sakai replied. "That's partly because we want to spread the PSO IP wider, and partly because F2P is seen as becoming the mainstream in this market. The worry, though, was whether we'd really be able to make back our development costs that way."

"The fact is that we didn't have any statistical evidence to back us up," added director Yuya Kimura. "We've been making online games all this time and have experience with the monthly-fee system, so we can broadly predict that we'll be all right, but if you ask me what I really think... I mean, we could get figures together for a typical online game and work from there, but that's not really proof there."

The results so far? Not too shabby, at least by the somewhat low standards of the Japanese PC game scene. "PSO2 broke a million IDs the other day," Sakai said. "Right now it's at around 1.15 million. We've got around 300,000 active users monthly. We give each update its own title and divide each one into two or three sections, which we launch at a rate of twice a month."

So how does PSO2 make its money? Broadly, with two different offerings: lottery tickets called "scratches" that you can purchase to win things like avatar clothing and item stat boosters; and access to personal rooms and item storehouses. In other words, not much that affects the game itself.

"The main [income] source is the scratches," Kimura explained. "PSO2 is a game with a heavy character creation element and users really put a lot of care into them, so there's a big demand for avatar clothing and accessories. It's also a game centered around collecting items, and some of the scratches have items that enhance other items or give them special abilities, so a lot of people want those."

"It's always been our policy to keep the for-pay elements separate from the gameplay," Sakai added, "so it's definitely our plan to make our money via avatars and so on. The pay-for-avatar-goods system was something we also did in Phantasy Star Universe, so in that respect we predicted it would be a success."

And it has been, so far. Most of Sega's revenue is coming from the scratch tickets, although the company is still trying to attract a bigger audience with the game overall-by Sakai's estimation, 70 to 80 percent of current players are experienced with previous PSO titles.

Sega may have high expectations for the upcoming international and iOS/Android releases, but that doesn't mean Sakai thinks a ton of Japanese companies will follow in their footsteps, producing F2P games on AAA budgets. "I think there will be more, but I'm not sure we'll be seeing them on the dedicated consoles," he said. "What I think we'll see is more on non-consoles, of course, and these titles getting more core-gamer oriented. However, if you run the sort of pay cycle you see in current social games to try and cover your costs, you're going to turn off users and cut down the whole size of the industry. You have to retain the core fun while building your F2P system, and that's a tough question for any of us. It's a problem the industry has to tackle as a whole."