PlayOnline is an online gaming service created by Square Co. (now Square Enix) in January 28, 2000, and has been the launcher application and Internet service for many of the online PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 games the company publishes. Games hosted included Front Mission Online, Fantasy Earth: The Ring of Dominion, Tetra Master, and the Japanese releases of EverQuest II, Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII and JongHoLo.
The service hosted hundreds of thousands of players at its peak, and was one of the first cross-platform gaming services. It was shutdown during the 2011 earthquake in Japan for twelve days. The platform was also subjected to denial of service attacks and players attempting to cheat who were subsequently banned.
Starting with Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix began moving their online games off the service, and many of the social networking features the game was released with failed to catch on, with the service being described as "clunky". The termination date of service for Final Fantasy XI and PlayOnline for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 was March 2016, with only the PC version of Final Fantasy XI still supported.
PlayOnline was originally conceived as an all-in-one solution to house multiple types of game content. At the "Square Millennium" event in Japan on January 28, 2000, Square announced three Final Fantasy games, including Final Fantasy XI, to be released in the summer of 2001, and that Square had been working on an online portal called "PlayOnline" with Japanese telecom company NTT Communications, and would feature online games, chat, email, online comics, Internet browsing, online shopping, sports, and instant messaging. The service was first announced as costing ¥500 for monthly membership and a ¥1000 monthly user fee. Final Fantasy XI, then nicknamed "Final Fantasy Online", was the first game to use the online service. The WonderSwan Color portable gaming system was also planned to be able to connect to PlayOnline through an adapter connected to one of the PlayStation 2's USB ports. PlayOnline opened on June 6, 2000 to both Japanese and English speaking countries with news about upcoming software titles, interviews, and wallpapers. The site's merchandise included pieces from Parasite Eve, Vagrant Story, Chocobo Racing, Front Mission, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy.
PlayOnline was seen as part of Sony's strategy to turn the PlayStation 2 into an Internet set-top box. Accordingly, Sony brought broadband equipment and a hard drive to the PlayStation 2. The quality of the browser was noted in its "clean" graphics, excellent page layouts, and "high quality sound". The browser was not a general purpose Internet tool, but only accessed Square content, such as news about Square products and a comic-strip walkthrough of Final Fantasy XI.
Porting Final Fantasy XI to the Xbox proved difficult due to compatibility issues greater than was hoped for between Xbox Live and PlayOnline, likely because the latter was designed first. After negotiation, Xbox 360 players were able to play the game through PlayOnline's servers exclusively, despite Microsoft's initial wish that Square Enix would use its own platform. Downloadable content was also not available on the platform since the game played through PlayOnline. It was hoped that content would eventually be offered through the Xbox Live Marketplace. Final Fantasy XII started out as a game designed for the PlayOnline game platform.
Security and Outages
In February 2005, 800 players were banned from the card game Tetra Master and from Final Fantasy XI for monopolizing areas where high level items and monsters would spawn, making it impossible for other players to become stronger. In March 2009, Square Enix announced a new security system for players beginning April 6, 2009, involving a security token players could purchase for $9.99 and including an in-game bonus called a "Mog Satchel". On April 9, 2005, a distributed denial of service attack against PlayOnline's servers shut down Final Fantasy XI access for players in North America and Europe for three hours: the attack continued for over a week, leading Square Enix to involve law enforcement. At the time, Square Enix did not reveal if the Japanese server which hosted Front Mission Online, Fantasy Earth, and Japanese players of EverQuest II were affected.
After Japan's 2011 earthquake, Square-Enix, Co. Ltd. voluntarily disabled servers to conserve energy due to the incapacitated state of the region's nuclear power plant. This led to a temporary halt of the Final Fantasy XIV, Final Fantasy XI, and PlayOnline games and services from March 13 to 25. During the power shortage, air conditioning and lighting was reduced, and the subscription fees for Final Fantasy XI were waived for the month of April.
In June 2009, Square Enix announced they had decided not to use PlayOnline for Final Fantasy XIV due to the marked decrease of content on the service. Instead, they would migrate to a new service that still allowed cross-platform gameplay, including the use of a universal Square Enix ID that would allow players to play from wherever they left off. In June 2011, Square Enix announced that they would merge the account management portion of the PlayOnline service into Square Enix accounts from July 2011 and culminate on August 31, 2011. However, PlayOnline is still required in order to actually play Final Fantasy XI. Square Enix replicated the idea of the friends list from Final Fantasy XI in Final Fantasy XIV. The termination date of service for Final Fantasy XI and PlayOnline for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 was March 2016.
In December 2001, Square Enix projected it would have 250,000 users by the end of 2001, and 400,000 by year end 2002: the service charged $10 per person, and thus needed 200,000 participants to break even.
On January 7, 2004, Square Enix announced they had more than 500,000 registered users on the PlayOnline gaming service, and slightly under one million active players. In September 2004, Square Enix stated they had 1.2 million characters, with most players having two to three characters. In May 2005, Front Mission Online became the second game to utilize the service, retailing at ¥7,140 with a monthly subscription price of ¥1,344. In June 2009, a San Francisco, California resident sued Square Enix for "deceptive advertising, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment" from Final Fantasy XI, and sought a $5 million settlement.
Composer Nobuo Uematsu stated that Square's efforts to push forward with online gaming was important to the video game industry's development. The PlayOnline Viewer was criticized as being nothing more than a longer way to get to Final Fantasy XI's content. The game also had unmoderated chat rooms that ended up with explicit content. The interface was also described as "clunky", with "strange functional restrictions".
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