Phantasy Star Online 2 expands to North America using Azure
This July, "Phantasy Star Online 2" (PSO2), Japan's largest online RPG, will be celebrating its 8th anniversary of the PC version release. SEGA Games is currently working on an Xbox One version for North America, which they hope will be released Spring, 2020.
In addition to this, Microsoft Japan, who are actively engaging with the gaming industry through Microsoft Azure, have offered support such as the construction of a high-speed cloud platform by providing Azure Ultra SSD (known as Ultra Disks at the time), their fastest storage solution, from the start of development, and have provided comprehensive support for "PSO2" by supporting the team in a number of ways during the development of the Xbox version.
We invited Mr. Takaya Segawa, Executive Creative Officer of SEGA Games, and Mr. Norimichi Yonekura, General Manager of Microsoft Japan's Games and Entertainment Sales Division, to talk about why they decided to collaborate in the expansion of "PSO2" into the North American market, the development concept and more.
First, please introduce yourself.
Segawa: I'm Segawa from SEGA Games. I joined SEGA Games as a designer in 1992. After working as a director and producer, and as manager of the development division for sports-related games such as "Sakatsuku" ("Let's make a professional soccer team") and "Yakyutsuku" ("Let's make a professional baseball team"), I currently supervise business as the IP owner of PSO2 and other properties.
Yonekura: I'm Yonekura from Microsoft. I joined Microsoft in 2001, and have worked on Xbox-related projects for many years. Right now, our company is broadening its gaming scope beyond just Xbox and is hoping to engage with the the gaming industry as a whole. I have overseeing Azure cloud utilization within the gaming industry since last year.
Segawa: I've worked with Microsoft on several projects over the years, for example on Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta. Even back then it felt right to be working together.
Tell me a little bit about "PSO2," the latest game to make use of Azure.
Segawa: PSO2 is one of the largest online games in Japan, and this July will be the 8th anniversary of its launch. The game was originally for PC, but is now available on PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and even Nintendo Switch as a cloud game. There is also a smartphone app, "PSO2es," which acts as a companion tool connected to the main game, and is made to be played anytime, anywhere. This title is an action-filled MORPG with a mainly science-fiction setting, but with different episodes that allow you to enjoy a variety of worlds based on earth, medieval fantasy and more.
Yonekura: After I saw the fan reaction when the video was shown at E3 2019, I thought I might burst into tears. The excitement of the fans made me happy, and since I had been anticipating the E3 announcement since I started this project with Mr. Segawa, seeing it actually happen made me really happy.
Segawa: That was really touching. I got all choked up. The "Phantasy Star" series has always been popular with North American gamers, so we were always planning on bringing PSO2 to North America. I was so glad that there was such a great response.
What can you tell me about the reason for using Azure on this title?
Segawa: We started out operating PSO2 on-site, but we had always planned on moving to a cloud-based solution for the North American release. The biggest reason for this was the issue of scalability. There are more gamers in North America than there are in Japan. It is hard to estimate how many people will want to play PSO2, so we decided to use a cloud-based server in order to avoid having people wanting to play the game but being unable to. That was when we started considering Azure.
Yonekura: When it comes to the adoption of Azure, you could say that Microsoft made the first move. While AWS (Amazon Web Service) and GCP (Google Cloud Platform) are more well known in game development, Azure is a new challenger to the space. It's true that a few years ago, Azure wasn't optimized for gaming applications, but now I'm happy to say that we can compete on the same level and more compared to the other platforms. And while the quality of our platform has evolved, we need more developers to see and hear what we can do. We realized that we needed a big title to showcase the progress that we'd made. When Phil Spencer, the Executive Vice President of Gaming, came to Japan and said, "let's release PSO2 for the Xbox overseas!" I thought, "this is our opportunity!" and accelerated the strategy to use PSO2 as that showcase.
I believe you looked into other cloud server solutions besides Azure. What made you decide that Azure was the best option?
Segawa: Of course, we looked into other services, but Microsoft's proposal was the best for the game overall from the support and business perspectives.
Looking at it from a global point of view, Azure is actually used by many game titles. The feedback from companies outside of Japan was good, and when I looked at the benchmarks and saw the results it has accumulated, it was really the only choice.
For us, the most important point was, "Can we achieve a high-speed environment with Azure? Can it offer the same performance as a server on the premises?" North America is larger than Japan, so we tested whether users could play without delay and with good responsiveness several times, just to make sure.
"The feedback from companies outside of Japan was good, and when I looked at the benchmarks and saw the results it has accumulated, [Azure] was really the only choice" - Takaya Segawa, Executive Creative Officer of SEGA Games
Yonekura: At that time, from SEGA Games' point of view, there was no reason why it had to be Azure. However, unlike the competition we have years of experience offering game services as a gaming platform, not only with Azure as a back-end server, but also with Visual Studio as a development environment and with our Xbox division. To be more specific, we are the only company that can provide omni-directional business-to-business support, such as our various technologies and services used in SEGA Games' internal operations, which is our key strength. Only we can make that type of proposal, and I think it is something that sets us apart from the competition. I believe this was included in their overall deliberations.
Segawa: In that sense, they helped us localize the product. PSO2 is basically a Play to Win game. It is not a game where you can gain an advantage immediately just by paying money. This system may be unfamiliar to gamers in countries where Pay to Win is more common, and it may even cause them to wonder, "why am I not progressing, even though I paid money?" My thinking was that, "fun is something that we all have in common." Unexpectedly, as I have found out through experience, that is not necessarily true. That's why I wanted to thoroughly investigate how North American users played the game during the beta testing. And with the help of Microsoft, which has a base in the United States and a wealth of know-how in the industry, we were able to carry out proper user testing with local gamers. Also, since Microsoft is also a games company, their ability to cooperate with using a variety of ways was also a great benefit.
So their system had overall benefits that only a game company could offer. When you actually made the transition, did the introduction of Azure into your game go smoothly?
Segawa: Yes, it did. We didn't have any problems, and in just a few days we ran a test and got a report that there were no problems.
Yonekura: I think we were able to move from the on-site server without any problems thanks to SEGA Games' technical ability. We provided them with our top engineers, and our Azure development team from the head office was also on hand to offer support. At that time, Ultra SSD was still in its preview stage. PSO2 was the first case of it being used for a game.
Segawa: The SEGA Games developers love new things, so they were happy to introduce this new system into their workflow. So far, the speed has been excellent.
Yonekura: Ultra SSD supports up to 160K IOPS per disk and achieves low latency of less than 1ms. This is the highest standard of specification out of all our competitors, and it performed very well with PSO2.
Segawa: Ultra SSD was really high-spec! The service isn't live yet, so we don't know how it will actually perform, but it has been extremely fast in testing, and I think it's going to be great. It feels like switching from driving a regular car to a sports car.
I'm looking forward to seeing the response after the service starts. Lastly, do you have a message for other companies who are considering Azure?
Yonekura: As I have said from the beginning, Azure is currently in the position of the challenger in the Japanese gaming industry. That is why it is all the more important that we deal with each company sincerely, and offer not only our cloud server, but the omni-directional service that they can only get from Microsoft, utilizing all of our technologies, products and services. We want to continue to release showcase products like PSO2.
Segawa: I also often have the chance to talk to representatives of online game development companies from around the world, and I get the impression that more and more titles are starting to use Azure. Of course, Microsoft will say, "Azure is great!", but the reviews from development companies who have used it are also very good. My main priority now is to continue working with Microsoft to introduce Azure into our systems and make the North American release of PSO2 a success.
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