Phasing Out PlayOnline

What started out as an idea to bring media, gaming and social tools into one platform has since turned into something that Square Enix doesn’t want to have to deal with anymore. PlayOnline and its PlayOnline Viewer launched alongside Final Fantasy XI over nine years ago and the service had a lot of promise behind it. You could chat with people interested in the same games as you, you could launch those games from the viewer and you could even send greeting cards, manage e-mail and account information and even read up about various aspects of your favorite PlayOnline titles. PlayOnline tried something new. It was before Steam, it was before Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network but Square Enix never truly ran with the original concepts seen in their promotional video of the service. It was the first of its kind in what it wanted to do, but somewhere the ball was dropped.

Only two titles ever saw their way into the PlayOnline menu of North American users: Final Fantasy XI and Tetra Master. The later of which ceased operations at the beginning of this year probably due to the fact that Square Enix never really updated the game to be comparable with newer operating systems and that after 8 years of operation, players were still forced to play in full screen mode. All of those reasons feed into the primary reason that the game was shut down- no one played it. OK that’s not entirely true, maybe ten people played it. In Japan however, the support for PlayOnline was much larger. In addition to Final Fantasy XI and Tetra Master, Japan also had Front Mission Online, Majong, Dirge of Cerberus (which didn’t even have an online component with its NA release) and oddly enough, EverQuest II. It was also going to play host to Fantasy Earth Zero… but we won’t get into that.

Apart from shutting down Tetra Master, there have also been other features of the PlayOnline viewer that have been shut down in recent years which begs the question “Is Square Enix getting rid of the PlayOnline Viewer?

The short answer that I would have to give is “yes”. And in many aspects, they already have.

Over the last couple of years updates have slowed down if not ceased all together for certain areas of the viewer. The most evident of which are the three adds seen on the bottom of the main screen. Adds for games that were released over three years ago. Another thing that stopped was the timed availability of greeting cards for certain Final Fantasy XI in game events such as the Sunbreeze Festival or the Starlight Celebration. The cards based on seasonal events were only available for a limited time and the last time I remember seeing these cards was for the Sunbreeze Festival in 2007.

Another feature that was removed at the beginning of this year was PlayOnline Plus, which would allow users to have a PlayOnline e-mail with their Final Fantasy XI character name as well as provide options for mail forwarding and a mail filter.

Today it was announced that starting at the end of July, Square Enix will be requiring all Final Fantasy XI players to transfer their PlayOnline ID to the Square Enix Account System. After the switch, players will be able to pay for their Final Fantasy XI accounts via Crysta in addition to a credit or debit card. And yes, if just using a card you’ll still have to worry about things like 3D Secure. It doesn’t look like you’ll be able to use the PlayStation 2 as a workaround any more.

With account management tools stripped out of the PlayOnline viewer, what else is there? And when I ask that I mean more in the way of “what else is there that people actually use and that Square Enix cares enough about to keep updated?”. The answer is “nothing”.

The PlayOnline viewer makes sense if you’re playing on a console. Back when this all came out it was more likely than it is today, that some households may have not had a computer. Today, everybody has a computer and because of that, Square Enix is migrating one of the most important features of the PlayOnline Viewer over to their online account system. Recently, Final Fantasy XI has been seeing small updates exclusive to the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game, bringing in higher resolution icons. Could it be possible that we’ll see a change in the future that trims off all the fat and removes a few mouse clicks from the log in process? Or could PlayOnline be removed altogether? For the consoles the first option seems like the easier solution, but can the same be said about the PC? Time will tell, but one thing is for certain, the PlayOnline Viewer would not be missed.