A Look Back at PlayOnline

15 May 2020

Today in 2002, Square Enix’s first entry into the MMO genre, Final Fantasy XI, launched in Japan.

Major story-based updates for the still-operating MMO concluded with the release of Rhapsodizes of Vana’diel in November of 2015. Support for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 ended March 2016, leaving PC as the only place to log-in to Vana’diel.

For players past and present, there’s no denying the strong emotional attachment that many have with the title – myself included. And so for its eighteenth birthday, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at something that all FFXI players are familiar with: PlayOnline.

Every so often I find myself browsing YouTube to look at old promotional videos for FFXI and stumble upon what the company originally envisioned for PlayOnline. Today, most people know the PlayOnline Viewer as a glorified game launcher for Final Fantasy XI. In the early days, however, Squaresoft had very ambitious plans for it.

When some people hear “old promotional video for PlayOnline,” the above video is likely what comes to mind for some players that have stumbled upon it at one time or another. (There’s also another video set in Japan that may be lesser known)

In the above video, we can see several things that never quite made it into the final realization of the PlayOnline viewer. While there are a nice selection of music tracks built into the application itself, the ability to insert a memory card and listen to any of your own MP3s is a feature we never saw. Reading manga in the viewer is also a feature that never made it to release. However, sending messages to other players, as well as giving users an e-mail address, did make the cut.

The other element in the video – being able to look up an online strategy guide – is something that was experimented more with. The original Final Fantasy IX strategy guide from Bradygames is notorious for the amount of information it purposely didn’t include in the printed guide. Pages from the book were cluttered with small blue boxes saying “Want to know more? Use this keyword on PlayOnline!”

When booting up the original PlayStation 2 version of Final Fantasy X, players might remember the PlayOnline logo on the top of the screen. Early on in the development for FFX, the team planned on utilizing PlayOnline in order to provide an online strategy guide for players to access while they made their way through the game. Unfortunately, this feature never made it into the final release.

PlayOnline also allowed online play for other titles including Front Mission Online, Jong How Lo, Fantasy Earth Zero, Dirge of Cerberus, and Tetra Master. However, all of the above games have since ceased operation, leaving Final Fantasy XI as the only title using PlayOnline.

Currently, Final Fantasy XI, and by relation, PlayOnline, are set to operate until at least the 20th anniversary of FFXI. The team is currently planning a new story-based scenario for the title, wanting to do something “big” for the anniversary in 2022. Square Enix has also partnered with Nexon to create Final Fantasy XIR for mobile, though official details have been quite scarce since its announcement in March 2015.

Whatever the future holds, there’s no doubt that players who have explored Vana’diel at one time or another will continue to hold fond memories of their adventures. Final Fantasy XI has been, and will continue to be, an important part of many people’s lives.

Happy Birthday Final Fantasy XI!