Phantasy Star II – 1989 Developer Interview
In this interview from the 9/89 issue of BEEP! MegaDrive, several Sega executives (as well as the anonymous planners “Osar” and “McAustin”, not pictured) discuss the broader logistical hurdles behind the launch of Phantasy Star II, one of the MegaDrive’s early marquee titles. While little is said about the contents of the game itself, the interview provides some insight into the higher-level coordination required to turn a promising title into a hit.
—How did the plan for Phantasy Star II come into being?
Sega: Once the reviews and sales started coming in for Phantasy Star, and they were good, we started talking about making a part II. At that point we held a contest for players to submit their story ideas, and with that as our base, we officially got the project started. Normally, we get our ideas from the developers, who say “I want to do such and such this time”, or there are directions from the higher-ups about what kind of game to make. Development for Phantasy Star II took about a year, starting from that contest.
—Was there any talk of releasing it on the Sega Mark III, like the previous game?
Sega: We made Phantasy Star II with almost the same staff from the original, but unlike the previous development, there was a ton of pressure this time to make the first RPG for the new Megadrive hardware. We wanted to contend with the new possibilities opened up by the Megadrive. To that end, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the game even more “Phantasy Star”-ish than before. We abandoned the 3D dungeons due to memory constraints, but in turn I think we were able to do more fully realized enemy animations.
—What was the pressure like, once you got down to brass tacks and started the development?
Sega: Insane. We didn’t want to sully the name of the original game, and we received lots of letters and phone calls from fans that really added to the pressure. On top of that, if we focused too much on making the perfect game, we’d end up going overbudget. At one point we did recieve orders from management to revise the design and development plan so Sega could sell it cheaper. But we talked, and convinced them we’d come up with something really good by the deadline… We said we’d already come so far, there was no turning back.
—Is it common for revisions to happen in the middle of a production…?
Sega: At Sega, once the greenlight has been given for the initial plan/concept, a project team is formed. That’s when the basic parts of the game go from being a theoretical idea on paper to something real on the screen. At this point, we pause and ask some crucial questions: does this game look too much like another company’s…? Is it easy to play…? Frankly, you can see about 80% of the finished game’s appeal at this point, and whether it will just be average, or if it will easily exceed that. In bad cases, we sometimes even halt the development here.
—You pause it to revise the planning documents to make the game better, you mean?
Sega: That’s right. Although games that require too many revisions generally don’t turn out very well. By the way, you said “revise the planning documents”, but technically that’s not a 100% accurate description of things. There are some projects at Sega, for instance, that don’t actually have planning documents—sometimes the developers just keep working out their ideas until a game gradually takes shape. What’s important, after all, isn’t a specific process so much as the final result being fun.
—I see. Once that check is done, then, is it an all-out push to the finish line?
Sega: No. Once the game is more-or-less playable, we again do a quality check. In the case of Phantasy Star II, everything proceeded very smoothly. Well, relatively.
—Are there any other major hurdles after that…?
Sega: At that point, we’re about 80% done. So usually at this point we have a good estimate of when the game will go on-sale. But with Phantasy Star II, by this point, we only announced that it was in production.
—And from there it was just a race against time, I imagine.
Sega: Yeah, exactly. Phantasy Star II was supposed to be 4Mb, then it at some point it expanded to 6. And the latter half of the development only had 10 or 12 people working on it. Of course, in technical terms as well, we didn’t want to ruin the reputation of the first game, or release anything that looked like a half-baked effort.
—And finally, the master rom is completed. Then the work is done?
Sega: Not quite. It’s a different department, but the debugging and packaging work still remains. Those are the last parts.
After that, we put our faith in the finished software and quickly turn to production. Do you guys remember what happened with Phantasy Star II, though? There was a semiconductor shortage right when it was supposed to go on sale, and what a mess that caused. We really scrambled and put a lot of effort into securing an adequate supply of chips. Somehow or other, we made it.
—And from there, the game went on-sale?
Sega: First, we checked the games that were returned from the factory line. We don’t want to hand players a bad product and be put in a bad mood, so we carefully inspect every aspect of the product, point by point. Sometimes games get damaged in transit though, but sadly there’s not much we can do about that.
—Wow, no wonder Sega is such a trusted company! It’s kind of amazing that such a complex product, produced in such mass quantities, has no defects.
Sega: Again, we feel that we can only announce and market our games once we can deliver a product that users can trust 100%.
—And how did the announcement and marketing go for Phantasy Star II?
Sega: We wanted to capitalize on the name value of Phantasy Star first and foremost. That’s why we did some earlier, “soft PR” in the form of the story contest we held for Phantasy Star II. We also put a lot of effort into magazine features/ads to introduce players to the game.
—For the developers, what was it like to have the game introduced in magazines before it was finished?
Sega: It was a big encouragement for us, as you can imagine. But sometimes there would be a time lag in our communications with the magazines, and game content and events that we ultimately ended up cutting would get featured by mistake.
It’s all in good spirit though. For Phantasy Star II, we also had that huge pressure on us. We were really happy that so many people were looking forward to the game, but we were acutely aware of it.
—What other kind of advertising did you do for Phantasy Star II?
Sega: Normally, we would advertise in game-specific magazines like BEEP. But this time, we traded on the name value of Phantasy Star and aimed for a wider audience. We put out feelers with stuff like the story contest, and even put ads in general magazines.
—Were you trying to tap into that audience that doesn’t necessarily read game magazines, but would be interested in PSII?
Sega: That’s right. We wanted to challenge ourselves with the general, unspecified masses, not just the subsection of them that comprises hardcore gamers and fans. If we can hit with that it will be huge, and we believe Phantasy Star II is a game that could take us there.
—By the way, I noticed the setting for Phantasy Star II takes place in the same Algol system, this time on Motavia.
Sega: Yeah, I know it sounds like a straight sequel when you say it like that, but it actually takes place 1000 years later. The story is that the people of Motavia, who have become too used to peace, no longer know how to fight the biomonsters. Despair hangs over everyone’s head. That sets the stage for the appearance of our hero, Yushis (Rolf), an agent of the Motavian government, and the several companions he meets along the way.
—This is a bit of a tangent, but did you do any PR/marketing outside of the players, to wholesalers and such?
Sega: Yes, it’s something that most of the general public isn’t aware of, but we do a lot of PR work with the wholesaler merchants. In fact, we did more work than usual there for Phantasy Star II. For a 6Mb game, we also lowered the price as much as we could. I don’t think we’ve ever had as difficult a time setting the price for a game as we did with Phantasy Star II, actually. In fact, I’m not sure we actually made a profit off it…
—But by the same token, a really good response for Phantasy Star II would mean a lot of hardware sales for the Megadrive, right?
Sega: Yeah, that’s definitely true. It’s always best if you can create a flagship game that really leads hardware sales. “I want to play X game so I’m going to buy Y hardware!” —without that formula, you won’t see much growth in hardware sales. We won’t lose to our rivals!
—Finally, how did it feel when Phantasy Star II was finally released?
Sega: From the sales side, we were happy we had been able to put a sequel worthy of the first game, and one that all the players loved.
For the developers, they were relieved that it was, in fact, a hit. They had been able to include the things they had wanted to include in the first game, and fans were pleased. It felt like we had created something that would now be able to stand on its name and reputation alone. Well, we would have liked to include 3D dungeons, but we’d like to bring them back in the future.
—Will that be in Phantasy Star III, then?
Sega: Hah, no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, the response to Phantasy Star II has been very big, and there have been voices hoping for a sequel. We’re thinking we’ll do some planning soon, but nothing has progressed past that yet.
—How about the player response, how has it been?
Sega: Since the day of release, the phones at Sega have been ringing non-stop, and with each passing day it gets more crazy. Almost all of them are people saying “Help, I’m stuck here and don’t know what to do!” Weirdly enough, they all seem to get stuck at the same place!
To help them, we’ve made a sort of Q&A manual to help answer those questions. About a month later, we started getting calls from people saying “I did it!”
—Wait, they actually called to report to you they figured it out?
Sega: Yeah. Those calls always make us so, so happy. It’s one of the joys I don’t think you can get in a normal line of work, you know? It’s because of experiences like that, that we’re able to gather up our strength for the next development, even though we know it’s going to be another challenge.
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