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Importing

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Importing is a self-explanatory process name - the act of shipping in a copy of (in this instance) a game from another region. This article is currently mainly about European and Australian players importing the American release of the game.

Contents

Basic Details

General Reasons

There are often many reasons for importing, two of the most important being:

  • Time - Getting the game earlier than their region's street date.
  • Price - Often the retail price in America is so much cheaper than European countries that importing (including additional shipping costs) is cheaper than buying it locally.

Release Dates

The given (relevant) street dates for Phantasy Star Universe (for all platforms) are as follows:

  • North America (U.S. and Canada): October 24th, 2006.
  • Europe: November 24th, 2006.
  • Australia: November 30th, 2006.
    • Was originally October 24th as North America, but this date was set back towards the start of October.

PSU-Specific Reasons

In Phantasy Star Universe's case, it has been known for some time that the US and European players will share servers in the game's Network Mode, which many would argue to be the most important part of the game. As such, this creates additional reasons to import:

  • Without importing, many European (among others) players would essentially be "handicapped" when compared with players from the United States.
  • If the game is to implement the known Halloween Seasonal Event this year, players not from North America would also need to import to be able to partake in the event, or be forced to wait until late 2007.

Region-Free

The PC version of Phantasy Star Universe is naturally region-free, and since PCs contain no form of region-locking, there were never any fears about this. However, importers of the console versions of Phantasy Star Universe had reason to worry as both contain some form of region-locking.

PS2

The PS2 has region-locking for all games. Widely known about, it is expected that knowledge of this cut the number of PS2 importers. However, it is known that some people have imported the PS2 version, and believed that those who have done so are intending to use dubious methods such as chipped consoles or "region loader" CDs to get around this barrier.

Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 version is region free. Testers at Lik-Sang first confirmed that they were able to play a copy of U.S. Phantasy Star Universe on a test European Xbox 360, and this discovery was later supported by many 360-using importers. As most of Sega's Xbox 360 games in the past were region-free, this wasn't a massive surprise, however.

It is of interest that the payment method for Phantasy Star Universe was added early, and anyone with an Xbox Live "Silver Account" or greater could see and buy the option for an Xbox 360 GUARDIAN's License in their Marketplace. This included European accounts, and as such it would have been easily possible to play Network Mode immediately after importing.

Specifics

Though many had proclaimed their intention to import, some people didn't even know where to start, or which options to consider. This topic (pages 1-9) from the PSO-World.com "PSU General" forum appears to be the only thread for the purpose of discussing this.

Import Sites

Mostly shared within this forum thread, the most known import sources are as follows:

Video Games Plus

[1] Canadian-based, this was the most-discussed import site. References given were usually praising, as standard delivery time - which the website notes as "1-14 business days" - has been cited by past customers to be "around 4-7 days", a claim also mentioned by customer service on occasion. Standard shipping costs about $13 CDN (about $12), contrary to the claim that "USA & International shipping rates are $6.99 CDN per game title."

"VG+" also offers a DHL Courier shipping service which advertises a delivery time of "2-3 days with tracking" at the cost of $29.99 CDN (about $26.99). Buyers desiring this shipping method must specifically ask for it using the order's comment box. This courier service has received mixed reviews from past buyers, some adamant that every DHL purchase they know of has been inspected by import customs and hit by noteworthy import taxes.

One notable advantage for VG+ is their wide range of payment methods, including PayPal.

It has also been claimed by a few buyers and customer service that orders are labelled as "gift" in order to avoid import charges at customs.

Import Madness

[2] Another oft-mentioned import service. However many people cite poor previous experience such as slow delivery times or lazy customer support.

Import Madness also offers two shipping methods (AIR MAIL and 5 DAY AIR MAIL), though the price of these is not noted until order. Orders over 2kg (which Phantasy Star Universe alone is not) are automatically shipped via DHL instead, with a tracking number.

This site acceps a large range of credit/debit cards, but not PayPal.

For a while after cancelling all existing orders for Phantasy Star Universe, you could not import the game from Import Madness. You can now, but they do provide a warning about the card issues detailed later.

Lik-Sang

[3] Though rarely-mentioned, this well-known business was chosen by a few people. Offered a UPS or EMS Speedpost (with tracking) or standard airmail (without), and numerous payment methods including PayPal.

Unfortunately Lik-Sang were forced out of business due to multiple Sony Lawsuits on the day of Phantasy Star Universe's release. It is assumed that all orders made by importers were cancelled and refunded.

Play-Asia

[4] Similar to Lik-Sang in nature, the popular international shipping group offer UPS/EMS Speedpost shipping (with tracking) and standard airmail (without), and accept the same payment methods as Lik-Sang.

The major flaw with this seller was that they only had the PS2 format of the U.S. version listed. This is true as of October 27th, 2006. Furthermore, despite cheap shipping costs compared to other options, the game itself was/is listed at $65, making the option somewhat unappealing.

eBay

[5] Many people simply chose to buy through resellers on eBay. Reasons for this could include the ease at which this is possible (no need to find a website retailer that handles international shipping and non-U.S. payment methods).

Not much can be said about the details, as shipping methods and times, tracking, and costs all differ from auction to auction.

HMV.co.uk and Incorrect Release Dates

[6] UK retailer HMV for a long period listed Phantasy Star Universe (all platforms) as having a UK launch date of October 24th, breaking the given release date by one month. This, paired with non-overseas postage for UK residents, was appealing enough to gain a few orders.

On being informed about this, many importers discarded the seller as a possibility by believing that the date listed was a mistake on the website. This was later proven true, as at some point around the 24th/25th the date was changed to the UK street date of November 24th.

It is unknown if the people who had ordered the game before this changed were notified of the update or offered cancellation due to the mistake.

Release Day Woes

The much-anticipated release day was met with many woes for everyone. Locally, it has been reported that only 1000 or so users were able to find the game and join Network Mode on this first day, as many United States stores had either yet to receive the game, or were not planning to stock it until the 25th.

This pales in comparison to startling new information revealed to importers, however.

Changes

Shortly into the 24th of October PlaySEGA, Sega's billing system for Phantasy Star Online and Universe, went "down for maintenance". At around 1pm GMT the billing system returned and the official Phantasy Star Universe website was given a significant update to include far more information including an improved FAQ section.

Almost immediately some importers had discovered that they could not start a new subscription to Phantasy Star Universe, and that users who had a "United States" PlaySEGA account could access this option. The quickly-believed assumption was that these were measures taken to prevent importers from being able to play on the game's Network Mode until their local release of late November.

This sparked immediate outrage and frustration from the importers themselves, with a few complaint threads being rapidly made on the official website and some community fan sites. The official threads were for the most part locked almost immediately.

After a couple of hours, the main website changed the "Shipping Now!" news update to "Shipping Now! - US ONLY", a move which brought about many complaints such as being "a cover-up" and "too late to save importers".

News of the payment issues was also quick to reach some of the retail websites, some of which took decisive action.

Xbox 360 Marketplace

As the PlaySEGA billing system only affected the PC and PS2 version players, Xbox 360 importers seemed unaffected. However about a day after the release day updates to the website, the option to subscribe to a Phantasy Star Universe GUARDIAN's License was quietly removed from The Xbox 360 Marketplace for European accounts.

It is unknown whether the people who had already bought a license have been affected, but the assumption is that their subscription will remain active and playable, with the option only having been removed from the Marketplace "on the surface" to deter any further importing.

Seller Reaction

Upon catching news of these difficulties, many sellers took action to protect their buyers.

  • Video Games Plus issued an "URGENT NOTICE" on their front page linking to a message on their update blog. This message revealed that they had halted all shipments (even recovering those already shipped) in light of the news and were giving buyers 48 hours to cancel the orders "minues a $3.00 CDN (about $3) processing fee" by e-mailing.
    • Resultantly many people did cancel, however, many importers actually e-mailed to request that their orders be shipped ASAP instead of waiting until the 26th. These requests were responded to positively on the 25th, saving those importers one day.
  • Import Madness, upon hearing the news, instantly cancelled and refunded all orders for the Phantasy Star Universe, although they gave no explicit reason. It appears you cannot even re-order the game.

Player Reaction

The same PSO-World thread (pages 10-current) contained most of the initial player reaction to this. For a few pages there was confusion, disgust and panic. After a couple of pages, forum members started considering work-arounds and solutions.

Around this time, this "Petition" thread in the official Phantasy Star Universe Message Boards picked up instant momentum and other similar threads were locked on sight. The thread, while containing a few "Importers knew the risks" posts, was mostly filled with one-time signings of the petition and rational discussion as to why "effectively banning importers for a month" was unfair and notably poor customer service to typically the most dedicated group of customers.

In addition to asking users "sign" by posting once in the thread, the initial post (and a few others at intervals) also requested that these users file a query direct to the support team requesting that the billing system be changed, and providing specific reasons for doing so. It is unknown exactly how many users did this but it is thought to be among the hundreds.

The thread is particularly worthy of note for it's popularity - within about 12 hours of being created it had more views than any other thread on the entire message board. After about 18 hours it had the highest post count on the forum and after about 20 hours it had more views than all three sticky threads in the "General Discussion" section combined. After about 36 hours it became the first thread on the entire message board to break 10,000 views. Many users added "Support the importers!" to their signatures with links to the thread, some of which became standardised later on, and word was quickly spread to other forums to visit and support "the effort".

In spite of all this, no action was taken officially. It's possible that the immediate popularity of the thread is the direct cause of amending the "Shipping Now!" message on the front page, but besides that it appears that the thread has had no effect in swaying the current billing system.

The thread was completely ignored by forum operators, a fact which was pointed out often during the first 24 hours when other threads were responded to or locked. While many people take this passive behaviour as insulting in that their efforts were being ignored, others were quick to point out that the thread wasn't getting locked either. Many people proclaimed belief that the forum moderators agreed with the movement but were unable to do much about it due to lacking any influence in Sega / Sega of America. It should be noted that mods (i.e. those users with 'Site Mod' titles) are not actually Sega representatives, but rather long-standing and trusted forum members who moderate as a service to Sega. Only those with 'Site Admin' or 'Admin' titles, such as Clumsyorchid, are actual Sega employees.

Despite almost no official support or response, the thread (as well as the PSO-W thread) also contained a progressive effort to work out how to subscribe to PlaySEGA for a Phantasy Star Universe account using a "United States" account with the importers' own cards.

Xbox 360 Marketplace

The thread was also accompanied by the complaints and signings from infuriated Xbox 360 users after the GUARDIAN's License was removed from the Marketplace of European accounts.

Many perceived the removal of the option from non-American accounts to be a deliberate move designed specifically to block importers from being able to play Network Mode after it was discovered that the Xbox 360 version of Phantasy Star Universe was region-free and that importers could play immediately.

Others have argued that if this was the intention from the start, Sega would have just made Phantasy Star Universe region-locked and be done with it.

The arguments have yet to progress any further than that, and have in all likelihood been shaken off as irrelevant to finding a solution to the problems Xbox 360 importers now faced.

Solutions

Clearly the first step to a required solution would be to use a "United States" PlaySEGA account, either by creating a new one or by e-mailing customer support to manually change the region of an existing account to "United States". The former is much faster and the latter (presumably with all the customer support e-mails the game's release has generated) has not had much success, with users reporting that requests to have their accounts updated have gone days without reply.

Beyond this most people were finding themselves stuck. Many reported a number of failed attempts due to address details not verifying correctly and their card's billing address details not matching their stated address.

After about a day, some parties (the one with the most impact being the German community Missing In Action) reported that they had succeeded in acquiring a GUARDIAN's License.

Without AVS

This sparked further investigation by many hopeful players, and the fast discovery was that most European countries could actually sign up without much difficulty simply by using a "United States" PlaySEGA account and entering a correct U.S. State, with the other details not appearing to matter. However, it became apparent that almost all UK importers were unable to get this to work.

Shortly after this, it was noted that this failed due to PlaySEGA utilizing an Address Verification System (shortened "AVS"), and that the reason UK importers were failing was because their stated address details were compared with details stored on their card and the two did not match. Some people in other European countries suffered from this as well, but most had no difficulty as their cards were not AVS-compatible, and thus the check was never made.

Thus it appears that for most European importers, the easiest solution would be to:

  1. Create a PlaySEGA account using the region "United States"
  2. Sign up for a Phantasy Star Universe GUARDIAN's License using at least a valid U.S. State (though an entire address would work better).
With AVS

For a few hours after all of this was found out, it was unsure how to solve the problems for U.K. importers and those who still suffered under AVS-enabled cards.

Ultimately it was realised with only the briefest of research (in fact, the Wikipedia article for AVS) that AVS works by checking only the numbers on the card and the address you've specified. These numbers (typically the building number on the street and zip/post code) should only need match for the AVS check to be cleared.

Quite a few people to date have tried and succeeded using this knowledge, so it would appear that the simplest solution for AVS card holders would be:

  1. Create a PlaySEGA account using the region "United States"
  2. Start the sign up process for a Phantasy Star Universe GUARDIAN's License.
  3. When entering address, use a valid U.S. State (if not an entire address) but do not proceed yet.
  4. Change the street number to your card's billing address
    1. i.e. if the address entered is 3 Building Street and your card uses 7 House Lane, change the 3 to a 7.
  5. Replace the Zip Code with your Post/Zip Code.
    1. Apparently the "Zip Code" field does not need to match the State, or even be a valid Zip Code!
  6. Now Proceed and continue as usual.

This should enable you to complete the signup process, albeit with a hybrid address that you can then change to a real address.

Xbox 360 Marketplace

For Xbox 360 importers who no longer have the option to get a GUARDIAN's License in their Marketplace, it has been discovered that creating an entirely new GamerTag using the region "United States" and signing up for a GUARDIAN's License using that is a successful, if not messy, solution.

It is possible - though unlikely - that checks such as address and AVS are performed when signing up, and as such it might be necessary to read the above solutions to get through this.

Some users are not too happy about this as they would prefer to keep their services under one GamerTag and services such as subscriptions are non-transferrable, but it appears that for the time being this is the only solution to playing Network Mode with an import copy of Phantasy Star Universe.

Users who choose to wait it out until November 24th should be able to use their "correct" region GamerTag with an import copy of Phantasy Star Universe, though.

Official Response

Currently there has been no official response to import players "getting around" the difficulties faced when signing up for a GUARDIAN's License. Player investigation used in working out the process of doing so was carried out in the open for forum administrators to view, and now solutions are available and freely posted on the official forum without any response.

It is believed that the billing system for regions such as Europe have not yet been added through a mistaken perception of being "unneccesary", and that instead of actively trying to block importers Sega simply failed to recognise the niche market as a group of people worth catering for. This belief is in direct conflict with the removal of Phantasy Star Universe from the Xbox 360 Marketplace for importers, a debate which will probably be forgotten before any significant explanations are offered.

Either way, Sega have taken no action against players who - they might argue - are acting against their intentions for handling subscriptions and GUARDIAN's Licenses. The lack of any threat to punishing importers implicitly carries the message that it is allowable and (accompanied by many people's views that banning dedicated customers for trying to play would be bad business sense) this has helped create a belief throughout the playerbase that importing and signing up for a GUARDIAN's License (on any platform) with a "United States" account is permissible.

Whether or not Sega will continue to keep this stance remains to be seen, though most believe they will as "continued hostility" towards importers would bring about even further indignation.


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