A Broken World, Preserved - Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE and MMORPG Preservation

As a companion piece to this article, I highly recommend putting this track on in a separate tab. RPG Site does not claim credit for the upload or the content within.

Let’s take a trip through time, shall we?

The year is 2001. Online gaming had just started to exit its infancy — Runescape, or rather, the version now known as Runescape Classic, just launched. EverQuest, the then-dominant MMO, had captured merely thousands of players' daily attention for more than two years already and proved popular enough that early talks of a sequel were started. Blizzard had launched their first trailer for what would eventually become the nexus of online culture and set the benchmark for MMOs for decades: World of Warcraft.

In Japan, however, online gaming took a different form. At the time, internet usage was charged on a per-minute basis (10 yen per 3 minutes, so about $1.80 per hour for dial-up), contributing to a lack of online play for Japanese gamers. ADSL technology (and a monthly charge system) was still in the process of being widely adopted. Despite this, a few titles became popular enough to not only see success in Japan, but also across the pond in the West.

One such game, Phantasy Star Online, became a critical success on the Dreamcast, eventually ported to other systems after Sega stopped producing consoles. PSO was so popular, in fact, that you can still find active private servers to this day (usually using the Blue Burst version of PSO.) Final Fantasy XI was well in development by this time, arguably due to the success of EverQuest in the West.

With all of these online games seeing successful releases or entering development, Atlus wanted to get in on the action as well. Development soon began on Shin Megami Tensei: NINE, an ambitious title that wanted to leverage the Xbox’s online capability and become the first online SMT game. NINE was originally planned to come with both online and single-player modes, but the online version was eventually sliced off due to development difficulties. Instead of leaving the code to die, developers CAVE continued working for the next six years on what would eventually become Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE.

Do you wish to acquire a power so great that all would fall before it?

IMAGINE began active service in early 2007 as Megami Tensei Online: IMAGINE, before rebranding to Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE a year later. Owing to its early success under Gung-Ho in Japan, the door was opened for Western markets — specifically, a company known as Aeria Games.

If you had a niche or mid-tier MMO or online game in the late aughts and early teens of 2000, odds are good it was managed by Aeria Games. The publisher was responsible for a number of titles seeing a Western release, including Ragnarok Online 2, GunZ: The Duel, S4 League, Digimon Masters, and Aura Kingdom. They no longer exist, but back then they were one of the bigger B-tier publishing names in the industry, and I mean that affectionately.

Aeria Games handled the day-to-day operations of Western servers for IMAGINE from launch until 2012, a period of four years. Afterwards, ownership transferred to a now-defunct arm of Atlus known as Atlus Online. One year after this transfer, ownership transferred yet again to a new publisher — this time, Marvelous USA. Six months later, Marvelous USA shuttered its doors, and upkeep of IMAGINE ended for the West, a total lifespan of six years.

During this management period, only a handful of major content updates were made available, in the form of one endgame dungeon and a Casino area. Untranslated lines littered the Western release, including major story content, side content, and even core systems like stat screens for demons.

Despite the Western servers' closure at this time, fans remained undeterred. Efforts began to create custom patches that would allow the players to play on the still-live Japanese servers, wikis were modified to include Japanese-to-English translations, and the bulk of the community continued to thrive despite the language barrier. That is, until May 2016, when servers for IMAGINE finally closed worldwide, an operating period of nine years. IMAGINE was truly dead — for now, at least.

Is the kingdom you rule based on law? Or power?

Games preservation is something that is both important and necessary. Official ports of older single-player titles are seeing massive success — Megaman Battle Network Legacy Collection ended up selling 1 million units in its first two weeks as an example — but offline & singleplayer games do not face the same challenges that older MMO & online titles do when it comes to long-term preservation.

How exactly does one preserve an online game? Companies are often unwilling to pay server fees for titles that don’t provide profit or see active development. Exceptions for certain ancient titles, like EverQuest and EverQuest II, exist, as they are still receiving new expansions to this day. World of Warcraft, arguably the tentpole of Blizzard’s game line-up, fits that ancient category as well and yet a new roadmap featuring three expansions was revealed at the most recent Blizzcon. Final Fantasy XI still retains a surprisingly active player base, but development of major new content appears to have ceased. Concern over this prompted the developers to publicly assure players that servers will not be going down anytime soon.

Those are the heavy-hitters, the champions of specific periods of history as far as MMORPGs go. What about the others? Ragnarok Online 2 can be played via Steam, so servers are up, but it has only managed a single-digit player average on Steam since 2021 and there hasn’t been official correspondence since then. S4League no longer exists in any official capacity. GunZ can only be officially played if you live in (or VPN to) South Korea. Aura Kingdom has a new publisher, but the discord seems less than active, and the subreddit mostly talks about anything but the official server.

With the closure of IMAGINE’s Western and Japanese servers, and the belief that neither CAVE nor Atlus were interested in re-opening the game for any reason, fans turned to the one way that online games can be publically preserved: private servers.

Is absolute order what is needed in this chaos that is Tokyo?

Multiple private servers of IMAGINE popped up, with the more popular Western one being one known as ReIMAGINE. Having run for nearly as long as the official Western servers, ReIMAGINE was more or less the same game, but with custom features to both entice the player base and hopefully keep the server from being targeted by Atlus lawyers.

IMAGINE’s official servers were originally funded by a Cash Shop and a gacha-like system known as Fortune Card — players would buy premium currency with real-world currency, and then use that to spin the gacha in the hopes of getting a rare item. ReIMAGINE instead allowed players to earn a premium currency equivalent by completing dungeons, essentially allowing the player to earn paid content instead of paying outright for it. The server did not accept donations or payment of any kind, in an effort to show that ReIMAGINE was not attempting to profit off of Atlus’ intellectual property.

Despite this, however, ReIMAGINE shuttered its doors unexpectedly in 2022, five years after starting operations. Another private server unrelated to ReIMAGINE was sued by Atlus after it was discovered that they were placing their copyright information over Atlus’ copyright on IMAGINE material — including a near-identical replica of the official IMAGINE website. The lawsuit targeted both the private server as well as the developer group of the server emulator that ReIMAGINE used, known as COMP_hack.

The case has since been terminated, but you can read the official court documents if you are interested. Out of concern that Atlus would jump straight to a lawsuit instead of sending a Cease & Desist, ReIMAGINE shuttered its doors. While a Russian server remained, the only other public way to play IMAGINE was by hosting a local server on your own. IMAGINE was, once again, dead. For now.

No other gods before me

That brings us to the present. In November 2023, a private server named New Moon opened its doors to the public and is currently active today. While many were quick to point out that it would, eventually, get served a Cease & Desist like the others, there appears to be an unofficial license to operate provided by Atlus — according to the community support team, at least.

While extremely rare, it’s not unheard of for dead MMOs to get a new lease on life with official company blessings. City of Heroes, a MMO that was shuttered in 2012, survived for over a decade via private server operations. One such server, City of Heroes: Homecoming, was recently given an official license to operate by NCSoft, the parent company. The agreement between New Moon and Atlus doesn’t go that far, but appears to be a tentative agreement to allow operations all the same.

This doesn’t mean that New Moon is immune to getting shut down — Atlus can still exercise its copyright ownership and shut down the server at any time — but agreeing to specific terms has at the least given the server a sense of protection and longevity. According to the server owner, the terms of the agreement stipulate that New Moon cannot receive any monetary benefit of any kind outside of personal payments from the server owner themselves. No donations, no fundraisers.

This ensures that the New Moon team does not profit off of the Shin Megami Tensei IP, and to prove this, it is believed that the server owner has to send reports to Atlus showing an itemized list of server payments — that’s the level of scrutiny New Moon is under. However, this relationship with Atlus does have its benefits; custom content for New Moon is supposedly being discussed, including content from other Atlus releases — such as Thanatos from the Persona 3 movie. We have been unable to contact Atlus to confirm these details.

Not many people remember IMAGINE nowadays, and Atlus has shown little desire to do anything with it, so it falls to private servers to preserve the history of the game. To quote an unnamed developer on the project: “Preserving the past in a way that's meaningful for the future is not only important but necessary. Not just to avoid mistakes from the past but also to inspire future fans.”

A huge thank you to the New Moon community for their support in writing this piece.

An earlier version of this article stated that Thanatos from Persona 3 Reload was under consideration for adding to the server. This was an error, as Thanatos from Persona 3: The Movie was being discussed instead. RPG Site has updated the article accordingly.