That said, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. Though all Souls games are intentionally oppressive, lonely experiences, this one felt lonelier than usual. The reason? Its collective regional publishers—somewhat understandably—decided the running costs of its online services were no longer viable with dwindling users and, having already extended its life longer than intended, finally called time on its servers in February 2018.
Because of that, my maiden playthrough of Demon’s Souls meant no in-game help from others – no messages from the community warning me of ambushes, no tips for upcoming enemies, and no trolls telling me to jump off ledges, which I secretly missed the most. Though in these games I usually opt not to call in help from other players (Darkeater Midir in Dark Souls III being the sole, ‘soul’-crushing exception), it felt weird having that cut-off as an option. It meant no tension from the possibility of invaders joining at inopportune moments, leaving me with occasional NPC ‘invasions’ that lacked the unpredictability of real humans, and I know that negatively affected the intended experience in one boss fight in particular.
After talking about this on social media, a friend recommended I visit the The Archstones if I wanted that ‘true’ Demon’s Souls experience. And to my delight, I discovered a free, fan-created private server that restores the original Demon’s Souls’ full online functionality for PS3 and emulators, plus a 7,750 member-strong Discord community full of passionate Demon’s Souls fanatics that still actively obsess over the original game.
Though my first playthough was over before I discovered this service, I couldn’t help but start a new game plus to see how it worked. Within seconds of a simple change to my PS3’s DNS settings I was stepping back in Boletaria, but this time with the comfort of seeing other player’s active, ghostly forms, their dying moments, and messages telling me that ‘the real Demon’s Souls starts here’. Indeed it did.
So how did this come to be? The Archstones is the work of Yuvi, a security engineer by trade, hailing from North America. Yuvi became a fan of Demon’s Souls with the western release, becoming aware of it with IGN’s own review but encouraged by the swelling positive buzz online. He wasn’t disappointed. “From the first 20 minutes, you knew exactly what you’re getting yourself into—a brutal and unforgiving game—but the difficulty never got to me, it only kept me going.”
While Demon’s Souls focused on a dying world, it was the way its online elements made it feel alive that really captured him. “Demon’s Souls had some of the most memorable online moments I’ve ever had,” he says. “The world was alive thanks to bloodstains and messages. So many times I would believe a message only for it to lead to my death, or I’d watch someone else’s death play out and think ‘oh I can handle that’ and realise I was wrong.”
Like many others, he particularly enjoyed the invasion system and co-op. “I loved the thrill of invasions. I’m not usually a PVPer, but I always enjoy defending myself [in Souls games] and feel accomplished when I defeat the invader, or when I team up with others.”
And this is why Yuvi felt the need to help save Demon’s Souls’ online functionality in the wake of its closure. “Demon’s Souls is an online-only game in my eyes,” he says. “From created a great world, but it’s a world enhanced by its online elements. They create fear and tension. Its interactions with allies and enemies are what made it really special.”
When the news spread of the then-upcoming server shutdown, Yuvi knew he had to do something. “It hit me pretty hard as the online was essential to Demon’s Souls. Without it, it’s not the same, it’s no longer alive and that’s not as enjoyable to me.”
Thankfully Yuvi was no stranger to the preservation of online games. It’s a subject he’s been passionate about for close to a decade and a half, having worked on revival efforts for City of Heroes and helping with various fan-translation projects, and importantly, he wasn’t alone when it came to trying to keep Demon’s Souls online. A Reddit user known as ‘ymgve’ had started gathering network packet captures and other data needed to recreate the game’s servers. “I wasn’t actively a part of this project at that stage due to some big life changes, but I was keeping a close eye on it,” Yuvi says.
Within hours of the official servers going offline, ymgve’s test server went live, but quickly indicated he had no intention making it permanent, and that’s when Yuvi stepped in.
“Right away I pledged to create, host and manage the Demon’s Souls server, and started working immediately on a permanent home for the Demon’s Souls online community. I had my server up and running a day later. As soon as ymgve brought his server down, everyone came to mine.”
But how do people like ymgve and Yuvi backwards engineer what Demon’s Soul was doing?
“One of the great things about Demon’s Souls was that the network traffic was sent in almost plain text, which made it a lot easier to understand how its elements worked once you’d figured out the encryption. For instance, it would periodically send ghost data to a ‘setwanderingghost.spd’ file on the server, with all the info it needed to then send it to other users in the same level, like coordinates.”
“Using that same key, you could read all the data being sent to the server. From there it’s all about coding and replicating the information, and that’s what ymgve did using python2 and a sqlite database to house the player, message and bloodstain data. I still use ymgve’s code as a base to this day, though highly-customised and updated.”
Though ymgve had done a lot of initial legwork there was still much to do, not only in understanding and replicating that work but also bringing more of Demon’s Souls’ functionality back from the dead. Thankfully, how the traffic moved between game and server was a huge help.
“When I came in,” Yuvi says, “ymgve’s base emulator had the most visible features working, but I’ve since been able to finish off reimplementing more of the complex original features, such as ‘soul level restriction matchmaking’ and the dynamic global tendency.”
World tendency was a subtle system where a combo of your actions, and the actions of others, could impact elements of your game world, such as opening otherwise closed areas or sending tougher ‘black phantom’ enemies your way. While reimplementing this is pretty impressive, Yuvi’s taken it a step further, allowing his users to set whatever world tendency they want, and even put its controls in the hands of his Discord community’s admins for special events, where they can change exactly how much player actions—such as the number of deaths of those connected—affect everyone else, much in the same way From itself would occasionally alter the meta game for seasonal silliness.
I ask Yuvi if anyone from FromSoftware or Sony had been in contact about the server, or if he was worried they’d try to shut him down.
“Not once!” he says. “I admire all the work these teams have done and would be thrilled to say thanks to them. On the subject of shutdown or legal action, I don’t do this to cause trouble, I simply just want to keep amazing games online. Most of my work is open source, we’re not using their hardware, we just replicated the data with our own methods. If we did get hit with a cease and desist? I’d comply, my family’s more important than legal battles, but I do what I do for the Demon’s Souls community, to save the things we love.”
The community, of course, are thankful that Yuvi picked up where ymgve left off. Karla is one of the newer members, who (like me) wanted to check out the original Demon’s Souls after working her way through later Souls games. She’d bought a PS3 after the official servers had shut down and The Archstones was her only option. “My first ever Demon’s Souls experience was with the private server,” she says, but indicated it wasn’t just the reinstated online features that helped her, but also the community. “People in the Discord helped me a lot with connecting, making builds and giving me rare items that are hard to farm. Since then I’ve tried to help others too, it helps me feel connected to the other members. ‘Maiden’ (the community’s key lead and the first person I spoke to) and the other moderators run things extremely well and keep the community safe for everyone.”
Echoing the community’s role, one of those moderators, going by the tag ‘Gelsiah’, told me how since joining the community in 2017 he’d gone from beginner to series veteran, to then finally acting as a resource for other members. “I used to regularly connect with members on the board to guide them through the Valley of Defilement or bounce around helping people with boss fights. I play less these days and instead help more through advice on Discord.”
Of course, the Bluepoint remake is almost upon us, and given Yuvi’s hard work, he must have mixed feelings about it.
“I’ve been asked about this a lot, even when it was just rumours a few years back. At first I was surprised they’d even remake it. Even with how big Dark Souls has become, Demon’s Souls was not that well known. I was in shock when I heard the music in the announcement trailer and it looks great, but I did feel slightly sad, as I knew once it hit that my servers might be emptier for a while. But really, it’s going to bring so many new fans to a game I loved for over a decade. As long as Bluepoint don’t change too much, I think it’s going to be a great experience. We’ve seen glimpses of how the gameplay differs, but I definitely like what I’ve seen so far.”The community seems, by and large, to share much the same view. A scroll through their dedicated remake channel shows a mixture of excitement and cautious optimism, but also some concern over what exactly Bluepoint might change. The new camera angle and the ease with which enemies are slain in the gameplay trailer seem to be the biggest triggers, along with scepticism over weapons and equipment as pre-order bonuses, though those I spoke to are mostly excited. “I’m extremely hopeful and excited, I screamed with joy during both trailers” Karla tells me. “I expected them to just port the game into Dark Souls III’s engine as it [the original] hasn’t aged too well graphically, but they’ve recreated it from the ground up, so I think it’s going to be great for new players and veterans alike.”
The aptly named ‘Maiden’, the community lead mentioned by Karla earlier, agrees. “Of all the games I feel Demon’s Souls really deserves a remake. It was a hidden gem that fathered the Souls genre. It’s a game that had trouble reaching its audience and so many overlooked it.”
Of those I spoke to, Gelsiah is slightly less convinced. “I’m a touch mixed. I’m glad it’s happening and I’m sure it’ll be a great game, but I really wish the original was better officially preserved. I’m excited to see Bluepoint’s vision for Demon’s Souls, but I worry it’ll overwrite the original more than it should. Ideally, this would ship along with a straight, minimal-frills HD port with the online restored.”Regardless of the remake, Yuvi has no intention of pulling support for the original game. “No matter what happens, my server will stay as there will always be an audience for the original experience. As a games preservationist, it’s important to keep it running as long as I can.”
And he’s right, that audience will always be there. My takeaway from playing the original and talking to those involved in The Archstones is this: For a game that only ever found a smaller audience than it deserved, and that walked so Dark Souls could run, Demon’s Souls—whether through Bluepoint’s remake or fan-created services like this—is now more visible and accessible than ever before. And that’s good for everyone.
If, like I was, you’re looking to dust off your PS3 and experience the original Demon’s Souls any time soon, be sure to stop by The Archstones as part of your journey. It’ll be waiting.
Andy Corrigan is a freelance games writer based in Australia who pops up on IGN whenever he has something he’s passionate about. You can say hi on Twitter.