Last month, From Software's Demon's Souls suffered the cruellest death of all, its servers going offline nine years after the game's initial release. No longer could players invade each other, or help wayward newcomers best one of the kingdom of Boletaria's famous roadblocks. But while everyone else was readying their chisels to etch their epitaph onto the remains of the game, one dedicated fan was putting the finishing touches on their own attempt at a revival.
Just two days after the servers went down, a thread popped up on the Demon's Souls subreddit detailing the efforts of a game preservationist who goes by the handle "ymgve". His ambition was simple, if bold: to set up a proof-of-concept private server with the same functionality as its official equivalent. And it works - having proven the concept, ymgve released the source code as open-source to the rest of the community, and it only took a short time for another community member, "Yuvi," to set up a more permanent solution. Now, simply by adjusting your PS3's DNS settings, you can experience the full Demon's Souls of old, complete with duels, jolly cooperation, and the enigmatic "World Tendency" system - albeit with reduced player counts, at least for the time being.
For his part, ymgve describes the process of backward-engineering the tech that powers the server as surprisingly straightforward. "The project started last year, shortly after From announced the servers would close," he says. "A day or two in, it seemed pretty clear that it was possible, but the final push into creating a fully working server didn't happen before the week of the shutdown. The first step was playing the game and capturing all network traffic generated during play. It turns out all the communication uses HTTP, instead of the more secure HTTPS, so it was easy to get the raw data."
It was here where ymgve ran into his first major obstacle. The chatter from the console to the server was encrypted, but he managed to find the encryption key inside of the game executable with the help of a friend familiar with the network traffic. "With the raw traffic in both directions, I wrote a proxy program that forwarded traffic from and to the real servers, and got the game communicating with the proxy instead. When that worked well, I created a 'bare-bones' server that just sent placeholder data, and that eventually evolved into the current server."
When ymgve revealed the server to the world, the response was immediate and overwhelming, with the announcement quickly gaining traction on Demon's Souls' subreddit. Still, as he expected, the population has proven rather meager so far, with his test serving topping out at 31 simultaneous players, indicating that it was a rather niche undertaking, even for a game as notorious as Demon's Souls. For him, though, it's more about the history than thrilling clashes between players: "I've got a small obsession with preserving digital data, and it feels great to have not just the game, but also the online parts living on. I'm not much of a multiplayer guy, so, personally, it was more important to have the world filled with messages and bloodstains, feeling like it did when the official servers were up. Those elements are part of what makes the Soulsborne games so unique to me."
Dipping back into the monolithic chambers of the Nexus for the first time in a half-decade, I can't help but agree with ymgve's assessment. After all, Boletaria is a lonesome-enough place already, filled to the brim with creaking skeletons brandishing broadswords, or screaming stingrays that rain death-bolts on you from far above. Even the occasional sentient beings that you run into possess their own secretive agendas, or charge you laughably-inflated prices for substandard goods. (Sadly, in this world-rending apocalypse, there isn't much in the way of a consumer-protection agency.) Dark Souls might boast the more fearsome reputation, but its predecessor truly exhibits what even the most masochistic gamers would call punitive design, hiding top-tier gear behind tiny loot-lizards with limited respawns, demanding that you bash your head against the same blackened skeleton for hours for a chance at a maxed-out Dex weapon, and stashing the hardest boss in the game behind a grumpy dragon that takes hundreds and hundreds of arrows to the dome to kill. More than any other game in the series, Demon's Souls needs those tiny points of light that tell you to go That Way, not The Other Way to help cut through the everlasting dark.
Despite the considerable amount of labor that he put into the project, once things are more settled ymgve intends to entrust the tech to the community alone. "I have no desire to be the administrator for a server on a more permanent basis," he says. "I've continued keeping it running for now, but eventually I will shut it down and tell the remaining players to use the other server instead. Anyone is free to create and run their own server. The code is very lightweight, so handling hundreds of players should be possible." For now, community member Yuvi has happily filled that role, setting up a dedicated server in the computer lab he keeps at home as part of his job. "I just want to mimic the experience of the real servers," Yuvi says. "Due to ymgve's great work, we have the ability to implement everything the original server had. This week, I started to implement the World Tendency changes, just like they used to for the original servers. The way I see it, the more people playing, the better."
Though he described himself as "not much of a DeS player," it's clear that ymgve's efforts are deeply appreciated, from the hardcore Demon's Souls enthusiasts who never left the blighted land of Boletaria, to the hordes of people who happen to have a copy lying in their closet, who might decide to rediscover the magic one day. "Once the server code is feature-complete, I probably won't be very involved in the community," he says. "Therefore, the best-case scenario is that someone takes my server code and builds on it, or completely rewrites it, making it into a foundation for a thriving community. The challenge of getting a server working was enough for me, now I pass the torch to the rest of the players."