Seeing Aeria Games pick up Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online was unexpected. I’m elated for the growing Megaten fanbase in North America and Europe, but you have to wonder what prompted the decision. Why did Aeria Games pick up Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online when World of Warcraft dominates the already overcrowded MMO scene? To find out I spoke with Spencer Chi, Producer at Aeria Games, and pulled in Michael Stevens, Aeria’s Localization expert to discuss the story.
What made Aeria Games want to bring Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online to North America?
Spencer Chi, Producer: It was a really obvious decision for us to bring Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online (MegaTen, for short) to North America and Europe. The players in our community are big fans of the series and of Japanese culture, in general. Also, MegaTen is the perfect title to show traditional gamers that free to play MMORPG PC games have reached the quality level that you find in subscription or retail games.
Did the critical and commercial acclaim of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 contribute to this decision?
SC: We pride ourselves in listening to our community. When the fans of the Persona series and other SMT games asked us to bring MegaTen over, we took a look at the Japanese version of the game, and we instantly fell in love with it.
Can you tell us about the plot?
Michael Stevens, Localization Expert: In a post apocalyptic Tokyo, three strange obelisks appear warping the environment and bringing a surge of demons with them. The player, a young Demon Buster, investigating a series of demon attacks on underground shelters, winds up caught in the middle of a war between two organizations attempting to rebuild the city and the world in their image. It’s up to the Demon Buster to discover the nature of the obelisks, form alliances with powerful demons and choose a path for Tokyo to follow.
Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online appears to take place between MegaTen games that were unreleased in North America. How does Aeria plan to fill the gap?
MS: The trials in Shin Megami Tensei 1 are long since over and the problems that appear in the sequel won’t show up for another twenty years in Imagine’s Tokyo. While there are related elements, groups and characters, SMT: Imagine Online is a stand-alone adventure with no previous knowledge of any of the games or spin-offs needed or required to enjoy the game and its compelling storyline. Within the first 15 minutes of the game, players are quickly brought up to speed to the Imagine universe, with more details coming to light as they progress. This is THEIR story. That said, the world of Shin Megami Tensei is vast, and even fans of the games that were released for the English-speaking market will see many themes and familiar faces here in this game as well.
What kind of character can you create? Are there different classes to choose from?
SC: Players can create characters that look like typical young inhabitants of Tokyo. Characters don’t get locked into a specific class. They can choose which attributes to develop—some contribute to a certain style like melee combat, long-range gunnery, or magic casting. They are also free to choose which abilities to develop.
If you want to be a close-combat swordsman with the ability to heal your teammates, you can do that. If you want to focus on casting damage spells and negotiating with Demons, you can do that, too. However, there is a limitation on total points you can allocate, so you can’t specialize in everything, but that’s where party members and Demon allies can help fill in the gaps.
How is combat in Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online different from other MMORPGs?
SC: MegaTen uses a strategic real-time combat system where players can pick amongst many moves: attacking, charged attacking, area of effect attacking, counter-attacking, blocking, dodging, shooting guns, and of course, casting a wide array of spells. There are a few games that do this, but may not do this as well as MegaTen—other games feel more like a button mash or they’re turn-based.
Also, other games don’t let you control a Demon simultaneously who has their own complete set of unique abilities. If performed correctly, a player can alternate attacks with his partner so an unsuspecting Demon won’t get a chance to fight back. Of course, this won’t always work on the bigger ones.
Negotiation has been an important element in core Shin Megami Tensei games. How does it work in Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online?
SC: Players can choose from three basic negotiation techniques: Talking, Threatening, and Taunting. The Demons respond to different techniques in four different ways. They may run away from you, disappear, give you a gift, or become your ally. Depending on your Law, Neutral, or Chaos alignment, certain Demons may be out of bounds.
Also, players will really enjoy Demon Fusing where they can take multiple demons and “fuse” them together. The best abilities of each Demon can be inherited for a truly unique and powerful new breed.
Are there any demons in Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online that aren’t found in any other Shin Megami Tensei game?
SC: MegaTen takes a very wide variety of Demons from the other games in the series. At the time of launch, there won’t be newly introduced Demons to MegaTen, but several will eventually be making their debut here in the Western world. Also, several former bosses, like Hayagriva, are now controllable.
Since the Shin Megami Tensei series has a large amount of internal and external mythology is Atlus USA assisting Aeria Games with the localization?
SC: The localization was a big concern from the start. Cave hired professional video game translators to convert the Japanese to English. Then, both Atlus USA and Aeria’s own localization experts looked it over and supplied our feedback and revisions. Plus, we have the game in Closed Beta at the moment and have thousands of users checking it over daily. We’re pretty happy with how it turned out, overall. We’re still fixing some minor problems, but the beauty of an online game is that if we miss anything, we’ll fix it in a small patch.
Are there any plans to make events or items specifically for the English version of Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online?
SC: Aeria Games constantly runs special events and promotions on its servers. We understand that events are necessary to keep MMOs interesting. As for adding new items, it’s always a possibility. Going forward, we will be working very closely with Cave and Atlus to continuously upgrade the game.
Is Aeria Games sticking to a cash-op system to fund Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online or are you going to switch to monthly fees?
SC: All of Aeria Games, including MegaTen, will be completely free to play with no monthly subscription fees. There will be virtual items available for optional purchase. Micro Transactions have allowed us to continue to keep all our games free to play as well as to continue to offer exceptional customer service to our players.
Can you tell us about the premium items players can purchase and how they affect the game?
SC: We’re still working out which items, exactly, will be available for purchase. Keep in mind that players can access all the quests, game features, and can capture all the Demons without spending a penny. The items made for purchase with Aeria Points will be things like special pieces of clothing; some items will help players who can only devote a few hours a week the opportunity to stay in the same level range as their friends who have more time to play.
MegaTen is a highly cooperative game rather than being a competitive game. Players can’t attack other players, so you don’t have to worry about the guy with the unlimited cash supply unfairly PK’ing you. Instead, you’ll have players gifting the paid items to their friends.
Also, players can sell these real dollar items in their personal bazaars for Macca, the in-game currency.
For the people who don’t want to spend any money but really want a certain item, they can participate in some of our portal events where they can earn AP – the Aeria game world’s credit.
How does Aeria Games plan to compete with existing MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft?
SC: Aeria Games has already gained a huge following of players over the past couple years. But with the current economic situation, our numbers are growing even faster. Gamers are more careful with their dollars, so the market for free to play games is growing even faster, while simultaneously, the quality bar for these games is getting higher. The gaming community is starting to learn that the current-generation of free games match the quality of the subscription and retail box games.
Being able to play high quality MMORPGs for zero dollar risk gives Aeria Games a huge advantage when competing with MMORPGs that cost a retail fee PLUS a monthly subscription.
Is Aeria Games working with Cave’s online division on any other projects?
SC: Right now, our main focus is Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online. In addition to launching in North America, we’re also going to launch it in Europe in other languages in Q2 2009. Cave has been very cooperative in our effort to expand MegaTen outside of Japan. We’d definitely be open to working together on more projects.
Images courtesy of Aeria Games.