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Japanese MMO Player Finds Spiritual Haven on Chinese Server

By Johnson Ge
Mar. 23, 2023 updated 05:30

The world of MMORPGs is vast and immersive, and for many players, it is a place of refuge and community. But what happens when that world is threatened with a shutdown? We interviewed a Japanese player of Fantasy Earth Zero after the game’s Japanese server had been terminated. The player’s answer was to embark on a journey of discovery and friendship, even if that meant venturing into a “forgotten server” in China.

友人さん” or “Friend-San” is a skilled player of Fantasy Earth Zero, an MMORPG developed by Square Enix. Since 2007, the game has been their favorite, and they have been playing it ever since.

Fantasy Earth Zero is a unique  PVP-focused fantasy MMORPG released in 2006. It features a 50 vs 50 battlefield mechanism, where players can either engage in direct combat with opponents on the front line or choose to work in a more logistical role, collecting resources and helping their side control the territory. After collecting enough resources, players can call and control powerful summons, which is enough to turn the tide of the battle. The game is heavily skill-based and requires lots of teamwork to win. Its unique gameplay mechanics set it apart from other MMORPGs and make it the favorite of "Friend-San" and many other players.

A screenshot of the summons in Fantasy Earth Zero, which serve as fantasy tanks or artilleries on the battlefield.A screenshot of the summons in Fantasy Earth Zero, which serve as fantasy tanks or artilleries on the battlefield.

In its glory days, Fantasy Earth Zero was one of Japan's most active online games. Hugely popular in 2007, it grew to over one million players by 2011. Despite nearing its shutdown in 2022, nearly a thousand people were still online during peak hours every night, including "Friend-San."

While not engaged in battle, players typically spend their time socializing or showing off new costumes in the capital city or other neutral areas

Many players tried their best to keep their spiritual home. They launched a petition to crowdfund the purchase of game servers and data to operate the game themselves, but they did not receive any official response.

On September 28th, 2022, “Friend-San” was in a Ramen restaurant when they heard the news that the Japan server of Fantasy Earth Zero ceased its operation. They couldn’t stop crying and were in no mood to eat. “I could not taste the Ramen, and I have never been to that Ramen restaurant again. ” said “Friend-San” in the interview.

Despite trying other MMORPGs, none of them gave "Friend-San" the same feeling as Fantasy Earth Zero: "I've tried playing other games, but I get bored after just a few minutes." The game was more than just a game to "Friend-San" and many others; it was a community and a home that they lost forever.

Fantasy Earth Zero was released globally, but most of the servers ceased operation before the Japanese server, with one exception. In November, a friend of "Friend-San" made a shocking discovery: the Chinese server was still operational.

Due to policy, overseas companies are not allowed to operate online games directly in China. As a result, PlayOnline(POL) or “易玩通was established in 2005 as a domestic company to undertake the operation of Square Enix’s MMORPG in China. Yosuke Matsuda, the current president of SE, is still a director of the company.

In the subsequent years, Square Enix altered its strategy and formed partnerships with other Chinese companies to publish their games, leaving only two games - Cross Gate and Fantasy Earth Zero - to be operated by POL.

After one and a half decades, it feels like POL has been forgotten. It has not published any new games, and the last post on its social media account was in 2012 - a personal emotional expression as if it were an individual's account.

The Fantasy Earth Zero website is not much better. The latest news was in 2011, and the forum has been deserted. The server maintenance notices seem to be the only activity in the last few years, and they stopped in 2020. Even the download link of the game client has expired.

A screenshot of the official website shows its layout cannot adapt to modern resolution.A screenshot of the official website shows its layout cannot adapt to modern resolution.

Despite this, Fantasy Earth Zero's Chinese server is still operating. Players of the game joke that "they forgot to cease the operation of this server." This forgotten land has become a haven for those Fantasy Earth Zero enthusiasts in Japan.

"Friend-San" was determined to play the game as soon as they learned about the Chinese server, despite not understanding Chinese at all.

However, downloading the game client was difficult, even for Chinese players, as the download link had expired on the official website. In addition, the game required a separate POL client for login purposes, and a valid Chinese ID was needed to register an account for the game. It is hard to imagine the kind of obstacles "Friend-San" faced. Following numerous attempts and with the assistance of a kind Chinese player who was a stranger to them, they eventually succeeded in playing the game.

It was all worthwhile when “Friend-San” finally started playing. “I was moved to tears by the music in the very first opening screen.” Said “Friend-San”.

A screenshot of Fantasy Earth Zero’s title screen in the Chinese server.A screenshot of Fantasy Earth Zero’s title screen in the Chinese server.

As previously mentioned, Fantasy Earth Zero is a teamwork-based game and is not suitable for lone-wolf players. "Friend-San" was concerned about language and identity issues, and initially did not speak to anyone and was scared by greetings from other players.“I thought that Chinese people didn't like Japan. We Japanese sometimes have unfounded fears that Chinese people are scary. But all of that was wrong,” confirmed "Friend-San."

There were only around one hundred players on the Chinese Server, and it did not take long till “Friend-San” got invited to a team. This time, “Friend-San” mustered the courage to disclose their identity.

“At first, I was afraid of being hated or scolded, so I answered hesitantly. But everyone said things like ‘Welcome’ and ‘This game is only available in China, so take your time,’ and they gave me very kind words. Since then, I have come to love Chinese people and respect their kindness!”

After four months of playing, "Friend-San" found the joy he had lost and became close companions with these Chinese players. "Friend-San" tried to invite old friends from Japan, but most of them chose to play new games and did not reply.

Later, some Japanese players, like "Friend-San," came to the Chinese server. "Friend-San" confirmed that they had little interaction with the Japanese players since “Friend-San” spent most of their time with their Chinese teammates.

A screenshot of “Friend-San”(left) chatting with a friend in the game.A screenshot of “Friend-San”(left) chatting with a friend in the game.

"Friend-San" said that even if the Chinese server of Fantasy Earth Zero was shut down in the future, they would still want to play other games with their Chinese friends. They would also cheer for the Chinese team just like they supported the Japanese team in future sports competitions.

To express this sentiment to his Chinese friends, "Friend-San" edited a video of the game's battlefield and uploaded it to Bilibili, using machine translation to give the video a title.

Within half a month, the video's views skyrocketed, and many people left comments. "Friend-San" would reply to almost every comment using machine translation while also promoting the game.

A screenshot of the video titled ”Fantasy Earth Zero! Thank you for the friendship between China and Japan!”A screenshot of the video titled ”Fantasy Earth Zero! Thank you for the friendship between China and Japan!”

The video made more former players in China aware that Fantasy Earth Zero was still in operation. Many people returned to the game with a sense of nostalgia, while others tried it out for the first time. In a game that no longer has substantial updates, every new and old player who can stay is precious.

In a world where language and cultural barriers can often divide us, "Friend-San" found a community that welcomed them with open arms. As the game's future remains uncertain, "Friend-San" and their friends continue to cherish every moment they spend together, proving that the power of friendship can transcend any obstacle.