17 October, 2017
I’ve been a bit remiss in posting on here. A few months ago my friend Samuel Axon interviewed me to write an article about Meridian 59.
Go read it. A few more thoughts below.
As is the nature of these things, I answered a lot more questions than went into that article. I’ll include a copy of the questions and answers below.
I think Samuel’s feelings are interesting. I respect that the open source developers are doing what they think is best for the game, but there are many reasons why I didn’t “modernize” the game like they have. A lot of the charm of the game was that the information was hidden, and that figuring out some mechanic was an advantage over others. Making things plain like adding an xp bar takes away some of the charm of the game that appealed to the older players.
I don’t think Meridian 59 is going to see popularity soar by becoming a clone of existing games. It was its own special thing for the time. As I say in the interview, we did a big change to update the rendering engine. Even despite the timing of releasing around the time WoW did, I still don’t think the game would have been a huge success.
But, it was certainly fun to work on it when I did. At the end of the day, I’m glad people are still finding fun with the game as open source developers or as players.
The questions and answers from the interview
Tell the story, in your own words, of how you came to work on Meridian 59, what happened while you worked there, how you later acquired it, and how you later handed it off.
My first job after graduating from university was a soul-crushing Dilbert-type job. I had worked on text MUDs as a hobby in university, and interviewed at a game development company before graduation, but things kind of fell apart so I took this other job. I still wanted to get into the game industry, though.
I contacted a recruiter who sent my resume to 3DO for a console programming job. But, they saw the MUD experience I had and needed someone for their game Meridian 59. I flew out, interviewed, was stoked, got an offer, and joined the team. I worked on the game for about a year and a half before I was moved to another team on a game I wasn’t as excited about working on. That game shipped after a very short development cycle, but during that time 3DO made the decision to shut down Meridian 59. I left the company when that last game shipped.
I got in touch with one of the early developers, Rob ‘Q’ Ellis II, who kept contacting Trip Hawkins, CEO of 3DO at the time, to see if he’d sell Meridian 59. He finally agreed, and we closed the deal with our company, Near Death Studios, Inc., a little before 3DO went bankrupt and closed down. We got the game for a good price, on the condition that it was “As Is”. I borrowed against credit cards to pay for my part of the game.
We worked hard to get the game back in working condition. Rob had the idea to print and sell CDs to help fund some of the costs we were incurring to get the game up and running again, which helped a lot. I learned a ton about business and management of a small company. We launched the game in 2002 and kept it running until the end of 2009. The game was licensed to a company in Germany as well.
It was never a massive success, enough to keep a few people on very low wages. After a few years, I started doing outside contract and consulting work for other MMO companies, which helped to pay off the debt.
In 2009 we lost our billing provider for Near Death Studios. After trying to find a new billing provider, we decided to close down the company rather than pay out of pocket to keep the company running. To keep the game running, we sold the game to the Kirmse brothers for a token amount of money. They made it clear they did not want me involved with the game, so I let them have it in order to keep the game running.
They later opened the source for the game, letting players peek into the internals and start developing their own extensions to the game.
Did you ever wish you could have done more content, rather than systems, updates to Meridian while you owned it?
Not particularly. With the help of a friend at the time, we did re-write the rendering engine from a software renderer like the original DOOM to a hardware-accelerated renderer like modern games have. This took a lot of time and effort, and ultimately did little for the game and some players even criticized us for focusing on that rather than other aspects they felt were higher priority.
The focus of the game was mostly Player vs. Player (PvP) fights. Adding more content to PvP tends to make it more difficult to balance. We did add more skills, zones, items, and other features, but a lot of the focus was on balancing the systems to make PvP more fun and feel more fair. I think this was the right decision for the audience at the time.
Meridian 59′s development tools were notoriously terrible, especially the map editor. What was so bad about them?
Well, the programming tools were pretty solid. We used a command line driven system to build the code.
The art and level layout tools were not that great. To be fair, this is true of most games, particularly in the 1990s; tool work isn’t seen as very sexy, and it is often given to junior programmers because the senior programmers want to do the “fun stuff”. Especially art tools can be seen as difficult to do or tedious, because many programmers aren’t very art savvy. The notoriously awful level layout tool was an altered version of a freeware DOOM room editor. Unfortunately, that editor didn’t support all the features of the M59 engine, particularly sloped floors. It was a bit of black magic to get them to work, something that Rob was very good at.
The game industry has gotten better about tools. As the mod communities have gotten stronger we’ve seen tools become a little more accepted as worth programmer time. Plus we have new positions like “Technical Artist” where someone with technical skills and art skills help develop tools that the artists will use; not surprisingly, this has resulted in much better art tools available in game development.
Why do you think Meridian 59 has stayed relevant all these years?
It was an important transition game between the older online games that were bound to proprietary services like GEnie or AOL. It set the standard for the flat rate subscription fee that MMOs and other games used for years afterward. I think that Near Death Studios was also an early pioneer in indie game development; we were just a bunch of developers trying to figure things out. We showed what was possible for a small, motivated team to do; this was important, especially since MMOs were seen as giant monstrosities requiring huge teams when we started Near Death Studios.
What do you think of the open source development efforts happening on servers/communities like 103?
I’m sincerely glad the game is still out there and inspiring people. It’s nice that people are so passionate about the game that they continue to dig into it and find ways to improve it. I hope that the game helps people discover the joy and creativity of game development.
I’ve heard from people that the PvP fights that used to happen in-game now happen in code, though! I gotta imagine it’s “fun” looking through pull requests, trying to find if someone slipped in something that would let them get an unfair advantage if they had the right knowledge. ;)
What would you change in Meridian now if you could?
I don’t think I’d change much of the game itself. I think it’d have been nice to have better marketing in the past. But, marketing is the hardest part of being an indie, and tough to do well. Especially for a product like M59 that was a pioneer in many ways.
What’s your impression of the fact that one of the server hobbyist dev teams has now created an entire new continent in a Revelations-style expansion?
Good for them! I saw a bit of it a while ago when a fellow former M59 team member, Tony Lyran, invited me onto her Twitch stream. It was neat seeing the enthusiasm people had. But, as with most things MMO, the development is just the first part. The next part is the support, which can be a lot less fun….
What is Meridian 59′s relevance to games today? Is it influential on stuff like Minecraft, DayZ, Battlegrounds, etc? Is there more or less to it than that?
As a game, I think it had a lot of influence in its time. It helped bring the idea of MMORPGs on the open internet to many people. As I said, it pioneered the flat monthly subscription business model that many other games used back then and still use today. Many other developers saw what was possible from what M59 did with a small team.
And, I think the indie spirit of Near Death Studios paved the way for other indies. Those of us who took a chance and did our own thing before the rise of the current indie developers. I won’t say they would name us directly, but I’d like to think that Near Death Studios helped build the environment that let the indies thrive.
Post questions as comments below, and I’ll answer them the best I can.