And now, for the exciting conclusion...
The Game Archaeologist: What's one of your favorite stories from your experience running Meridian 59?
Brian Green: One time I was at Dave & Busters restaurant one evening after a day at the Game Developer's Conference (GDC). I was chatting with Raph Koster about the conference, when from behind us someone says, "Oh my god, are you Psychochild?!?" Raph, who has always been more high profile than I am, gives a grin and leaves. Turns out they were fans of the game and bought me a drink as thanks.
I think the community became tighter over time. When we relaunched Meridian 59, someone mentioned that he had been playing the game since he was 12 (he was 18 at the time). I realized that this person had been playing the game for a third of his entire life; it's an almost overwhelming observation. But in cases like this, you build deep relationships with people, and the same names have been part of M59 for years. You can make good friends and long-term
Unfortunately, this also led to it becoming more insular and unwelcoming to outsiders. This is one of the big problems we had: New players had a hard time breaking into the cliques that had formed over the years. It was also too easy to blunder into a rivalry and have your experience go sour in the game.
Even now the community supports the game in crazy ways. I found it really interesting that just this year a fan spent his own money to set up a Meridian 59 booth at PAX Prime. It's great the fans are still supporting the game, although I might have wished they had done this some years ago!
PvP was a huge focus of the game for you and many others. Why did it work so well in M59? What did your team do to support PvP activities?
I think the most important thing is that the servers stayed small, so the community got to know each other. In a lot of other games, the random killers tend to strike at people then fade away into the masses of other players. Because the gameworld and the number of players on each server were smaller than those of many other games, it was easier to find and hunt down the random killers as well as build friendships and rivalries.
As a team, we just focused on PvP. With everything we added to the game, we considered how PvP would affect the new system we added. Personally, I made balance a top priority because I felt a balanced game was going to be more fun. While I think it's impossible to get perfect balance, I think many players will agree that we did a pretty good job overall and that the wide variety of possible and powerful characters made the PvP that much better.
What was it like to work on a small MMO during the 2000s as massive titles like Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, RuneScape and so on came along boasting better graphics, bigger numbers, and better publicity? What keeps devs working on the lesser-known or less-populated MMOs even though they know they'll never really get in the spotlight again?
Most modern MMOs are built by huge teams. A game like WoW was said to have had dozens of people just writing quests in the game. When you work on a large project like that, your contributions feel very small. Even if you are the lead designer, you only touch a small part of the game, and a lot of it is created beyond your vision.
On the other hand, I touched pretty much every game system in M59. My mark was left everywhere in the game, especially when I was working on the game with Near Death Studios. Nearly anyone who has played M59 has played a system I worked on, and that's kind of a cool feeling. In talking to other indie developers, I find they often say the same thing.
At what point did you know that NDS would have to close up?
Pretty much when we lost our credit card processor. They were not going to handle credit card transactions anymore, and a replacement company we were talking to dropped the ball. Given that the state of California expects $800 per year to be paid for corporations, on top of the minimum bookkeeping and accounting required and the costs for server hosting, I couldn't afford to keep paying for that without income. So I made the hard decision to close the company down while doing what I could to make sure the game would keep running.
At the risk of going into another rant and insulting my gracious interviewer, I don't think much has changed. "Games journalism" makes its money from advertising, so they tend to focus on stories that bring more hits. The practical effect is that the larger games simply get more coverage (and therefore get larger) while smaller games tend to get overlooked. For an indie, the hardest thing is to get any attention for your project. So it can be frustrating when you see headline news about some trivia from an established indie developer appearing on the same indie game blog that won't even answer your emails about your fledgling game.
That said, there are a few bright, shining beacons that work against this trend. Obviously not everyone ignores the small games, but they should be the rule instead of the exception.
On the topic of indie titles, how is Storybricks coming along?
Wonderful! We just landed a seed round of investment so we have some money. After a very positive reception from players, we were able to raise investment from one of the most prolific angel investors. So we are on our initial steps to realizing our larger vision for Storybricks.
To that end, we've just announced that the Storybricks SDK (story development kit) will be available for testing in February. Plus, we're even looking to hire a few other developers in the new year.
Going forward, what do MMOs need to be doing more of and less of?
More: Serious efforts to push forward the definition of what MMOs can do. I think even the hardcore MMO players see we're in a rut and need to break out. We've entered a stage of sameness and it's time to take real chances with new ideas.
Less: Just copying the leader with a bigger budget. It's getting increasingly impossible to keep making games like this, and it has led to failure more than success in recent history.
What was Meridian 59's greatest legacy for the MMO genre?
Meridian 59 has been described as a transition game between the games on the large networks (like GEnie, AOL, and CompuServe) and the games available on the internet. It was the first game to use the monthly subscription-based model, which influenced many games for years afterward. These are probably its more enduring legacies.
I'd prefer that people remember it as a different type of game that demonstrates it's possible to create a game that doesn't focus on levels and loot. At least, that's the lesson I'll use in my future projects.
Thanks for talking with us!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.