The Game Archaeologist crosses Meridian 59: The highlights

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|12.13.11

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The Game Archaeologist crosses Meridian 59: The highlights
Meridian 59
A colony founded through a magical nexus, Meridian 59 had it all going on -- until, that is, the portal to the colony collapsed and it was left to fend for itself. Monsters swarmed over the land, politics split the community into factions, and adventurers were called to rise up and become the heroes that were desperately needed. And all it took was $10.95 a month and an internet connection.

Welcome to 1996 and one of the very first -- if not the first (more on that later) -- graphical MMOs to hit the scene. Meridian 59 may not have been one of the biggest games in the genre, but it was arguably one of the most important, the John Adams to World of Warcraft's Abraham Lincoln. If you were wondering, Darkfall was Chester A. Arthur.

It seems fitting to end 2011 by touching upon this significant title that, against all odds, continues to operate today. Meridian 59 weathered studio shutdowns, newbie developers in every sense of the word, and a world that wasn't quite sure what to make of these fancy-schmancy massively interactive roleplaying games. MIRGs! Oh, that would've been such a better acronym, but I digress. Let's set the wayback machine to 1978 to see how one amateur game led to another that led to the birth of an industry.

Old man
"As much as possible, we would have Meridian's players run the game themselves, as opposed to trying to script out their experience." -- Andrew Kirmse

The year was 1978, and the author of this article was a scant two years old with an eyepatch. A programmer named Alan E. Klietz began work on an RPG called Scepter of Goth, a game that would become one of the first in the MUDlike field. Picked up by InterPlay, Scepter of Goth charmed players for well over a decade -- including brothers Andrew and Chris Kirmse.

Two years apart in age, Andrew and Chris were avid gamers and loved their time with Scepter. As they progressed through college in 1994, the duo talked about how cool it would be to play a graphical version of this game. While this might have been empty talk for most people, these two brothers took the idea seriously and decided to give it a try before Real Life hit. Despite having virtually nothing to draw upon as reference for the project, the brothers began to build a title that would use a similar graphics engine to the then-popular DOOM.

As they progressed through college, this new title -- Meridian 59 -- was pieced together, bit by bit. Andrew and Chris were thrilled to see their avatars interacting and moving about in the game world, but they knew there was going to be a way to go. They met another set of brothers -- Mike and Steve Sellers -- who helped to raise funds for the project, which was now under the umbrella of the newly formed Archetype Interactive.

More team members were added to the project by 1995, including Damion Schubert and Rich Vogel (both currently working on Star Wars: The Old Republic). The team pressed on to get Meridian 59 into alpha status by late 1995, at which point the first server was turned on and four curious gamers poked their heads in over a late December evening.

While the alpha server could only hold a mere 35 souls, the 1996 beta increased that tremendously. Thousands of testers flooded into the project as word got out, and game company 3DO became interested in investing in the effort. 3DO purchased Archetype Interactive for $5 million in stock in mid-1996, and the entire Meridian 59 team moved out to California. Unfortunately, 3DO wasn't doing so hot by then, and before long the stock was tanking and Meridian 59 was prematurely pushed out of the door as the company's first PC title.

Even so, the Meridian 59 crew worked hard with few other frames of reference (The Realm and Ultima Online were its only MMO brethren at the time) to deliver update after update. The community grew to over 10,000 subscribers even as the Kirmse brothers left the company in 1997. Meridian 59 did its best, but 3DO ultimately gave it the axe in 2000 before going belly-up itself in 2003.

The historic Meridian 59's short life was all but over. Or... was it? No, it wasn't. Would I ask a rhetorical question if it was? No, I wouldn't.

Old and new graphic engine
"Meridian 59 was such a trailblazer that we were very excited to have as many people as we had on it because it was the first time anybody had done this and the internet was just kind of getting there then." -- Rich Vogel

Depending on your standards and qualifications, there's several contenders for "first MMORPG," so it's a coin toss whether or not Meridian 59 fit the bill here. Was it massive enough? Did its pseudo-3-D engine count as a 3-D MMO? Ultimately, I don't think Meridian 59 has to worry about prestige either way, as it quickly racked up an impressive list of other firsts for the industry. These include:
  • The first internet game from a major publisher
  • The first time that a massively multiplayer RPG was considered a "real" game and covered in the major game magazines.
  • The first graphical MMO to move beyond 2-D
  • The first time a game was referred to as an "MMORPG"
  • The first MMO to have a flat rate monthly subscription
  • The first MMO sold in a retail box
  • The first MMO that was accessible via the internet instead of a network like CompuServe
  • The first MMO that used the web to handle accounts and deliver a client download
Scorpion Attack!
"The game's character gestures, such as waving, added a personal feel to an impersonal network." -- Andrew Kirmse

While Meridian 59 may seem primitive compared to what we now enjoy in MMO gaming, at the time it was positively futuristic. The graphics engine was a combination of 3-D (walls, structures) and 2-D sprites (avatars, creatures, objects), similar to what gamers saw in titles like Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, and DOOM. There was no jumping, although players could fall down if so desired.

Upon entering the game, players could create a customized human avatar, after which they set out to seek fame and fortune (and probably death). Instead of the level-based gameplay that many of our MMOs use, Meridian 59 was skill-based; players leveled up seven schools of skills independently (one weapon school and six magic). Hit points were gained by beating up weaker monsters, and your mana pool could only be expanded by exploring the world to discover special mana nodes.

There were quests to accomplish and factions to join, although PvP quickly became one of the title's biggest features. Wars were waged over guild halls and servers, although if one player got too out of control, a player justice system could be used to rein him or her in.

Meridian 59 was littered with clever concepts, including in-game email and bulletin boards, guild voting, a chess minigame, guild halls, PvP arena, guild logos, and political appointments.

Chillin in the forest
"I started discussing it with Trip about a year or so before 3DO eventually closed down the US servers. From the start he was supportive of the idea of my running Meridian knowing my love for the game. From there it was just timing and putting things together. I was very lucky to be able to hook up with Psychochild; we're a great complimentary team." -- Rob "Q" Ellis

While Meridian 59's fate looked grim in 2000, two former Meridian 59 developers decided that it needed a second chance. Rob "Q" Ellis II (Ultima Online: Third Dawn) and Brian "Psychochild" Green (Storybricks) formed a new company, Near Death Studios, and secured the rights to relaunch Meridian 59 to the public.

Near Death Studios didn't just want to bring back Meridian 59 as it was; it wanted to bring it up to date for the rapidly advancing MMO genre. As such, the devs worked on installing a new Direct3D-compatible rendering engine in 2004 that took the game's look from 1995 to something more modern. With dynamic lighting, new visuals, mouselook, and other goodies, Meridian 59 was poised to recapture its former glory.

Or it might have, that is, except that another little MMO came along in 2004 that captured such a large market share that little titles like Meridian 59 were left in the dust. Even as it struggled to stay relevant against World of Warcraft and the rest of the field, Meridian 59 did boast a steady community that saw around 2,000 monthly subscriptions in 2005. This was enough to allow Near Death Studios to grow to five full-time employees.

The studio implemented many changes and additions over the years, but NDS' biggest legacy was refocusing the PvP aspect of the game to become about faction wars. There was even brief talk of a sequel, tentatively titled Kingdom of the Nexus, that would focus on all of the other Meridians in the game's universe, but this would never amount to much more than just wishful dreams.

By the end of the decade, Meridian 59 was once again in trouble of extinction. Near Death Studios could no longer afford to remain in operation, as the income from subscribers continued to dwindle. In January 2010, the studio announced that it was closing up shop -- although the game, oddly enough, would continue to run. Meridian 59 was handed back to the Kirmse brothers, who opened it up as a true free-to-play title that currently runs on two US servers.

If you're interested in giving it a go, head over to the Meridian 59 website and check out this landmark MMO!

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
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