The Guild Counsel: Damion Schubert remembers Meridian 59 at GDC

Karen Bryan
K. Bryan|10.18.12

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The Guild Counsel: Damion Schubert remembers Meridian 59 at GDC
The Guild Counsel  Damion Schubert remembers Meridian 59 at GDC
Last week was the final GDC Online, as the yearly convention moves out to Los Angeles next year under the new name GDC Next. Coincidentally, developers gave several postmortem talks about some of the classic MMOs of years ago. Among those was Meridian 59, and BioWare's Damion Schubert took us back in time to look at what it was like as the game prepped for launch and the first few years. What stands out are the incredible stories that came from player interaction and guild rivalries. Whether you're long-time fan or someone who wasn't even born yet when those early games emerged, this trip through the time machine is definitely worth a look!

Schubert says that Meridian 59 has always been remembered as being "the first," but in many cases, it actually was not. What it was, he argues, was the first game to put everything together, and it was the missing link between the early days and the transition to the EverQuest/World of Warcraft era. It was one of the first in the unmetered era because prior to that, players payed on an hourly fee, and on top of that, they were paying AOL for service.

He put Meridian 59 on a timeline, showing how it fit in between the MUD era, when many game designers of Schubert's generation cut their teeth, and the post-WoW age. He added that during this time, there were also a handful of Asian titles that were enormously successful but largely overlooked by the Western market. Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, Knight Online, and Lineage all were popular in Asia (particuarly Lineage) but ignored for a long time in the West.

Next, he looked at what went right and what went wrong. As far as what went right, he said the Meridian crew was in the right place at the right time. What went wrong, he added, was pretty much everything because the developers didn't know what they were doing and had no money. Schubert said he got his start witih the team after it tried to recruit Raph Koster, who was actually busy working on Ultima Online. He suggested Schubert, and the rest is history.

Meridian 59 was actually not the first title the team members chose. They wanted to call it Terra Nova but discovered that it was already trademarked. Unfortunately, Meridian was as well, so to get around that, they slapped the number 59 on it, and that's the name that stuck. They had no idea what the name meant, and Schubert said that it wasn't until a year after the game shipped that they had to explain its meaning.

When the game first started up on December 15th, 1985, it had just one quest. There was no character progression, no guilds, no advancement, and no spells. The next morning, Schubert said, there were five people in game, and "It was awesome." The game began to get featured in print, but what's interesting is that the articles devoted several paragraphs to the process of how to connect to the game and how to pay a subscription because few people understood how an online game even worked.

The Guild Counsel  Damion Schubert remembers Meridian 59 at GDC
Beta had no PK rules, so the spawn point was a sea of bodies. Schubert said he had to come up with rules on the fly, and ironically, many of them are still popular in PvP-based games today. Despite the chaos, the game was popular, and because the population was capped at 35, developers often had to kick players off so they could get online. There weren't many other games out there to serve as a comparison, but the team did adopt the philosophy of "what would UO do?" Schubert decided to go with UO's skill advancement system, which turned out to be a bad decision because it involved giving every skill its own path. The process was extremely time-consuming; the devs ended up spending a lot of time fixing bugs and exploits as a result.

Some decisions turned out to be extremely popular, though. One was the decision to put objects in the game that permanently boosted a player's mana pool. The devs created exploration puzzles all over the world, creating a social activity: Guilds would take new members through the world to help them get caught up on their mana pool. It's the inspiration for SWTOR's datacrons, and Schubert says it's similar to Guild Wars 2's vistas.

As the game grew in popularity, the team began to be stretched very thin. In fact, Schubert admits to having nightmares about failing because it was his first design job. Eventually, 3DO invested in the game, but that meant the team had only three months to get the game ready for launch. The game didn't ship with content, so it had to make player interactions interesting. The designers managed to get the guild hall system in at the last minute, which allowed the 30 guilds on the server to battle it out for one of 10 guild halls. Each one was different in quality, too, so that ideally you wanted to always work your way up.

The guild hall system led to all sorts of intrigue and in-game politics as players used stealth, betrayal, and all sorts of tricks to gain the upper hand. The irony, Schubert laughed, is that the guild halls were largely useless.

Overall, the server was surprisingly solid, and there was only had one server crash in the first six months (which was brought about when a GM tried to put a troll in a player's backpack). But there were some bumps along the way. There was a dupe bug that essentially devalued the entire economy overnight. Players ended up switching to angel feathers as currency, a reagent used to cast PK spells that dropped at a slow yet reliable rate.

Another issue was the long gap in the time it took to back up the server, which meant there was a window of time when players were in-game but nothing they did would get saved. This turned into a free-for-all and eventually became a event of sorts called blood frenzy. The devs even turned the sky blood red to tip off players and basically warn those who didn't like PKing to log off.

Schubert went on to recount other stories about the unexpected twists and turns of running Meridian 59 in an age when there were no metrics, very little research into the field of MMOs, and few other games out there to compare. It led to all sorts of unexpected behavior from players, guild, and even Guides. It's amazing to see how MMOs have changed in such a relatively short time, and it's thanks to games like Meridian 59 that we have ideas and concepts that are still seen in MMOs today.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.
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