Article based on interview with Brian Green of Near Death Studios
A few weeks ago at E3, I had a chance to catch up with Brian Green of Near Death Studios, the company hard at work on Meridian 59. The show had just ended, and as he and I were in the same hotel, we decided we could not leave E3 without one last interview each. So, in the hotel lobby, laptop in hand, Brian took me on a brief tour of his game and we chatted about where it has been and where it – and he – are headed.
For those who are not familiar with Meridian 59, it is perhaps the true “father” of the online graphical MMORPG. It predates EverQuest and Ultima Online, launching in 1996 around the same time as another classic: The Realm. Since then, the road has been long and winding for the team. At one point, the plug was pulled, only to see the game resurrected in 2002 by Brian and his small team.
The game offers much of what a player would expect from an online RPG. It is a skill-based system, with large and meaningful PvP elements that focus on player skill as well as character skill. The game also features extensive guild and political systems that should intrigue the average player. With years of content and balancing under its belt already, you cannot find a more mature MMORPG – a blessing when it comes to game play, provided you can stand the aged graphics.
Despite their lack of resources, the team overhauled the game’s rendering engine for a significantly modernized appearance in August of last year. Brian showed me the difference in real time, and it was quite a change. Is Meridian 59 as pretty as other MMORPGs? Hardly, but it has the benefit of age, a mature community and all the content that comes with that age. One mistake Brian admitted is that they launched their refined graphical experience last year at precisely the same time as World of WarCraft hit shelves, obviously, a very hard time to garner any notice.
Meridian 59 currently boasts two-thousand subscribers across two servers (half in Germany, half in North America), which is hardly significant when compared to a big commercial title like WoW, but not altogether unimpressive given the game’s age. Since the relaunch in 2002, the game has generally maintained solid levels of players – they are currently virtually unchanged from their relaunch peak.
Brian also spoke of the new content they have been adding. They have begun a referral bonus program, where players receive rewards for bringing others into the game. They also have quite a few plans for the coming months, including massive content updates, new monsters, new areas, and special areas for player vs. player combat. With a team of only three people, it is not possible to expect the content upgrades of most MMORPGs, but Near Death Studios is working hard to do what they can.
One neat area Brian showed off during his demonstration was a grove inhabited by faeries (the before and after pictures to the right show this area). In this grove, players had the option of killing either the good or the evil faeries. Based on their decisions, the grove would change. If a player kills all the good faeries, they can physically see the trees rot and the environment become dark. Over time, the good faeries return and achieve balance, but this kind of effect on the game world is something I have not seen in a modern MMORPG, let alone one from 1996. Brian also showed me the effects of annihilating the evil faeries. The contrast was remarkable.
While Meridian 59 is the focus, Brian cannot help but think of a new more modern project. One such dream, and to be clear this is all ideas at this stage, is the concept of a sequel to Meridian that starts in the Kingdom of the Nexus (the game, as implied by the name, sits on the 59th Meridian – all of these Meridians converge at the Nexus). This game would then branch out with expansions on new Meridians, ultimately allowing the team to do an expansion where they rebuild the aged 59th Meridian and brought it into this newer title.
Meridian 59 is a free download, and costs 10.95 a month to play. For those who are not too preoccupied with graphics, and want to see one of the grandfathers of the games currently on the market, this is definitely worth a look around. At last check, they also have a new free trial program underway. You may stop by for the history lesson or trip down memory lane, but in so doing, do not be surprised if you find that the old is just as fun as the new.