History of Meridian 59, 1994-2000
Meridian 59 was one of the earliest massively-multiplayer online games. It first
went online in December, 1995, and it was published in September, 1996 by The
3DO Company. Meridian was perhaps the first online game with a 3D engine. My
brother Chris and I originally conceived the game, and we served as the project
leads until April, 1997.
The early days
The original inspiration for Meridian 59 was the game Scepter of Goth, which was
run by a company called InterPlay in Virginia in the mid-1980s. This ran on an
IBM PC XT with a bank of 16 300-baud modems. Chris and I spent many hours
playing Scepter through junior high school. It was a standard multiplayer
fantasy RPG, complete with levels, spells, and killing monsters. We used the
same character names that we would later use in Meridian: Zaphod (me, from The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Zandramas (Chris, from David Eddings’
In the summer of 1993, I had just finished my junior year at MIT, and Chris had
been a sophomore at Virginia Tech. By coincidence, we both became summer interns
at Microsoft. I worked with some pre-release versions of Windows NT, and between
that and the upcoming Windows 95, it was clear that the days of DOS were
numbered. We had written a lot of games as a team growing up; now we were
talking about how cool it would be to do a graphical version of Scepter. We
figured the game would run over 9600 baud modems, it would have 2D graphics
(Doom hadn’t been released yet), and the minimum hardware would be a 486/66. We
wanted the game to be similar to Scepter in that it would be a medieval RPG, but
with more player interaction. We returned to school without any definite plans,
but just in case, we picked up as much software from the Microsoft company store
at employee discounts as we could.
During the next year I interviewed at a bunch of software companies, including
Looking Glass (who was working on Terra Nova and System Shock) and Papyrus
(NASCAR Racing), but I decided to stay at MIT one extra year to get my master’s
degree in computer science. This meant I had a free summer, probably my last
before having to get a real job. We decided that it was now or never: we would
have one shot at doing something new before being sucked into corporate America.
We spent the better part of our life savings on two top-of-the-line machines:
Pentium 66’s with 16 megs of memory and 500 meg hard drives. We set up shop in
the windowless basement of our parents’ house in Virginia, installed Windows NT,
networked our machines, and started to write the game.
Although we were both fairly accomplished programmers (we had each independently
sold commercial products, and Chris had written a complete debugger in x86
assembly), we had little idea what we were getting into. It took us three trips
to the local computer store to get the right parts to set up our two-machine
network, and we had next to no knowledge of computer graphics. We were both
young (I was 21 and Chris was 19) and knew basically nothing about the game
industry, or even the fact that there were huge companies somewhere churning out
games. On the other hand, our complete ignorance was a great advantage when
creating something that hadn’t been done before.
The previous year I had done a little research on Internet MUDs, which I had
never played before. I read the manual for LPMud, which had a C-like scripting
language. It was good to see that someone else had successfully used a scripting
language in an online game, but I thought that just re-implementing C lost the
benefit of a simple language that more people could understand. Being at MIT, I
was heavily influenced by the Scheme dialect of Lisp, and I also read quite a
bit about Smalltalk.
The first thing Chris and I did was design our scripting language, which we
called Blakod. It had C-like syntax and operators, but data structures were
built using lists. The language would be byte-compiled and then interpreted, and
there would be automatic garbage collection and a class structure with single
inheritance. Chris began work on the game server and Blakod interpreter, while I
wrote the Blakod byte compiler, and later started the game client. The game
server ran under Windows NT, but the game client had to run on the dominant
operating system at the time: Windows 3.1. Writing for Windows was a slow,
painful, and ultimately pointless exercise, as we eventually gave up and moved
to Windows 95.
By the end of the summer, we felt that we had the foundations of a game. The two
biggest challenges—the network code and the interpreter on the server—were done.
The client displayed a primitive 2D tile-based world, but you could watch other
players walk around, fight monsters, pick up items, and even cast primitive
spells. Chris had written a basic level editor and we had a few connected rooms
making up the world.
In the fall of 1994 we went back to our respective schools. Initially we didn’t
make much progress on the game at all. Then while we were home for Christmas
break, I picked up a book on graphics programming for PCs that described a
raycasting graphics engine on the level of Wolfenstein 3D. That week I rewrote
the client to use a similar engine. While we were excited to see some 3D in the
game, it was slow and didn’t actually look too good. Our hand-drawn trees and
brick walls looked even worse in 3D than they had in 2D. Still, there was a
spark of excitement whenever you would see another player walk up to you in 3D.
There was clearly potential.
I spent the early part of 1995 playing Doom II to the exclusion of all else. One
of the other people in my apartment in Cambridge was Keith Randall, who was
working toward his PhD in computer science; we took turns playing levels until
we finally completed the game. We started talking about how the Doom graphics
engine worked, and from some assorted Usenet postings, we pieced together enough
that we thought we could write something similar. Keith ported the client I had
been working on to his Macintosh, and we ran a coax cable through the apartment
to connect our machines. Over the following months, Keith wrote the BSP-tree
based engine that appeared in the final game.
Just before graduation, I ran across a posting on a Usenet posting by Mike
Sellers, saying that he was looking for people to help him write a graphical
role-playing game. I replied that Chris and I had already written one. Soon he
called me on the phone, and I described what we had done. He was very
interested, and we agreed to talk more over the summer.
Chris and I went back to our parents’ basement for another summer of work.
Although I had several job offers, it looked like the game had a good chance of
working out. The World Wide Web was just starting to take off, Windows 95 made
real game development possible, and most importantly, people started getting
Internet connections at home. The time was ripe for a game like ours, and
(although we didn’t know it) we were far ahead of anything else in development.
We phased out the Windows 3.1 version and the direct-dial interface; now the
game was Windows 95, played only over the Internet.
Mike and his brother Steve, who was finishing his MBA at Berkeley, worked on
finding funding. In the fall, Chris ran a server in his dorm room at school;
when we needed to do a demo for a potential investor, Chris and I would log in,
and Mike would run through a little presentation, logging in to the server and
showing off the game. We had a little bit of real artwork from one of the
Sellers’ other brothers, and we were starting to get some small financial
commitments. The Sellers and I met Chris at school to formally set up a
corporation, which we called Archetype Interactive.
Our first hire was Damion Schubert, a MUD player from Austin who had recently
graduated from the University of Texas. We later learned that Damion had lived
in Virginia, and in fact was in the class between myself and Chris at our high
school, though we didn’t know him there. Damion began laying out the geometrical
rooms that make up Meridian, starting with the city of Tos. (I had converted an
open-source Doom level editor for our use.) Damion’s brother Tim also
contributed some initial rooms.
With four or five people sometimes logged in to Chris’s server, we were starting
to get a feel that player interaction was going to be a major part of the game.
We read about LucasArts’ Habitat project
(http://www.communities.com/people/crock/habitat.html); we especially took to
heart the stories of how the system administrators dealt with bugs in the
system, and that “Detailed central planning is impossible; don't even try.” As
much as possible, we would have Meridian’s players run the game themselves, as
opposed to trying to script out their experience.
By the end of 1995, things were coming together. Over the Thanksgiving break,
Chris and I had implemented an automatic patching system, which we would need in
order to update the game once we had started a public alpha test. Keith had just
about finished improvements to the graphics engine. During early December, all
of us worked furiously to get the game to a playable state. We added a simple
quest (the quest for a gem in the caves under Tos), and character setup,
including simple customization of facial features. There was no character
advancement, no spells, no guilds, no ranged weapons, just the novelty of seeing
other people walking around in 3D and talking to them. We had no idea what to
expect, or if anyone would even log in. After midnight on December 15, 1995, we
put together the client install package for the alpha version, and uploaded it
to the Archetype Web site. The Sellers had worked a deal that let us run a
server at an ISP in San Jose, California, in exchange for the ISP counting all
of our Web traffic. Chris set up the server remotely, and we went to bed,
wondering how long it would take the first player to log on.
For me, the high point of the entire project came the next morning, when I got
up and logged in the next morning and found 4 other players online. One of them
was the owner of MPG-Net, an older online gaming system, who had solved our
quest and explored the entire game overnight. Our early testers were very
enthusiastic despite the lack of game play and the presence of numerous
crippling bugs. We entered a period of intense development, coming out with new
versions every 3-4 weeks. Damion showed interest in working more on game design;
he started learning Blakod, and despite this being his first programming
language, he was soon making contributions to the game code. We hired two other
contract programmers to work on game code, and also collected a group of
contract artists. Tim built many of the early areas around Tos and contributed
some Blakod routines. We recruited one of the playtesters, Rob Ellis, to help
with and eventually lead the construction of world geometry. Once Rob learned
the level design tool, he started producing rooms that we didn’t think were
possible given all the limitations of the graphics engine.
The game was gathering major momentum, but there were also severe problems.
Chris, while attending school full-time, was spending a huge amount of time
overseeing the game code programmers. I was in northern Virginia, Damion was in
Texas, Rob was in Connecticut, the Sellers were on the West coast, and our
contract artists were scattered all over the country. The game’s artwork, in
particular, suffered from poor organization and management, though we were all
feeling the stress from trying to produce new features, test existing ones, and
run customer support.
Chris made significant performance improvements to the server, and we started a
beta test in April of 1996. Where the alpha version could support only 35
simultaneous players and nearly always ran at full capacity, the beta version
could handle several hundred at a time. The game was starting to attract some
attention now; there was a story about the business in The New York Times, and a
preview in a French gaming magazine.
The 3DO acquisition
Kevin Hester, a programmer at 3DO in Redwood City, California, played the beta
version of Meridan and was impressed. He brought it to the attention of the CEO,
Trip Hawkins, and the Sellers met with him in the spring. 3DO was preparing for
a new Internet project codenamed “Wintergreen”, but they wanted real-world
experience with online games first. Chris and I flew out to California for
meetings with the company, and soon after, 3DO agreed to acquire Archetype for
$5 million in stock. I faxed our signatures from Chris’s college graduation, and
soon afterward we moved across the country to Silicon Valley.
There were now 5 beta servers running at 3DO, and we were adding features as
quickly as possible. Rob and Damion moved to California, and we met them in
person for the first time. During this time more cities were added to the game,
and we implemented the final version of the game interface, the guild system,
spells and skills, as well as finding the last few server bugs. Time was short:
the game was due to be released before October 1, the closing of the company’s
Unfortunately we had not done our homework on 3DO: the company was in trouble.
There were a series of layoffs soon after we arrived as the company shed its
hardware roots and moved to software. We watched as 3DO stock lost 75% of its
value soon after the acquisition. Besides being demoralizing, this affected us
financially because the acquisition was made purely with stock, and we were
unable to sell any until 6 months later. Meridian was the company’s first PC
game, so its marketing suffered immensely. Worst of all, it turned out that
Meridian was meant to be just a cheap pilot project for Wintergreen. We didn’t
receive any new team members after the acquisition, and all the contractors were
let go, meaning that we had only one artist left. The game’s graphics, never a
strong selling point, now became hopelessly outdated.
Meridian 59 was hurried out the door on September 27, 1996. Though we were
disappointed with the lack of polish in the finished product, most of our beta
testers were eager to get their hands on it. We were proud of the fact that we
were first, especially that such a small, young team had beat out the rest of
the industry. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a new idea from
concept all the way to a commercial product.
Meridian’s sales were not up to 3DO’s expectations. Chris and I had argued that
we give the client away to as many people as possible, and then charge monthly
fees. The standard $50 retail sale, on the other hand, allowed 3DO to recognize
all of the revenue for the game immediately on shipment, which made their
balance sheet for that quarter look healthier. When we proposed to do a larger
follow-up game, we were turned down, and told to “fix” Meridian.
However, we still didn’t have any additional staff beyond one new artist, so we
designed a game update with incremental improvements, including additional areas
and monsters. This was released as a free update called “Vale of Sorrows” in
March, 1997. At this point, Chris and I had been working on Meridian for 3
years, and it looked unlikely that we would have the opportunity to do anything
else at 3DO. The Wintergreen projects were cancelled and most of their staff
were laid off. We left 3DO soon afterward.
Damion and Rob stayed on awhile longer and worked on the “Revelation” and
“Renaissance” updates to the game. Some of the former Wintergreen staff also
worked on these updates, which involved major expansions of the game world.
These people, too, were eager to work on something other than Meridian, and 3DO
announced that they would start work on Might and Magic Online. However, this
game was later cancelled.
A skeleton staff maintained Meridian after this; I haven’t met them. The game is
still running on its original 10 servers. 3DO also licensed the game to Computec
in Germany, who translated it into German and runs its own set of servers.
Damion Schubert went to Origin back in Austin, and is currently lead designer of
Ultima Online 2. Rob Ellis moved back to Connecticut to spend time raising his
son. Chris and I spent a year creating a massively multiplayer strategy game,
but were unable to find a publisher. We then worked as contractors at SegaSoft
for a time on the Dreamcast Network. Chris moved on to Yahoo! to work on their
games, and I am currently working on Star Wars: Episode I Starfighter at
Though Meridian had many predecessors, such as Scepter of Goth, Legends of
Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights, and Internet MUDs, it was 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. It was
published over a year before Ultima Online; apparently the appearance of the
Meridian alpha test is one of the factors that caused Origin to shift its
attention and staff from Ultima IX to Ultima Online.
Meridian was ahead of its time in several areas. For many people using the
Internet for the first time, Meridian was how people actually “saw” people on
the other end of their chat messages. The game’s character gestures, such as
waving, added a personal feel to an impersonal network. Surveys showed that
women were a far larger fraction of the player base than is usual for PC games.
Meridian brought many of the phenomena well-known to MUD players, such as
real-life friendships and even marriages, from Unix to the PC.
Meridian’s sense of community and its global communication system, wherein
anyone on a server can communicate directly with anyone else, are still ahead of
today’s RPGs. In fact, Origin initially ridiculed the communication system,
calling it unrealistic, but later implemented the exact same system when they
found that it helped create community. Verant’s Everquest borrows heavily from
Meridian, although it improves upon it in nearly every technical area,
especially in graphics. Meridian’s user interface, while simple, turns up in
game after game.
In-game email and newsgroups, a guild voting system, rentable guild halls, and a
player combat arena made their graphical debut in Meridian. We took full
advantage of the platform to experiment with other devices to get players to
interact. You can even buy a chess board from an NPC and play chess with another
On the technical side, Meridian was the largest graphical online game of its
time. It was one of the early games written by programmers with a formal
computer science background, a practice that is much more common today than in
1994. We believe that this kind of discipline helped make the game more stable,
and allowed it to grow even after its original creators had left. In over 3
years of continual operation, the original server code has not crashed once, a
record still unmatched today.
Of course, Meridian also had its fair share of well-publicized problems. Players
were quick to exploit any bug or security hole. Several wrote macro-type
programs to automate combat and obtain an unfair advantage. The customer service
department was understaffed from the outset; between billing problems and
in-game disputes, customer satisfaction was often very low. All of the hate
mail, flame wars and death threats that plague today’s online RPGs hurt Meridian
For the authors, one of the most rewarding parts of Meridian is talking directly
with players, and knowing firsthand that they are enjoying the game. While parts
of the development process were frustrating in the extreme, the end result was
fun for a lot of people, and created a lot of friendships. For us, it was a
unique entry into the game industry, perhaps one of the last times when a few
individuals can beat out the major companies.