1. Damion Schubert's Meridian History

Damion Schubert's Meridian History

Authored by Damion Schubert

Q has mentioned that this is a ‘poetic’ version. Don’t take it for pure and utter fact. =)



How weird is this? I’m updating Lum’s with an essay by Damion ‘Ubiq’ Schubert (Lead Designer for UO2) about M59 while waiting for a GM in UO. Anyway Ubiq was Lead Designer for M59 before he was Lead Designer for UO2. I have a whole bunch of M59 stories that I’ll be compiling into a one large read but as this is rather humorous I thought I’d post it while I wait. It also gives me something to do while I wait. I am currently 146 in the queue. Woo woo!

This is the lighter, more amusing side of Meridian history. One might read this and assume that we were troubled, or screw-ups or clueless. I suppose, to some degree, that this is true, but for the most part, this was the golden age of Massively Multiplayer games - everyone was feeling their way through the dark, trying to figure out every aspect of the business, from technology to design to management to marketing to customer service and quality assurance. Answers that seem obvious now were still waiting to be discovered. I do know that the team that worked on Meridian 59 was, while I was there, the most passionate and hardworking team that I knew of.

Meridian 59 benefitted mostly from being in the right place at the right time. It had most of its network code done, in order to be a BBS door game, at the same time that the ability to use the internet escaped the college campuses and entered the homes of thousands of Americans. As a result, we were able to get to market very, very quickly. Perhaps too quickly, as we never achieved nearly the success that UO recognized.

Possibly the most interesting thing about reading the timeline below is that many of the odd problems, scenarios and conflicts that are now thought of as being unique to UO and EQ have been around for a very long time. Now that I’ve worked with former members of Simutronics (Dragonrealms, Gemstone) and Kesmai (Legends of Kesmai, Air Warrior), I know that these problems are somewhat endemic to the industry. Perhaps realizing this we can think of better global solutions instead of band-aids.

Getting Meridian 59 to ship and supporting it selflessly for 2 years in the role of lead designer is probably the greatest and most satisfying achievement of my life. It also gave me the majority of the knowledge, experience and maturity that I brought to take on leadership of the Ultima: Origin project. And while I may not agree with every decision that management ever made (a common enough event in any industry and company), I do feel enormously thankful to the 3DO Company for taking the risk to buy a fledgling company and invest so much into making it happen.

As for the game, I do not lament Meridian’s death but praise it’s life. Meridian had a great ride for something that started in a garage and had the muscle of EA, Sony and Microsoft waiting to crush it like a grape.

Zaphod and Zandramas wrote the core of the game systems at home. They form a company with a pair of brothers (one calls himself Meridian) to build a graphical MUD.

A friend and former player on a MUD I helped to run, Raph Koster, turns down a job at Archetype to go do something at Origin, and recommends me to Meridian-the-designer. I send him 20 pages of ideas, most of which I now recognize as complete and total crack. I get the job.

Archetype is a virtual company. I have never met any of these people before, in person. I have only interviewed with one person over the telephone. Everything is surreal and dreamy. I live in total terror that maybe this is all a joke and I will be on the curb come rent time. Miraculously, a paycheck actually appears in my mailbox at the beginning of the month.

I spend many, many, many hours downloading the latest builds of the game over a 14.4 modem. I discover the hard, grueling, stay up all night way that the Meridian editor will only compile rooms that have walls at 90 degree angles. Our lead programmer’s response is “Hmmm, that’s odd.”

I convince the team to hire my brother, Mocker. He proves to be a much better world-builder than I am.

The company start arguing about the name of the game. One member of the team passionately believes that the game should be called TOS, short for ‘The Other Side’. Attempting to placate him, I say, “Don’t like the name for the game, but hey, wouldn’t that make a great city name?” The city of Tos would be our first city, and always be our most popular one.

We settle on the name ‘Meridian’ for the game that we are working on, based primarily on two reasons: (1) we’re sick of arguing about it and (2) everything else we came up with was already taken or trademarked.

The name ‘Meridian’ turns out to be trademarked – it is the name of a printer driver somewhere. Rather than fight that battle, we change the name to ‘Meridian 59’, figuring we’d write some backstory that would explain what 59 meant later.

Meridian 59 hits alpha. It can hold a scant 35 people. It has 7 ‘rooms’, 2 spells, no skills, three monsters (all giant insects), 1 quest, and no form of PK control whatsoever. The newbie spawn point is a sea of bodies. The game is so full that we have to (randomly and without warning) kick people off the server to debug our own game.

Trying to get investors into the game, we want to show off all of our 1337 art. Problem, all of our customers are playing men, and our women look much better. I somehow get volunteered to have a female moniker in game. Mostly through laziness, I never bother to change it. Oddly enough (and thankfully), never as an immortal was I hit on, except by women.

In a time when we are desperately trying to impress investors, the original NeverWinter Nights closes down. Without warning, we are flooded with MMPRPG-starved fans. And they all want every single NWN feature.

One of my co-designers chooses a bad time to bug me. I haven’t slept in 36 hours, and I’m acting as the combination QA/CS department for our new alpha, frantically taking calls and bug reports from the fans when the designer sends me a completely random, out of the blue idea. I send him an extremely angry, confrontational /tell laced with profanity, press enter – and then realized I had sent a /shout, not a /tell. The entire game goes silent. I quickly log off and get some sleep.

Working remotely, we realize we haven’t heard from one of our contract artists in about a month, much less gotten any art from him. Given that he lives in Arizona, there is no way to check up on him. He later returns, mentioning mostly that he needed a ‘break’.

Broke, we hire a guy to build levels for free, some guy named Q. He turns out to be worth a hundred times that much. Well, more, anyway.

Running on fumes, we convince 3DO to buy us. They may still hate us for that. My salary was tripled overnight – and I was still grossly underpaid.

I meet my coworkers in person for the first time. We are all a lot less intimidating in person.

3DO doesn’t have art resources to spare, so we hire an outside art house to replace some of our art for us. For some reason, this house seemed to be under the impression that we were a Sierra-like game. As a result, a small segment of our art looked like it belonged in a Hanna Barbara cartoon.

In what may be the single worst ad in gaming history, we tells PCGamer readers that Meridian 59 is “The single most fun thing you can do with hundreds of other people without wearing anything made of latex.”

One of our new Guardians chooses the very original name ‘Gandalf’. When told by his coworkers that they were all going to start a tradition of having names that start with ‘Z’, he sullenly changes his name to Zgandalf.

Setting a time-honored precedent for the genre, we ship off our gold master off to duplication whilst still fixing server-side bugs.

3DO ships Meridian 59 on September 27th, 1996. Our marketing guy tells us that he spent lots of marketing cash to get the product on the endcaps of every CompUSA in the country. We pile into Q’s mustang to go and see our product on the shelves for the first time. It is not on the endcap. It is hidden behind a pole.

At launch, we have something like 20 different monster models, a full third of which are giant insects of some form.

Within one day of being live, Meridian has its first virtual prostitute, making that Meridian’s oldest profession.

I smite my first player, an annoying person named ‘Sexy’ who emoted ‘wraps her legs around you’ and similar phrases as I was attempting to tell her (in front of an audience) that she needed to stop killing newbies and doing odd things with their corpses.

We ban a guild for duping, as we finally catch on that the 10 bucks a jerk gives you is NOT worth as much as the 10 bucks a peaceful player gives you. The guild en masse writes to PCGamer.com, which promptly reports of our vindicative, evil Customer Service department on the front page. Our policy on not commenting on account cancellation prevents us from responding.

Our first major hack program goes into existence. I forget the name of it (“Meridian Extreme”?) Neatest feature – someone discovered that there was no room check on shopkeepers, so you could sell your loot to the shopkeeper from anywhere in the room.

http://www.3dosucks.com goes live. Just as good cannot exist without evil, and UO cannot exist without Lum, we feel our existence is justified. Far better than if they didn’t care enough to hate us.

Meridian Extreme is improved. It’s interface is now much, much better than that of the game.

Perhaps trying to compete with ourselves for worst ad ever for a computer game, we tells readers “The next time someone tells you to get a life, tell them you’ve already got one. A virtual one. Meridian 59”

Meridian wins GameCenter’s award for RPG of the Year, beating out Daggerfall.

In a round of layoffs, I am forced to lay off my own brother. We rehire him a month later.

Starting another fine tradition of MMPRPGs, in a desperate attempt at self defense, someone releases a version of Meridian Extreme which will log in your character, suicide your character, and log out. Our Guardians actually take great pleasure at fielding calls from cheaters begging to have their accounts reinstated.

The program ‘EZ Macro’ convinces me that I hate use-based systems.

We perform our first major ‘nerf’. Meridian 59 has a political system which gives bonuses to you based on what faction you are in and how powerful it is. The duke is too powerful, and so we (accidentally) overcompensate by making the princess too powerful. However, the term ‘nerf’ has not been popularized by UO and EQ yet, so instead I get an angry email complaining that we ‘castrated the duke’. I often wonder what the mail would have read if we had nerfed the princess.

We ship the ‘Vale of Sorrows’ expansion pack, after a long discussion with marketing about whether or not that is an appropriate name for a product released two weeks after major layoffs. Our new producer, a guy named Rich Vogel, defends the dev team’s choice in names, and wins.

A dupe bug renders money useless overnight. In an interesting economic development, the players almost immediately fall upon Dark Angel Feathers as a replacement currency until things return to normal. DAFs are valuable because they are rare-dropped yet stackable items and required to cast player-killing spells. Pkers have an interest in getting them, and non-pkers have an interest in keeping them out of pker’s hands.

We change the palette of all of the art in the game. The only art excluded is some of the very old textures used for the forests way back in beta. These rooms still exist, and the textures that were formally green are now orange, red and yellow. Mischievous Guides enjoy teleporting players to these old zones, and telling them that it was a new area we were working on that was half done, the land of the burning trees. We never successfully combat these rumors.

One of our Guardians parts ways with the company, muscled out for giving favors to his favorite customers. He is so popular that dozens of people write messages on boards that cover hot tech stock tips saying that 3DO is going down because they can’t keep their best CS people. Our stock actually dips that day.

The infamous GuideWozzle episode: a player volunteer Guide goes crazy. He goes to the Ghost room, and uses a bug to spawn several ghosts (by far the hardest monsters in the game). He then marches down the who list, teleporting people in the room one at a time. They have enough time to say ‘wtf’ before being cut down like weeds to a weedwhacker. I teleport into a room full of hundreds of corpses. I ban GuideWozzle. The last two people teleported into the room (who were saved by my intervention) immediately begin looting the corpses of all the other players.

Starting a time-honored tradition in MMPRPGs, a Guardian is banned for fraternizing with the counselors.

Not to be outdone by 3dosucks, a new website goes live, detailing how Q will give personal favors in the game for oral gratification. This is accompanied by doctored images of his in-game character. The entire team is quite amused. Except for Q.

In another round of layoffs, I am forced to lay off my own brother. We rehire him two months later.

We release Revelations, the second expansion for Meridian 59. It is a sizeable, tropical island that is hard to get to and full of sentient yet primitive races, and setting a precedent for the genre.

Setting a time-honored precedent for the genre, the advertising for the Revelations product has a scantily clad female that literally has nothing to do with the game. Given our previous advertising, we are delighted by this.

The stupidest thing the design team ever did: in order to get to the island, you needed to cast ‘dispel illusion’ to open an illusionary wall and enter the caves that led to the island of Ko’catan. Unfortunately, the only place to get the reagents for dispel illusion at launch were on the island. We quickly add a quest which teleports users to a new room which contains a new monster (hued version of an old monster) which drops the reagents as loot. The fans wildly applaud the brilliance and convoluted nature of the first opening of the passage to Ko’catan – except for a couple of players who said, “Funny, I tried doing exactly that quest yesterday, and nothing happened.”

The entirety of server 109 gets bored, and raids server 108. They don’t player kill. Instead, they all choose names starting with clone, as in ‘clone1’, ‘clone2’, ‘clone3’, ‘clone4’, etc. They all use the same character model and they only speak in binary. One person, the master, does all the talking for the group. Server 108 freaks the hell out. They blame us. We try to explain that we aren’t that smart.

In an admirable example of the community defending itself, a player on server 108 starts a new character, calls it ‘Clone16’, and joins the game. Immediately, the other clones include him in the clone’s in-game chat channel, and start talking normally, saying things like ‘ha ha ha! I can’t believe they R so freakd!’ He quietly listens. The next day, he posts a log on the message board complete with a listing of which clone is which 109 player, and which clone guy is cheating on which clone woman with which other clone woman.

I drop a rare artifact on the ground by accident. A nearby thief snags the item and runs off with it. When I found out what happened, I delete his arm. The team is stunned that this is even possible.

In a cunning grasp of the economics of the internet (and over the dev team’s strong objections), the pricing model of Meridian 59 is changed from $10 a month to $2.49 a day, but never more than $10 a week, and never more than $30 a month. This effectively tripled the price of the service, with the added benefit that it confused the people it didn’t insult. Hundreds of accounts are cancelled. Tragically, the move proved to be profitable in the short term because 2/3rds of the population did not cancel their accounts. However, the damage to the community was very, very deep, and Meridian never fully recovered.

I leave the Meridian design team to work on 3DO’s new project, Might and Magic Online.

Ultima Online goes live. Surprisingly, few people leave, partially because the gameplay is so different, but largely also due to the fact that most people who were going to leave already did so in the Price Change Defection.

3DO cancels Might and Magic Online, citing the ‘failure’ of Ultima Online. (Note: Origin kept their numbers close to their vest for quite some time).

The Renaissance update is released. I had little to do with this update at all, other than helping with initial designs. It introduced the Hunters and the Necromancers. The Necromancers got neat buffs, but had to feed their hunger by player killing. The Hunters got neat buffs, but had to kill Necromancers. Players promptly proceeded to powergame the system (using mules for necromancer fuel, thus allowing them to get the buffs without cost). They then complained that we never added any cool PvP scenarios for elder players.

I do a summary of all the magazine and web reviews that UO and M59 got. Meridian 59 almost nearly always had the better review.

I quit my job to take a position of greater responsibility at Origin. Before I do, I implement what is in my opinion the coolest easter egg ever – a room full of statues that pay tribute to the original design and support staff of Meridian 59.

At my new place of employment, a key member of the UO design team tells me that they were, at the time, ‘terrified’ of Meridian’s impending launch.

I log into the EQ chat rooms with my Meridian 59 name, while waiting for the servers to open for phase 4 beta. Humorously, enough people recognize me and start chatting Meridian old times that the volunteer in the room has trouble answering EQ questions.

The Necromancers had a safety valve built in. They had an achilles heel – the lich queen – who, if killed, would kill all the necromancers and therefore reset the scenario (removing the buffs). Since the necromancers and the hunters were conspiring to powergame the buffs, this never happened. Until finally, one player got bored. He killed the lich, with one stroke killing 50+ necromancers, possibly the single most impressive player killing action in MUD history – 50 death messages in a row, interspersed with occasional ‘LOL’s and “WTF”s does make for highly amusing reading. It had been so long since the lich had died that the necromancers actually argued that the Lich killer was a grief player.

Noted Meridian fanatic and self-admitted troublemaker convinces her company, World Fusion, to begin work on a massively multiplayer game called Atriarch.

A player, Ixit, achieves immortality in my mind by performing a feat of spectacular powergaming - something that I thought was mathematically impossible – by becoming a master in every spell and skill school in the game (most players are masters of only 3 instead of 7). When he tells me how he did it (a process of meticulous pingponging of skills in the use-based system that literally took hours a day for months), I say to myself, “wow, yeah, I guess that would work.”

EverQuest goes live. Given that the gameplay is similar but much, much deeper, it devastates the Meridian community. The diehards cling to the notion that EQ sux and M59 will rule forever, but numbers dwindle quickly.

While strolling through EQ with my Meridian name, someone gives me free healing, SoW and buffs because “your chat system didn’t suck like this one does.”

Meridian enters the new millenium with no 3D Graphics Card support and no hope of ever getting it.

Meridian 59 is #91 in GameSpot UK’s most important games of the Millenium.

A noted player, Dementia, is banned from Meridian 59. He attempts to get someone in trouble by doctoring the logs of a chat session, and sending it to a GM. Little does he know that the other player was that GM’s mortal character.

I log into Meridian for the first time in a year . “Oh my dear god,” I think to myself. “We never put mouselook in this stupid game.”

A key member of the AC design team tells me that they were ‘terrified’ of the speed that we could make Meridian happen.

Horizons core members Dave Allen and James Jones mention in passing that they were both M59 addicts, and that it came up frequently during their design sessions.

A general amnesty is declared for all players banned from Meridian 59. The exceptions are those “banned for credit card fraud, those banned for racist and sexist activities, and Dementia”.

A key member of the EQ design team tells me that they were ‘very worried’ about competition against Meridian.

I tell a former member of the Underlight team that we were ‘terrified’ about their impending launch.

3DO announces that Meridian will be brought down on August 31st, 2000.

Damion wrote this long-assed article.