Meridian 59, the first commercial, 3D massively multiplayer game, was developed by Archetype Interactive and published in September 1996 by 3DO. Meridian 59 was Archetype Interactive's only product; Archetype Interactive was acquired by 3DO in June 1996. Archetype was run by Steve Sellers, Mike Sellers, and John Hanke, with Andrew Kirmse and Chris Kirmse filling key technical roles. Damion Schubert contributed to the design along with a team totaling 22 employees and contractors. The game's technological base was initially inspired by Scepter of Goth.
The game was in an early beta stage in April 1996 when it was noticed by Kevin Hester and other game developers at 3DO. Trip Hawkins, CEO of 3DO, recognized the forward-looking value of the game and the company, and 3DO bought Archetype in June 1996. More than 25,000 players joined the game's public beta that lasted up until its commercial launch on September 27, 1996, beating its next major rival, Ultima Online, by approximately a year.
Although Meridian arguably holds the title as the first realtime three dimensional online role playing game, it lacks some features of its modern forebears. For instance, the ability to jump was not implemented as a function of character input. Any jumping required in puzzle solving is done by climbing an incline and falling from one platform to another. This is the same limitation that Doom suffered; the game used a similar engine written in part by the original developers.
Due to restrictions placed upon level designers by the graphics engine, many of the maps appear to have similar limitations to Doom. For instance, unnatural sharp edges are common, as are short walls that are placed to prevent the (non-jumping) player from entering incomplete areas of the world. Tree-lines are duplicate image stamps ,similar to tiled desktop backgrounds, and environment sounds are short clips from readily available sound sources.
However, the game contained may other features that modern games duplicate later: guilds had a dynamic voting system for changing leadership, customized sigils that appeared on shields, and guild halls that could be won or lost. There were also in-game bulletin board system (called newsglobes), a personal mail system that both players and NPCs could use to send messages, a political meta-game, and frequent expansions that expanded the world and gameplay options.
Prior to its release, the term "massively multiplayer" and the acronym "MMORPG" emerged in meetings within 3DO (beating out other monikers such as "large-n game"), as did the now-ubiquitous monthly subscription model. At the time, AOL was still charging per minute, though a change to flat fees was anticipated. The game received multiple awards, including the fantasy-role-playing game of the year for 1996. It has also had various updates throughout its life, each adding new monsters, spells, and areas.
3DO shut down the game on August 31, 2000 and it was re-released by Near Death Studios, Inc. in 2002. Near Death Studios was co-founded by former Meridian 59 developers Rob "Q" Ellis and Brian 'Psychochild' Green. A new rendering engine was added to the game in the Evolution expansion on October 2004, offering an alternative to its Doom-based graphics. This expansion also included features like dynamic lighting, rebindable keys, mouselook, and other visual improvements.
Players choose from seven skill/spell schools, six of which are based on patron gods in the game world's mythos: Weaponcraft, Shal'ille, Qor, Kraanan, Faren, Riija, and Jala. Each school has a different focus and application in gameplay.
The game is set in the 59th provincial colony of an ancient empire which explored the universe through portals in a magical nexus. However, several hundred years ago, something went wrong and the young frontier colonies in Meridian 59 were separated from the Empire. Now the land is in turmoil. Political factions fight for territory and power, monsters, trolls, orcs, and the undead threaten to destroy all life, and the magical nexus is in a flux, causing disasters across the land. Meridian 59 features six cities and towns: the rebellious mining town of Jasper, the royal city of Barloque, the thriving but troubled Tos, the peaceful farming village of Marion, the crossroads lake-side university town of Cor Noth, and the independent jungle island settlement of Ko'Catan.
While there is evidence of ancient dwarves and some other high fantasy races, players can only play human characters.
Shal'ille - Based on the patron goddess of rain and peace. Healing, protection, uncursing, harming evil, curing, resurrecting, and trucing.
Qor - Based on the patron goddess of evil and darkness. Damage, blindness, curses, and other ailments to control or harm opponents, as well as invisibility.
Kraanan - Based on the patron god of war and valor. Combat "buffs", resistance to various kinds of spells, attribute modifiers, and miscellaneous other utilitarian spells with practical applications in combat.
Faren - Based on the god of the earth and the elements. Mostly Area of Effect and Direct Damage spells based on lightning, ice, wind, fire, and other natural forces. This school also contains spells to resist the elements.
Riija - Based on the patron god of illusion and trickery. Spells used to deceive players or confuse monsters, including hiding information, summoning illusory minions, and spells to manipulate the mind. Riija is also home to the most powerful teleportation spell in Meridian 59.
Jala - Based on the patron goddess of music and artistry. The School of Jala is comprised of songs and jingles which have magical effects on all entities in the area, including negation of the effects of the other schools of magic, creation of potions and enchanted magical items, and mana and health regeneration.
Players can also join player-created guilds. These are typically just small groups of friends who help each other out and socialize together, but sometimes they are more elaborate than that. There are often guild wars, in which multiple guilds fight one another in mortal combat to seize resources such as a Guild Hall or to declare total dominance of the server.
Previously, players could ally themselves with the warring Necromancer and Hunter factions. These factions each drastically altered the way the game was played for their members, and there were great rewards for killing members of the opposite faction. When Near Death Studios took over control of the game, this element was disabled. Instead, this PvP scenario has been reworked into faction wars. Players take on the role of soldiers under one of the three factions, and each faction gives its soldiers special benefits. Soldiers receive a shield indicating their factional allegiance and gain additional stat rewards when they kill opposing faction members.
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.
Beta Progresses with many additions to the game, including spells, skills and, the "Guardian Angel" which restricted player killing until a player had reached 30 hit points.
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.
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.
Additionally the new zone, titled: The Vale of Sorrows was added. This area expansion included Fey (fairies) MOBs that came in two flavors, good and evil. Also, it added an additional Mana Node that could only be accessed through a concerted effort from around 12 characters.
Finally the Hit point cap (of 100 hitpoints) was enforced by resetting any player with hitpoints above 100 to 100hp and enforcing the hard limit on future attempts. Not to forget, A new high hit point MOB, the Luppog, was added to the sewer maps under North Barloque.
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.”
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.
Following the Revelations upgrade the backup function ("Server Save") was malfunctioning. For the first couple weeks players had to deal with multiple rollbacks (Rollback (SQL)) brought on by this unstable environment. Meridian 59 virtual society quickly degenerated into pitted duels wherever possible with no worry of future consequences.
Arguably the largest expansion to date, this expansion adds over 20 Mobs, over 25 new spells, and 2 new WeaponCraft skills.
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.
Of note, the Might and Intellect bugs were discovered in the Renaissance period. The Shal'ille spells of remove poison and cure disease were changed to be spellpower based. Meaning, they would only remove a portion of a curse or poison. So when players discovered a bug that allowed them to increase their Might and Intellect to 50, it became common practice for characters to have 1 might. (Character maximum levels was calculated based on starting intellect, not current. Subsequently the common knowledge of the bug did not affect its selection during character creation.)
Also worth a word, the Renaissance server (blakserv) was leaked to the public shortly after August 2000 and has been used by many "pirates" as a freely available server.
Speaking to Insurrection in a review: The new version features flagpoles in each area of the game, and members of either faction may claim the area for their side. NPC soldiers may be posted to guard an area, and will attack those allied with other factions on sight.
More importantly for PVP there was the addition of Free action and Eagle Eyes, these two spells created a more level playing field for players without Qor. Free Action acts like a barrier against the Qor spell Hold (which stops a player from moving or performing any spell/skill related actions.) Eagle eyes acted similarly against the Qor spell Blind. The PVP situation up until then had when a Qor caster was involved had been about preventing the Qor player from casting hold or blind, now players had a fallback when they couldn't do so.
Other than the Flag Game, Free Action, and Eagle Eyes, bug fixes were the majority of this update.
All expansions are free to subscribers and do not cost extra. The game has also had numerous small updates patched to the game between the large-named expansions, particularly since its relaunch in 2002.
Players are only allowed to create two characters per account, and only one character per account is allowed online at a time. Meridian 59 players routinely operate multiple accounts simultaneously garnering the benefits of twice the inventory capacity, and twice the learning ability (as characters have been limited on the number of spells and skills they could learn since the Revelations expansion.)
The commercial game, which is patched free-of-charge for all subscribers, has a small loyal following of fans many of whom have enjoyed the game since its inception over ten years ago.