Before the recent wave of excitement around new virtual reality technology convinced everyone that the future was inside of a headset, people longing to escape the constraints of their everyday lives invested their hopes and dreams in ugly looking worlds housed on distant computer servers. Massively multiplayer online games offered a meaningful substitute to the real world not because of how faithfully it could duplicate it, but because of how little it tried to.
People have met inside MMOs and gotten married as a result. Others have gotten divorced when a spouse’s obsession with their second life led it to take priority over their first. There’s a sense in which so many people find the digital worlds of MMOs welcoming and meaningful precisely because of their limits.
In the same way that some people communicate better over snail-mail or text message, some find comfort in their own skins only once they have replaced them for the jagged polygons of their avatar, forced to limit their self-expression and channel their identity through a specific set of rules and choices.
Meridian 59 was one of the first true 3D massively multiplayer online games. As designer Damion Schubert, who worked on the original game, explained in a GDC presentation, it was something of a bridge between the earlier aspirations of LucasArts’ 2D Habitat and more robust games like EverQuest. This week, the world of Meridian 59 turns 20 years old.
As Simon Parkin reported a couple years ago for The New Yorker, that world is no longer as bustling as it once was. The stakes that made it so palpable, however, still exist, offering the memory of a road not travelled by today’s more modern MMOs:
“Relationships are often key in keeping people rooted to a place, but for many of those left behind in Meridian 59, conflict is the glue that holds them there. Unlike most contemporary M.M.O.s, Meridian 59 is focused on dueling. Players can attack one another unprovoked and, if they manage to defeat their opponents, collect their loot.
The stakes in these battles are high. “In most more recent MMOGs, death just means an inconvenient reset to a nearby starting point,” Andrew Kirmse, who is now a distinguished engineer at Google, said. “Death in Meridian 59 has real consequences, so people have to band together into guilds for protection. They form emotional attachments with both their friends and their enemies.”
“We grew up on games where losing meant ‘game over.’ Just like in real life, we felt that some level of risk makes things more exciting. If there were nothing at stake, combat would be meaningless.”
Later additions, like faction wars, helped solidify the game around the crucible of death, making it seem an especially relevant predecessor to a new breed of MMO dominated by games like Rust and DayZ.
In a recent interview with Game Informer, the founder of Niantic, John Hanke, said that his experience working on Meridian 59 was crucial to informing his goals for Ingress, and later Pokemon GO:
We started it as an independent company, we were acquired by 3DO. Look that one up in Wikipedia — Trip Hawkins’ failed console game company-turned game publisher. But yeah, we brought that game to market, and I was there. We ran it for a couple years, and then I rolled of to do another company. I had a chance to soak in the early days of MMOs and some of the first online guilds that got formed and watching the whole social dynamic of that type of game emerge in the early days. That experience was definitely at the front of my mind whenever the concept for Ingress was being created. It was really very simply to take that MMO experience and hopefully the social-team cooperative gameplay element to that and bring it out into the real world.
Even though you’re 20 years late, it’s still possible to dip into Meridian 59 and observe the aspirations of its dying world. You can download the game and explore its brutal, anachronistic frontier for yourself here.