Interview Near Death Studios Mike Emmons

Unbeknownst to many of even the most die hard addicts of MMORPG’s, the now wide world of MMORPG’s just recently celebrated an amazing ten year birthday mark in the form of Meridian 59 on December 15, 2005.  Born as the sole product of Archetype Interactive and later acquired by 3DO in June of 1996, M59 was published in September 1996 and is most often cited as the first 3D massively multiplayer game. 

There will be many Ultima Online players who will be disappointed to learn that M59 is more than a year older with more than 25,000 players having joined the beta program that carried on until its commercial launch on September 27, 1996.  3DO abandoned the project August 31, 2000 and it was re-released by Near Death Studios in 2002.

In Honor of M59’s achievements and to celebrate this landmark vision which has cleared the way for a massive industry boom, we contacted Near Death Studios’ QA Manager, Mike Emmons, to pick his brains about the project, the industry, the games and the minds of those dedicated to heart of what we here at GamerGod consider to be one of the greatest games to ever see the light of day. 

1. Do you feel that M59 is the first true MMO or do you have another title in mind for that honor?
It all honestly depends on what you mean by “true MMO”.  MUD (now known as MUD1) was the first MMO in the regard that it had multiple people playing it at one time.  Dr. Richard Bartle truly paved the way for multiplayer MMORPG’s as we know them today.
We consider Meridian 59 to be the first 3D graphical MMORPG commercially available at retail, and that it paved the way for that particular business model. Also, “massively” has been re-defined these days, as companies are able to put thousands of players on each server; the number of players per server doesn’t affect the quality of the game.

2. Of the MMORPG’s on the market, who do you feel has come as close to M59 in purity of game play and original vision?
Personally, I don’t think anyone has really come close to Meridian 59 in the areas of character variety and meaningful PvP. These features are what keep our players sticking around for so long. These also make Meridian 59 more of a niche game, and as such, it may be a bit dangerous for larger companies to venture into same design plan.
However, if I had to choose one that came out of the closest I would say Shadowbane.  It’s a hard-core PvP game, but they haven’t quite matched all our features and they have a lot of other features in the game that separate them from Meridian 59.
3. Do you feel M59 has grown in a forward manner since being taken over by NDS?
Well, of course I do, though that may be a slightly biased opinion. Primarily, Rob ‘Q’ Ellis II, and Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green purchased the rights to keep the game alive.  With this vision, of course, came the realization that the game was still very, very buggy.
For the first few years that the game was back, and being run by Near Death Studios, Inc. we focused primarily on bug fixes, though we did add considerable content for the players to have fun with.  And, of course, the graphical update that we implemented with the dedicated work of MisterY, our graphics guy.

Through the years we have added new monsters, new spells, new areas, and updated a lot of the old ones as well.  We hope that the players feel, as we do, that these have been instrumental in keeping the game fun and alive.

We constantly have to walk the line between updating the game and maintaining the original spirit and feel of the game.  It’s tempting to try to copy elements from the latest and greatest big game, but we want to remain true to the roots of Meridian 59.

4.  What is it like working with Psychochild?
What’s it like working with anyone who is insane? Frustrating. Seriously though, Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green has been a great help in working with me to learn all the quirks and delicacies of the Meridian 59 code and how to run a service like Meridian 59.  However, mentioning just Brian would be a disservice to Rob ‘Q’ Ellis II.
Rob managed to teach me some of the intricacies of game design, and that nothing is impossible if your boss pushes you hard enough.  The combination of both of them has resulted in a great deal of knowledge that I hope will help me with my career for long into the future.

5.  Do you all talk much about the other games in the industry in such a way that has an impact on M59 Development?
Well, we all love to play other MMORPG’s.  Personally, I’ve played at least 3 other MMORPG’s with members of the design team.  We generally play them just for fun, and see what’s going on with the innovation of the industry.  It’s important to see where the industry is going even if we’re working on preserving a classic game.

6. What is your current favorite mmo and why?
I’m too busy to play MMORPG’s at this moment. =)  I was tempted for a bit to try out World of Warcraft boosting, but was told by some reliable sources that I’d never get any work done again.  Maybe Psychochild will finally return my emails one day.

7.  What plans are there for the future of M59, expansions, changes, enhancements?
Expansions are an ongoing process.  We tend to listen to all the feedback provided by the players (even if they think we don’t… =) and build off of that.  After all, we brought the game back for the players. More than once we’ve used player suggestions as a basis for expanding the game. Recently, the design staff has been a bit busy, but we’re hoping to begin pushing more expansions for the game in the near future.
8.  Who do you define as your core audience and why do you think they stick with a game many consider outdated while other still give M59 the highest praise possible?
Being such a niche game, our core audience tends to be comprised of hard-core PvP’ers.  In my personal experience playing the game, I’ve noticed that a lot of our players firmly enjoy the community aspect. In larger MMOs you sometimes don’t know a person even if you “know” them. Other players are sometimes just a chance to makes some money, or gain prestige.  In Meridian 59, there’s a good chance that you’ve run into to the person multiple times, and have gotten to know them by reputation. This allows for many different emotions, such as betrayal, anger, and vengeance to come into play, providing for a much more personal experience.
9.  What do you think about your community as a whole when considering how well they deal with each other?  It is no secret that some communities are cuthroat bastards toward one another while others tend to be close knit.

You get both sides of the coin in Meridian 59, sometimes from the same individual, even.  The person helping out a newbie today could be a fierce competitor tomorrow.  Alliances are made and broken on a regular basis, and you have to adapt.  You get a mix of people, including the usual blend of sweet people and vitriolic asses.
Quite a bit of our community seems to be very well educated.  Granted, there are some that will break down into insubstantial arguments over nothing, but when there are discussions about the game you notice that some of the players know what they’re talking about. They’ve been with the game, and experienced it so fully that they’re willing to fight for some of the aspects people disagree with.

10. Where do you feel the RP fits into today’s MMORPG’s?
Role-play is a touchy subject in most MMORPG’s, Meridian 59 included. Most people expect role-play to be spoken by the NPC’s not by the players, and in some cases will attack, verbally of physically, the player for initiating a role-play scenario.  Role-playing is a collaborative effort, and it’s hard to role-play if no one else is.
On the other hand, some people love role-play.  I’ve had some very detailed role-playing in Meridian 59 as both an administrator and a player of the game.  I find that role-play adds another element by bringing you out of your offline state of mind, and actually into the mind of your character.
The frustration comes into play when MMORPG’s are seen as pen and paper games of the past, just taken to the digital medium.  I believe that if more people left their offline lives behind, and really entered the mind of their character, they would have a much more fulfilling experience.
11.  Given the age of the game, are their any balancing issues you feel have yet to be addressed? Also, do you feel any game has been or can truly ever be “balanced” enough for players to have equal footing regardless of path or play style preference?

Of course there are more balancing issues, but some games are more balanced than others.  A game with more development has an advantage in this area.  However, I don’t think a game can be fully balanced, mainly in part due to the players that explore non-stop.  If you feel that you have a completely balanced game, there will come along a user who finds something new, and uses it to unbalance everything.  Or, you will add new content which tends to introduce new unbalancing elements.
I think that there is a certain level of unbalance needed to keep a game interesting.  This is one of the reasons I happen to like the school system that Meridian 59 utilizes.  A player can choose any number of schools to work with, depending on the restrictions placed by the intellect they choose in the beginning.  This means that there are hundreds of different ways to build a character.  If one build is overpowering, another player, a week later may come up with something that can probably overpower that character.

This is one of the drawing points of Meridian 59; of course, the ten years of balancing that have been put into the game.  There are ways to counter any spell, and ways to disrupt any counter.  It makes the game less about point and click, and more about thinking of how to destroy your opponents.
12.  What would you say is the leading cause of player subscription loss for MMORPG’s?
The leading cause, in my opinion, is boredom.  Players don’t want to do the same thing over and over for weeks at a time.  They want prestige, whether it is social or otherwise.  I’ve known some players that keep subscribing to a game simply because the majority of the player base knows them.  They’ll log in and talk to the friends they’ve made within the MMO.
Other’s want power, of course, and will kill their way to the top of the ladder.  Some games, however, don’t have a static ladder, do the player can be outdone by a player half their strength and skill. This player, most likely, will move to a game where their struggle for power is much more dynamic in play.
When you play something for as long as Meridian has been around, you’re bound to get a little bored.  Meridian 59, with its small community, and some may even say simplicity, has kept fans for longer than any other graphical MMO.  We’re willing to take players back, and they know it. Often, players will explore what’s out there, but a common fact I hear tends to be “It wasn’t Meridian 59. I missed you guys.”

13.  Does NDS have plans for future games and if so, can you give us some insight?
Making an online game is neither cheap nor easy.  Our goal of bringing Meridian 59 back wasn’t motivated by money, so we haven’t made much money from it.  On the other hand, we have accumulated a lot of experience in maintaining and running a game service.  We would, of course, like an opportunity to apply that experience to a new project. But, we have to find the proper time and money to do it right.

What would we do?  We think there’s some value in working with a niche audience.  Some people want to focus on making the biggest, but we would prefer to make the best game possible that meets the needs of a group of people.  We’d prefer to make a game that several thousand people will really enjoy instead of a game a million people sort of enjoy.  Perhaps one day we’ll be able to make that game.

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