The royal city of Barloque was once a bustling virtual place. Its streets were filled with a babble of voices: residents visiting Joguer's Herbs and Roots store, tourists settling down for a tipple in the Browerstone Inn, griping criminals en route to the old jailhouse. Barloque is the capital of Meridian 59, the first computer game that allowed people from around the world to gather and quest together via the Internet. At the peak of its popularity, soon after the game's release, in 1996, tens of thousands of players lived among its crudely rendered scenes, filled with pixelated trees, shifting lava, and tired mountains. They'd battle over resources, form and break alliances, loot and terrorize one another, and assume new identities for hours at a time. As with any place where humans gather, friendships and rivalries blossomed. Two players who met in Barloque got married: a relationship seeded in fantasy, consummated in reality.
The idea for a "massively multiplayer online game" (MMOG) came from two brothers, Andrew and Chris Kirmse, who developed Meridian 59 in the windowless basement of their parents' house in Northern Virginia. The name refers to its setting, the fifty-ninth provincial colony of an ancient empire. More than twenty-five thousand people joined the game's public beta, and the pair sold the game to the now defunct 3DO Company for five million dollars in stock. Meridian 59 laid the template that subsequent online worlds would follow, but it enjoyed only a fraction of their success. The 3DO Company encountered financial difficulties in 2001, and sold the game's rights to two of the company's developers. They maintained the game as a commercial venture until 2009, but it was always a niche title.
Today, almost eighteen years after Meridian 59's launch, Barloque's streets stand quiet and vacant, its cobblestones buffed and rounded by little more than a digital breeze. They are rarely visited by more than twenty people in the world at any one time. With the release of each new MMOG like World of Warcraft (a game that, at the height of its popularity, had a population of more than twelve million), more residents left Meridian 59's servers, an exodus inspired, as for so many émigrés, by the promise of a more interesting life, with greater opportunities—new types of monsters to do battle with, perhaps, or more vivid spells and bigger swords.
A handful of faithful residents still remain. These players decided that their investment in this world was too great to give up. "I've tried to leave the game many times over the years," said Tim Trude, a thirty-three-year-old player from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who first started playing the game at the age of fifteen. "But I always return. Some of these people I've grown up with. We have been enemies or friends forever."
Relationships are often key in keeping people rooted to a place, but for many of Meridian 59's left behind, conflict is the glue that holds them there. Unlike most contemporary MMO games, Meridian 59 is focussed 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," said Andrew Kirmse, who is now a distinguished engineer at Google. "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."
Joshua Rotunda, a designer from New York who has played the game since he was fourteen, says that it's the high stakes risk/reward dynamic that first drew him in and continues to hold his interest. "My friend and I began playing at the same time," he said. "Shortly after starting, my friend's character was attacked and killed in one of main city streets by a gang of veteran players. Even though I was much weaker than them, and alone, I attacked the group. My friend quit the game, but I was fueled with the need for vengeance in this little world and drawn in."
Twenty-seven-year-old Samantha K, from northwest Oregon, who asked to remain anonymous to keep her virtual life from her real-life friends, was introduced to the game by her parents when she was also fourteen years old. During the past thirteen years, she's tried some of the newer MMOGs, but she always returns to Meridian 59. "I mostly enjoyed those other games," she said. "But the worlds were so huge, it was hard to get to know anyone. I didn't know if I could trust people or not. Meridian 59's smaller population keeps me going back. I know the game, and I know the people."
Meridian 59's lingering population has kept playing out of not only social obligation but also grim necessity. "You couldn't quit, really," said Matt Dymerski, an author from Ohio, and one of the game's best-known residents. "The game needed you. All your friends needed you. If you didn't show up, the game would die." Some nefarious players would attempt to force the game's population to quit the game, in order to cause a type of virtual Armageddon. "This actually happened four or five times in the game's ongoing life span," recalled Dymerski. "Each defeat generally required a huge update or change of ownership to draw the population back."
These moments have formed part of an oral history, shared between players within the game and outside, on external forums. Dymerski refers to the "great destruction of server 107," "the subjugation of server 109," and so on. He plays infrequently today, but continues to contribute programming, tweaks, and improvements to the code on which the world is built. Dymerski says that he stays put not only out of a sense of duty and community but also because he believes there are no satisfactory alternatives. "While there are certainly bigger MMOGs, I'm not sure there were ever better games," he said. "So we remain on Meridian 59, fighting with the same two hundred people we've known all our lives, always waiting for that next big update that might 'fix the game' and give us hope again."
In 2012, the Kirmse brothers released the game's files as open source so that anybody can play and join in the great work of improving the world. Now Dymerski works to update the game with the Kirmse brothers and a group of dedicated players. In the next year, they hope to bring Meridian 59 to Steam, the most popular global digital game store, to introduce it to a new generation of players. But even if Barloque fails to attract new tourists, Dymerski believes that the world will endure. He said, "Even if everybody else left, I'd just keep adding new content for the next fifty years."
Image: Meridian 59.