Developers and players traditionally clash over what’s best for a game. It’s a fundamental difference in opinion; the battle between The Vision™’s progenitors and their primitive, pragmatic followers. Take a look at any message board, get deep into any game, and you can see the lines in the sand. Players are Us, devs are Them – common ground doesn’t exist in the land of internet anonymity. Any of Us who crosses the line is either regarded with deep suspicion or appealed to, like an Uncle Tom with a million owed favors.
It’s really not uncommon to hear about players becoming developers, joining with the “enemy” in order to make things better, or provide unique insight into a studio’s next title. But go the other way; what about developers as gamers? Every troll in the world swears devs don’t touch their own game; they’re too out of touch with what players want to have actually logged in since beta. But I didn’t believe that, and decided to seek out a developer who not only plays his own game, but does it with one finger over the gaming equivalent of The Big Red Button.
Brian Green is the Co-Founder of Near Death Studios and Lead Developer of Meridian 59, a MUD-like forefather of modern MMOGs. The game, released in 1995 by Archetype Interactive, existed as quiet, overlooked sibling to more successful MMOGs like Ultima Online and EverQuest, ultimately taken offline in summer of 2000. In 2001, Green – who previously worked as a developer – founded NDS and purchased the rights to the game, re-releasing it under the name Meridian 59: Resurrection. Over the past five years, Green has poured blood, sweat and copious amounts of cash into the game to give it a graphical update and client upgrade , as well as market it around the web. He also spends time on several message boards, preaching the virtues of the game’s PvP system to jaded gamers burned out on meaningless struggles. He also logs countless spare hours inside Meridian, for bug hunting and straight up gaming.
A guy in his 30s with long brown hair and beard, Green looks every bit the modern day mad scientist. He’s also a gamer, through and through; when he and I talk, we end up swapping tabletop stories rather than talking shop. This time, though, we stick to brass tacks and focus on his habits within M59.
“I’m a developer, first and foremost,” he tells me. “I have mortal characters I play and enjoy, but I always look at things from a developer’s perspective to find ways to make the play experience more fun and engaging. I also know most of the secrets ‘behind the curtain,’ so there’s not much to surprise me in the game.” Without ever being able to enjoy discovery, he’s cut off to one of Bartle’s four main archetypes – Brian just can’t explore his own game. And really, how much achieving can someone who’s worked on the same game for years really do? That leaves killing and socializing, both of which could easily get him noticed in M59’s small community.
“Once I join a guild, the bonds of friendship eventually cause people to learn more about me and to realize who I really am,” he says. “Once that happens, people fall over themselves to either kill me to claim bragging rights, or be nice to me in order to curry favor. I have a number of retired characters on the servers because someone figured out who my characters were.” And each time he rolls a new character, that’s time spent rebuilding his skills, rebuilding bonds with people. Imagine having to make new friends because some internet detective realized you leave out your apostrophes in the word “don’t.” And when you fix that quirk, someone else figures out you “hehe” at a bad joke and “hahaha” at a good one – time to start over. Green is a fugitive in his own game, a slave to his godhood.
Since he has to lay low, he doesn’t even have the luxury of killing people who piss him off. M59‘s PvP system is similar to UO‘s: You can kill anyone you like in most areas, but you’re branded a murderer. Since Green’s characters are already on the downlow, drop kicking a message board troll would only bring up more blips on the radar. “If I started killing every person that upset me as a developer, people would be able to pick out my characters too easily,” he says. Some people just have to be worth the reroll, though. “Some of the best times I’ve had as a mortal character were when I defeated a notorious asshole in PvP combat,” he finishes with a grin. I guess, even if it means losing your digital self, righteous anger always grips firm.
But really, how does he keep going? Sure, developing the game pays the bills, but getting in game just to get an idea of what players want can’t be worth having to repeatedly create new identities every time someone figures out who you are. “It’s still fun, but it’s like any other game you’ve played for a long time. Eventually it doesn’t hold the same spark of interest it did when you started,” he says. “Meridian 59 is based upon discovering information, so when you’re the one developing and implementing the secrets a large part of the mystery goes away.”
The fact he manages to keep logging in after eight years of living the dual life of a developer and player is amazing in itself. He’s brought on Mike “FattyMoo” Emmons to study under him and ultimately take over as Lead Designer, and since then, he’s been able to discover things someone else created again. But still, Green continually flirts with burnout. He finds keeping his plate full is the best way to counteract boredom. “I’ve been doing consulting work for other games in development and have been doing expert work at a law firm, helping to overturn a patent that threatens literally the entire online game industry,” he tells me.
But it’s not all bad. Playing the game – despite the dangers of losing a character to his own fame and burning out on your monthly income – offers Green special insight into his player base. Unlike forums, where “the fear of being ostracized for having a contrary opinion, or worse, being labeled an ass-kisser for supporting the developers” paints a giant target on your back, “talking to people in real-time through in-game conversations is much more meaningful,” he says.
And that speaks volumes for the type of dedication developers like Brian exhibit. The guy logs into his game, risking exposure and flak from those industrious enough to root him out, not just to blow off of steam, but to figure out what it is the teeming mass of humanity that plays his game wants. And he still finds a way to piss off half of his players, because according to him, “I have at least half again as many opinions as I have players!” But he and his ilk still make it into the game every day, despite the fact no one on the receiving end of a nerf will ever believe it.
We say our goodbyes and go through the usual rituals of kids playing at being grownups. We talk about future conferences we’ll be attending, poke some fun at a few mutual acquaintances and bitch about E3. And, as always, I leave Brian by regaling him with a story from Meridian and a promise to return someday, if only to say I’m buddies with the guy who holds the world in the palm of his hand.
Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.