This is my first attempt to put something up on the Web, so please bear with the construction.
The assignment was to write a critical review of a multimedia program. I chose to examine the recently released Meridian 59 by 3DO, which was developed by two recent Haas graduates, and sold to the 3DO Company for a satisfying sum.
Meridian 59 is the "first-ever Internet-based 3D graphical multi-user dimensional (MUD)" game. The game takes the logical next step of multimedia gaming from CD-ROM technology to the Internet, and it does so in a thoughtful and open-ended manner. Each player takes on a role within this futuristic, medieval-style world, and interacts real-time with other players' characters; human interaction is the primary driving force behind the game's progress. The game has been in beta test phase until its October 1 release date, and has so far met with an enthusiastic base of players. This new game model will surely be improved and imitated rapidly, and it will be fascinating to watch the evolution of new games, new applications of this model, and the microcosm of human interaction within such a fantasy environment.
The setting for the game is an extensive array of territories and cities. Each city has its own history, inhabitants, landscape, and focus (agricultural, intellectual, or commerce). The lands between include dense forests, sweltering deserts, snow-capped mountains, and quiet shorelines. These areas are populated by mystical and dangerous creatures, which are a source of adventure, peril and wealth.
When beginning the game, each player has the opportunity to create her own character. Features to customize include name, gender, appearance, skills, and other various statistics. Might and stamina are important options to choose for an aggressive character, whereas intellect and mysticism are more important for casting spells and self-protection. Over time, players maintain their particular characters and develop personal and group relationships with other players' characters. Guilds, or groups of like-minded characters, band together in common pursuit of adventure or protection, as would be expected in a "real" human world of thousands of inhabitants.
The game creators do a good job of introducing the environment and characters, as well as the logistics of moving around and conversing with others. As a new player in Meridian 59, however, I found the amount of information to be a bit overwhelming. Personal statistics such as health, mana, and vigor are displayed and levels continually change according to your activities. As an inexperienced multimedia player, I found that simply remembering the keystrokes and commands for motion and conversation required a "cheat sheet". I am confident that over time these instructions will be easier to recall and the icons around the screen less distracting. As one gains expertise, the numerous items available and levels of icons will continue to offer new challenges.
Real-time MUD play requires a substantial amount of disk drive space and memory, and greatly benefits from a higher-speed modem. As higher-bandwidth technologies become more accessible, interactive graphical games like this will become more realistic and user-friendly. Currently, however, the character motion is slow and "jerky", the graphics remain somewhat crude, and backgrounds overly stylized.
The biggest hurdle I see to total involvement in this fantasy world is the necessity to converse with others through written text. Clearly writing (or typing) dialog can be slow and stilted, though it does allow for effective scanning of many conversations and easy screening of potentially unwanted approaches. As real-time audio develops, however, people will likely be drawn even more deeply into such interactive worlds.
The social implications of an ongoing fantasy on-line world bring up more questions than can be answered in the scope of this paper. What types of people will be most involved in such a world? Will they more intrigued by the action/adventure or by the anonymity/role-playing? What will be the key factors in maintaining play?
It is currently too early to tell who will be most drawn to this particular game. The over-abundance of weapons and opportunity for anonymous aggression may increase popularity among the traditional video-game consumer (i.e.; 13 year-old boys and wish-they-were's), but there are several factors here that may engage others as well. Fantasy play based on mystical and intellectual skill may bring in older players, and the ongoing relationships and guilds may attract diverse players.
There is already some data from the beta test that is both surprising and revealing. Over 25,000 players participated in the beta phase development, from 65 different countries. Average play was 3 hours per day, with one player logging in 26 consecutive hours! Although Guilds are part of "official" play, no one expected the rapid development of such strong alliances. Over 60 Guilds have evolved, independent of the 3DO Company and each with their own rules, requirements, and web sites. In addition, personal relationships have blossomed and deteriorated, as evidenced by the 20 or so weddings and several divorces to date.
The opportunity to create a new identity and to "live" a fantasy life through games is apparently compelling to more than a few people. Aside from the obvious class issues of accessibility to technology required, what will be the most common characteristics of Meridain 59 players, both in the game and in "real" life? And what else might these folks be doing instead of living in their fantasy world?
Clearly other games will follow from this template. Real-time graphical interaction involves players together in a game beyond the possibilities previously accessed through CD-Rom technology. Plans are already in the works to expand Meridian 59 to include more cities and territories. Other games can be developed using this model with increased violence, sex, or any other "mass market" appeal. Hopefully, some worthwhile children's' and educational games will follow as well.
The concept, however, of interacting in a designed environment with other people is worth examining further. Some training or learning situations may be well-suited to this type of scenario. Circumstances where personal interaction is critical but unpredictable would be likely targets. Urban planners, for example, might do well to simulate developments using actual inhabitants before breaking ground or relocating tenants. Military strategy could be simulated in such a manner without casualties. In addition, factory processes and work-flow simulation could aid in development of efficient and environmentally sensitive manufacturing, and strategic collaboration could be practiced by managers before irrevocable business alliances are formed.
Meridian 59 takes the logical next step of multimedia gaming from CD-ROM technology to the Internet, and it does so in a thoughtful and open-ended manner. By designing a rich and diverse environment, based on a familiar yet futuristic story line, the creators of this game have set up a fantasy world in which human interaction is the primary driving force behind the game's progress. Looking at Meridian 59 as a new form of entertainment, it will be interesting to compare future versions of this game to the original, as well as watch the evolution of this model in other contexts. In a study of human nature, however, it will be fascinating to watch the development of human potential within this pretend world.