Interview With Brian “Psychochild” Green, Near Death Studios

GameProducer.net had a chance to have an interview with Brian “Psychochild” Green, Co-founder of Near Death Studios, Inc. and author of the psychochild blog.

GameProducer.net: Hi Brian and thanks for giving GameProducer.net a chance to have an interview with you. In the beginning I’d like to ask if you can give some background information about yourself and tell our readers how you ended up making games?

Brian Green: Well, I was always a game developer, I just didn’t know it. Growing up I had a fascination with games and got into computers mostly because of games. When I was in junior high school, I took a typing class. After getting done with a project, the teacher handed me a printout of a BASIC game to type in. After typing all that in, I got my first taste of debugging….

In college I played and worked on text MUDs. It wasn’t until someone came recruiting for a game company that I realized that you could make a living making games. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much graphics programming, so I got a boring Dilbert-esque job after college. Working with a recruiter who sent my resume to 3DO, I got a position working on the classic online game Meridian 59.

The rest is, as they say, history.

GameProducer.net: Tell us more about what you’re doing these days.

Brian Green: I still maintain Meridian 59, but I’m taking less of an active role in the day-to-day operations. These days I am doing more consulting work, taking the lessons learned from Meridian 59 and helping other projects. I’m currently working on a long-term contract with a company in Germany to develop an online game. It’s a very exciting project that goes beyond the typical fantasy combat game.

I also maintain my professional blog at psychochild.org. I write primarily about game development, writing, and how bitter the industry can make you. I also have a weekly feature called the “Weekend Design Challenge” where people think of interesting responses to issue I pose to them.

GameProducer.net: The game was originally published in 1996 by the 3DO company. Near Death Studios, Inc bought the game in 2001 and relaunched the game commercially. What’s the story behind this?

Brian Green: I originally went to work on Meridian 59 in 1998. I came on the team a little more than a year after the game launched. Unfortunately, by that time most of the original developers had left and 3DO was maintaining the game as a minor cash cow. I was hired on because I was new to the industry and cheap to hire. :) I also had text MUD experience, so I knew a bit about online games.

In 2000 I left the company after being reassigned to a single-player game project, and in August of that year 3DO finally shut the game down because they had no more developers. I’m not afraid to admit that I cried that day.

In 2001 I formed a company with Rob “Q” Ellis II, one of the original designers on the game. He was persistent and wrote the mangers at 3DO asking them to acquire the game that had little use to them. They finally agreed, and in late 2001 we bought the rights to the game, about 1 year after it had shut down. We relaunched the commercially game in 2002. It took considerable work for our tiny team of 4 people to fix the game up, develop an infrastructure, and relaunch the game. We funded the entire thing out of pocket: I borrowed against credit cards and Rob borrowed money from his family. We didn’t receive much outside investment, just a few hundred dollars from enthusiastic fans to help us out.

The game is still running: meridian59.com

Our main motivation was to save the game from oblivion. We got the original development server from 3DO, and the hard drive in the machine died literally just as we got the last few vital source files from the drive. The game came very close to being lost to history.

We’re glad to have brought back the game so that people can take a look at the history of online games. Meridian 59 was never the largest game, but it did have an important place in history.

The company has made back its money and is modestly profitable these days. It won’t grow to take over the industry, unfortunately, but the game is self-sustaining at this point and will continue to exist as long as I have anything to say about it. :)

GameProducer.net: Meridian has been mentioned year after year when people talk about MMORPGs. What was the key to game’s success?

Brian Green: Persistence from the developers! It was really an amazing feat that a bunch of relatively inexperienced people put together an amazingly stable and robust game like Meridian 59. And, after we bought the game we did a lot of work to let people know the game came back. Of course, with our modest advertising budget we could not reach everyone, so people are still learning that the game is back.

I also think that the game is special because it does cater to relatively niche interests. The game is unapologetically PvP-focused, and this means that it’s not for everyone. But, the people that enjoy this type of gameplay tend to really enjoy Meridian 59’s unique balance of interesting character development, interesting gameplay, and fast action.

GameProducer.net: What do you think about the current MMO games? Are they just repeating old formulas? What will be the next ‘big thing’ in MMO game development?

Brian Green: MMOs were really just ahead of the cycle. Given the costs of making a “next gen” triple-A title, people are understandably cautious about what they make. So, you see a lot of sequels and clones of games that have already been proven to work. An MMO already cost tens of millions of dollars in the last generation, so you saw the cautious approaches that have given us the games we have today.

So, yes, they are just repeating the old formulas. However, this is the most profitable thing to do if you can afford it. But, fewer and fewer companies can afford a Blizzard-sized investment into such a project.

I think the future of online games is going to be indie, niche titles. Yes, we’ll always have the large games like WoW, but it’s entirely possible to be very profitable with only 30,000 users. If you look beyond the subscription-based model, you can make a lot of money off of an even smaller playerbase. I’d like to see more of these games that cater to more specific interests instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on bland games that try to be everything to everyone.

GameProducer.net: Next a question I hear some indies asking every now and then: Can one man (or woman) make his dream MMORPG?

Brian Green: One person? Probably not. There’s a chance a single person could make a text game, but it’s usually hard to get people excited about that type of game these days. But, there are still some hard-core fans out there of this type of game.

One person can still do a lot, however. I could see someone doing most of a game and then outsourcing a small part of the game. Or, you could have two or three people making a game together. With a very small team like this, it would be easier to do something off the wall at low cost.

GameProducer.net: Then deeper to game production. Since you’ve been making online games for quite a while, you must have tip or two to share. Can you tell us what has been the most challenging element in Meridian 59 production so far?

Brian Green: As part of a small team, one of the biggest challenges is wearing so many hats. I had to do design, programming, business, accounting, and some legal tasks to support the company.

I think in general it’s tough to be motivated about things outside of just making games when you work at a small company. When you work at a big company you are usually shielded from things such as taxes and benefits. But, when you own your own small company not knowing about taxes can literally ruin your company.

I actually helped to co-edit a book on business and legal issues in the game industry. It’s called Business & Legal Primer for Game Development.

GameProducer.net: What about the most rewarding event in the production?

Brian Green: The feeling you get when you realize that your game touches the lives of many other people. When we relaunched M59, I had someone tell me in the game (paraphrasing), “I started playing this game when I was 12. I’m 18 now and am glad it’s back.” It’s pretty profound when you realize that this person had been playing M59 for *one-third* of his life. You also hear about people who play with loved ones and people who met loved ones in the game. It’s truly one thing to pour your soul into a project and see it launch and grow, but it’s just really awesome once you realize that you’ve affected real people with your game.

GameProducer.net: Then we need to know the truth. Which game is better: World of Warcraft or Meridian 59?

Brian Green: It depends on what you want. :) Seriously, I haven’t found a better PvP experience than in Meridian 59. The way you can build your character in so many different ways and the way combat is so dynamic is amazing. It takes a lot of intellect and strategy to win against other people.

On the other hand, Meridian 59 can be pretty intense. Sometimes you just want to zone out in front of a game after a day of work. Meridian 59 is definitely not the game for that. In this case, playing WoW might be better.

I’ve worked up fairly high level characters in both games and enjoyed them for different reasons.

GameProducer.net: You will be featuring in the upcoming IMGD conference. Can you tell little bit about the event, and who should attend?

Brian Green: It’s a pretty neat conference that is focused on indie MMO developers. I’m one of the main speakers, in addition to Dr. Richard Bartle and Jack Emmert. There seems to be a good variety of people speaking at the conference.

My sessions will be on international opportunities. Meridian 59 enjoyed some success in Germany as well as the U.S., and I’ll talk a bit about what it took to take advantage of international opportunities on a technical, business, and legal level.

Obviously, everyone should attend! Well, perhaps people interested in making an indie MMO should be most interested in attending. It should be a great conference!

GameProducer.net: Before the last question, I’d like to ask about getting a job in the games industry. In your bio you say “Hey, people can get paid to make games!” What would be your advice on aspiring game developers? What would you suggest for those who want to break into games industry?

Brian Green: The first advice I tell people is, “Playing games is not making games.” Don’t expect that you’ll just sit around playing games all day. Even if you get a job doing that (a QA tester), it’s not what you expect.

Beyond that, set realistic goals. You are not going to design your own game for your first job, no matter how cool you think your ideas are. Even if you are the “lead designer”, there is usually someone that came up with the game idea that you have to implement.

Also, do whatever you can to stand out. Get a college degree, make a game demo or mod, learn all you can about game development, be ready to pay your dues. There are a lot of other people out there that want to do the same thing; you need to show that you are the better candidate.

The most important quality you can have is perseverance. Expect to hear “no” a lot. It can be disheartening, but keep at it. Keep improving and keep learning. Learn to network with game developers and people will get to know you.

Finally, you don’t have to break into the industry to make games. If you really have a burning desire to make games, you can do that on your own. Learn flash and make a game. Keep working at it and learn more. Maybe you’ll eventually land in the industry through your efforts. Maybe you’ll found your own cool indie game studio. Or, maybe you’ll just have a cool hobby after you get home from your Dilbert-esque job. :)

GameProducer.net: In the end: what are your TOP 5 tips and hints that every game producer in the world should know?

Brian Green: Being an indie developer at heart, I’ll speak directly to the indie producers out there.

1. Don’t underestimate the business and legal issues. When you’re an indie developer, you can’t ignore these aspects. There have been far too many developers that have had great ideas, but poor business sense; these developers never last as long as they should. This is the reason why I helped to co-edit the book on these issues. They aren’t sexy, but they keep you in business.

2. Find exceptional people. As an indie, especially one on a small budget, it can be hard to find great people to do everything that needs to be done. But, these people are out there and are vital for your success. We’ve been lucky to have some really great people work on Meridian 59 over the past few years. Most of them came from outside the game industry. And, once you find them, remember to help them grow their careers as well.

3. Always work on self-improvement. Learn new things. For the love of all that is holy, learn some project management techniques, too; we do a terrible job of this as an industry. I know as well as anyone that when you have so many responsibilities it is hard to do proper project management. But, this helps in the long run.

4. Learn how to network. Especially as an indie, you can get lost in your own little corner of the world working on your own game. Go to conferences and meet people with similar interests. Sign up for a social networking site like LinkedIn and get connected to other developers. The industry is all about who you know, so make sure you know a lot of people. Even if you own your own company and it becomes a million-dollar success story, you’ll still want to know people in order to find your next star developer.

5. Have fun! You can grow an ulcer, make terrible wages, and burn out before age 35 in any industry. We work in games, and we should have fun. No, making games isn’t playing games, but if you never have fun then you will have a hard time making fun games. Remember: if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

GameProducer.net: Thanks for the interview.

Brian Green: My pleasure! I love talking about games. :)

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. very interesting thanks both of you. I must admit that I know very little about MMORPGs. Having been very addicted to RPGs in the past like Ultima, Baldurs, FF etc I have studiously avoided MMORPGs in order to prevent total immersion at the detriment to all other areas of my life ;-) but that’s just me, I sure other people know how to use MMORPGs responsibly.

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