The Game Archaeologist: Asheron’s Call

It’s hard being the youngest child — you get the hand-me-downs, suffer through swirlies by older siblings, and eventually develop such a neurosis that it requires seven different brands of horse tranquilizers to make it through the day. Not that I would actually know, being an oldest child and all. But I suppose it would be a hard-knock life.

In effect, Asheron’s Call was the youngest of the three MMO siblings that comprised the first major graphical MMO generation. Ultima Online, the big brother, had prestige and legacy behind it, while middle child EverQuest quickly became the most popular at school. And then there was Asheron’s Call, poking its head on the scene in late 1999 as a cooperative project between developer Turbine and publisher Microsoft. While AC never got the recognition of Ultima Online nor the numbers of EverQuest, this scrappy title became a cult favorite and endures even to this day, albeit in maintenance mode.

The MMO world’s most unique fantasy setting

Founded in 1994 with the funds from a car accident settlement (seriously), Turbine Entertainment strove to create an online space that was far different than anything that was out or in development. For the next half-decade, the small team of college graduates crafted the land of Dereth, a fantasy realm that chose to eschew Tolkeinesque tropes in favor or something far more unique.

When Asheron’s Call launched on November 2, 1999, players found themselves stepping into a world where anything was possible. Adventurers encountered creatures such as the Fiun, Mosswarts, and Olthoi in their travels through this alien land. While AC wasn’t completely free of some traditional fantasy staples (hey, you gotta have zombies at some point — it’s MMO Law), it was obvious that a lot of care went into brewing up a new world instead of stapling together bits and pieces of already existing ones.

Asheron’s Call went beyond just strange creatures in setting itself apart from the pack. One of the most notable features of this new MMO was its allegiance system. It was a brilliantly elegant idea in its own way. Weaker players would swear fealty or allegiance to a stronger player. The patron would then receive bonus XP whenever his or her subject killed something and the subject would (theoretically) receive protection, guidance, and goodies from his or her sworn lord.

Through this system, a symbiotic relationship was formed, binding players together in a “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” contract. It was a pyramid scheme, if you will, although without the nasty connotations. Patrons had good reason to treat their wards well, because nothing was stopping the other players from finding someone even nicer to them. It’s a shame that this system didn’t catch on in successive MMOs; it would be really interesting to see what a modern game would do with it.

The magic word ain’t “please”

Instead of creating pre-formed classes with a limited amount of character customization (i.e., level-based), Turbine went the lesser-traveled route of giving players skill points to spend on any aspects of their character (i.e., skill-based). It was up to players to determine whether they wanted to specialize or generalize, and as a result the community spent countless hours formulating builds to be just what they wanted to be.

Magic was another issue altogether. To label Asheron’s Call’s magic system “convoluted” is an insult to multisyllabic words. Let’s just say that it was far more obtuse, particularly back in the beginning of the game’s run, than we’re used to today. Magic was more rare, as players had to discover spells through trial and error, endlessly looking for the most powerful variants out there. Even more interesting was the game’s spell economy system, which took a look at what spells were used how frequently and made commonly used spells less effective than rarely utilized ones. If you happened to get one of these rare spells, you hoarded it like an urban legend cookie recipe.

Turbine long since simplified the magic system of those early days, making it far easier to both understand and use, but the legacy of its original attempt to do something different with it all says something about the game’s ambition.

The team took other innovative steps to creating a user-friendly MMO, including building a seamless world without zone divisions, opening up the game to the mod community, and offering players the option to solo through the game (which was definitely rare back in 1999!).

The end of the neverending story

Perhaps Asheron’s Call’s greatest accomplishment is its dedication to providing an ongoing storyline. From November 1999 through March 2014, the team pumped out monthly events and story arcs as a matter of course. Players didn’t just log into a static world that never changed; they experienced an MMO with a compelling tale that developed over time and gradually shaped the landscape.

Asheron’s Call saw two expansions back in its day — 2001’s Dark Majesty and 2005’s Throne of Destiny — as well as a full-fledged sequel in 2002. While the sequel is a story for another day, one of the most notable developments in AC’s history happened relatively recently. In early 2014, Turbine announced that ongoing development would come to a halt for the title, ending the game’s storyline while leaving the MMO operating in maintenance mode for anyone who had purchased a copy. The studio also said that it was working on providing players with the ability to run private servers, although to this day that has yet to manifest.

For some MMO vets, Asheron’s Call is an ember that still glows in their hearts. I’ve heard players speak lovingly of this title over the years, gushing over how creative and innovative it was and annoyed that it didn’t inspire other titles in the genre to carry on the exploration into a unique fantasy space. If you were a player, I’d love to hear your memories in the comments!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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amazonius
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amazonius

I think my most memorable experience in game was making the run up the southern direlands coastline from the landbridge when the town of Ayan Baqur was added to the game.  That was an absolutely intense experience.  We were chased the whole way by hordes of monsters – crazy rolling armadillos, swarms of gold wasps that frenetically spammed lightning bolts, acid breathing rats, high level shadows spamming war spells and vulning us, and other assorted nasties.  To stop meant death and loss of the corpse.  You had to just run like crazy and constantly dodge back and forth to throw the spellcasters off.  It seems like it took hours – I did it with a friend and my patron and another guildmate.  Somehow we didn’t get seperated and made it in one piece.  It was an absolute adrenaline rush.

amazonius
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amazonius

I think the games original magic casting system deserves a little more
description because it was very interesting and very different from anything
else.
Please excuse me if I get some of this wrong – I am going on memory from a
long time ago.
First off you had to learn your spells.  Once you successfully
learned a spell it could be cast from your spellbook or tied to a hotkey. 
You learned spells by selecting different combinations of components and then
test casting.  Sometimes this could have unexpected results – every
helpful spell had a negative opposite so you could debuff yourself if you mixed
bad components.  There was a system to the components so once you started
to understand the components uses you could puzzle out the spells that were
possible and predict the variations.  There was also a skill aspect. 
The whole game is predicated on skill checks.  Everything has a skill
difficulty which is compared against your skill level and would fail more or
less frequently depending on how close your skill was to the difficulty. 
Therefore if you had the right ingredients but were attempting to learn a spell
above your skill level you might fail repeatedly.  The spells used up
components and failing at research burned lots of components.
The original spell components consisted of the following: 
1.Scarabs (determined spell level)
2.Herbs (determined type of target affected and positive
or negative effect)
3.Powders (determined by category of spell)
4.Potions (determined element type affected or attribute
affected)
5.Talismans (determined by category of spell)
6.Tapers (used on higher level spells and randomized for
each character)
The components generally were used in the following order:
1.Scarab
2.Taper (lvl 2+)
3.Herb
4.Taper (lvl 3+)
5.Powder
6.Potion
7.Taper (lvl 5+)
8.Talisman
As you can see the higher level the spell was the more randomized tapers
were required which made them harder to research.
When casting the spells your character would say nonsense magic words in the
chat channel.Those words were related
to the ingredients in the spells.Once
you learned to recognize the words to the ingredients you could pay attention
to the spells other people were casting and puzzle out some of the recipe.
In the beginning there was a spell economy as previously mentioned in the discussion
here.The more people casting a
particular spell at any given time the less potent it would be.This incentivized people to not share recipes
originally but with the internet such things didn’t remain secret.
There was a large array of spells that has since grown and changed, here are
most of the original spell types (originally with 5 or 6 levels of power on
most):
1.Weapon buffs (4 types)
2.Weapon debuffs (4 types)
3.Armor buffs (8 types)
4.Armor debuffs (8 types)
5.Lock buffs
6.Lock debuffs
7.Portal and lifestone recalls / summons
8.Protect selfs (8 types)
9.Protect others (8 types)
10.Vuln
selfs (8 types)
11.Vuln
others (8 types)
12.Health/stamina/mana
regeneration buffs
13.Health/stamina/mana
regeneration debuffs
14.Health/stamina/mana
conversions (6 types)
15.Attribute
buffs (6 types)
16.Attribute
debuffs (6 types)
17.Skill
buffs (maybe 30 types)
18.Skill
debuffs (maybe 30 types)
19.War
bolts (7 types)
20.War
streaks? (7 types)
21.War
arcs? (7 types)

wjowski
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wjowski

Benthalak wjowski 
Evercrap can go pound sand.  It’s a kiddie pool compared to AC.

amazonius
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amazonius

Digging through my old files I found this magazine ad from ACs launch in 1999.  Good stuff.

JohnT_NC
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JohnT_NC

Asheron’s Call was my first graphical MMO (before that I only played MUDs).
The standard coin was a “pyreal”, and everything in the game had a weight in pyreals.  So carrying coins would add to your burden, and if you were overburdened, it would affect your ability to run.  If you were extremely overburdened, you couldn’t jump.  You could trade coins for bank notes, but at a loss of value.  Eventually they added casinos to serve as a money sink.
Jumping was skill-based.  Hold the space bar down and it built to a higher jump.  Hold shift while charging up, and it would be a shorter distance.
So many of AC’s monsters were unique.  Reed sharks, Olthoi, Mattekars, Virindi, Lugians, etc.  Some of them would look somewhat normal, and then you’d notice they only had one rear leg.  It was really creative and unlike high fantasy.
I think AC implemented different damage types more completely than any other MMO I’ve tried.  There were 7 of them (fire, ice, lightning, acid, bludgeoning, piercing, slashing).  So you not only wanted to memorize and use the most effective type of damage for whatever you were fighting, but you also needed to protect yourself against the correct types.  Buffing up could be really annoying though.  “An unbuffed mage is a dead mage.”
The closest free-form character building MMO I’ve seen since AC has to be The Secret World, but the experience is completely different.

Psychochild
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Psychochild

ddocentral Obtuse is also (perhaps colloquially) used to describe something that is hard to understand.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obtuse (Definition 2b: “difficult to comprehend”)

Cramit
Guest
Cramit

This was the first MMO that I got balls deep into.  This game was truly an awesome game.  You were completely able to solo and could make a character ANY way you wanted.  Need more games like this, much like Project:Gorgon, which is being developed by one of the AC devs.  AC was a ton of fun and wish there were most successors to it.

BilfordWimbley
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BilfordWimbley

My absolute favorite part of AC was the changing of seasons and the migrating if animals. I remember lodging in looking for a specific mob to grind on by an Olthoi cave I used to raid for gear to sell. I logged in and saw snow everywhere, in a placed that I never saw it. Then I saw that the mobs in the area were completely different than what I was looking for. You just don’t see details like that in current MMOs. Oh! The occasional housing search was always awesome. I saw a lot if Dereth just running around searching for housing that was ready for the next patch.

steakncheese
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steakncheese

Darthbawl Thats exactly what I did. I miss AC2!

amazonius
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amazonius

Zulika_Mi_Nam Evelmike That reminds me of another interesting feature that was removed from the game.  When the game first launched there was a skill for identifying magical items.  The game performed a skill check against this skill and some stat on the items to determine if you could identify it.  I remember not having that skill and always imagining what cool stats that high level loot in the vendor inventories might have.  Some people would inscribe items with the stats so others could tell what they were without the skill.

Inscribing was another interesting feature.  All weapons and armor had a place you could inscribe a personal message on.  It was great for gifts passed down from patron to vassal.

finsbury
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finsbury

I really enjoyed AC, just not quite enough to keep me away from UO where I already had a community and friends I was playing with.

I still have fond memories though, particularly of those early sessions and logging into this wonderous, beautiful (at the time) and vast 3D world that I was exploring with gamers from across the pond.

It was innovative too, and had much about it that mmo games today would still benefit from.

Satanixx
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Satanixx

Way too many great memories from Asheron’s Call to list here but it’s still my favorite MMO ever.

It’s already been said here but I also would finance a true sequel to AC if I had the cash. Hell if they ever made a kickstarter for it I would def buy in even with my limited funds.

Lucifer’s Hand/Chuko’Nu – Thistledown

Darthbawl
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Darthbawl

*cries a tear or 10,000 for AC2*  I never played AC1, wanted to but never did.  I played AC2 in a good size guild until the Crafting 2.0 fiasco.  Most of us were jumping ship at that point to other games.  We mostly jumped ship to Everquest II.

thatchefdude
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thatchefdude

Necro Mage I’ve always thought it would be awesome if one of us on these postings actually amassed a great fortune through business or lottery or what have you, and founded a a studio to make an MMO for those of us pining for more of sandbox, it would be a true passion project, not one dominated by sales forecasts….

thatchefdude
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thatchefdude

I was there in 1999 when it launched, I was 13 years old, and me and 3 of my school friends all played together, I still remember our first steps in our first dungeon, I think it was called the Shoushi grotto or something…. I have great memories of my time in Dereth from 1999-2001 or so

Zulika_Mi_Nam
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Zulika_Mi_Nam

Evelmike  I had a similar beginning on Leafcull.  You just reminded me of the ability to buy things from vendors that other people had sold to them.
I used to port between the towns looking through vendors to find things the higher level players had sold off after their night of playing.
The first time my patron told me to recall to the mansion I thought they were playing a newb trick on me to get me killed.  About 5 people had to show up and recall in front of me to convince me to do it.

amazonius
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amazonius

tobascodagama I hate to be negative but realistically I don’t believe that Turbine has either the will nor the foresight to build a true spiritual successor to AC1.  Too many of the original developers are gone.  Their track record of removing differentiating features and following the game up with a me-too dumbed down AC2 game points towards a lack of understanding of why people loved the original game in the first place.  If they do release a game it will likely be a WoW clone that wont draw anyone away from the games and communities they are already established with.

amazonius
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amazonius

Rayko Nothing quite so satisfying as squashing a horde of 8 foot tall overgrown cockroaches.  My favorite villains.

amazonius
Guest
amazonius

Wakkander amazonius I think you are right.  A big part of the problems came in when the duration of spells was increased beyond about 10 min and later added to by creating multi-cast spells.  The original spell system was balanced by the shorter times.  You could cast a bunch of spells and make yourself nigh-invulnerable but you had to high tail it out before they wore off.

I wish they hadn’t removed the spell research and components feature as well.  It was a bit rote but I thought it was fun and immersive.

I never liked 3-school melee/archer builds, seemed like they involved too much casting and you could get enough of what you needed from the third school off your equipment.  This was hard to do early in the game when useful loot was challenging to come by.  Later on it flooded you with useful loot.

amazonius
Guest
amazonius

CistaCista amazonius Another feature of the housing was they had 1 or more treasure chests
inside you could store items in.  This was important because the game
implemented a burden system on characters that limited how much
equipment they could carry and how fast they could run.  It was nice to
have a space to store heavy items.  One thing about the burden system –
it caused players to buy multiple accounts in order to have storage
space for items – the characters used for storage were known as “mules”
in the game.  Housing helped reduce the need for that.  I do believe the
sub numbers were a bit inflated due to this.  I knew many people who
had 2 or more accounts.  One guy I knew kept 11 accounts.

amazonius
Guest
amazonius

CistaCista amazonius They created little settlement towns all over the open world map with maybe 5-10 houses in each settlement that you could rent.  The sizes and rent varied.  Some were guild mansions that took a ton of resources to rent.

CistaCista
Guest
CistaCista

amazonius   Non-instanced open world housing. Wait, what? Can you expand on that? Any pictures?

Wakkander
Guest
Wakkander

amazonius When they first did creature redistribution it felt like they ruined a lot of the early magic I experienced in the game. It used to be wild and dangerous, but then with the redistribution to make the areas near towns ‘safe’ you never felt the same kind of excite as you did before, running from town to town, unsure what you might meet on the roads.
Also the fact that long ago they decided to balance the game around the users using constant buffs, but not having a way for non-magic users to actually reliably obtain the items they need skewed it all towards being a three school caster+ melee or ranged, or just being a mage.

Wakkander
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Wakkander

Zulika_Mi_Nam pudgybunnybry Tandor Shadewalker Atoyot!

Wakkander
Guest
Wakkander

porktater Wakkander My sister convinced me later to drop $100 bucks to get EQ and all of its then expansions to play with her. (they then were bundled a week later I think, would have cut the cost nearly in half, sigh) She was the eldest and had moved out quite some time ago, but we had always enjoyed playing games together. I went into EQ expecting it to be like AC, after all it was the same genre right? Besides it was more popular, it had to be better!
AC1 had spoiled me though, and I just couldn’t get into EQ after having played it. It felt like I was leveling in reverse. In AC we would band together at the start to kill gromnies and reedsharks, but as we grew in power our freedom expanded and we were able to better explore and solo. In EQ I started off as a paladin, went about killing things with ease, but as I grew stronger the more limited I felt. It took 2-3 of us to kill those purple orcs, and then as I got higher, this time on a beastmaster, I started killing mushrooms on the moon, but that took a full group. Assuming you could get in one, the times I logged on and all the groups were full and there was just a bunch of us at the entrance waiting for an opening, bleh.
It was around the early 20s I couldn’t take it anymore, the forced grouping and zone based world frustrated me too much and I wasn’t even playing with my sister, the whole reason I got it, as she was leveling and doing high level content. So i quit and gave my sister my account for her alts. I tried to convince her to give AC a try but she was heavily invested in EQ by that point, and the thing that made me not get EQ to start was a selling point to her, she was disappointed she couldn’t play a hot elf on AC. She ended up meeting her second husband through EQ, and played it for years, never liking any other mmo that came after.

Evelmike
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Evelmike

I remember the first time I logged into Asheron’s Call. I recall making my way to Holtburg, trying to kill Drudges down along the river, so I could get enough loot to sell to save up for a sword I saw at the merchant in town. As I was standing there counting my Pyreals, another player approached. He was a much higher level than I, and was wearing some very intimidating armor, and a crown on his head. I recall asking if he was the King of Holtburg; I was quite naive!

That man, McNorth, became my first Patron. I would go on to play Asheron’s Call for more than a decade. I could fill volumes with the stories of my exploits in Dereth. I look back on those memories very fondly. They were some of the best times I’ve ever had playing a game. Perhaps it was because I played it during some formative years in my life. Perhaps it was because of the amazing community I was lucky enough to be a part of. Or perhaps it was simply because of how unique and fun the game was. Whatever the reason, I can say with absolute certainty, that no game has ever captured my heart and mind quite like Asheron’s Call. And I genuinely fear that no game ever will again.

I wished for years for a modern remake of Final Fantasy VII – that’s finally, actually happening. And if Square will do that, then maybe Turbine/WB will give us a modern Asheron’s Call.

I can dream, can’t I?
~ Drache the Destroyer – Solclaim

Blackloch
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Blackloch

Wakkander Sam experience here, accidentally signed up for beta and felt amazed right away after logging in (played on MT in live AC1). You never forget your first love I guess hehe, plus everyone else was new to this genre and there was not much information available outside of a few forums about  the AC1 world, no general chat etc….This kept it all very mysterious for a long time.

Would love an AC 3 but I fear it will only disappoint, especially since we are so spoiled nowadays with so many good games out there. Thanks for all the great memories though Turbine :-)

Benthalak
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Benthalak

wjowski EverCrack wants a word with you.

Jack Pipsam
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Jack Pipsam

LordSolarMacharius Jack Pipsam tobascodagama Yeah it’s on a buy-to-play system now, they only recently brought back the ability to create new accounts after a long period of not being able to.

wjowski
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wjowski

Asheron’s Call remains the only MMORPG worthy of the title.

Necro Mage
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Necro Mage

Avatar11 There is no EQN, it’s vaporware.
Sorry.  :(

Necro Mage
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Necro Mage

I still dream of a true sequel to Asheron’s Call.
One that embraces the ideas, skill-based leveling, unique systems, sandboxyness, and openness of the original, but with a modern polish.

LordSolarMacharius
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LordSolarMacharius

Jack Pipsam tobascodagama Same. However, this article made me nostalgic enough that I went out and bought a copy of the game for 9.99 from the Turbine store. It comes with a 50 year game card according to the site when I registered the key on my account. I sold my original account and characters on eBay way back before that was a no-no for almost 1000 USD. Although I needed the money, it was sad to let the account go.

LordSolarMacharius
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LordSolarMacharius

Wakkander I still have that box for Asheron’s Call :)

LordSolarMacharius
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LordSolarMacharius

amazonius Funny how fate works sometimes. An event in your life that seems like a misfortune turns out to be the turning point steering you towards you making your greatest triumphs.

Jack Pipsam
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Jack Pipsam

tobascodagama If they stopped doing updates for AC1 and didn’t finish bring AC2 out of beta, I doubt AC3 will ever happen sadly.

Jack Pipsam
Guest
Jack Pipsam

Avatar11 Everquest is famously the inspiration for WoW in many respects, key devs used to play it and chat ingame about their dream MMO which became WoW.

Jack Pipsam
Guest
Jack Pipsam

A part of me wonders if their attempt of resurrecting Asheron’s Call 2 had something to do with the very sudden lack of updates, as if they shared a pool of resources and it sucked it all up.
I know on the AC forums the devs lamented that they never got to bring Asheron’s Call 2 back to life in the way they wanted and so it just stands in an buggy beta version which we were told wouldn’t be getting updates at the exact same time as Asheron’s Call.
I mean they went to the effort of a new website, updated forums and all that, it seems like either Warner Brothers stepped in or AC2 sucked AC1’s resources.
Naturally the Turbine layoffs could also be involved with it.
A part of me hopes that one day there could be very soft updates for AC1 again, because I am convinced AC1 will be standing online when DDO and LotRO might not. Being a wholy owned IP is part of it and I assume it’s cheaper to maintain and run, since they managed monthly updates with a smaller team compared to the other two games with larger teams but it took a lot longer for an update.

amazonius
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amazonius

I think someone asked about the car accident.  You can find reference to it on page 3 of the original Turbine CEO Jon Monsarrat’s account of developing AC.

http://www.mit.edu/~jonmon/Business/Turbine/

tobascodagama
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tobascodagama

LordSolarMacharius As would I. I missed out on AC back in the day, and trying to get into it now just wouldn’t be the same. I’d love for a true spiritual successor, if not a full sequel. (Project Gorgon seems like an honest attempt, minus the intriguing patronage stuff.)

LordSolarMacharius
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LordSolarMacharius

tobascodagama I wish. I would buy it in a heartbeat. AC1 was one of my favorite MMOs of all time.

porktater
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porktater

Wakkander Funny story — I bought Everquest: Ruins of Kunark sometime around 2000, not realizing that it was an online game that required a subscription.  It sat on my closet shelf for another year until I opened it up, put the subscription cost on my sad little $500 limit credit card and started playing.  Best gaming experience of my life — the open world was stunning and so, so new.  Nothing else has ever come close.

Rayko
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Rayko

Sorry about the typos, I’m on pain meds so I’m a little out of it.

Avatar11
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Avatar11

Monthly story content patches? Guess what game has that that’s coming up and where get to discover the story? Yup, my avatar. EQN.

Denngar
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Denngar

This game really spoiled me in terms of monthly content for a monthly price. The sequel did the same, and my third MMO, Horizons (now Istaria) did the same. Sure, WoW was fun at first, but I remember realizing early on that I had to pay a monthly fee but got no monthly updates. I’ve tried a lot of MMOs, but the AC series really felt like the most bang for my buck, and it’s been hard adapting to the idea that this, sadly, isn’t the industry norm.

Gylnne
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Gylnne

pudgybunnybry Tandor Shadewalker Yep, and I applaud Turbine for not shutting the game down and leaving it running for the fans. Other gaming companies should take a clue from them and not shut games down.

Gylnne
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Gylnne

Tamanous Open world and exploration have kept me busy for many hours.:)

Avatar11
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Avatar11

So Everquest was the “WoW” back then and this was the “adult” game…What a weird feeling. Still happy with my choice when shopping in 99 seeing how im still playing one of those games 16 years later but, this seems pretty cool…

Gylnne
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Gylnne

“you hoarded it like an urban legend cookie recipe”
LOL You have such a way with words Justin.:P

“Perhaps Asheron’s Call’s greatest accomplishment is its
dedication to providing an ongoing storyline. From November 1999 through
March 2014, the team pumped out monthly events and story arcs as a
matter of course. Players didn’t just log into a static world that never
changed; they experienced an MMO with a compelling tale that developed
over time and gradually shaped the landscape.”
This is what made it such a wonderful game. I remember login in one day and the stone statues outside of the town I was in had come alive and were in the process of beating everyone up.

amazonius
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amazonius

A few other things of note that the game had even at its start in 1999 that many AAA games lack today:

1) Day night cycle with changing lighting conditions – sunrise, sunset, aurora borealis. 

2) Weather.
3) Seasons.
4) Monthly content that affected the world (I remember one content cycle where the moon in the night sky was affected and the rain and waters turned to blood.

Sadly some of this was lost to the new “improved” graphics engine.

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