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!