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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72 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Asheron’s Call"

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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
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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.