The Game Archaeologist: Asheron's Call 2

MMO sequels are funny animals. Sequels (along with prequels and "reimaginings") are ingrained into the entertainment industry so deep that it makes sense that MMO studios would follow suit. And yet these types of games -- with their ever-growing nature and heavy involvement with loyal playerbases -- are not always conducive to such projects. More often than not, a sequel to an online game becomes its predecessor's main competition, which is not a desirable outcome for the studio.

Perhaps back in the early 2000s, studios simply didn't know better. There's good evidence that the typical "hit video games need a sequel" mindset ran rampant across the industry, from the multiple attempts at Ultima Online 2 to the release of the don't-call-it-a-sequel sequel of EverQuest II. Perhaps developers didn't realize that MMO players didn't necessarily want to be uprooted and moved to a new game every few years.

While sequels, spin-offs and remakes are still present, the genre learned a hard lesson with Asheron's Call 2: Fallen Kings in the first half of the decade. Asheron's Call was a minor success for Microsoft and Turbine, and a sequel -- with vastly improved graphics and deeper gameplay -- seemed like a logical next step. Unfortunately, it was a Greek tragedy in the making, destined for a short but memorable life in our world.

The end of the world was only the beginning...

When contemplating a sequel to Asheron's Call, Turbine decided that more of the same wouldn't cut it. The team was going to take Dereth into the future -- and destroy the world in the process.

Yes indeed: Asheron's Call 2's setting followed an apocalypse of sorts that struck the world. Fortunately, the inhabitants got a heads-up in time and fled to shelters until it was safe to emerge. The world they returned to was vastly different than the one of Asheron's Call, and it was here that the game began, with nomadic factions picking up the pieces, sussing out the changes, and trying to reshape civilization.

Randy Spong tried to give players a feel for the game's background: "You have lived your entire life in one of these shelters, knowing nothing about the world outside, watching numberless scouts leave for Dereth, only to never return. But now, scouts have gone and come again! The world is inhabitable! It is time for you to drive off the evils that have forced your people to hide for so many generations, and reclaim Dereth!"

Asheron's Call 2 released on November 22nd, 2002, to fairly positive reviews and a smaller-than-expected crowd. "Let me remind all AC1 players that we have no intention to shut AC1 down when AC2 ships," Matthew Ford said prior to launch. "We think a lot of AC1 players will want to jump forward into the future and join us in AC2, but we don't want to force them to leave the old Dereth." However, Turbine was about to discover that the fact that a sequel might be superior in features and graphics didn't mean that the old guard would automatically up and move from their MMO home.

Bigger and better

Wisely, Turbine decide not to start from scratch with AC2 but to build off of the successful elements of the first title while making changes to become more player-friendly. For example, the death penalty was vastly reduced from the typically harsh event it was at the time, crafting was far more involving, and there was considerably more balance between the classes so that one type (i.e., magic) would not overpower the rest.

Players had a choice of three races and 18 classes to begin with, all of which had a hard level cap to give Turbine more control over balance than what it had encountered with the "soft cap" leveling system in AC1. Classes were tied to races, so if you wanted to be a Hive Keeper, for example, you were going to have to roll a Tumerok. Turbine kept to the holy trinity design with its classes, on top of allowing players to choose how they'd deal damage: magic, missile, or melee.

The main selling point of the franchise, regular monthly events that would change the world and give players new things to do and stories to experience, made a return in Asheron's Call 2. As the monthly events rolled out, they connected together to form memorable story arcs that had beginnings, middles, and ends.

Turbine envisioned a dynamic world where players' actions would make a noticable difference. During crafting, for instance, if players added fuel to a workshop's fires, the place would change in appearance to show off its improved state.

Guilds had an interesting, if flawed, allegiance system in which lowbies would fork over XP to those higher up in the chain of command in exchange for items and assistance. Unfortunately, it had the effect of encouraging guilds to open the doors to everyone in the hopes of getting free experience instead of being selective with applications.

KvK and sweet jams

While the game launched with standard PvP areas, players found ways to prey upon those just passing through for PvE activities, and Turbine was forced to rethink its approach. The developers then fashioned a Kingdom vs. Kingdom (KvK) system in which PvPers would ally themselves with one of three kingdoms and fight for that cause. Each kingdom had a fort that could be built up -- and attacked -- and by participating in KvK, players would gain access to special skills that they couldn't get otherwise.

Like many virtual worlds of its era, Asheron's Call 2 placed a high premium on giving players tools with which to roleplay. One of those tools was a unique (for the time) player music system. Unlike Turbine's later advances with Lord of the Rings Online, in which players could fashion their own tunes on instruments, the music system in AC2 established set tunes that could be played independently or together by in-game musicians.

Sound Producer and Composer Geoff Scott explained the thinking behind it: "After creating these melodies, I would write another instrument against it, making sure each melody worked with its sister melodies and against all of the melodies of another instrument. In listening to the melodies, I would balance the range, rhythm, and counterpoint of a specific instrument to provide the space in each section. Overall, there are 10 to 15 instruments with 10 melodies each. These melodies can be played over a multitude of mood-swapping background scores in any instrumentation and with any number of players."

The musical experimentation didn't stop there, either. Asheron's Call 2 even gave each mob its own small theme that blended in with the background music when players encountered it.

Awards and expansion

While it was not a hit with a huge cross-section of gamers, AC2 was certainly noticed by many critical venues and amassed an impressive amount of awards during its run. By the time the title was just 100 days old, it won "Game of the Year" from several sites, "Best PC Persistent World Game of 2002" from IGN, and many more nominations.

Asheron's Call 2 received just one expansion in its three-year lifetime, titled Legions. Released on May 4th, 2005, Legions added on to the world significantly. Through it, Turbine added two additional races -- the Empyreans and the Drudges -- and four more classes as well as provided much-needed content to AC2's endgame. Adventurers could, for the first time, travel to the mysterious land of Knorr and see who needed killing there.

The expansion's highlight was undoubtedly the Hero 2.0 system. At level 45, players underwent a Hero Initiation quest to unlock progress beyond level 50, effectively raising the level cap to 150. All players, whether they had purchased the expansion or not, could enjoy the benefits of this system.

Fading away

When asked in 2002 how AC2 would endure compared to Asheron's Call, Randy Spong gave an optimistic reply: "We have every intention of staying around equally as long with Asheron's Call 2, and delivering just as many exciting monthly episodes that will enhance both the story and the game itself."

Alas, this was not to be the case. The game's population, which was estimated to be around 50,000 at the height of its popularity, had plummeted to around 15,000 by 2005. Even as players were celebrating Legions' release, Turbine saw the writing on the wall and began plans to close it by the end of the year. Asheron's Call 2's small but loyal community was not enough to keep the game's finances in the black, and the studio had no choice. It announced the impending December 30th, 2005 shutdown in August of that year.

"The biggest factor [contributing to AC2's cancellation] was the subscriber numbers," Director of Community Relations Jonathan Hanna said. "One of the key lessons that we learned is the customer perception of sequels in the MMO space. They end up splitting your community more so than growing it. So they are counterproductive, unlike sequels in other game genres where they can be really successful."

At the time, the closing of Asheron's Call 2 was the most high-profile shutdown in the MMO indusrty, and gamers watched this online world head toward an expiration date in wonder. A One blogger observed, "The players aren't dying in real life; they're just being forced to disband. Their emotional state is thus more like the grief of an indigenous tribe that is being driven off its land by a megacorporation and is losing its way of life."

Returning for an encore

Seven long years passed, and mention of this title had faded to somewhere below a whisper. Then, completely out of the blue in December 2012, Turbine quietly announced that it was bringing back Asheron's Call 2 as part and parcel of the Asheron's Call subscription package.

Just as its shutdown had marked a historical moment, so its return -- understated though it was -- turned heads due to the fact that very, very few canceled MMOs ever get a second lease on life. In this case, Turbine already owned all of the IP for AC2, so there were no legal barriers keeping the studio from flipping back on the switch.

Of course, it wasn't like massive droves of players returned. There was an initial flurry of action on the AC2 server as curious gamers checked it out, but for the most part it and its older sibling have faded into obscurity, populated only by the most loyal and dedicated of fans.

As of this writing, Asheron's Call 2 continues to run, even as Turbine has tumbled from its once-prominent position as a leading indie MMO studio. Perhaps the best that game's fanbase can hope for is a few more years of continued life, a coda to what began back in 2002.

Screenshots courtesy of AC2isback.tumblr.com.

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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23 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Asheron's Call 2"

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amazonius
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amazonius

DugFromTheEarth I had much the same reaction.  They never should have named it after the original game.  It should have had a new name and lore.

DPandaren
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DPandaren

Necro Mage I wouldn't call it a pale clone of EQ. Mostly because a lot of the systems from AC2 was carried over and copied into WoW.

Overlord_Notir
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Overlord_Notir

Necro Mage  Your point of view is the one from someone who loves to play AC1, and never really got into AC2.

My point of view is that AC2 is a great game. Many things like KvK, the different classes and skills, many cosmetic things like the music, the tumerok drum casting, the lore, are all great things in AC2. Lot of things were better in AC1 , i agree, you had more freedom in the sense that levels meaned less difference in AC1 than in AC2, so you could almost hunt everywhere in the world and still make xp, and loot something Worth.
AC2 was not a bad game, i loved to play it for years, and still do atm, but sure, it was not AC1, so it could not get the most AC1 players to play it. But if you really got into it, even the greatest AC1 players would have liked it. I was one of those AC1 players who got hooked to AC2 !

I just wish they would make an AC3 game that would take the best of the 2 games with an up to date game engine. that would rock !!!

Denngar
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Denngar

Honestly, I'd be fine if they made the next AC game single player with multiplayer options, or lobby based campaigns/raids like Guild Wars 1. The AC lore is so unique and interesting that it's a damn shame to let it rot, Turbine (if you're listening ;(  ).

Necro Mage
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Necro Mage

AC1 was an amazing game and to be honest, there's still nothing out there that gives as much freedom as it did.
AC2 was an abomination that stripped away all the freedom and made it a pale clone of EverQuest.
Basically, it was the exact opposite of what AC1 players wanted.  (Which was a prettier and more refined version of AC1)

Jack Pipsam
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Jack Pipsam

ProfessionalNoob I think it's because the game was integrated with the Zone gaming network, I think it's kinda like how current day Battle.NET works in theroy, an all connecting chat system.
Problem is as you say, when Microsoft gave up on the Zone to pursue LIVE, it felt AC2 in a tough spot.

Jack Pipsam
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Jack Pipsam

This is an odd one for me.
I was super excited when I heard Asheron's Call 2 is coming back to life, but trying to play it now isn't great as it's in a beta mode.
Maintenance mode for a competed game is one thing, but if I recall Asheron's Call 2 still doesn't even have a working friends list.
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that they found the source code in a strange place and that very few of the current programmers at Turbine understand what is going on (Apparently the lead programmer from DDO couldn't make heads or tails of it for a while). Programming is hard and programmers are wizards. I am in no way suggesting that this is an easy thing to do.
But when Turbine pulled the update plug on both AC and AC2 at the same time, it left AC2 is a mode in which the dev who frequents the forums even said was disappointing.
It's a shame that Warner Brothers isn't willing to let them work on the game until its at least at quality where everything works before putting it in maintenance mode.
I have no idea how long WB plans to keep the servers up for, but if it's years, it seems like the least that could be done is to get the game out of a beta state.
Although I think Turbine knows they can't as it is burred, there's no information about AC2 on the AC website or Turbine account page. The only thing listed is a link to the client under "downloads" at the bottom to get the beta.
I also am a bit biased because I think AC2 sucked all the resources out of the resource pool of the up-to-that-point constantly updated Asheron's Call original.
On one hand, it's very cool that a once dead game has been brought back. That those who wanted to play it again, can do so in some capacity.
On the other, it's really broken, most likely never will be fixed and could be a reason behind the sudden stop of updates for AC1. I do think they did bring it back with the full intention of supporting it (otherwise why bother?) and I do think budget cuts from Warner Brothers stopped them from doing so.
It's true they aren't charging a subscription anymore, just buy-to-play, but then again they couldn't charge a subscription in good faith for something they've left to sit.
I am really conflicted about AC2, as it's a one of a kind situation.

Darthbawl
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Darthbawl

I liked the vassal/patron or whatever it was called XP system.  Getting trickle-up XP from people under you was pretty sweet!

Hurbster
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Hurbster

It had no loot and very few quests.(at least when I played it) and what few were there were buggy all heck.

Player driven economy., having to charge up that bloody forge in the major towns to get production bonuses.

Not all bad though, quite sweet Romanesque armour for humans. Awesome music system where each instrument played a specific part of a song. So if you got a bunch of people all playing the same song it was pretty amazing. Good world just to explore and see what is around the next corner.

Turbine were pretty good (at least initially) about sticking to monthly content updates, giving us much needed content.

ProfessionalNoob
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ProfessionalNoob

I seem to recall Microsoft really did a number on AC2 because they made them use some sort of interface which made chat really unstable. Any given moment chat would just die and everyone would go silent for hours.

After Microsoft threw up their hands, the Turbine folks scrapped the Microsoft interface and had a new one which worked a few days later but the damage to AC2 reputation and community had been done.

ddocentral
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ddocentral

I bought the $9.99 lifetime sub to AC1 and AC2 this month and installed both games. The forum community told me that perhaps 100 people are still playing AC2 but that AC1 has a population of 2k to 5k. Both games are still fun and are unusual in that they are science fantasy in the vein of John Carter of Mars or the Empire of the Petal Throne RPG (Tékumel).

I think an Asheron's Call 3 MMO could be successful as there is really nothing like this IP among new MMOs. The Crowfall sandbox MMO is being build for about $6 million (http://massivelyop.com/2015/04/16/how-crowfall-will-be-built-for-around-6m/), so I am sure that a quality AC3 could be achieved by Turbine for that amount and become profitable.

AC2's resurrection also shows that Infinite Crisis may someday make a return in maintenance mode, especially if Turbine releases another DC superheroes themed game.

ddocentral
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ddocentral

An Overabundance of Cats TheDonDude Mine too.

ddocentral
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ddocentral

"At the time, the closing of Asheron’s Call 2 was the most high-profile shutdown in the MMO indusrty,"

Typo (industry)

DugFromTheEarth
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DugFromTheEarth

While I loved the graphical improvements, as well as the more modern UI from the original game, AC2 was a HUGE let down.

AC1 stood out because of how different it was (system, mechanics, gameplay, etc) from other similar games like EQ1. However it seems that since AC1 wasnt the #1 mmorpg, they decided to copy EQ1s "model" instead when they made AC2. The end result was a game that had the lore, look and feel of Asherons Call, but played NOTHING like the original game. In fact, it sure felt a LOT like EQ instead.

Gone were the days of being able to take on a horde of 20+ olthoi or lugians at once, backed into a corner, frantically fighting for your life, in what for me was some of the most exciting parts of the originals gameplay. Instead, we were now met with the "fight 1 enemy at a time" mentality, slowing combat way down and taking a lot of the fun and adventure out of things.

In the end, all AC2 did was make me WISH they had simply taken AC1 and upgraded the graphics engine to what they used in AC2. (including the UI improvements)

Had Turbine decided to stick to what made AC1 so unique, rather than just make an EQ clone, its very possibly mmorpgs would be VERY different today.

TheDonDude
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TheDonDude

These archaeologist articles are a really fun read.

Gas Chamber Gerhan
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Gas Chamber Gerhan

Zulika_Mi_Nam Yea, It was kind of like Wizards of the coast and D&D 4E alienating the majority of their loyal players who left for another pnp game (pathfinder) or stuck with older versions of D&D, because WoTC thought they knew better and wanted to "shake things up" by doing something completely different.

CastagereShaikura
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CastagereShaikura

I still loved AC2. I had alot of fun in those older mmo's. Those were the best days of the genre.

Darthbawl
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Darthbawl

I loved AC2 until the Crafting 2.0 fiasco.  I loved the crafting system especially until that point.

Zulika_Mi_Nam
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Zulika_Mi_Nam

arktourosx I, and many others, thought that when Turbine bought the rights from Microsoft that the game would get a reboot.  When it did not, we thought Turbine was looking to be an engine supplier to others and step back from games themselves.  Once DDO and LOTRO came about we knew AC IP was just being left behind.

Zulika_Mi_Nam
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Zulika_Mi_Nam

AC2 was just an AC game in name and was the exact opposite of what AC1 players wanted.  It actually ticked them off as they saw a great IP getting pillaged and diminished. 

Microsoft was still running the show at the during the AC2 beta builds and any feedback related to "What does any of this have to do with AC? or What happened to system x?" was deleted from the Microsoft Group beta boards.  After a while those initially most interested, including myself,  just left testing as it was clear any feedback was really not welcomed and the boards were just there to say they had them -when they even worked that is, they were Microsoft boards.

I was super hype for AC2 and started playing AC1 only after I read about AC2 in an magazine and saw some awesome screenshots.  I started to play AC1 to get a feel for the world/lore, but I found AC1 to be a great open world and AC2 to be pretty, but boringly choice limiting in every aspect.

I do not know anyone from AC1 that played AC2 for more than a few weeks - I never purchased it, but it did introduce me to AC1 which I played for years.  Slapping every system, and the map unchanged, from AC1 into a new shiny engine
that would provide better graphics and more options for the future would have been awesome and when people say they want AC3 that is what
they mean.

arktourosx
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arktourosx

I always considered AC2 to be the precursor to the "modern MMO" we saw for many years.  It had virtually no dealth penalty and a "Talent Tree" style character design pre-WOW two things that were vastly different compared to other games at that time but became staple features of MMOs for years after that. 
The game itself was largely directionless, sandbox with a story line that ended and capped out far too quickly.  Most people hit 50 and were like "Uh...now what?" which was a huge culture shock from Asheron's Call 1 which had literally endless character development.  While they eventually did add that, it was far too little too late and most of the population had moved on at that point.

Koshelkin
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Koshelkin

A proper MMO sequel should be something like FFXIV: ARR. A complete overhaul of the exisiting game, with a new engine but incorporation of the game to date. Old players wouldn't feel forced to jump the ship but could keep enjoying "their" game, and new players would be introduced to something new and interesting.

If we look at older titles these modernizations shouldn't just stop at a graphic overhaul but include overhaul of whole gameplay systems. 2k4 combat isn't really the rage anymore these days, e.g..

Anyhow a MMO sequel should try to treat the fine line between incorporating their core players but still modernizing the game in such a degree that new players are drawn to it.

Tsiya
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Tsiya

Tonk4lyfe! AC2 was my first MMO. I still have my mug from Tumerok.com. I think what hooked me was the character flexibility(and having a spikey tail!). I started out with spears, then decided I liked the feral melee pets. Thus, the spear feral was born. And a lifelong  love affair with MMO's and forums that has given me a great deal of pleasure(and frustration) over the years.. It's been a long and interesting road, for sure. I picked up a new account last year I think, but I don't have the time or energy anymore to start over from scratch.

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