In appreciation for Dereth: The life and times of Asheron's Call
Imagine a game where magic was actually rare, complicated, and often underwhelming in terms of time vs. efficiency -- a game where players actually needed to study a language to figure out how to casts spells and magic words were often kept secret.
Imagine a game with little to no fast travel, a game where you need to raise your jump skill in order to get into certain locations, where death meant losing your gear. Imagine a game where you might actually have to ask another player for help, not only retrieving your corpse full of lost items from a physical space, but to kill the monster that'd repeated gained levels as you futilely tried to do it yourself.
Imagine a game where quests start as rumors from barkeeps, scraps of paper found on corpses in the wild, or just something you stumbled on in a random dungeon; a game where lore knowledge was needed just to find a newly released quest; a game where the developers and game masters took control of lore characters and during monthly updates would interact with players to help guide them through the game world's narrative.
Now realize that this game existed, exists. That game is Asheron's Call, not just at launch but for months and even years afterward.
This won't just be a history lesson, but a discussion of experience, new and old, as I've returned to the game to help take the rosy tint out of my glasses and see what's left standing on the island of Dereth before Turbine sinks it.
A living world
Made prior to the March 2004 update, this fan-made Asheron's Call movie is an ideal visual starter to what I want to discuss: a living world. Justin's covered AC several times in the past for our Game Archaeologist column, and he's done a great job for someone who wasn't a hardcore member of the community. With this video, we can see a few things that are hard to convey in text alone.
The game world, Dereth, was a living world until 2014, constantly being updated monthly (and eventually, bimonthly). Updates gave new items, but most were for weaker characters and those without loot luck (as the best gear was randomly generated and then improved via crafting), though they generally looked cool or had lore value. If you enjoy all the toys you get in World of Warcraft, imagine having a home to put them in or a guild meeting house to return to. Imagine your best gear unbound, able to be used, upgraded, outgrown, and sold, traded, or just given to new players in a world that dwarfs most modern MMO worlds, without instancing.
I doubt most of the action sequences above were sped up, as players could train skills to make them run faster, jump higher, and yes, hit harder, but also carry more. A burden system assigned a weight value to everything, from armor to coins, and being weighed down could lead to your death. Fall damage wasn't percentage based, and your ability to survive meant building a character capable of handling the fall.
The combat you see here, while occasionally using lore characters, is pretty accurate for basic play. Imagine hordes of fantastical beasts and alien humanoids coming to attack you, forcing you and your friends to fight with backs literally to the wall, being lost waist deep in corpses and having mere moments to pick through bodies for the best loot, balancing values with weight and all its implications, checking to see whether you had enough supplies to continue the fight or it was time to figure out your escape. Even for a melee character that mostly just had auto-attacks and self healing once they were properly positioned, fights were frantic and downtime, while long, could feel like a luxury rarely experienced in modern MMOs.
What you can't see, however, is the lore, especially how it related to the real world. In terms of language, Mayoi, a town name, is the conjugated form of "lost" in Japanese, which helped me remember it more easily during my studies. Asheron, the main character with a painful past, is Acheron, the river of woe, spelled phonetically for American English, which (among many other examples) helped me in my high school mythology class. The subservient Sclavus race's name comes from the etymology of the word "slave," which came in handy for my German class. There's a lot more (and even that's lacking!), and that's just the names, not the use of myth and history in the actual execution of lore.
Asheron's Call was filled with the potential for adventure, from lone mobs that would call down mountains of friends on home invaders to centuries old liches that remember the world long before the player cultures existed. The biggest example AC fans usually bring up when trying to convey the series' uniqueness in MMO history is the Shard of the Herald event. There's a decent write up of this on TV Tropes of all places, and Turbine's tribute video of the final battle helps illustrate the event, but it only scratches the surface. These writeups focus on the event, not the experience of everyday players. I'll try to rectify that in the future, since it was a great event, but it was a great scream on a great roller coaster.
When AC launched, people who chose magic had only a few spells at their disposal. There was no trainer who sold you your new spells. You needed to find scrolls, which were fairly rare and were worth a lot, or figure out the magic system. To do this, you needed to understand spellwords. As in many fantasy worlds, mages needed to speak the right words to cast their spell.
However, players didn't need to speak these words via chatting. Instead, they were spoken based on how spell components were lined up during spell research. Once a spell was learned (assuming the user had the correct skill level, in the correct school of magic, and didn't simple make a bad dice check to successfully cast), the spell would go into their spell book and could simply be clicked to be used.
While players eventually shared knowledge of spells, they turned against the game's design. There was a "magic economy," both personal and global. For example, if you kept casting Flame Bolt II, it would get weaker with each use, similar to how some fighting games also try to encourage you to use a diverse set of attacks. However, if you and your friends were all using Flame Bolt II, the skill would be weaker for all of you. This is why magic was originally envisioned as something to be kept secret, not hacked and dumped into an add-on so people could more easily become powerful wizards. In fact, Flame Bolt V became so over used that Turbine made a second bolt and simply gave it a new name and animation: Dark Flame.
Once it became common knowledge, magic was, in fact, overpowered. Not only did it greatly increase your stats and durability, but it hit much harder. While arrows and some magical projectiles could be dodged by stepping out of the way of the projectile, some spells automatically hit, even through walls. It wasn't until AC2 that the developers finally addressed the issue, which naturally angered the playerbase.
The difference between someone with or without magic was huge. I know, because I played the game for nearly a year as someone who lacked even basic magic for buffing my items, something that became "required" soon after I began the game a few months after launch. By the time I made a new character, even melee characters were strongly encouraged to essentially be battle mages, using magic to boost their skills and armor but fighting without a wand.
Player skills, not levels
Asheron's Call was a skills-based game. Not "skill" as in what the player has, but skills, meaning the attributes and qualities of the avatar. While these days you get new moves like Kick II, AC would have a general Kick skill, which would raise through use and/or by putting XP into it. Alternatively, if you raised, say, your Strength, your Kick skill would go up and increase in damage.
Levels naturally allowed you to have more skills and XP to play with, but using them "correctly" for the task you wanted mattered, and this could change through updates. In some ways, it could be harsh, since a single update could ruin your character. While we still have this going on today, most games have a level cap plus "endgame." Asheron's Call essentially lacked both. There was a level cap, but players were not expected to hit it. The skills system and reliance on quality (and often randomly generated) trade-able loot made it conceivable that fairly new players could participate in many aspects of the game in terms of PvE (though they may have died more often).
Because of this, a character you spent a lot of time on that suddenly became unfun felt like a waste, creating "flavor of the month" skill sets. I knew people who would make new characters based on the updates, get to maybe level 20 or so, and then feel "forced" to make a new one shortly after because something else got stronger than them. It wasn't too harsh though, as in the old days, most items could be transferred to a new character and used by them with few restrictions. Granted, they might not be able to access the magic on the gear based on skill checks, but they could grow into it.
However, those who invested in a single character did have a stat advantage. As I'd said, when I began the game, magic was still on the tedious side and a bit weak. Today, it's still more tedious than many modern MMOs, requiring spell components, a special item slot, and a lot of down time, but this is considerably better than it used to be.
As Asheron's Call had no official classes and used a skills based avatar system, there was no arbitrary "hybrid tax." Hybrids were weaker in raw stats than a "pure" character because they were spreading their stats out rather than focusing them.
The thing is, Asheron's Call, like any good MMO, is a multiplayer game. The way you made your character did matter, but so did player interaction. For example, as someone without magic, I was heavily invested in physical combat, but knowing my weakness, I specialized in resisting magic. The end result was that many people felt my character was quite weak, and often, they were right.
However, I made friends with people invested in magic. Social people who recognized that my raw combat stats were significantly higher than hybrids even a few levels above me. Because of this, my character really shined in groups in ways the solo-centered population hadn't considered.
For example, in one group I played with, a hybrid and mage both needed constant downtime after each fight during our quest. There were a lot of hybrid mobs, able to deal a wide variety of magical and physical damage. My partners' effective armor was high, but they were taking damage constantly, while I was mostly taking a quick spike here or there. As their magic didn't last long, we had to stop often so they would be protected, but my lack of magic meant I didn't need downtime.
Eventually, the mage figured out my situation and decided to give me a few key buffs. At first, it was just so I could make better progress while they were constantly buffing, but eventually I was essentially the tank. AC had no taunt skills, but with collision detection, the front player could use the environment to help force mobs to either attack her or keep the mob pinned so they would be an easy target. With the mage able to stand back and deal damage, the hybrid became a liability and was asked to act as my resource renewer, since I no longer required healing. He, ah, didn't exactly like that, but that's not the point. The point was that our various abilities organically came together because we'd chosen vastly different skill sets.
Magic is more common now, and apparently so is my way of character creation. As there are player-run "bots" that buff characters, it's more conceivable now to have a character without magic, and I have since met a few players like this.
Although I retired that character as my mage friends became more busy, it was a great experience that's sometimes difficult to experience in certain modern MMOs that strive for balance and solo content. Darkfall offered a bit of this, as my crafting character had huge stats non-crafters didn't, making combat-oriented avatars positively jealous when I'd get some magical enhancements. I'm hoping to see something similar in Crowfall and its character customization and growth.
Monthly updates and gamemaster events
Asheron's Call had monthly updates. They weren't just bug fixes or seasonal events; they were story arcs, and they weren't just limited to new expansions or promotions. Often, they came with a teaser that hinted at a new quest line. NPCs called "Town Criers" would give you rumors about what might be going on, and it was up to the player to determine what might be occurring.
Maybe they'd say a town was attacked. You'd go to that town and find that, yes, it was blown up. The players who formerly hung out there would be scrambling to figure out what to do, and among the rubble, you might find a weak enemy. You'd kill it and find a note saying it was living very north. Upon running north, you'd find a new dungeon, explore it, and at the end, get some shiny new trinket. Truthfully, it probably wouldn't be as powerful as random gear, but it would be good for a new player.
But the GMs also came into the living world, randomly or at set times to act out lore. Other times, you might simply be sitting around town and get a whisper. As someone who frequently helped other players, developers took note of your influence, and as a game character, would invite you to take a lore-related challenge to be used in a future event. They sometimes even just roleplayed with players, seeing how their characters were reacting to the changing world they're in. Only rarely would you bump into a staff member who was truly spiteful, like the GM that accused my friend of trying to crash the server, taking away his ability to speak, trade, and even "inscribe"- the act of writing on items that other players can see when they inspect the item.
Far from perfect
I've barely scratched the surface of the game here. Layered armor, character models with multiple strike points each having their own armor values, high-level content overlapping with starter areas, the value of a random loot system then vs. the mostly static raid loot system we often see now, multiple damage types and weaknesses for both mobs and players, internal minigames, various levels of PvP participation, the social value of dropping items on death... the game was complex and had meaningful social systems, but it wasn't without its faults.
I'll discuss this more when talking about Asheron's Call 2, but even before its (sadly unsuccessful) successor launched, AC1 had a terrible UI and input system. Even basic camera functions felt obtuse. The lore was deep, but easy to miss, and without context, could leave players utterly confused. Failure was a key ingredient to basic gameplay, allowing for plenty of highs -- but only if you could be patient enough to continue through the guaranteed lows. Server issues and rubberbanding made certain skills, like running, have a practical cap depending on one's computer and internet connection (oh, dial up, how I truly hated you). The ability to have an adventure meant a person needed to want to explore, so themepark players drowned in directionlessness.
Asheron's Call 2 sought to correct some of this in ways that World of Warcraft would also adopt long before Turbine tried to shoehorn them into AC1. However, the combination of the dated UI and graphics of a non-themepark MMO probably sealed the game's fate before most people would consider giving it a chance once MMOs really took off. Turbine continued keeping the world of Dereth alive long after many of us had moved on. Returning to my home has been a lot like returning to the US from Japan for me. I can tell I missed a lot of events. The natives have a language I vaguely recall. However, after having such different experiences elsewhere, I'm hit with a deeper appreciation of the strengths I valued before, new appreciation for systems I'd taken for granted, and a critical eye toward features that seem so easy to fix once you've been out in the world.