Asheron's Call lead designer talks 10-Year anniversary, the MMO market, more

Not many MMOs last a decade, and this week marks 10 years since the launch of Asheron's Call, the fantasy MMORPG by Turbine Entertainment. Releasing several months after EverQuest, the game held its own and found its way to becoming one of the top MMOs of its time, providing fond memories for many players.

"I'm very proud of Asheron's Call, even today," said former AC lead designer Toby Ragaini in an e-mail to Massively. "It really broke a lot of new ground and I still have people come up to me saying what a great time they had playing. That's a pretty wonderful compliment after 10 years."

Ragaini, who has since worked on Sony Online Entertainment's The Matrix Online and is now working on a casual web-based MMO called Faunasphere, reminisced about working on Asheron's Call and spoke about what it's like working in the MMO market after 14 years of being in the biz. Looking back at it now, are there things you wish you could've done or would like to add or change to Asheron's Call?

Toby Ragaini: Asheron's Call paid a steep price for being "different." What hurt us the most was an incomplete understanding of the importance of the new player experience. For example, character classes work because they are an easy but interesting decision for starting players to make. The skill based model of AC front loaded a number of decisions and was overwhelming for many users.

Similarly, I think having quasi-realistic human tribes replacing fantasy races was a mistake. It really cut down on the amount of visual difference available to player characters. Having short, burly dwarves and tall, elegant elves provides for instant recognition.

However, in other ways, our willingness to buck the trend paid off. I'm still very proud of the unique backstory and fiction that we developed in AC. It provided us with a degree of flexibility that allowed us to surprise users, and introduce monsters and villains that people would experience for the first time. And of course, we also stood out in that our environments offered vast seamless vistas. This was an enormous technical achievement at the time, and represented an incredible engineering accomplishment.

Can you talk about creating the lore for Asheron's Call? What influenced you? Was it difficult creating a whole universe for such a large game?

All of us on the design team grew up with Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien, Conan, etc. We were all products of these influences. Personally, I was always inspired by how Tolkien was able to create such a fully actualized world, and while I would like to imagine that we were trying to break from that mold, its almost impossible to do that completely when you're creating a fantasy world.

That green-skinned brute bearing down on you wasn't an "ogre," it was a "banderling." Was there a functional difference? No, not really but it made something familiar seem new again. But honestly, I think exploring the unfamiliar was one of the reasons AC stands out in people's minds. Never knowing what lies over the next hill is very exciting, and AC's original setting made this possible.

Do you think that there's still room for old and new fantasy MMORPGs to thrive or is that market getting too crowded?

The lesson of fantasy MMORPGs is one of continuously underestimating demand. In the early part of the decade, everyone deemed that EverQuest was the maximum audience a fantasy themed MMO could achieve. Of course, World of Warcraft proved that completely wrong. Something will exceed WoW eventually, and then that will be deemed the maximum.

Where would you like to see Asheron's Call go from here?

I am happy simply to appreciate AC for what it was: a labor of love that will not soon be equaled in scope and daring. For all its numerous flaws, it seems to have made a positive impact on many people, and I am very proud of that.

The Matrix Online recently shut down after a long run. How did you feel about that?

Crappy, thanks for asking. ;) It was expected, but unfortunate.

Do you have any fond memories of working on The Matrix Online that you'd like to share?

Uhm... well, it was very exciting to be reading movie scripts and shuttled around movie studios. But truthfully, I don't ever again want to work on a project where the decision making was so, uh...distributed. Ultimately, MxO was a very compromised game, and that was in part due to a great deal of unconstructive creative pressure.

After making MMOs like Asheron's Call and The Matrix Online, why make something more casual like Faunasphere? Were you tired of working on the hardcore titles?

Somewhere along the way, working on 80-person teams and $50-million budgets stopped being fun and exciting. I missed the working with a small, nimble team and more modest budget. You are able to be more adaptive, creative, and ultimately make less compromised decisions.

Furthermore, I wanted to apply the lessons I had learned making MMOs to a much more mainstream audience. Faunasphere is a game that we wanted our mothers to be able to play, and that became our rallying cry; a truly accessible MMO that didn't exclude anyone.

Did you take any design aspects from Asheron's Call or Matrix and apply them to Faunasphere? What worked and what didn't?

Sure. At their heart, MMOs are ultimately about allowing players to become emotionally invested in a world. This is accomplished through choices that represent who they are, or who they want to be. For Faunasphere, I wanted to take the sense of community, creative expression, and satisfaction of goal completion and apply that to an accessible, non-threatening environment. Is the experience similar to Asheron's Call or MxO? No, of course not. But it does represent how the concept of an MMO is much more extensible than what many people think.

PR tells me it's a "CMO" -- casual multiplayer online game. Is that what you're calling Faunasphere?

I like "CMO." Faunasphere really is very different from other MMOs. It's attracting a whole different kind of audience, which is mostly female, and yet I think folks might be surprised by how deep and rewarding the gameplay is. And while some of your readers are likely rolling their eyes, I would challenge them to check out Faunasphere. It's actually a fun little game, and even if they don't like it, I bet they know someone who will.

Do you see major differences between the casual MMO player and the hardcore one? And does Faunasphere try to appeal more to one or the other?

I think the differences are more about thematic distinctions than time investment. We're seeing all kinds of people enjoying Faunasphere, from the most casual first-time MMO players to grizzled RPG veterans. Its not a "kids" game or "girl" game, but it has been attracting an audience that is looking for a relaxing but ultimately rewarding experience.

As a veteran, what are your thoughts on the MMO market? We see many new MMOs, free-to-play and subscription, all the time. Does it seem increasingly crowded and increasingly risky to launch new MMOs?

Yeah, of course its very difficult to go head to head against the established players in the market. And there are an awful lot of copy-cat games out there. I think the opportunity is making more accessible and mainstream products, not getting into a knifefight with the big boys.

Is the free-to-play MMO market, specifically, too crowded? How do you think one can break through and stand out among all the free-to-play MMOs? Where do you see this market headed?

Yes, there's no doubt that the free MMO market is flooded with localized Asian titles. I wouldn't want to create a title in this space. Looking forward, we're actually seeing the fastest evolution of games in the social networks. This is a space I'm increasingly focused on, and while the current offerings may seem simple, they are reaching millions and millions of users.

Free Realms
is doing extremely well. Do you think it's hard to compete against a title like that backed by such a big company?

Competing in the children's market is always difficult. Kids grow up quickly, and they are always looking for something new. I think this space is extremely fluid, and don't actually consider Free Realms to have any kind of lock on that market. Being "big" is seldom an advantage when you're talking about quickly evolving entertainment experiences.

Why should players give Faunasphere a chance? Even the hardcore ones?

I think Faunasphere solves one of the major trade-offs of game design, effectively combining easily accessible gameplay with deep and rewarding replayability. Faunasphere is about wholesome and light-hearted fun and although the game provides plenty of opportunity for players to invest themselves, it is presented as no-commitment diversion. At its heart, Faunasphere is a game where players build the world they want to inhabit, so I hope your readers give it a try.
This article was originally published on Massively.