In a couple ways, Asheron's Call was the youngest of the three MMO siblings that comprised the first major MMO generation. Ultima Online, the big brother, had prestige and legacy behind it, and 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. AC never got the recognition of Ultima Online nor the numbers of EverQuest, but this scrappy title became a fan favorite and endured even to this day -- beyond its own sequel, believe it or not.
Instead of plowing through a stale history report of Asheron's Call today, I thought it'd be fun to come up with a list of the eight most unique aspects of this fairly innovative 11-year-old MMO. Ah lists, how I adore thee -- let me count the ways. Eight ways, to be precise!
1. Unique fantasy setting
Are you sick of orcs, elves, dwarves and the inevitable scourge of hot-headed boars that rampage through every fantasy MMO world known to humankind? Yeah, me too, which is why I applaud Turbine's efforts to buck this trend way back in 1999 (and I truly wish we'd see more fantasy games that were bold enough to eschew tired tropes in favor of originality).
Asheron's Call took place in a world that was definitely fantasy, but not the fantasy of Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons and other derivative works. Instead, players encountered Fiuns and Mosswarts and Olthoi in their journeys through a world that was truly alien in scope. 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.
2. The allegiance system
When players are asked about features from older MMOs that should be implemented in newer ones, the allegiance system from Asheron's Call typically gets a strong vote. It is 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 would definitely be interesting if we saw this type of feature pop up again in a more populated game.
3. Magic system
To call AC'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 AC's run, than we're used to today. Still, Turbine didn't go the easy way out by dumping free spells into a hotbar and calling it a day. Instead, magic was a thing of rarity 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 would take a look at what spells were used how frequently and made commonly used spells less effective than rarely utilized ones. So if you got one of the rare spells, you hoarded it like an urban legend cookie recipe.
Turbine has long since simplified the magic system and made it far easier to both understand and use, but the legacy of its original attempt to do something different with it all says something.
4. Skill-based leveling
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 you to determine whether you wanted to specialize or generalize, and as a result players spent countless hours formulating builds to be just what they wanted to be.
5. Seamless world
It may not be the sexiest thing to talk about, but server loads, zone populations and lag are always a clear and present danger to the enjoyment of MMOs. Even to this day, many MMOs balance the load of players in their worlds by splitting them up between zones and instances -- but not Asheron's Call. Instead, the developers worked hard to create a seamless world that existed without zone divisions and could be run from end to end without a single loading screen. Again, not the sexiest aspect of the game, but truly revolutionary for its time.
And while they are well known for the oohs and ahhs that accompanied their vistas in Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine's artists showed that they could create a world full of environmental eye-candy even with primitive tools. Asheron's Call didn't boast the best-looking character models, even for the time, but the world itself drew a lot of acclaim for its beauty and variety. Between the looks and the tech, explorer archetypes had their plates full in this game.
6. Mods and bots
Turbine was pretty open when it came to the use of mods and third-party programs that could and often did impact the gameplay in AC. Back in this era, modding was far more prevalent, and bots a common sight. While there were mixed feelings all around as to the inclusion of such programs in AC, it showed that the company was willing to let fans join in on the creative process.
7. Story arcs
Long before the devs at Cryptic hit on the fact that players like small doses of regular content and stories, Turbine was pumping out monthly events and year-long story arcs in Asheron's Call. Players wouldn't just be logging into a static world that never changed, but rather one that had a compelling tale that developed over time and gradually shaped the landscape.
What's mind-boggling is that the devs have been pumping out these regular events and story snippets for almost 11 years now, as evidenced by the events page on their website. Each month boasts a patch and related in-game fiction, so players always have something new to look forward to every billing cycle. For example, back in September the devs released a new playable race -- the Undead -- as well as the ability to swap racial skills. Not too shabby!
Another aspect that we take for granted today that wasn't commonplace in 1999 was the ability to solo your way through a MMO. In fact, a player who lacked friends and a combat group would find himself quickly dead and deprived of items and XP in titles like EQ, UO and other MMOs.
While it wasn't quite as solo-friendly as, say, World of Warcraft became in 2004, Asheron's Call took a few huge steps in that direction. Because the world was level-based rather than skill-based, players weren't as limited in where they could go and what they could fight. The devs also put in a friendlier death penalty system (harsher than what we're used to today, but relatively carefree at the time) and programmed the mob AI to break off a chase once the mob had chased a player for a certain distance. Due to these three attributes, a player had the choice to solo or group and was not forced to do the latter.
Tell us your story -- or better yet, show us!
Were you part of the original crowd of Asheron Callers back in the day? Did you discover the joys of Dereth later on? Part of the Game Archaeologist's mission is to uncover the stories from those who were there and compile them into a historical record.
So if you'd like to send us your favorite memory from Asheron's Call, please email it to email@example.com (100 words maximum, please). Also, we're collecting player screenshots, so dust off those old folders and send in your best pics to the address above (include a description of the picture as well). These are due by October 17th, so get cracking, my minions!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.