The Game Archaeologist answers Asheron's Call 2: The former dev

The Game Archaeologist -- AC2
I've been a long-time follower of Eric Heimburg on his blog, Elder Game, where he and a friend have spent years delivering insightful commentary about MMOs and supermodels (well, mostly MMOs). Because I'm not that observant a fellow and I assume that most fellow bloggers are mere players like I am, I didn't realize until a little while ago that he and his co-writer were former Turbine developers who had worked on Asheron's Call and Asheron's Call 2.

You can see where this is going.

Once I learned that, I knew I had to get him to contribute to this series. I began a multi-year wooing campaign that involved skywriting, cupcakes, celebrity kiss-o-grams, envelopes stuffed with unmarked bills, and all the tea in China. Of course, this was well after he'd already said "yes" to it, but I like to keep up appearances.

So hit the jump as I talk to a guy who was on the flipside of Asheron's Call 2 as a producer and generally swell fella!

Asheron's Call 2 fountain
The Game Archaeologist: When did you get hired by Turbine, and what was it like when you first started with the company?

Eric Heimburg: I started at the beginning of 2001. Turbine was a very tech-heavy company at the time. It was founded by a team of engineering prodigies from Brown University. They didn't really understand that an MMORPG was hard, and because they were geniuses, they simply made it happen. The Turbine engine has always been a marvel of engineering.

When I started, the company had just gotten the contract from Microsoft for Asheron's Call 2, but the designers were still focused on the tech. What tech would they use? How much of AC1 would they get to rewrite?

When did you start working on Asheron's Call 2? What was the vision for the game?

AC2 was originally going to be a true sequel to Asheron's Call. Our publisher Microsoft had high hopes that it would be such a perfect "replacement" that everybody would just switch over to AC2 and Microsoft could shut down the AC1 servers. (Of course, that would never happen with an MMO sequel, but it was pretty much the first MMO sequel ever, so nobody knew!)

But the going was tough. The techies at Turbine felt this was their last chance to create a new, better game engine. They had visions of their engine powering hundreds of different games and Turbine getting residuals forever.

So AC2 ended up using very little of AC1's code. Because of all the low-level changes, it was impossible to reuse any of AC1's game logic. Every game mechanic had to be written from scratch, even the parts that we wanted to be exactly the same. That made it impossible to create "AC1 with more stuff." There just wasn't time.

So it stopped being a sequel and started being a different game set in the same world. This one was a Kingdom-vs.-Kingdom war-fest with tons of character options. It was a good design and a fun PvP game. Unfortunately, it was not a sequel in any way, and that's not what Microsoft wanted to hear: It had been promised a sequel.

So relations got strained between Turbine and Microsoft. Microsoft continued to promote the game as a sequel whenever its reps talked about it. The result? AC1 players came over, spit on it, and left. That bad buzz devastated the game's launch, and then Microsoft cut the support funding down.

You filled a variety of roles at Turbine during your stay with the studio. Could you list them and sum up what you did in each?

I was hired as a senior engineer. But I didn't get to work on AC2 directly [before launch]. For instance, I spent a year writing a new Java-like scripting language. In the end, I didn't get to write any of AC2's game logic. That made me pretty sad.

When the game shipped, most people were burned out and ready to move on to a new project. But I wasn't! I had come to Turbine to make AC2, dammit, and I hadn't had a chance to do that! So I volunteered to be on the AC2 live team, developing the game post-launch. I stayed there until AC2 shut down years later.

As the de facto "spreadsheet guy," I got to do a lot of systems design. My first few game revisions were met with howls of player anger as I screwed the pooch. But the live team is a great way to learn fast: You get feedback every month, so you very quickly learn what not to do.

I was just getting the hang of systems design when I was spontaneously field-promoted to Producer and had to start learning all over again. When the expansion pack came around, I was able to stop being a producer and be the lead systems designer instead.

In your opinion, what did AC1 do better than AC2? What did AC2 do better than AC1?

AC2 had ambiance like you wouldn't believe. It was incredibly beautiful. In fact it's still pretty good-looking, almost a decade later. That's an eternity in video game time!

It wasn't just graphics that made this ambiance happen, though; it was the details that took a ton of effort. Rivers froze over during winter months, creating new passageways where there were none before. Arrows stuck into their targets, so when you were under serious fire you'd see your avatar riddled with bolts. The music shifted dynamically between 50 music tracks, increasing in tension the more bad guys were in the area.

AC1 had less presentation detail, but that was also a strength. It was easier to make art for AC1, so nearly every player looked different in AC1. AC2's art requirements were so high that it was very expensive to make new armor. Most people in AC2 ended up looking pretty samey.
AC1 also did a better job hiding its lack of content. AC1's free-range environment meant that you had to go searching to find quests, as if finding a quest was a quest in itself. That was a great way to spread the content out. AC2, by comparison, gave off a themepark vibe, making players feel like they should be able to finish each quest and run right to the next quest. But there weren't enough quests to do that for long.

Asheron's Call 2 monsters
In your role as a Live Team Producer, what was it like coming up with a chunk of new content each and every month? Were you constantly in crunch mode?

It was very stressful trying to make all these angry players happy, but we tried hard not to overwork ourselves. We would push hard one week every month, but not more. We knew if we crunched constantly, we'd just keel over after a while.

We focused on reusable content, epic quests that players could redo once every week or so. These were deep quests, not piddly little World of Warcraft-style quests. Most of them involved their own unique dungeon. Or two. Sometimes three. This content was pretty popular -- these quests were deep enough to enjoy multiple times without getting bored of them. But even so, it took us a long time to fill up all the levels of the game.

We also dropped our focus on PvP very early (before I was producer). Before the game launched, Turbine thought it was going to be kingdom battles 24/7. But the players who showed up didn't want that. Due to how the game had been advertised, player came expecting a sequel to Asheron's Call, not a sequel to Dark Age of Camelot.

And this is a very important thing for a live team to learn: Live teams don't get to pick what audience they have. That's the job of the marketing department. So we did the only sensible thing: We minimized the PvP areas, making it possible to play the game without ever setting foot in a PvP area. We did keep supporting the PvP players, though, and by the end of AC2, our kingdom-vs.-kingdom mechanics were pretty impressive. You could storm castles, hold them with NPC-driven ballistae, and so on in order to earn special powers that were specific to your kingdom.

Moving on to the expansion, how did Legions come about? Was there debate about the feature set that was to go into it?

Microsoft was disappointed with AC2 and stopped caring about it. Unfortunately, Microsoft also owned the IP for Asheron's Call, and we couldn't make expansion packs without Microsoft's blessing... which it wouldn't give. But when Turbine came into some money, it bought the IP back. And suddenly we didn't need permission to make an expansion anymore!

We wanted to do crazy new things, like a seafaring expansion. But frankly we knew we couldn't. With that influx of new team members for the expansion pack, we felt like this was our one chance to really complete AC2, make it a fleshed out game with depth, complexity, and polish. So that's what we did. More content, and lots of it. New races and classes. Better in-game direction. Deeper ties to Asheron's Call's lore. That was what Legions was about.


"We'd made a great update to a game that was already dead. Nobody had realized just how dead it was."

Was it difficult coming up with four more classes on top of the 18 already in the game? How hard was it to balance them?

Yeah, it was hard to add even more classes. But we had a file of leftover crazy ideas from our earlier balancing efforts. So we just ran with some of those crazy class ideas.

The new ranged class was a telekinesis master who floated along the ground. His weapons were a pair of shiny razor-covered orbs that flew around as his mind commanded. For the new spellcasting class, we wanted to give players the feel of actually casting spells. There were a number of "power words" that would give each ability a different inflection. The new fighter class was based on blood sacrifices: He would sacrifice his blood to create power. It was the hardest to balance because if you were willing to live on the edge, always draining your own blood to near-death, you would be immensely powerful.

What are you most proud of in terms of your work on Legions?

On a personal level, it would have to be the Drudge race. They were a bonus unlockable player race in the expansion. This was a throwaway feature that turned into an epic feature entirely because the team pushed itself on weekends to make it happen. Drudges are the low-level fodder monsters of the Asheron's Call universe -- think goblins, but looking more like hairless bipedal cats.

The problem was there was no room in the art budget for Drudges. But I decided that was OK, that we'd just work with whatever art we already had. Whenever there was an art limitation, I just explained it away. Since we only had one model for Drudges, obviously that meant that male and female Drudges were anatomically indistinguishable from each other, except by smell. Tada! Problem solved.

But the artists weren't happy with that. AC2's amazing artwork was a matter of pride to them, and they weren't impressed. They would ask me, "There's no Drudge armor, so what will they wear?" My answer: "The model can wear a loincloth. So we'll just make different magical loincloths instead of armor!" John Lindemuth, the lead AC2 artist, would get this look on his face when you said stuff like that. His eye would visibly twitch.

So somehow the artists found time to tweak the Drudge. Rick Schmitz made the greatest Drudge armor ever. Since Drudges were scavengers, he decided their armor was made up of boards nailed together into hilarious wooden body suits.

The Drudge was just a tiny part of the expansion. Actually, the expansion was huge -- so big that it's hard to get my head around it. I'm incredibly proud of what everyone did. Unfortunately, nobody showed up to see our handiwork. The expansion was well-reviewed, but it still didn't sell many copies. We'd made a great update to a game that was already dead. Nobody had realized just how dead it was.

If someone asks you what it's like to work for an MMO studio, what do you normally say?

I ask him if he's ready to spend every waking hour for three years on something that has a 50/50 chance of even launching, and if it launches, has a 50/50 chance of immediately flopping. If he's cool with that, then I encourage him to go for it. There's nothing that compares to making a world for other people to live in and watching them enjoy what you've created. But getting there may kill you.

Looking back, what would you say is Asheron's Call 2's legacy, its biggest contribution to the MMO genre?

The focus on fun over "world simulation." AC2 had a lot of "gamey" elements that have ended up in MMOs ever since, things like question marks floating over quest-givers' heads and having an inventory system without any encumbrance penalties.

Every major MMO before AC2 had been intentionally complex and MUD-like. AC2 dared to try simplifying things. AC2 flopped, partly because of poor expectation-management. But it showed other game companies a different approach.

Many MMO developers have told me that playing AC2 was an eye-opener. They saw it and said, "I can do this idea... but better!" That's a very valuable thing, and AC2 deserves its small place in MMO history for it.

Thank you for your memories and insights! For the rest of you, we want to hear your personal, first-hand experiences with these games, which is why I'm calling on all former Asheron's Call 2 vets to submit their favorite memories and screenshots to justin@massively.com to use next week!

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 justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.