And then there's Turbine. As a fan of the "powered by fans" studio and an avid player of Lord of the Rings Online, I have always kept my eye on these Bostonians. While Turbine helped lead the charge on free-to-play adaptations and has kept DDO and LotRO hopping with expansions, its last major MMO launch was 2008. The only known new game that's in the works over there is the Infinite Crisis MOBA.
Or is it? What if there's another project that's being kept on the down-low, one that could be a comeback attempt to propel Turbine back into the community spotlight? What if Turbine is working on Asheron's Call 3? I have scant proof that this is so but plenty of suspicion and speculation as to why it may be the case. Plus, the possibility stirs the imagination.
The idea of an Asheron's Call 3 might seem, well, far-fetched at first glance. Asheron's Call is easily the least popular of Turbine's current library, an aging relic that wasn't worthy of the F2P conversion that its brethren received. Even back when it was one of just a handful of MMOs, it was at the bottom in terms of subscribers, impact, and public attention. Sure, some folks really loved it (and speak fondly to it even today), but this industry is largely a numbers game, and AC didn't have what it took to ever be a major contender.
To make matters worse, Asheron's Call 2 floundered and fell when the team was hoping that it would surpass the popularity of the former. With AC2 yanked from circulation and AC1 kept going but not expanding, it would certainly look as though this is a washed-up franchise with no gas left in its tank. And I'd agree with you to a point.
Let's take a step back from all of that and consider a few other factors. The first and perhaps biggest is that Asheron's Call is a unique fantasy world in a sea of Tolkien copycats and Turbine wholly owns its IP. Unlike DDO, LotRO, and Infinite Crisis, AC requires no licenses to negotiate, has no royalties or fees, and provokes no worry of a legal end to its run. Another factor is that there's obviously some level of passion in the studio for this franchise, especially following Asheron's Call 2's resurrection in late 2012.
Probably my biggest reason to suspect that something is up is that Turbine has adamantly refused to talk with Massively about any of the Asheron's Call games since AC2 was revived. I've requested several interviews or even comments over the last year and have been (politely but firmly!) turned aside every time. To me, this is beyond strange because you'd think a studio would want any press for one of its games, especially following the unprecedented revival of a canceled title. But nope, not Turbine.
I've thought on this and come up with several possible reasons a studio would want to avoid talking about an older game. It could be that the game is nearing the end and it would just hurt to draw attention to it. Turbine could have devs doing double-duty and not have whoever is working on AC available due to a workload. It could possibly have something to do with Warner Bros. and a company policy regarding press contact. Or Turbine could be working on something AC-related and is not ready to talk about it.
That last possibility interests me the most, if only because it's the most positive one. It might be a long shot, but I'm not the only one who thinks there might be a chance for an Asheron's Call 3.
Whether or not Turbine's brewing something secret over in its labs, it's fun to think of what an Asheron's Call 3 announcement might be like. Even though the game never was a massive hit and doesn't carry a lot of nostalgic weight compared to other games of its day, it doesn't mean that it's a terrible idea for a new MMO.
The way I see it, Asheron's Call has three key strengths that would do very well in a modern title. It has a hybrid skill-based character customization system, which bucks the tired trends of confined classes and harkens back to RPGs of yore (and, well, games like the Elder Scrolls series). It has a fantasy world that truly feels different, alien, and inventive with lots of original lore. And it continues to boast monthly events with ongoing storylines that shape the world.
In the spirit of where the franchise has gone, I think that a new title could give Turbine permission to go outside of the box and rethink the game design tropes that we've long taken for granted. Especially if it is more of a pet project than some massive resource-hog, an Asheron's Call 3 could be a test bed for daring ideas. Considering that many of these Kickstarter MMOs are questioning how and what our online games should be like, AC3 wouldn't be alone in trying to redefine the genre.
According to one of the Asheron's Call devs, the return of AC2 was rooted in love for the game: "Bringing back AC2 had nothing to do with licensing or anything legal. It was a project by people who love the Asheron's Call franchise to make AC2 available for those who wanted to experience it."
There's love and passion at Turbine for this underdog world. I'd hate to see Asheron's Call slowly peter out as two largely ignored games dwindle and die. I'd much prefer to see AC1 and AC2 as prologues to the full realization of what this franchise can become.
Addendum: Obviously I wrote this piece before we heard of the recent Turbine layoffs, which certainly makes any speculation about AC3 seem more far-fetched than before. So you may scoff if you like but I'm going to run this piece anyway -- if only to amuse me with a possibility than anything else.
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.