The Online Gamer’s Anthology podcast released a two-show look at Asheron’s Call (AC1). Listening to the shows brought back my most treasured MMO gaming memories. I only played AC1 for a few weeks. I played Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2) the defunct sequel, from release until just before the servers were shutdown. Here are some of the elements of the game that made it so special to me and my son.
During the time that I was playing AC2, I was spending a lot more time writing. This game provided many inspirational ideas for fan fiction. I made a horrible mistake by canceling my web hosting service before preserving the hundreds of pages I’d published. At the time I was so angry with Turbine over the handling and eventual closing of the game, that I wanted nothing more to do with the whole thing. Hindsight – I definitely cut off my own nose on that one.
Monthly storyline updates were a fundamental part of the content delivered to the players. When development was on schedule, new content was added to the game on a monthly basis. On those days, Turbine published story arc fiction that provided historical context for the new content or simply expanded upon the existing universe. I read these with ravenous glee and it was the first time that I considered writing in the short story format, versus the novel length I aspired to pursue. AC2 put the RPG in MMORPG, in this and many other ways.
We’ve come so far and yet not so much since AC2, when it comes to building seamless virtual worlds. I’ve only encountered two MMO games since then that can boast as much – Vanguard and EVE Online. What’s the big deal about seamless worlds? I’ll sum it up in a single word, IMMERSION. No pointless valueless load screens. No concept art while I wait for the game to load me into the next zone. Once I log into the world of Dereth, I stay in the world of Dereth. Does that mean there was a complete lack of instancing? No, there were instances but they were far and few. And the journey into them was artfully done to keep you in the moment by using appropriate animation as you were journeying into the zone/instance. They didn’t just have you sitting there waiting for the game to load shit or transition you some place new.
The world was also persistent in a way that no other game I’ve played since has implemented. If I, a character of that world, drop an item in that world, the item does not cease to exist simply because I’m no longer in that world. Makes sense doesn’t it? Sounds straightforward enough but it is a powerful ability. The most common use of this mechanic was to move items (mule) across your various characters. Before our guild had a Guild Hall, I would sneak off to a distant and quiet place in the world and drop items from one character, then quickly log in on a different character to retrieve the dropped items. Other times I would drop uncommon or rare items that I didn’t need that someone else in the guild might need, in the common area of the Guild Hall. Members coming in would know that items found in that location were free for the taking. Wonderful right!?! Lastly, the game supported a user programmable scripting interface that allowed you to create very helpful bots (robots – unmanned characters). Popular ones were classes that provided unique buffs, transportation and vitae healing (removal of reduced XP death penalty). If you were a courteous player, you would pay for these services by leaving gold at the bot’s feet. When the actual player came back, they would retrieve the coin for services rendered. This was just so cool!
Weather that was seasonal, versus only in particular zones was another hallmark of AC2. World of Warcraft has rain and mist but AC2 had actual weather patterns. When winter arrived the snows came, fell and stayed until spring. Like other MMOs appropriate seasonal items were added to the game. One of my favorite things to do in winter was sledding. The actual change in landscape altered familiar landmarks and if you’re like me, directionally challenged, this meant re-learning your way to portals (transportation conduits – think wormhole) and infrequently visited locations.
Live events were among the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in any game. Sure the lag was almost unbearable but to be there and be part of the encounter was amazing. Some evil doer would spawn in some part of the game and players would start descending on the area. Think the opening of AQ or the Dark Portal in WOW but on a regular basis. You’d race to get there as fast as possible, even though you knew you were as likely to die as anything else. An all powerful white rabbit might appear to stomp the player-base into the ground. Evil minions of the legion might spring forth to do battle near one of the Lifestones and waves of players would rush to defend. It was hectic. It was laggy. It was brilliant fun.
You couldn’t count on running a short distance to drop mob aggro. The invisible leashes that tethered mobs to their spawn points were VERY long. None of that run just slightly out of range and wait for the monster to reset crap. You’d better haul ass and not look back. Innocent bystanders who came too close while the mob pursued you, were also be added to the aggro stack. If you got safely away, the mob would turn to its next victim. The only time I was ever intentionally mean in a game, I used this mechanic to serve a slice of vengeance pie.
There was this location called Northeast Nepath where players did hardcore grinding for several levels. It was brutal, you did it for long periods of time and unless you were like me and loved grinding mobs, you absolutely hated this portion of your leveling game. Grinding here successfully required careful group composition. More specifically, you needed someone who could place turrets down to help kill the mobs as they approached the kill zone which was a crossroads. Having a player summon turrets for the spot was essential because it was the equivalent of grinding on epic level instance bosses of other games. Additionally, you needed heavy crowd control, namely a class that could mesmerize (sleep) any adds. Without these two classes, the turrets which had a VERY LONG reset timer might be wiped, along with the players. Organizing a group for this particular location took time. People often consumed special items that increased your XP gain and were on 24 or 48 hour cool down timers. The last thing you wanted to do was burn an XP boost or turret here.
One day I’m grinding at NE Nepath with a group that waited two hours for our turn at the prime location. We had a false start and had to scramble into the nearby outpost to escape certain death. We’re back at the setup location and about to set down the turrets when some other jokers put theirs down first. An argument ensues and they refuse to leave the spot. Our turret guy doesn’t want to waste his by setting them down and contesting the situation so we start to disband. Just before we do I give them one final warning. I told them if they tried to steal the spot and continued setting up, I’d pull ADDs down on them and nuke the whole fuking town. They threatened to report me and get me banned. I didn’t like the idea of being reported but I was pissed as hell.
They setup and started pulling. I was an Archanter at the time (archer and enchanter – think GuildWars and the ability to mix classes). I locked back and loaded my double-arrow fireball reign hell down swiftly spell thingy, the name escapes me now, and started letting loose. Five ADDs the size of MC trash mobs start coming up the hill – I know people who play WOW can feel me. People are gonna die!
All hell broke loose. They were instantly wiped along with their precious turrets. Players near the portal tried to dive through to safety. Others scrambled up the hill into the outpost to prayer for cover. I had a personal safe spot that I used on similar occasions which took advantage of a particular building with poor path mechanics that made mobs and pets unable to gain entrance. AFK players got pummeled. And it just so happened that the local resurrection stone was in the general vicinity. Anyone who was unfortunate enough to be resurrecting there at the moment was swiftly dispatched again and again and again. The game didn’t ask you if wanted to resurrect, it just did it. I laughed my ass off. I can tell ya that the local chat wasn’t pretty.
The moral of this story is that I as a player could impact the world I was playing in. I could and did, cause complete havoc. There was a tangible consequence of the confrontation I’d had with another player. The results of which were lots of dead players, their shit got squashed and an outpost was laid in ruins – at least for a while until things reset. *Smile*
I explored just for the sake of, when playing AC2. The graphics for the time were great and considered 2nd generation. The world was peppered with seemingly unimportant locales – buildings, huts, caves, groves, etc. I would often find lore items in these hidden places – tomes I could read but not remove. I had the places that I considered my own. Outposts that I’d role-played as being my home. I often wrote while my character sat or slept in my favorite spots.
I think this game spoiled me on grinding mobs to level. There were quests but not nearly as many as you find in similar games. Most quests were repeatable and the longer chains provided large amounts of XP, required groups and were limited to being completed every 5-7 days. In between you just killed stuff and I loved it! Pick your spot, the mobs you like or don’t like, the ones that are likely to drop something you need or whatever, just start ta hacking. No planning. No spamming for a group. No waiting. Jump in and get to it. For the larger group focused quests, there were common meeting areas. If you need one of those just go over to the meeting area and hang out until a group forms. While you’re waiting shoot the breeze, talk some shit or break out your instrument of choice. Within seconds you were guaranteed to have a full orchestra of players playing along.
The vaults and other large group quests still rank high as favorites. What’s more fun than 40+ people in a PUG trying to take down boss level content? It was hilarious. It was exciting and chaotic. Other than healers and mezzers being required, the rest of the group composition was up for grabs. These were brute force encounters not those of precision. You know that that means?? Everyone is welcome – any class, any spec, no age or language barriers, you just needed the warm bodies. No elitists. No hardcore versus casual. You’ve got the comps and the level, c’mon in! Death and confusion love company. And these weren’t just one room encounters. Many required that multiple objectives be completed in different locations in a dungeon by a certain time, which meant the group did have to function together and be coordinated. Yet it was all direct enough that anyone could pick up the strategy and run with it.
AC2 possessed one of the most open class systems I’ve played. The only thing remotely similar that I know of is GuildWars. You select your race and your race can spec into three classes. Each class has three trees but if you’d like to create a hybrid – and these are real hybrids, not the watered down t’ain’t no real hybrids found in WOW, you’re free to do that too. Obviously, if you spread your talent points across too many trees you’d be gimped but hey, if that suits you then do it.
I started as a pure ranger for the pet. I expected to solo my way thru the game not being the most social of butterflies. In my heart of hearts, I wanted magic so damned bad. I decided to build a fairly common blend of two classes – Archer (ranger) and Enchanter. That was fine for a while. There were few weapon or armor restrictions based on class so I swapped weapons for the situation. Bow to pull and do ranged-damaged, sword and shield if something got in my face and staff to debuff or crowd control. After a while I was playing with a static group. My pet became less useful so I decided to go full on Enchanter. It was the best decision I ever made and is still the finest class I’ve ever played – hands down, no contest. This was a real crowd control class, second best de-buffer and as I’d learn later, possessed the most lethal pet, the Axe Orb. I was unstoppable as an Enchanter. The Sorcerer had better burst damage but I had more flexibility and options for doing what I shouldn’t be, but was always compelled to do – hunt big monsters alone. Oh, and if I didn’t think this post was already too long, I’d tell you about questing for, hatching and fighting along side my own dragon.
I remember the day I finally got the Axe orb talent. I went back to areas of the game where the mobs had scared me shitless – Drudge Citadel and ringway, the Vermin area where that King rat something or other would gank me while I was trying to skirt my way through the area and the isle where you needed to collect white pyreals. I went back and killed them all over and over because they had it coming. LOL Yeah, I was a bit insane in that game. In my defense, for those of you that never played AC2, the mobs actually talked shit while they were kicking your ass. So yes, a little retaliatory death and dismemberment was in order.
By now you’re probably asking, if AC2 was so perfect why did it close down? If you ask Turbine they’d probably say Microsoft screwed it up. If you asked Microsoft, they’d say Turbine. It’s likely that it was a bit of both, but from where I sat Turbine was the one pushing lies to the players, so I blame them.
Massive lag the likes of which only WOW 40-man raiders might understand except that this was lag on a constant basis. Even WOW's Illidan server, affectionately referred to as Illidown, was more stable. Day in and day out, the servers were lagged, restarted or offline. They did try to fix it, patch it and whatever else but nothing really improved the performance. I finally wrote it off as a fundamental design flaw that must have been so pervasive it just couldn’t be reasonably addressed.
Features that were marketed as being available at release weren't. Some of them were patched in later but many never ever saw the light of day. The game was promoted has having monthly updates but even those began to miss the publication schedule. At a time when paying a monthly fee to play a game was still new to people, announcing that they were going to move to a bi-monthly updates didn’t sit well with many of the players. Myself included, saw this as a breach of the subscription agreement.
Game Masters made public announcements and commitments on the forums which were not met, and this behavior became the norm instead of the exception. It felt like anything just to shut us up for a few weeks. Players started really losing their cool and left the game.
AC1 players didn’t like the changes to some of the fundamental game mechanics and either went back to AC1 or left the franchise all together. AC1 was to AC2, as EQ1 was to EQ2. The original versions were a bit more hardcore for lack of a better word. Many AC1ers didn’t like AC2, and go figure, AC1 is still live. *Cries*
Non-existent end game – there was no real plan or content to support players long term at max level. It played more sandbox-like which was fabulous level 1 to max, but then what? There were no tools or mechanics to support players defining their own end game. No EVE Online station building, zone conquest, etc to pursue. No content or quest creation like Ryzom. No loot whorism to satiate or grind. No organized PVP. There was a whole lot of nothing much to do at max level. With time on your hands and nothing to do, it was easier and easier for players to find fault with Turbine and the game. Some company named Blizzard was releasing this game called World of Warcraft and many of our guild mates that were still left, left to play this other game. Obviously, I eventually followed suit.
AC2 subscriptions kept dropping and servers where consolidated, the rest doesn’t require explanation. I didn’t like the way it ended. They sold an expansion to players knowing they were shutting down. I think it was announced just a couple of weeks after the expansion was released. I saw this move as robbing the few customers they had left. The game shut down and I hated all things Turbine for a very long time.
Regardless of my bitter feelings about the game closing and the way it was handled, I left the game loving the AC2 that I’d played. Loving my guild mates, wishing it wasn’t all ending and cherishing the time I played with my son. I don’t think that level of emotional attachment to a game will come again but I hope it does. I keep looking but I haven’t found it. These days I substitute that pure joy and enthusiasm for Dereth, with the action packed, over the top sugar rush of others games. It’s okay and I make due for now but it’s not the same. *Smile*
I'm woman enough to admit that I cried the day the servers were shut down. I cried as people started leaving. The game wasn't real but the people I was playing with were real. Our guild chatted on voice which was not the norm back then. The women that I played with often organized conference calls so we could play and chat at our leisure. "Watch my character while I cook dinner." "Hey, what are you gals doing? I can't play right now but wanted company while doing laundry." Those types of things. It felt like all of that would disappear with the game.
Most of us kept in touch. Many of us landed together in WOW where we were successful as a casual raiding guild. In fact, we were in the top 3 for raid progression on Illidan, which is no minor accomplishment for a casual guild. Then BWL came along and the war between casual and hardcore erupted in Azeroth, a story which I've already lamented on this blog here and in other posts. *smile*