There are a few of us in the Game on Aus community that have been playing games together since we were kids. My favourite genre of games, and where some of our fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). We are going to take you down our memory lane as we explore our origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. Part 1 covered Ultima Online and Part 2 covered EverQuest. In this Part 3, I will cover the third MMORPG to round out the ‘big three’ of the 90’s, Asheron’s Call (AC). Both EQ and AC cannot be forgotten as they really laid the foundations for the 3D graphics engines, user interfaces and gameplay of MMORPG’s that we play today.
Asheron’s Call was a fantasy MMORPG released in November 1999, developed by Turbine Entertainment Software and published by Microsoft. After seeing initial success with 80,000 subscribers at the end of that year, subscriptions fell in third place behind UO and EQ at the end of 2000 and started to drop further when other MMORPGs such as Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot started entering the market in 2001.
AC would go on to release two expansions with the first being Dark Majesty in 2001. A sequel to the game, the first sequel to any MMORPG up until that point, Asheron’s Call 2, was released in 2002, though was shut down in 2005. I will cover that story in a future article. Turbine purchased the full rights to AC from Microsoft in 2004, and then in 2005 released the second expansion for AC1, Throne of Destiny. This expansion included a much-needed graphics upgrade, new player race and new landmass to explore.
Fast forward to December 2016 where Turbine announced they would no longer be developing MMORPG’s and so Asheron’s Call went into maintenance mode. No new content was released though developers still worked on the occasional bug fix. No new accounts were able to be made, so only the loyal player base remained. Finally, after 17 years, Asheron’s Call servers, forums and website were all shutdown on January 31, 2017. In a scene reminiscent of those devastating final moments from Avengers: Infinity War, here is a video showing those final 30 seconds of the servers.
RIP Asheron’s Call, and all the memories from those thousands of players that formed lifelong friendships along the way, including this article from Kotaku about a then 74-year old grandfather who was devastated that his favourite game was coming to a close. I managed to find a player-run emulator and with a bit of fiddling, which is par for the course for using emulators, I was able to login, create a character and explore the world of Dereth.
On a similar vein to UO, avatars weren’t completely tied to specific classes like in EQ. There was an array of skills that you could place experience points into to specialise your avatar, and you could choose from any skill available with the selected race having certain skill mastery bonuses. If you change your mind later, you can easily drop points from one skill and place them into another. This meant there were literally hundreds of possible skills builds for your avatar based on your playstyle. Knowing this was an emulated server and that I’d only be playing for a few hours, I didn’t spend too much time customising the character and went with a default Aluvian Soldier specialisation for BallBaggins.
I logged into the game and straight away felt the age of the game’s engine. I almost felt like not bothering as it really did feel old, however I’m so glad I experienced it, even if only for a couple of hours. The game is played in a large, seamless 3D virtual world which could host thousands of player avatars at a time. Where EQ used to suffer from lag when lots of players and monsters were in the same screen/zone, AC could handle a lot more action at once and if you saw something in the distance, you could literally run to it with no load screens.
Like those first moments in UO, there was nothing prompting me on how to play the game and what to do other than the NPC standing in front of me. I right-clicked him and he told me to go visit another NPC on the path leading outside. There was no minimap and pressing ‘M’ gave me only a world map. There is a direction radar and I noticed it had some yellow dots which I learned were NPCs, so I found who I had to talk to. I gave them the blue stone in my backpack and they teleported me to my starting point at Holtburg Outpost. This granted me enough experience to level 5, and some starter items such as a tunic and a sword.
The first major new feature I came across was lifestones. You will find one in major outposts and towns, and you bind your avatar to them. It’s important to remember to do this as when you die, your avatar will respawn at the last lifestone you bound to. One thing to point out here – there is a penalty for dying. When you are killed, either by a monster or by a player, you will lose one or more of your most valuable items you were carrying at the time, half your pyreals (the game’s currency) and a percentage of your vitae (health). In addition, your skills are decreased by the percentage of vitae lost. You work off your vitae loss by gaining more experience points.
This item and pyreal loss are only temporary until you go back to your corpse, much like in UO though thankfully you don’t drop every item you were carrying. This creates a risk versus reward system where you must carefully consider which items you are willing to take adventuring as there’s a possibility that you could lose some items if you are killed. Back in those days, this was part of the excitement of playing MMORG’s like UO and AC and no adventuring session in the game was the same as another.
I ran around talking to NPCs and running into buildings, but there wasn’t really anything to do here. I spotted some direction signs pointing to Holtburg so followed those along paths. Other than these signs, I still had no indication of what I should do in the game. I saw some chickens and rabbits as I was running along the paths. I tried to enter combat to kill them however when I pressed the combat button, it wouldn’t let me swing at them. I thought, perhaps you can’t kill these animals, so I kept following the paths and eventually found the town of Holtburg.
I had a stone in my pack which was called a Pathwarden stone, so assumed I had to find an NPC called Pathwarden. Without names above NPCs heads like in EQ, I had to run around to each one and click for their name or look on the radar. I eventually found the Pathwarden who gave me a full set of Platemail armour. I then found an NPC shopkeeper and bought myself a shield to go with my newbie sword. I always play sword and shield characters, more commonly known amongst MMORPG players as sword and board. The Pathwarden said I should find Alfrin in the Helm and Shield Inn who had a task for me.
After find and talking with Alfrin, he gave me a parchment with some basic quest details. There is no quest log in this game, instead NPCs give you parchments and tell you what you need to do. You must remember what the NPC originally asked you to do as sometimes not every detail is listed on the parchments, and after I while I had to start writing these things down in my notepad. The first quest’s parchment said to head to coordinates 41.4N 33.3E to find the Drudge Hideout and take out the leader.
Once I worked out how to navigate using the coordinates, for example to go south-west you must decrease the N and E values, I started scouring the landscape for a ruin or hidehout. As I was getting closer to the coordinates I could only see trees and thought, am I in the right place? It was then that I came across a blue portal and stepping through it took me to the drudge hideout. This would also be another mechanism to ensure smooth gameplay in the environment, by having instanced quest locations. Combat in Asheron’s Call is a bit more involved than the auto-attack in EQ. You need to balance speed and power of the swing using the bar in the middle of the combat area, then click on low, medium or high for the attack to swing.
Against the yellow guys pictured above, I was fine with an even speed/power balance and I could hit them with any of the low/medium/high swings. Whereas the little guy in the middle I generally could only hit with a faster and lower swing as he evaded a lot of my attacks. After a few fights against different mobs, you quickly learn what balance and swing works best for them, especially when you get swamped like I did a bit further into the hideout. I worked my way through and took down the boss, then looted his head as I remembered that was a major quest objective. There’s no easy portal back to the surface, so you must retrace your steps through the hideout, killing mobs that have respawned, to then exit out of the entry you came in.
I ran back to the inn and talked to quest NPC Alfrin, giving him the head of the hideout boss. This granted me 15k experience and I levelled up to level 9. This is the first MMORPG that has a level up animation and sound, commonly known amongst MMORPG players as a ‘ding’. Alfrin also asked if I had returned his three bags of wheat. Crap! I had forgotten about that part of his quest. I had inadvertently looted one bag as I went through the hideout, but I wasn’t aware of their significance at the time. I ran back and completed the hideout again to get the other two bags of wheat. As it turned out, giving him these last two bags, as well as killing all those drudges got me enough xp to ding level 10!
After that quest I picked up some more parchments from the barkeep, however I thought I would sell items from my backpack so I don’t get full on my next quest run. I tried to sell all my items to the barkeep however he would only accept paper or food-based items. I had to then find a weaponsmith or armoursmith to sell the weapons and armour I had looted. I also had to find a mage-type vendor to sell staves, and a gem vendor to sell gems. Thankfully other players in the area were also looking for specific vendors and helped me find them. I remembered this was the same in UO, however in the modern-day MMORPG’s we take this simple system for granted, being able to sell any item to any vendor.
The developers at Turbine Entertainment were dedicated to Asheron’s Call by releasing monthly content updates to the game and committed to delivering them on schedule every month from release in 1999 all the way through to 2014 and only missed a few months of content here and there. This created a living breathing world in an ordinarily static environment. I don’t think any MMO developer these days can match that dedication of content to their subscribers over such a period.
Turbine also enhanced the concept of player guilds, called allegiances, and through this system new/lesser players could swear fealty to stronger players. What this means is that whenever the stronger player earned experience, the allegiant would also earn a percentage of experience for themselves. There was also the opportunity for the higher character to pass down weapons, armour and other items to aid their patron. This is a gameplay element that would be evolved in several later MMORPGs.
Given the above recount is just scratching the surface of Asheron’s Call, on one hand it’s surprising that Asheron’s Call wasn’t more popular in those days and over time, however as time went on, more and more MMORPGs entered the market and caused a saturation effect. For me personally, I grew very fond of playing MMORPGs and with every new game released in the genre, the next game had taken all the best gameplay elements of the previous games and molded it into one. As a result, I was always on the hunt for the next MMORPG to see what they had provided the players. As you read through the next few articles, you’ll start to see this pattern emerge.
If you have great memories of playing Asheron’s Call, I’d love to hear about them! Join the Game on AUS – God Mode closed group where you’ll be welcomed and we can reminisce the old days. In part 4, I will be revisiting 2001’s Anarchy Online, the first sci-fi MMORPG to hit the market.