Developer: Turbine Entertainment
Release date: 10/31/1999
By Andrew Park
Turbine's 3D online role-playing game, Asheron's Call, was released in October 1999, and since then, it's changed and grown considerably. Asheron's Call continues to retain a loyal retinue of fans, thanks to its complex story-driven quests, its open-ended system of character development, and its ever-changing world. Asheron's Call takes place in the colorful world of Dereth, a land that has suffered for generations as a result of a powerful wizard's failed experiments. Asheron, one of the mightiest wizards ever known to Dereth, had accidentally opened portals to the homeworlds of powerful evil creatures, most notably the giant insect men Olthoi, thus allowing them to enter Dereth. Asheron realized his mistake and opened portals to other worlds to call upon hardy adventurers to come to Dereth and help battle the new menace, then he disappeared in a climactic battle in which he collapsed one of his own magic portals on himself and a group of exceptionally powerful creatures.
Though Asheron's Call is undeniably a fantasy role-playing game, its approach to its subject matter is decidedly unorthodox. Dereth isn't populated by conventional fantasy monsters or player character types, so you won't see dwarf clerics battling orcs or elf bards rallying their companions with song. Instead, the game is populated by completely original creatures of Turbine's own creation. So in your adventures in Dereth, you won't fight goblins and kobolds, but you may do battle with mewling drudges, chittering mites, ghostly virindi, and other outlandish and never-before-seen creatures. In addition, Asheron's Call doesn't feature nonhuman high-fantasy player races; all player characters in Asheron's Call are human, although these humans belong to one of three ethnicities, each of which has its own specific skills and appearance.
In Asheron's Call, your character's ethnicity isn't the only thing that sets him or her apart. As mentioned, each of the three types of humans - the Sho, the Aluvians, and the Gharu'ndim - begins with a different set of bonus skills. For instance, Sho characters begin their lives proficient in the art of barehanded combat; Aluvians are unusually skilled with daggers; and Gharu'ndim characters are adept at using staves as weapons. However, any character race may adopt any sort of player skill, and there are more than 30 different player skills in Asheron's Call. You can begin your new character's life according to a templated "character class" (which is really nothing more than a custom-tailored set of suggested skills and attributes), but creating a custom character from scratch is far more intriguing and rewarding. New characters have a set number of attribute points that can be spent on basic ability scores, such as strength, endurance, coordination, quickness, focus, and self. Once you've chosen your character's basic abilities, you choose your character's skills by purchasing them with a pool of starting skill points. Dereth is a dangerous land, so it's a good idea to create a character that can handle itself in combat, and thanks to Asheron's Call's diverse skill system, you have a great many ways to create such a character.
Your character can specialize in various close-combat weapons, including swords, axes, and maces; ranged weapons like bows and thrown missiles; and three different schools of magic, each of which can be used to either attack enemies directly, decrease an enemy's power, or strengthen a character's own abilities and those of his companions to be more effective in battle. What's even more interesting and rewarding is that these skills increase both with repeated use and when you spend accrued experience points on them. As such, as long as your character remains an active adventurer, he can continually improve whichever skills you wish on a regular basis. And since your character's identity is based on his set of skills, and not on some hard-coded character class, you can develop your character's abilities as you see fit, when you see fit. That is, if you've developed certain skills with your character, but are envious of another character's different abilities, you can simply have your character take up those different skills, though developing those new skills to extremely high levels of proficiency will require additional time. So an accomplished swordsman can become a journeyman archer easily enough, and an accomplished hand-to-hand fighter can learn the basics of Dereth's many powerful magic spells, though he'll have to devote more study, practice, and experience points to become a master of Dereth's magical arts.
And there's more to Asheron's Call's magic system than simply blasting monsters. Asheron's Call has an intriguing "spell economy" system whereby spells that are used more frequently become less powerful and effective overall, while rarer, less frequently used spells become more powerful. Asheron's Call also features a complex system of spell components whereby users of magic must carry different talismans, potions, powders, and herbs to cast spells. Many of the formulas to the more powerful magic were secret when adventurers first set foot in the world of Dereth, though as time passed, most of these formulas became common knowledge.
However, the fact that powerful magic spells have become common knowledge with the passage of time hasn't been a deterrent to Dereth's development at all. The greatest sorcerers of the land have needed vast magical knowledge - and well-armed and armored hunting companions - to deal with the many and great changes that have befallen the land since the first brave souls answered Asheron's Call. Since Asheron's Call was first released, Turbine has sponsored no fewer than a dozen different world-changing events - the most recent being the game's
But these world-changing events haven't just changed the landscape. Each of these events has advanced the world's overarching story, and some have had permanent effects on the land, its inhabitants, and its adventurers. The chill of Dereth's winter gave way to a thaw that revealed creatures of ancient evil that hadn't seen the light of day in centuries. These mysterious shadow creatures were beaten back but were replaced by ominous shadow spires - magical towers that radiate great evil magic. These towers assailed the land and destroyed some of Dereth's most prominent towns. The adventurers of the land fought back the invading forces - a strange group of crystalline monsters - and found an uneasy peace.
Each of Asheron's Call's events has also introduced new and more-formidable monsters to fight, new dungeon areas to explore and conquer, and new types of treasure and weapons, including magic robes, ancient armors, and completely new weapons like the rapier and the composite bow. Recently, there have also been changes made to the player trading system, as well as new plant-based dyes that can color your character's garments to your specifications (and make your character even more visually distinct from other characters).
The producers of Asheron's Call have worked tirelessly to keep the world of Dereth fresh and interesting for its players. And it's clear that as time passes, Turbine will continue to add even more new content to the world of Dereth and change its landscape even further.
Q&A with Scott Herrington
GS: Thanks for taking time out for this interview. One of the most impressive things about Asheron's Call is how much the game has changed since release and how it continues to change on a regular basis. What would you say has been the best or most significant change made to the game since release?
SH: With 11 events under our belt (our anniversary 12th event is coming up in November), there's a lot of changes we've made to AC to choose from. If I had to go with just one change as being the most significant, it would probably be the destruction of two major cities last month. Of course, some players would say that the secure trade panel was the most significant, or the additional spells, the ability to restore accidentally deleted characters, or the new islands that we've been introducing over the last few months, or the additional 3D-card support we put in last spring.
GS: One of Asheron's Call's most distinctive features is its allegiance system. Has this system developed into more or less what it was planned to be? Are there any changes or improvements planned for it in the future?
SH: The allegiance system has developed into what it was planned to be, but it's affected a far greater number of players than anyone had anticipated. The allegiance system was designed to reward experienced players for interacting with new players - to sort of act as "guides" to this new world. Beyond that, we didn't do much to define allegiance structures or how they should be run. Players have been creating some really involved monarchies and set codes of conduct for all of their members. Others are really loose organizations. Allegiances are formed and fractured on a daily basis. Being that the system has been such a hit with the players, you can be assured that we're looking into ways that we can improve it. We built meeting halls for allegiance gatherings a while back that gave them a place to gather that doesn't overcrowd towns or villages (and affect other players), and we're investigating other ways to help allegiances out. Communication and recognition between allegiance members in the world is something that I would like to see improved. I'm sure a number of players would agree.
GS: Asheron's Call has been criticized for its sometimes poor monster AI, specifically, how monsters can be led to walls, then stuck on them, as well as the fact that many monsters give up chasing you after you run away for a while. What are your thoughts on this issue?
SH: We've made some improvements to the monster AI since the game was released, and I think that people who played before will be a bit surprised at the monsters now. Yeah, monsters still won't chase you forever. But it was never planned to be that way. What's fun in trying to elude for a few hours a really tough monster that you accidentally happened across? Some monsters will go after you longer than others; it really depends on the type of creature you're running from. AI is something that can always be improved upon in a game, and ours is no different. One of the reasons that it's tougher for us than, say, a first-person shooter, is that our creatures have to be able to navigate around a world the size of Rhode Island, not just a small arena. Also, our creature encounters can't be scripted like they are in single-player games, so we can't get away with "faking" AI. With those excuses aside, yeah, we're constantly trying out ways to make our creatures smarter and tougher.
GS: Asheron's Call has been widely praised for its character-development system, that is, the ability to customize and develop your character. What would you say is the best thing about character development in Asheron's Call?
SH: I think the number of directions in which your character can develop is a great feature. Your character is truly unique, unlike any other character around you. We give you lots of options and let you decide how best to bring your character along and evolve naturally through your actions. I really like the fact that the choices we offer players are significant as well. Too often, RPGs offer a ton of choices which boil down to really only three or four significant options to choose from.
GS: One of the most important issues in online role-playing games is game balance; for instance, when offensive life-magic spells were weakened shortly after the game's release, the change was met with protest from the players. What's been the most difficult thing to keep balanced?
SH: It's funny, but that change, which happened almost a year ago, is still fresh in people's memories. They tend to forget that we've made a number of other changes that have been beneficial to almost all character classes in the game! I've laughed out loud at some players' posts when they claim to have been "nerfed" (had their skills or abilities weakened) when we didn't touch any code even related to their claim. Make a new monster that hand-to-hand combatants have a tougher time killing than mages, and people might say they were nerfed. Do the opposite, and mages complain. It's a never-ending battle. All we try to do is minimize the gross imbalances, keep our players happy, and reward them justly for taking risks. Balance usually takes a few different forms. First, it's balance within a character class, for instance, whether swords, maces, and daggers are balanced within the melee class. We try to do that for all classes and then look at the balance between the classes (mage vs. melee, melee vs. archers, etc.). Probably the most difficult thing has been creating challenging areas and enemies for our high-level players. How to create a suitable enemy for a 100th-level player who is both an excellent fighter and an outstanding mage has been tricky. With each new monthly update to the game, we strive to balance our development efforts. Are low-level players getting enough new stuff as well as our high-level players? Are mages being ignored? Are spear throwers getting too much attention? By listening to our fans during our monthly development chats, reading the fan sites, and mining the servers for data about the player population, we come just about as close as anyone to having a balanced world. Add in the complexity of a monthly addition, and I think we've done an outstanding job of balancing the game. We've learned a lot in the past year; a lot of mistakes were made that we didn't see the consequences to, but we've learned from those mistakes. With each passing monthly event, I think we do a better and better job.
GS: One of the most interesting things about Asheron's Call is its regular world-changing events; at the time of this writing, there have been 12 different events. What's the most difficult thing about producing these events on such a regular basis? Other than the anniversary event Should the Stars Fall, do you have a personal favorite among the past events?
SH: Probably the most difficult thing about doing a monthly event is the short time frame that the team has to create each one. With a team of eight people creating the monthly events, it's like they're under permanent crunch time. There's always a deadline just a few days away. The team works tirelessly each month, then starts the process all over again. They're probably the fastest development/design team that I've ever had the pleasure of working with. (And they get the praise and flames from our fans on a monthly basis too!)
My two favorite events were probably The Sudden Season - one of our first updates to the gameworld - and Twilight's Gleaming. Both had radical changes to the gameworld: One covered it in snow, and the other destroyed cities, coupled with some great gameplay additions to the world. The plot for both of them was also quite strong, so players really got the feeling that the world was constantly changing and moving forward with a sense of purpose and direction. Any month that gives our players a chance to feel like heroes is a pretty good one in my opinion. Any month that makes the message boards light up with phrases like "I can't believe what happened" is a great month.
GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Asheron's Call?
SH: Yeah, there is. The press and gamers who haven't played the game usually talk about stuff that happened a long time ago or what they saw during the beta period. In the last year, we've created new towns, revamped dozens of monsters, added quests and countless dungeons every month, enhanced the graphics engine, added secure trade, created a new spell-bar interface, added new weapons, a dozen or so new creatures, changed the weather and seasons, added new levels of spells, allowed people to dye clothing and armor, created what may possibly be the largest bridge/landmark in any online game, plucked random players for testing by one of the gods, had multistage invasions and wars rage across Dereth, and added some new islands that are simply huge. But still, people wonder when we'll come out with an expansion pack that they'll have to pay for. Well, if you want to send us $29.95, go ahead! Try Asheron's Call for a month, or for those of you that played our open beta and weren't happy, try us again, or just read our fan sites, and I think you'll see that Asheron's Call is the best in its field.