After 17 years of playing, Turbine's fantasy MMO isn't just a place to fight dragons; it's a place to hang out with longtime friends.
All screenshots courtesy of Turbine
After 17 years of operation, Turbine's long running fantasy MMO, Asheron's Call, will shut down at the end of the month. Asheron's Call joins dozens of online games, from The Matrix Online to Lego Universe, to see their servers shut down. This news has been especially distressing to Julien, a hardcore player, self-taught tradesmen, and 74-year-old grandfather.
"I love meeting people," he told me. "I love chatting with friends. That's my greatest thrill in life: Having friends and being able to talk to friends. And that's what the game gave me. That's the biggest shocker of this whole shutdown. I'm going to lose contact with all my good friends."
Julien, who asked to keep his last name private, has good reason for the request: His love for Asheron's Call went viral. I found out about Julien after his granddaughter, Alyssa, uploaded a video where Julien talked about saying goodbye to his favorite game. It's been viewed more than a million times.
In the video, Julien, sporting a well-worn Route 66 hat, shuffles over to his desk, flips on his computer, and loads up Asheron's Call. Naturally, he has the game running on three monitors at once. (He told me he was one of the first to do something like that with the game way back in 1999.) Julien reveals that one of his original characters has clocked three months, three days, and three hours of playtime—or roughly 2,266 hours. It's just one of 80 characters he's made for it.
"That's my bow character," he remarks in the video. His name is Black Heart.
Julien is baffled by the enormous response to the video ("It's unbelievable how technology works!"), and seems equally baffled a journalist would want to talk to him about a video game he's played. But as with the video, it doesn't take long for Julien to settle in, and despite the weirdness of temporary Internet fame, it's quickly apparent he's thankful this has brought so much attention to the game he's poured thousands of hours into over nearly 20 years.
"There's a lot of people that have a lot of heart and feel for this game," said the Saskatchewan native. "That's what's upsetting. I can't understand why Warner [the game's publisher] is pulling this game. It's probably all dollars. This whole world revolves around dollars. I get sad. [...] We do it because we love the game, and we love being with friends. They're not working with us to let us have it. We're willing to pay for it! No question. Why did they quit charging and bring this on us?"
Asheron's Call has had a bumpy road since its 1999 launch. Originally published by Microsoft, Turbine bought the rights from them in 2004. (In-between, Turbine and Microsoft released a sequel, Asheron's Call 2, that was largely rejected by the community.) The studio was acquired by Warner Bros. in 2010, and in 2014, Turbine announced Asheron's Call would go into maintenance mode, meaning the game would no longer receive content or patches, but it would still be playable.
"This was the right thing to do," said Executive Producer Rob Ciccolini in an interview with Engadget at the time. "We've been making games for 20 years and have seen a lot of games shut down, including one of our own. It never sat well with us. When the time came to make this decision, it was the only decision. Players have enjoyed this world we made for them for almost 15 years. We didn't want to take it away from them, so we've worked hard to find a way to keep making that world available. Beyond just keeping the game available, we ultimately will give it to the community so that it can live on forever."
Forever, it seems, meant only another few years of operation; last December, Turbine revealed it was getting out of the MMO business, selling off the rights to Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online to a new developer, Standing Stone Games. The deal made no mention of Asheron's Call, which seemed ominous. A few days later, it happened: The hammer came down on Asheron's Call.
"This decision did not come easy," the company said, "and we know this is disappointing for many of you."
Warner Bros. turned down my requests to interview Turbine about Asheron's Call.
The company had publicly promised to let players run their own private servers, a way of keeping the game alive without spending money, but for reasons unknown, that didn't pan out. Without a hail mary, nothing could save the game.
Julien didn't expect his video to become that hail mary, but for the moment, he'll take it. Introduced to Asheron's Call by his daughter, it's now part of his life, a way to "relax and forget all of my work, troubles, and just enjoy a good time with friends." It's not just a game.
"We do it because we love the game, and we love being with friends. They're not working with us to let us have it. We're willing to pay for it! No question. Why did they quit charging and bring this on us?"
In the early days, though, it was an obsession.
"I was really intense to the point that driving down the road," he said, "I was looking for loot on the road. [laughs] That's a stupid comment, but it's the truth. Because that's how involved I got with the game."
One night, he played the game after one drink too many, and "got sloppy and lost all my gear."
"I got really mad at myself because that was a stupid move," he said. "I treat my characters with respect. What can I say?"
And while leveling up and finding loot is important, the people he plays with are what brings him back to Asheron's Call, even after months away. When he logs into the game, it's like joining up with a group of friends down at the local tavern. Not long after he started playing, Julien started questing with a player who, as it would turn out, lived less than a mile from him. They're now best friends.
"It was a good point in life, while it lasted, and I hope it's not over," he said. "It's gonna be tough for me to get back into the same situation as I had. To me, I work at having friends—friends don't come automatically. You earn friends. That's what I loved about the game."
One of those friends was someone he met in the early days, a high-level player that would guide Julien and his buddies around and make sure they didn't get killed. ("He was a very, very good quest leader.") This player would scout quests before taking the group out, hoping to keep everyone alive when they got together to actually it on. But everything changed one day, as they were hanging out in one of the game's major cities, Eastham.
"We were in the town of Eastham with, I think, about eight other people in the quest," he said. "That day we were in Eastham, his dog started barking," he said. "He passed away on us. He literally passed away—had a stroke [during] the game, and his dog started barking."
The group hadn't just lost a quest leader, they'd lost a friend.
"To give you an idea of how this [game's community] works," he said. "Everybody pulled together. I found out where his wife lived. I also got together all the people in our group and guys got songs going, they got a video going. It was unbelievable. We all went to Eastham with our characters and stood in a circle for this memorial for this gentlemen. I sent the tape to her in Texas. To me, I was blown away with the whole procedure, but can you imagine how she felt, that her husband was such a factor in the game?"
Since his video blew up, Julien has heard from thousands of people, whether it's random YouTube comments, requests for him to join their guilds, or emails from developers handing out free copies of their MMOs. Some old Asheron's Call developers have reportedly reached out, as well, expressing hope that Julien might be their shot at finding a way to keep the game alive.
One reason Julien's granddaughter made the original video was to find a new game for Julien, but he's not sure he has the energy for it. Besides the time investment required to build powerful characters, his friends are already hanging out in Asheron's Call. In his mind, there's no reason to leave and learn a new game. (He did, however, try out Project: Gorgon, a new game from some ex-Asheron's Call developers.)
"Now that they've called it, I'm—how should I call it?—disheartened," he said. "I'll go on just to talk to people, but I've lost my heart in it right now. To me, it was a dirty trick. If it's money, how come they're not charging us for it? I'm willing to pay! I enjoyed the game. No questions."
He's not sure if he'll log into the game during the final days.
Before our conversation was over, I asked Julien his if his original plan was to play Asheron's Call for the rest of his life.
"In a heartbeat," he said. "I was hoping that I could."