As 'Asheron's Call' Nears Death, One Designer Looks Back

After 17 years, the curtain is closing on 'Asheron's Call.' A lot can happen in nearly two decades.

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Jan 31 2017, 3:00pm

Barring a last-minute miracle, the end of Asheron's Call is near. The fantasy RPG MMO, which has been running since November 1999, is scheduled to shut down later today. It will soon join the long list of online games that were eventually discontinued, even if, as if the case with Asheron's Call, fans were still playing.

To celebrate (and mourn), players are gathering with friends and fellow warriors, holding what many consider to be their "last" events in the world. I recently profiled a 74-year-old grandfather who's distraught over his favorite game disappearing. This video shows residents of one in-game city, Holtburg, gathering on the steps of the town hall to for a group photo.

"Enjoyed the meet up in the Holtburg Town Hall," wrote a player on Asheron's Call's Facebook page. "Probably the last time ever that will happen."

Image courtesy of Al Forte

Designer Jesse Kurlancheek was one of the people who helped build and maintain that world, working for Asheron's Call developer Turbine from 1999, the same year the game launched, until 2007. After falling in love with the game during its public beta, he managed to find his way onto the game's development team, even though Turbine wasn't really hiring anyone just yet.

I recently chatted with Kurlancheek about his experiences at Turbine, the game's friendly rivalry with EverQuest, what made Asheron's Call so special to so many people over the years, and what it feels like to have the game so unceremoniously shut down. (Unlike other MMOs, there aren't any game-ending events being put on by the developers. It'll just turn off.)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Waypoint: How'd you find your way to Turbine, and what was the state of Asheron's Call when you came on board? What did you make of the game?

Jesse Kurlancheek: I graduated college in '99 and instead of going to work for any of the big companies who recruited heavily in our CS department, I took what I called a "post-collegiate retirement". I lived off of the money I had earned during previous summer internships to basically do nothing but sit around and play games. Turbine started in Providence and drew heavily from the Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design student bodies, and my roommate interned there previously. He got me into the alpha and beta tests and, while I had no time for it during the school year, I fell heavily into Asheron's Call that summer.

We had a party one night, and my roommate had been bragging to his girlfriend who worked at Turbine about how much I played, how high level I was, and so on. She told me that I should apply with them if I wasn't doing much else. I was going to need a job soon anyway, and games sounded great.

When I went up to their offices, they hadn't really formalized their hiring process yet, and HR just took me around to various departments asking if they needed client engineers, server engineers, UI engineers, and so on. They all said no, and eventually we got to the design pit, and they said, "Sure! We could use a content designer!"

I loved the game and had "strong" opinions about the game during beta and I wasn't shy with about voicing them during the interviews. In retrospect, it's a small miracle they took a chance and hired me. I started a few months before the game went gold and launched into retail. Our initial job was preparing for the first monthly update, due to be released a few weeks after launch.

People forget how close the releases of EverQuest and Asheron's Call were, even though EverQuest gets all the historical platitudes. What did your team of think of EverQuest at the time?

Kurlancheek: There was a mix of camaraderie and competition. We were friends with a bunch of the EverQuest team and we were both pushing out into a relatively new frontier and making our mistakes very publicly. But we were the underdogs and some folks had chips on their shoulders about EverQuest and how it conquered the marketplace using "just" DIKU MUD mechanics and the classic fantasy tropes.

AC, for better or worse, took a great deal of pride in being a unique fantasy world with a very different set of mechanics and rules than what players might be used to. We pushed in very different directions from EverQuest and it didn't seem there was very much overlap in the playerbases. It was nice to have 3 very different choices at the time, between Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call, each offering a different experience, so we didn't have too much direct competition in the end.

Asheron's Call may not have been the world's most popular MMO, but it seemed to have an incredibly dedicated fanbase. Why do you think that was, and how did your team try to build around that?

Kurlancheek: I think this comes down to two things:

1) The monthly updates which added tons of content, drove a large story arc forward, and pushed out quality of life fixes and game improvements. This was as crazy then as it would be now.

With a relatively rough toolset, we were pushing out stuff every month, without fail, for the first few years of Asheron's Call's life. Some were bigger than others, but we nailed them month after month as part of our agreement with the players. If they were paying a subscription, shouldn't they be getting something more than just access to the servers? As far as I know, I don't think any other games have matched this pace of content updates, MMO or otherwise.

2) The allegiance system. In most games with guilds, the structure was flat. There was a guild leader, officers, and then everyone else. In Asheron's Call, we had the concept of a "patron" and "vassal" relationship, where newer players would "swear allegiance to" more experienced ones.

The patron would help the vassal with gear, advice, and so on, while the vassal would generate XP out of thin air that would be given to the patron. It was a simple symbiotic relationship that really helped on-board new players into the game. Players would hang out around the exit of the new player tutorial areas and ask for vassals.

Players could have up to twelve, I think, players sworn to them, but it didn't stop there. That patron could also be sworn to another person, and those vassals could have vassals of their own. Massive tree structures could be organized by players, but they never felt HUGE since you were at most connected to eleven other players on your level, up to twelve vassals, and the person at the top of the tree (the monarch). You could be in a massive allegiance, but it still felt like you were only in a slightly large family.

Images courtesy of Turbine

Finally, this tree structure gave individual players a large amount of power in the allegiance. In other games, if someone wasn't getting along in the guild, they could be removed and that'd be it, but in a large sprawling tree, removing a single person might send hundreds or thousand of players with them. To build in relationship structures and not just expect social systems to work on their own was just so strong.

Like every MMO, we'd get our share of letters telling us about marriages (and divorces, eesh) that took place because of the game. Kids would write and send in the cutest renditions of their characters, but there's one letter that still sticks with me and chokes me up: It was from someone who became quadriplegic in his teens or twenties. He told us that he was largely housebound and socializing had become hard for him.

In his letter, he described how he started playing Asheron's Call with a special controller and because the way combat toggles worked, he was able to fight and run around without too much trouble. He chatted with folks in game, found a patron, and eventually became a pretty big deal in his allegiance. He wanted to thank us for letting him get his social life back and allow him to feel like a hero. I still get choked up thinking about him.

It kills me to think about him and Julien [the 74-year-old grandfather] not being able to log in after tomorrow.  

Talk a little bit about the culture at Turbine. How'd that change as time went on? They were riding the MMO wave when everybody was starting to make one.

Kurlancheek: This is hard to quantify. There was so much changing at the studio over the years I was there. We went from ~30 people to ~300 people (and then back down to 200). We went through three or four CEOs. Moved offices a few times.

I think the biggest change was the company had to grow up as a whole. We were all flying by the seat of our pants. Few people there had ever shipped a game before and certainly no one had shipped or supported an MMO, so mistakes were fast and furious. Our reactions to them weren't always the best either, and we certainly got away with some insane things.

For example, in an official MS-sponsored dev chat, I just went off the rails after the chat was over and talked to myself for an hour while 1,000 people watched. We chatted very candidly on message boards, email, and even had players calling our personal home phone numbers. If you told me that today, I'd tell you you were nuts. But back then, it seemed to make sense. We had players coming to our houses to party and staying on my couches.

Eventually, such shenanigans were frowned upon and reeled back. Developers either moved on to other projects, became burnt out and withdrew from the communities, or in some cases were told that they should maybe take it easy and use the community managers as a conduit to the players more. We stayed focused on the players though. I don't think we ever called them "users" or "customers", which we'd call them at some other places that I've worked. Some MMOs said the players were in the developer's world, but we always said it was the player's world and we were just keeping it running for them.

"There's one letter that still sticks with me and chokes me up: It was from someone who became quadriplegic in his teens or twenties. He told us that he was largely housebound and socializing had become hard for him. He wanted to thank us for letting him get his social life back and allow him to feel like a hero. I still get choked up thinking about him."

You had players staying on your couch?! How'd that happen?

There were yearly (I think?) player gatherings and one year, we had a large party at our house. Mostly developers, but a handful of players as well. As people tend to do, they drank with purpose and passed out with the quickness.

And I've stayed on a player's couch! A player organized a fairly large team walk for multiple sclerosis down in Lancaster, PA. A few devs and I all went down to support and walk, along with a bunch of semi-local players. And somewhere along the line, I fell asleep on his couch after the long drive.  

At some point though, I stopped thinking of them as "players" and just as friends I met through the game/work who happen to play the game. On IRC, one of the players had moved to Germany to be with her boyfriend, and we became friends while she was bored during the day while he was at work. When they both moved back to Canada, she asked if she could stay with us during another player gathering to save on hotels. They invited me to their wedding a few years later too. :)

I wonder if we've lost a little bit of the closeness of communities in more recent times. I certainly can't fathom becoming that close with a player these days. Partially because I'm not sure I'd put myself out there as much as we inadvertently used to and partially because the whole tone of the communications feel like they've shifted to be much more business-like where we keep each other at arm's length.

What are some of your favorite stories from working on the game? Anything specific come to mind?

Kurlancheek: During the climax of our first big story arc, I'm running around the world as Bael'zharon (the big baddie of the game world at launch). I'm going from town to town with another designer, who's playing as Asheron (the eponymous good guy). We'd get into a town, recite some scripts, fight a little bit, and then off to the next town.

One time, I'm prepping outside of town and there's this low level player, just hunting stuff on his own. Bael'zharon was a huge balrog-looking thing, demon head, big black wings, etc. The player looks at me, does what amounts to a double take, and then runs over and starts punching at my feet. He couldn't hit me and I ask him what's he's doing. We talk for a bit and I explain what's happening, who I am, and I notice he's not wearing any pants.

I ask him to show some respect and put his pants on, and he respond with, "Not even for you, mighty Hopeslayer, will I use the mana in my pants." (When equipped, magic items would drain their mana over time and had to be recharged with somewhat costly items.)

There was high-level town in the west of the game world can Fort Tethana and to get there, it was a long and treacherous run. It was possible for players to make portals for other players and if Teth was your home base, you could make a portal there. It was a common refrain in towns to hear people calling out for "portal to teth?!"

During that Bael'zharon arc, I made a spell for him called "Portal to Teth". He could cast it to send a player right to Teth... 5,000 meters up in the sky, and they'd start to fall to their deaths. What started as a funny thing to use on people in combat became something they begged for whenever BZ showed up in a town. There was a pile of corpses in that spot in Teth for a while. I can only imagine what the players on the ground thought as the bodies hit the ground.

[There was also] the defense of the shard on Thistledown. [Editor's Note: This was an event where Turbine was trying to get players to destroy seven shards to unleash Bael'zharon, which would bring new loot into the world. But players could choose to attack or defend the crystal. Turbine tried to stack the deck, ensuring the crystals would all be destroyed, but on one server, Thistledown, players worked in shifts to defend the crystal for a week. The developers eventually bested them, but as tribute, an in-game shrine was created to memorialize the players involved .]

This still comes up if you talk to people now about Asheron's Call, a perfectly wonderful example of what could be accomplished in an MMO with the players and devs working together/against each other. The whole thing was so unexpected (that players wouldn't do something that gave them sweet loots?!) and Turbine/Microsoft allowed us mostly free reign to respond how we wanted. We were directly interacting with players and making them the heroes of their stories. Even though we had to move the server storyline along (we couldn't shard server data), we put up a monument to all of the defending players with their names.

I think generally my favorite times were hanging out with the players, either on the forums, in game, or at the player meetups.

This is a pretty broad question, so take it how you like: what happened with Asheron's Call 2? My limited understanding is that many Asheron's Call fans pushed back on the sequel, but I'm sure it's more complicated.

Kurlancheek: Certainly don't take this as gospel, since I was still pretty low on the totem pole and working on Asheron's Call during the initial phases of Asheron's Call 2, but from what I remember, there was a very real concern about cannibalizing the Asheron's Call players for a sequel. So it was decided that it would be a (very) different game that went in a (very) different direction from the original. We had an engaged, but small fanbase for Asheron's Call and I think there was the desire to get some of that EverQuest marketshare.

In retrospect doing a sequel to an MMO only a few years after it launched is pure craziness. Asheron's Call 2 left a lot of the good/unique parts of Asheron's Call and didn't pull them forwards to Asheron's Call 2, leading to a feeling of betrayal in the playerbase.  

How do you feel about the game shutting down, and the way it was handled? Is there any reason why the server code shouldn't have just been handed over to fans, so things could continue?

Kurlancheek: Well, that's not leading at all. :)

It's sad, really. I always knew the game would go away one day. I haven't logged in for probably thirteen years now and when I see recent screenshots, I barely recognize it, but all the memories from back then are preserved in amber, just so. I like it that way and have resisted logging on to keep them how I remember them.

The game was quite literally responsible for the direction my life took, and friends that I've had for almost twenty years. It didn't deserve to go out with the flip of a switch. At the end of beta, we had a big event "celebrating" the end of the world. There were monsters and fire raining from the sky, giants attacking cities, and admins generally having fun with the players in the last days before it went retail. To my knowledge, there's nothing planned for the end of the game, it's just going away. Seventeen years of friendships and work and love. Poof.

There isn't any good reason to not turn the code and assets over to the community. Sure it'd be hard to get a server farm up and running with the appropriate software licenses and whatever strange proprietary tech may be needed, but the players are the owners of the world at this point, and to deny them their "home," for what I imagine are tangled legal reasons, breaks my heart.

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