After years of being a hardcore gamer at a little MUD company, I had sworn off multiplayer gaming as a player. So soon after I picked up a project for a now defunct game, and did design work for them. Later, once that project died (at no fault of mine, I swear!), I picked up a small volunteer coding position for an upcoming Pay-to-Play MUD. Yes, I had gone back to my roots. It brought back good memories as well as cold shakes at night, but no less, it provided an even better creative outlet than strictly gaming did.

While coding for this MUD, I had tried Ultima Online. While I love PvP, I didn’t enjoy being ganked by ten thirteen year olds, who not only looted my newbie corpse, but also sodomized my poor, dead body. Needless to say, my subscription to Ultima Online lasted all of twenty minutes, and I never looked back. Fast forward: 12 months. I was editing and writing for a little unknown e’zine. It was November 1st, 1999, and Asheron’s Call was being released. Time to do a review for the ‘zine.

Picking up my copy of Asheron’s Call was my first small disappointed. Flaw One: Here was what I thought was going to be an amazing new “world” for me to explore, and its box was this dull parchment color, not to mention the graphic on the front and the screenshots on the back left something to be desired. I was determined and had a review to do, so I picked it up anyway. I’m glad I did. It was amazing. I was playing a REAL 3D MUD with graphics. Very cool. I had just entered a new generation of gaming (albeit, a little behind most of my peers). My review was glowing with praise. Character creation was a dream, the skill and stat system looked amazing, the terrain and sky were just absolutely magnificent, and while the user interface was a little clunky at first, it was easy to adapt to. Not only did I give this game a fantastic review, but I was hooked. So while I had no intentions of “playing” a new game for a while to come since my painful experience in UO, AC had me trapped. I gave in to the desires of phat lewt and high levels. Fast forward: 3 months.

I was accepted into the Sentinel program, and dropped my volunteer coding position with the MUD. I got to not only powergame to my heart’s content, but I was also given the opportunity to lend a hand in a game I thoroughly enjoyed. I was in heaven. Coming from a MUD background, I went with what I thought would work best for a newbie: A non-magic swordsman. I had picked up a great patron, and while I was barely competent in combat, I was having a grand time camping those little chests that held phat lewt (before they had keys, and were just on a 26 minute timer). All in all, I was happy. Fast forward: 3 more months.

I’m bored. I can’t hunt anything. Metal armor sucks. Why do robes have the same basic physical protections as plate? To me, the downside of the high AL and good physical protection of plate armor was its poor to no protection from elemental attacks. Logic told me robes would be the opposite. They’d provide better elemental protection while having the downside of poor to no physical. I was wrong. First everyone was in a mattekar robe, and later, it was a mix of Hoary’s and Faran robes. Flaw Two: Robes introduced a completely new dynamic to gameplay. Getting around and finding quality weapons without item magic was difficult enough, but with the introduction of robes, Item Magic became a must. New content had to be shifted upwards to compensate for this new breed of tanks in robes. However, I’m a powergamer, so this was appealing to me. Unfortunately, I was a gimp. A gimp to the extreme. No magic whatsoever. I couldn’t throw on that l33t robe and cast impenetrability on it and become an uber tank in a robe, but I had to have it. Flaw Three: A few small mistakes during character creation could ruin your ability to be a viable competitor in the long term. I was still enjoying the game, so giving up was not an option. Time to reroll.

Asheron’s Call, take two. I did my research, and at the time, the archer was the way to go. So, with Arcane Lore spec’d, I made a 3-School Archer with Lockpick and Healing (Obviously not all at once, but by level 45, it was the perfect combination). Ahh, life had found its way back into the game for me. The game was exciting again. No longer was I camping chests because I was horrible in combat, but I was running around and killing things – Like a machine! Must game… Must get next level… Must compete with everyone else for the most uberdom… Flaw Four: Everyone was in competition. Not directly, mind you. The game wasn’t plagued with kill stealers or uber spawns that you needed to camp, but there was no sense of community. Fast forward: 3 more months.

The honeymoon had ended. Quest items destroyed the economy. Flaw Five: My second most passion, a player economy, had been destroyed. The “Composite Bow” had destroyed the 113% Yumi market. The “Greater Shadow Amuli” (GSA) and “Hoary Mattekar Robe” had destroyed the armor economy. “Sturdy Iron Keys” and an influx of limitless rich monsters had ruined the remaining loot-o-matic (randomly generated loot) economy. What was left was an empty husk of trading. Small shards, sturdy iron keys, and motes became the currency in the game.

Flaw Six: In order to compensate for people in GSA, content had to be shifted upwards again to compensate. Another new dynamic. My uber archer was suddenly a gimp like my swordsman. Things hit so hard, and with so many different element types all clumped together, the lack of a shield or a wand out to Drain Health, was the death of the archer. Sure, one can argue that the archer has range as his shield, but let’s be real: They didn’t do enough damage to even get a monster down to half health before it was in melee range and pounding on you. Flaw Seven: With the specialization adjustment months prior, and the introduction of the “OG Mage” (Life and Creature Magic specialized), content was shifted upwards again with monsters carrying multiple damage types in clumbs, and casting every single attribute debuff known to the game. Landing vulns or draining as just a trained life mage was not working.

I refused to move underground like everyone else. I refused to fall into the Lugian->Olthoi->Tusker XP-Cycle that all these changes had created. AC had amazing terrain and huge landmass, and I’ll be damned if I was going to be driven underground. By this time, I had an offer from someone to purchase my account and all its phat lewt, I had left the Sentinel program, and I was completely bored. Flaw Eight: AC lacks depth. It doesn’t have any notable trade skills or “other” activities to occupy your time. Hunting was its main draw, but there was no way I was going to risk investing months into a third character. I sold. I still played on a new account, but my time in game was dwindling to about an hour a week. There were short spurts of activity for the next month, like when I traded for my old account back and so on, but the honeymoon was indeed over. I was burned out.

Flaw Nine: I was offered no incentive to stick around. The constant beating of the words, “No,” “Not with current tech,” “Not possible in the current AC engine,” “Not enough coders to do that,” and “No, that will never change,” and sometimes even downright rude responses was the final straw. The gamer is fickle, the gamer is a complex, yet overly simple beast. It doesn’t like to hear the word no. It also doesn’t like to know that the game he is playing will forever be linear. I’m definitely not saying promise the world and lie to me, but just have the courtesy to use vaseline when being so blunt. New content, sure, but where is the new technology? Free updates, sure, but where are the expansions with actual upgrades to the game?

Now that that’s said…

I literally felt bad writing this piece. I sincerely did. I feel that I’ve somehow been disloyal to my “family,” as corny as that sounds. So, while dwelling on the negative always makes for good journalism and an interesting read, I feel a sense of obligation to also point out the positives.

Turbine is a fantastic company. Every single developer there that I have spoken with has been nothing but a delight. For a first game, especially in a hugely complex market as the MMO (or PSW if that floats your boat), they did a magnificent job. They made a huge world without “zones” or other similar boundaries. They have a top-notch terrain engine. New content is added every month and “nerfs” are nearly non-existent (Though certain quest items should have never been introduced in the first place). While the economy indeed did go flat, they have an excellent loot-o-matic system that, if fleshed out, would be simply amazing. Microsoft provides excellent customer service. Say what you will, but the way the policy is in place (non-subjective) you will never hear cries of “GM favoritism.” Relatively no bugs – another huge accomplishment. The reason Microsoft was able to actually get away with the non-subjective policies (No item return, no corpse retrieval, etc.) was because Turbine had produced a quality product where situations like this were extremely rare. Playing Asheron’s Call, while it lacks in-game community strength, feels like belonging to a family. The developers are always in touch with the players, and always show a sincere interest in their issues with the product (the directness of the word “No” can use work, however). Pyreal Rat said it best, “…it sounds like MS wants AC maintained as cheaply as possible.” A lot of the issues mentioned in the final flaw would not be an issue if not for AC’s publisher. As you can see, this list too, is very long.

I’ll be keeping my Asheron’s Call account open, because if nothing else, I’d like my ten dollars a month to say, “I appreciate Turbine and I want to see a future product from them.” Just not this one anymore…