REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 13, 2000 —
The ancient walled city of Shoushi sits in the distance. Ulon is relieved. The walls represent safety after a long, hard journey across the mystical land of Dereth. He and his two vassals have come seeking a spear and a coat of acid-resisting armor buried inside the nearby Green Mire Grave, the final resting place of a legendary warrior. But first, they must purchase directions in Shoushi and take a well-deserved break. Tomorrow, they will test their abilities against the inhabitants of the grave: Mosswarts, Drudges and wisps…
Ulon’s adventure may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but it’s actually one of dozens of quests in the world of Asheron’s Call, one of the hottest fantasy gaming experiences on the Internet. Since its launch in November 1999, Asheron’s Call has attracted more than 100,000 registered players and netted numerous top gaming awards, including Adventure/Role Player Game (RPG) of the Year from the Third Interactive Achievement Awards, Game Industry News Game of the Year, Gamecenter’s RPG of the Year, and the Best Game designation at the Eurogames Gaming Globe 2000 Awards.
This month, Asheron’s Call enters its second year as the most actively played of the 125 games on Microsoft’s Zone.com ( www.zone.com ) — a distinction the game has held since shortly after its release. At peak times, more than 16,000 cyber adventurers can be found simultaneously seeking treasure, forging alliances and battling foreboding creatures on Dereth, the game’s make-believe world.
“Asheron’s Call has burst into the online-only RPG games arena in a big way,”
Game Industry News reported.
It’s the most advanced game of its type ever created, and will be the de facto standard all other similar games will be compared to for years.”
Gamers say the reason for Asheron’s Call’s success is simple: Unlike other fantasy online games, new challenges and adventures are added every month at no charge. This constant flux, along with Asheron’s Call’s unique system of allegiances, builds strong bonds among the players, they say.
“It’s a dream come true,”
said Doug Robb, an avid player from Phoenix, Ariz.
“Everyone has always hoped for a fantasy gaming world that is constantly evolving, and Asheron’s Call is delivering it.”
Finally inside the city, Ulon and his vassals stop for refreshments at the Black Swan Inn. A fellow adventurer shares the story of the warrior who first used the Green Mire armor and spear.
He fought powerful foes with reckless abandon and would often laugh while doing so, even when his wounds were grievous and death seemed certain,
the adventurer explains.
He died some years ago in battle, of course, and was buried with his armor and spear.
Dereth, a virtual island half the size of Rhode Island, features its own social structure, monetary system, magical
and the equivalent of more than 4,000 years of history — all devised by the game’s creators, Turbine Entertainment.
According to this history, the magician Asheron accidentally opened a portal to another world, ushering hordes of vicious monsters, humans and other creatures to Dereth. Asheron sent his people into hiding and has called upon the humans to help him rid Dereth of the creatures he unleashed, including the giant insectoid Olthoi, dragon-like Gromnie and hulking Lugians.
Players create their characters from the ground up, selecting everything from their profession to their skills, skin color and facial features. In total, there are 16 million visual options for characters. Peggy Farrelly, an avid gamer from Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, played for months before finding the right combination. Her main character is Maggie the Jackcat, an advanced swordfighter with magical skills and a slight resemblance to Farrelly.
“People spend huge amounts of thought on character creation,”
said Farrelly, who sells real estate for a living.
“That’s who you are going to be playing for months. You want to make sure you like who it is.”
Shoushi is buzzing tonight. A new island has magically appeared off the coast of Dereth. In the town square, a ragtag group of adventurers consult a sage sorcerer. He knows of no reference to the mysterious island in Dereth’s lore. Nearby, a warrior brags about how he will vanquish any monsters on the island.
He said the same thing when the Shadow Spires appeared a few months ago,
a friend chuckles.
The anticipation builds each month at Crossroads of Dereth, a Web site for Asheron’s Call players, in the days before the game’s creators release an update of new quests and challenges.
“The message boards practically buzz with excitement,”
said Brent Stineman, who operates a site (http://cod.xrgaming.net/) independent from Microsoft.
“Players look forward to the updates like Christmas.”
Stineman shares the excitement. He was introduced to fantasy online adventures a few years ago through another game. He played for 18 months but then grew bored.
“It was entirely too repetitious,”
“There were lots of things to do in the game, but they were all the same.”
Although other games offer updates, few are as frequent and none are as elaborate as Asheron’s Call, players say. One month, an unknown 50-foot monster appeared. Another month, a freak snowstorm blanketed Dereth, creating a new world of chilly challenges. In recent months, the Shadow Spires, ominous airborne floating ships, appeared, as did a new island.
Players of other games must purchase a CD-ROM to download changes to the story line. With Asheron’s Call, players access most of the fantasy world remotely on the massive servers Microsoft dedicates to the game. Updates are downloaded automatically onto each player’s computer monthly for free, explained Ken Karl, program manager for Asheron’s Call.
“We give gamers the equivalent of a new expansion pack free every month,”
“We don’t require them to go out and buy it.”
The updates are what keeps Craig Dalrymple, a longtime gamer from Chicago, playing Asheron’s Call.
“I’ve got a handful of games sitting on my shelf that I can’t play. I have beaten them every way possible,”
“This is a game where there is no final endpoint. There is no way to beat it.”
Once inside the grave, Ulon wishes they had stayed in Shoushi. The Barkers and Mudlarks put up a tough fight, almost preventing them from capturing the spear. This adventure is not one that a powerful mage like Ulon would usually undertake. He could gain more experience and wealth heading for the mysterious new island. But he wants to capture the spear and armor in Green Mire Grave for his vassals.
It is the right thing to do,
he reminds himself as they trudge deeper into the catacombs in search of the armor.
Asheron’s Call’s allegiance system is similar to that in feudal societies. Characters swear allegiance to other characters of equal or greater experience, promising their loyalty in exchange for guidance, protection or other considerations. Experienced players receive valuable experience points when they take on a new vassal and when that vassal rises in power and experience.
Players credit the game’s social structure, along with the demands of the constant flood of new adventures, for helping forge strong bonds among players while in Dereth — and away from it. The game’s live Internet chat features, which allow players to share typed messages with other players, enhance the feeling of community, they say.
Robb, the gamer from Phoenix, spends at least two hours a week using his character’s alchemy skills to help players acquire a weapon needed to improve hunting and fighting abilities. His character, one of only a few with these powers, waits in the meeting hall in a place called Glendon Wood. As many as 100 players approach Robb’s character every week, asking him to use his alchemic skills to combine several metal ingots. He does so by punching a special combination of keys on his keyboard.
Robb doesn’t get paid or gain experience points for the time he spends, but he doesn’t mind.
“I’ve made more friends doing this than any other part of the game,”
said Robb, who chats with other players about the game and life away from Asheron’s Call while his character performs the alchemic tasks. Are other players appreciative? He received about 1,000 congratulatory messages from fellow players when he recently got married.
Penelope Baker, an information technology professional from Michigan, was amazed by the response when she organized a fund-raising drive for another player who was severely ill earlier this year.
Baker hadn’t seen the other player’s character around Dereth for several days. She discovered the player, who has no health insurance and asked not to be identified in this story, was in the hospital after suffering a stroke brought on by double pneumonia.
Baker organized a fund-raising event and asked other players to take part. Five thousand dollars was raised for the recovering player.
“I was completely shocked. I was speechless,”
“I expected goodwill, but I didn’t expect that level of goodwill.”
Baker credits this strong sense of community to the devoted gamers who switched to the game early on. She also credits the relationships forged on the Asheron’s Call fan Web sites and how the game allows players to interact on a human level.
“You know every character you meet in the game is a real person. It’s not just a bunch of picture cells on a screen. It’s a real person punching a keyboard with real thoughts and real feelings,”
“This level of altruism really brings that home.”
All that separates the adventurers from the armor is a Ghost Wisp, a fighting apparition. The vassals follow Ulon’s advice. They keep as far away from it as they can to more easily dodge its spells. The wisp soon tires. The vassals jump in for the kill. The armor is finally theirs.