Asheron's Call: 17 Years of Memories Coming to an End
In the long and fascinating history of MMORPGs, there's a "holy trinity" like no other: Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call. News broke on December 20th of last year that the youngest of the three (albeit not by much), Asheron's Call, was being shut down.
Since then, MMORPG fans have been grieving. Many will say it's just the nostalgia talking, but there's nothing like your first experience with an MMORPG, and that's especially if it came from as early at the '90s. Asheron's Call leaves behind a legacy worth sharing, and that's exactly what I'm here to do for you.
In November of 1999, Microsoft and Turbine came together as publisher and developer to launch a title that did what no one else thought they had a chance to do: put a major dent in a market that was young but already belonging to EverQuest and Ultima Online.
To truly understand and appreciate Asheron's Call on launch, you need to first know the differences between the internet back then and now. See, in 1999, you could catch me searching on Yahoo! (as Google wasn't big yet) for those Dragon Ball Z animated GIFs. You know, the ones with Goku throwing out the Kamehameha halfway across your 800×600 CRT monitor? The first result for any search term like that would probably be a free, fan-made website hosted on Geocities, Tripod, or Angelfire. What I'm getting at is, the internet was not completely commercialized at the time. The things people made -- be it websites, games, or other media -- were of the highest quality possible because everything wasn't just some big cash grab yet. This is especially true when it came to MMORPGs. MMORPGs were new, and although some had already seen success, you had to put out something special for it to work.
Special is exactly what Asheron's Call was. In the same way that you might browse through those bright, purely-HTML websites of the '90s, Asheron's Call felt like a whole new world. You could go for hours and hours inside of this game, exploring a vast wilderness that never seemed to end. Where games today might border you off or nudge you to come back to the mainland, Asheron's Call was overflowing with monsters and new areas to explore. The level of customization that you could put into your character was unreal for its time, too. The depth that you could go to in perfecting your build made it feel like there would never be another character out there quite like yours. That wasn't standard at the time.
Breathe in the nostalgia of their character creation screen before we go any further:
Not only was Asheron's Call crawling with monsters, but the experience of going to some far-off town and noticing the mass of other players around you was something to remember. I can recall following players through towns to the vendors where they'd sell off their trash loot, only so that I could snoop around and potentially buy up anything of theirs I might be interested in.
Asheron's Call included raids, too. That isn't something that just came around in the days of World of Warcraft.
Is there anyone reading that remembers how the GMs would log in as major characters from the lore and interact with players? How about the release of Bael'Zharon, where players had such a large impact on what was happening in the game that the developers actually had to step in and steer things in the direction that it was planned to go?
Then there was the Shard Vigil, an event made entirely by players that were determined to defend a shard from being destroyed by another group of players. Again, GMs on Thistledown actually had to intervene, playing as Ler Rhan and Ferah, to assist the attack and destroy the shard so that the event's boss, Bael'Zharon, could be released.
You just don't get a gameplay experience like that anymore, and back then we kind of took it for granted because it's all we knew. The players created Asheron's Call almost as much as the developers did, and both loved the game. It was easy to see.
After its first year, Asheron's Call had 80,000 subscribers. Moving into its second year, it was third in popularity behind -- you guessed it -- Ultima Online and EverQuest.
While Microsoft was never open about exact subscriber counts past the first year, many believe that Asheron's Call peaked in popularity in the first quarter of 2002 with around 120,000 paying accounts. In May of that same year, Dark Age of Camelot took the place of Asheron's Call as the third place MMORPG powerhouse with 200,000 subscribers. Asheron's Call had seen it's full potential as far as marketability went, but it went on many years as an incredible game that tens of thousands loved and developers passionately constructed.
Eventually, Asheron's Call had to adapt to the competition and dropped its monthly subscription fee. It became free to play and entered a "maintenance mode" period where no more content was scheduled to be released. In early 2014, Turbine announced that the final content patch would ship on March 4th of that year and every patch thereafter would contain simple bug fixes and maintenance work. This was when players began to grow less optimistic about the game's future.
In December of 2016, Turbine announced that it was leaving the MMO business. This resulted in the formation of Standing Stone Games, a new studio that was intended to take over Asheron's Call and Turbine's two other games, Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Unfortunately, things fell through with Asheron's Call. The intellectual property of the game belongs to Turbine and Time Warner. Left in limbo, it was announced that Asheron's Call would completely close down on January 31, 2017. New account creation has since been disabled.
After that news hit the internet, the outcry was massive. Perhaps nothing could help a casual reader understand better than this viral video of a 74-year-old man sharing his memories and love of the game after hearing of its upcoming shutdown:
The Asheron's Call subreddit is bustling with attempts to archive and collect data from the game before it disappears. Players are spending their final weeks running through the game one last time to get video memories of everything they loved about the game. For example, this 20-minute video of The Dereth Museum of Frostfell:
Passionate fans have even developed a packet logger that they're begging every active player to run during their last visits. The community wants everything from this game, and they deserve it! The result of these log dumps and videos should birth some beautiful websites that will allow nostalgic fans to enjoy these memories the end of time. Asheron's Call may go away, but it will truly never die in the hearts of these people.
Please share your memories of Asheron's Call in the comments below. As a player from 10 years ago myself, I'd love to relive some of those moments through you. Remember that Asheron's Call is still playable up until the 31st of January, but you can't make a new account. Boot it up and take one last walk through!