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Asheron’s Call 100th Update Interview

When Asheron’s Call launched in November of 1999, the development team at Turbine had an ambitious plan in mind: every month, they would update the game, not just to add content but to further the game’s story. Their vision for Asheron’s Call was a constantly evolving game world that they would regularly add to.

Month after month, they kept to that vision. With the game’s ninth anniversary right around the corner, the AC team hit another huge milestone: August’s update was the game’s 100th.

I sat down with Producer Dave Javier and Community Manager Andy Cataldo to chat about the evolving world of Dereth and both their favorite memories from the path as well as what they were looking forward to in the future of Asheron’s Call.

They’d just returned from Gen Con in Indianapolis, and told me how quite a few con-goers passing by the AC booth had expressed fond memories of the game – for many, back in 1999, it had been their first MMORPG, “their first love.” To Dave Javier and Andy Cataldo, this was the very essence of Turbine’s development: to create compelling worlds to draw people in and update frequently to keep them there!

Like the attendees at Gen Con, Javier had started with AC – his story, though, was that of a developer. His first job immediately after graduating college had been with the Live Team for the first game, and his career had grown with it. Over the years, he’d gone from being on the Live Team to being the game’s Lead Designer, behind much of the game’s 2005 expansion pack, Throne of Destiny.

WarCry: 105 months of AC, and your 100th update. So just over one update a month? That’s dedication. How many people working on the monthly updates have been there all 9 years?

Dave Javier: Shawn Dickinson, one of content designers, he’s been on it all 9 years. For about half of his tenure he was in QA, but a few years ago he moved to a creative role. He’s kind of an envelope pusher. The Coliseum was an idea we’d kicked around for years, but couldn’t figure out how to implement it. Sean butted his head against it and eventually figured out how to do it. Kind of hard with a monthly schedule to keep from burning out, but the passion is still there. The whole team is collaborative and creative enough that if one guy doesn’t feel like being the “creative guy” for a bit, others can pick up the slack.

WC: What about new players – if someone starts playing today, they’re dropped into the middle of the story? How do they catch up?

DJ: That is a good question. There is so much content in the game that it can be a little daunting for a new player. Traditionally, if this was a progressing storyline in the truest sense, then you wouldn’t be able to play through the content from 8 years ago. We leave it in the game. With that, though, it might contribute to being a “drift” in time for an uneducated, newer player. We count on the allegiance system – where players owe power to more powerful, older players. Because of that, we can count on them to guide new players through the world and allow them to form bonds.

In-game, we do constantly update the history – there are history books for players to read. Also, there’s a slideshow playing through scenes from the major story arcs in the game that players can hang up in their house.

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WC: February’s update had “Memory Quests,” which let players revisit the game’s history, as a new type of storytelling device. The recent Book 14 update for Lord of the Rings Online introduced Session Play, a very similar concept – players can play through “stories” of characters not their own. Did one inspire the other, and is there crossover (within Turbine) between different development teams and ideas?

Andy Cataldo: Probably not, but great minds think alike.

Part of the motivation for the AC memory quests was that a lot of the players who we have now but who haven’t been there from the beginning … they get to see the things that they missed. You have these great memories that older players share, and newer players are always hearing about, but never get to see. Or even some things that our older players never got to see.

For example, the Bael’Zharon story – it involved one of the central adversaries of AC lore, an archdemon from 10,000 years ago blessed by darkness. Much of the first fourteen, fifteen months of AC was spent explaining how he was brought back by the greed of players, who broke into vaults where his soul was stored searching for treasure. The storyline culminated in him getting loose, stomping around and killing people. He actually accepted a pledge of loyalty from the biggest PK guild on Darktide. Bael’Zharon is seen as the first great villain, the first great storyline of AC… older players have these stories about going to towns and getting your ass handed to him. For most of the operations, the community specialist, Dave Namerow controlled him, but I got a chance to take my turn.

DJ: With memory quests, we want to let new players experience it and let others relive older memories.

MY favorite story about playing Bael’Zheron was running into a person at a Lifestone: when you rez, you rez without some of your most valuable pieces of armor or equipment. There’s this guy at a Lifestone, who’d just rezzed … without pants. Maybe he lost them while killed. I ran up to him, shook my fist and RP’d. I demanded that he swear loyalty to me, and finally added, “And put on some pants!” He replied: “Yes, I swear fealty to you – but not even for you, Hopeslayer, will I waste the magic in my pants.”

WC: Anything else coming down the road in AC inspired by LotRO or DDO? Or vice versa?

Andy: Dave’s team is only part of the AC team. A lot of teams get shared (like tech and art). We have people that work on all three games, but “what team are you on?” really is not the way the studio is set up. People move around when they need to, like when they need to grow, or are looking for a change.

DJ: Not a lot of revolving doors, but there’s certainly a lot of friendship across franchises. Adam Mackey was the creator of AC, and now works on LotRO – he crosses the franchises occasionally. Certainly, AC isn’t above homages here and there. For example, in game we’ve got a Douglas Adams tribute and a Red Dawn tribute among others.

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WC: Since AC is an original IP, you have more freedom than the other Turbine games as to what you can put in, right? Do you find that to be the case?

Andy: One of my favorite things we put in as far as pop culture and having those freedoms… a few years back, with the sensation of LOST, that was reflected in-game: there’s an island with a hatch on it and a black smoke monster. One of the great things about the franchise [as opposed to an existing IP like Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons] is the freedom to do that. The NPC Ulgrim the Unpleasant is a voice for the developers to speak their minds. When Gary Gygax passed away, they made a not-so-veiled reference to that in-game.

With AC, we have more freedom with our content. Gandalf can’t sprout a mohawk. The guys on the LotRO team thrive on that, it’s a different sort of creativity to fit the game into that pre-existing lore.

DJ: Going back to your earlier question about burnout: Having that much creative freedom, having the freedom to decide “I’m going to put in an Entourage homage this month” helps people come back.

At one point, someone asked, “How do you keep a story going after so many years?” People who were there at the beginning aren’t there now, and how do you continue other people’s stories? All of our games have 10 year plans. Turbine is in its 15th year, we have a history of MMO gaming with all three of our games. It doesn’t mean they all have to do monthly updates [like AC], LotRO does fewer updates that are bigger. It all depends on the franchise.

WC: How far in advance do you have the story planned out?

DJ: Story arcs about a major villain/faction antagonists last anywhere from 9-16 months. So a couple of months before we start a new story arc, we plot out the major events and how far we want the story to low, how long it’ll take. And then we have meetings in advance of the ship date about 6-8 weeks, to figure out what we want to do.
WC: So! The 100th update. Pretty big changes coming down the pipe?

DJ: We tailored the storyline we’re in the middle of and the 100th update to work together. The 100th update came up as an initiative within the team to ship some of the Elder Game content – player factions and land control – and Live content converge.

Andy: We were looking at the calendar and realized we were approaching this 100th update, and decided to give the players what they’ve been asking for. When you have players who are playing your game for 5-7 years, some who have been with the game for the beginning… it was important to us to think of a way to thank our players. We couldn’t think of anything better than the Elder Game system, to get them more involved in the game and give them what they want.

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WC: With the 100th content update’s Elder Game system, players can swear allegiance to factions and work to benefit them… can you explain this? How will it work in both PvP and PvE?

DJ: Our level cap is level 275. Once you get to level 180, you’ll get to talk to recruiters in three of the main cities in the landmass, and each of them represents a different faction with a different backstory. They’re well-established going to the beginning of AC history. We’ve spent the last few months seeding the updates with references to the factions so players would know what they’re getting into. Each of the factions is tied to an important lore character.

Once you’re in a faction, you can do tasks and do quests and help your faction in PvE terms. You can also help by taking part in fights in strongholds that pass from faction to faction in PvP.

Actually, I misspoke. Strongholds are the factions’ home bases. The other places, the ones that people fight over, we’re calling them “PK towns.” They’re small, walled towns, self-contained areas that were not previously there. They’re new areas that players haven’t previously seen.

WC: Will there be NPC guards? If I take it, will there be NPCs to help me hold it or do players have to do it all themselves?

Andy: There will be a month of only player defense. There will be guards put in place with update 101. Players WILL have to be involved. Sure, there’s the chance that you could lose it at 4 AM but when you log in at 3 PM, you get to go do that really good fight again to take it back.
Players – especially our PK players – have been asking places to fight over, things to fight over, and reasons to fight other than just for the sake of fighting. It wouldn’t make sense to attack these places at 4 AM when there’s nobody there to fight. We hope that they’ll do these fights when they’re large-scale and will result in larger, more epic battles.

DJ: This is just the start of our faction-based content; we want to keep giving them more and more to do. There will be more cool PvP towns as long as the demand is there.

Andy: On top of the faction system (we’re calling it a “society system,” to use the proper terminology), we’re also introducing a new tier of loot for higher level players. It’s a very loot-based game; you find the best armor equipment via hunting and being out in the world as opposed to going on quests. It also depends heavily on player-driven crafting. With this new tier of loot players will have the ability to build better and stronger suits of armor.

DJ: We’re also adding in a new tier of magic spells. With this new tier we’re kind of giving the call back to our roots a little bit: back when AC first came out, in the first couple of years, we had a very robust spell research system. For every spell you wanted to learn, you had to research it and do work, and there was a sense of achievement when you finally learned it. Eventually, we got to the point where you just could buy a scroll and learn the spell.

Now we’re going back to that – where players are going to have to research and be very focused on the type of magic they want to use – in order to learn these level 8 spells. We don’t want to forget our roots, or where we came from.

We’ve also got two new landmasses coming for the 100th update – players will have to join one of the new factions to explore these new landmasses. One of the good things is that, if you choose to, you will be able to do the entire progression as a solo player, and don’t have to depend on anyone.

You certainly CAN go with friends, and you’ll kill and progress faster, but we designed these new areas to let the player move at their pace if they want to solo. Players want options, and with future content we’ll be giving them this option to just sit down and play by themselves if they feel like it.

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