Asheron’s Call is one of the grand old games in the MMO universe, having been entertaining folks for upwards of ten years and as part of their anniversary celebration, WarCry is pleased to feature a quadruple interview with Brian Cottle, Jared, Eric Deans and Robert Ciccolini. Today, Robert sits in the hot seat. Read on!
Please introduce yourself and give readers a bit of your background in game development and with Asheron’s Call.
My name is Robert Ciccolini, aka Severlin. I am the producer of Asheron’s Call. I am also the lead engineer. I have been doing game design for many years, and I have also been a computer engineer for many years. Turbine gave me the opportunity to meld both my interests.
How long have you worked at Turbine and on AC?
My first code check in was in October, 2006. Wow, it doesn’t seem like that long.
What is the best part about working at Turbine generally and on AC specifically?
Turbine is a great place to work. The whole building is permeated with a gaming culture that fills the air with energy. You can experience discussions about a wide variety of games, both computer and otherwise just walking down the hall and through the battle kitchen. It is also very open; I have had many discussions on design with the LotRO and DDO folks about what things they are working on, their design philosophy and their opinions on Asheron’s Call since many of them are fans and still play the game.
What is your favorite AC class and race? Why?
I started playing Sho characters, but that is probably because I used to play Legends of the Five Rings card game pretty heavily. I have a War Mage and a fledgling archer. I also have an Aluvian melee character who uses Sword. Recently I have been messing around with a Sho Two Handed character.
What is your favorite in-game area? Why?
Graveyard, but I am unashamedly biased. I also like Tusker Island. Too much Creature Double Feature when I was a kid I suspect.
How would you compare AC now as compared to release? More specifically, what have been the most significant changes over the years?
There are a lot more tools for content these days, and the quests have really grown in variety. Our content designers create quest mechanics that simply were not possible when I started.
What type of computer did you begin using when you started on AC?
That was so many computers ago I couldn’t even tell you.
Do you play AC outside of work? How is that possible to do without getting tired of it?
Since I generally do tech and not content it actually isn’t that much of an issue.
What is the best thing you’ve personally worked on and have had implemented in game?
Behind the scenes there is lots of new tech I have implemented that the players will never directly see. The ability for objects to send local messages to each other and start scripted actions is the type of tech that players only experience through new types of content. I added tools so our designers can make creatures move along paths through the world. I added tools so NPCs can fight each other.
For player systems, I think adding Two Handed Combat had a large impact because it introduced a whole new character template. Trinkets are pretty cool as well.
As far as content goes, I don’t have much time for it. I implemented most of the graveyard just so I would have a place to create quests that used the new tech I was creating. I kind of liked the story of a doomed settlement that was a precursor to the history of the game marked by a creepy graveyard so I built one to test my tech.
What have been the biggest changes in AC and Turbine over the years you’ve worked there?
Kintani posts more now than he used to.
What have been your most satisfying experiences working on AC?
Probably watching live servers as characters and groups tackle new content to see how they do. That or running live events and having Lore characters interact with players.
What have been your biggest challenges working on AC?
When I moved to game programming (as opposed to business software) the biggest change was that I was now implementing for an audience that had a sub-group that would actively work to crash and/or corrupt the system. Business and commercial software doesn’t generally have people who will so aggressively try to mess with things. Outside the gaming world you worry more about data security and less about people trying to crash or grief the system itself. Game systems, on the other hand, have a subculture of users who attack the system for fun or profit. In the case of AC, I also had to consider a whole subculture of secondary developers who were making Decal add-ons that may or may not be server friendly. It was almost like my previous jobs were PvE programming, and I was now doing PvP programming.
Do you find that player expectations entering AC are different now than they used to be?
When Asheron’s Call first started everything was so new that I think players were more tolerant of shortcomings. They also didn’t have the expectations of reaching upper levels. More players seemed content to move along at their own pace and experience the world. Players these days seem to me to be much more goal oriented. I know I am.
How do you keep a fan base excited and interested in an ‘aging’ game?
Equal parts new content, improving existing contents and systems, and monthly updates to advance the story.
If that doesn’t work we bribe them with cookies. Oh, wait no that’s Django.
What advice do you give ‘n00bs’ when they come on board the Turbine/AC development team?
If for some reason you ever have a lapse of judgment and Lady Gaga is playing on your playlist, whatever you do don’t knock your headphone plug out of your laptop jack in the middle of the song.
Has World of Warcraft affected how you design AC’s updates?
All games that we play have to some extent affected our design. There’s actually not that much we can draw from World of Warcraft for several reasons.
First, it relies on many traditional fantasy elements that do not exist on Dereth so there is very little inspiration to be drawn for us from their story or lore.
Second, their encounter design is almost entirely based on the holy trinity of tank-healer-DPS. Since Asheron’s Call does not draw on that model at all we really can’t be that influenced by their encounter design. It just doesn’t work in AC. Most of their group content makes the general assumption that the group or raid will be organized that way.
Third, World of Warcraft character design is class based and makes liberal use of lots of individual abilities that need only be balanced within the context of that class. Asheron’s Call is entirely skill based with archetypes that are created by players mixing and matching various skills. We can’t draw inspiration from any of the World of Warcraft class design.
Fourth, World of Warcraft has no real customization in the visual look of their characters. Classes are given a set look as they progress through loot tiers, and as characters reach the upper tiers of loot all members of a particular class tend to homogenize. This is how they maintain the look and feel of their IP. Our loot system randomizes the visual elements of the armor, allowing even top end characters a lot more variety in loot. In addition, Asheron’s Call is moving toward even more character customization with the addition of tailors so players can move the visual elements from pieces they like over to pieces with favorable combat statistics.
Finally, the design philosophy of the content is really different. In Asheron’s Call, we try to keep content relevant by allowing players to repeat the quests they like. World of Warcraft generally makes the quests unavailable after you complete them once, and it wasn’t until their Burning Crusade expansion that they began to incorporate any kind of repeatable quest model with their dailies. I find it interesting that as time goes on they have been moving more and more heavily towards the repeatable quest model for new quest hubs.
In the end there isn’t much there for us.
Where do the monthly event ideas come from?
We usually follow a long term storyline and tell a chapter of that story with each update. Sometimes a designer will implement a quest because they have a vision of a cool system, or a vision for a cool piece of art, or because a designer was playing the game and decided to update some area they ran through. Some event ideas come from design goals such as making the game more accessible to new players or to give end game players more stuff to do or because some level band needs more to do.
If the fails we use a complicated system involving a magic 8-ball, a Chutes and Ladder game, a Demogorgon gaming figure gifted to me by DDO’s Gelatinous Cube, and tequila shots.
Now that DDOU has successfully gone “free to play”, has any consideration been given to having AC do the same?
Before we moved in that direction we would have to overhaul the billing system and make sure that we had a compelling and fun model that would enhance a free to play environment. We would have to make sure we could implement that without taking away the elements and flavor of the game that our fans have grown to love.
What awesome franchise that isn’t yet an MMO would you love to work on?
I tend to favor settings that are built ground up for gaming. That said, I like the urban/magical genre of Shadowrun. Hopefully it would also involve shooting a pair of pistols ala old John Woo movies. Wait, does the FPS version count? I’d rather see a Shadowrun game that was more like a traditional MMO.
Is the future of MMOs a “WOW Killer” or is it something we can’t even imagine?
Apparently this is the section that gets posted in ten years so everyone can laugh.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Wait, Ken Olsen already said that, didn’t he?
Instead of trying to predict what the future holds for MMOs, instead let me talk about a few things I’d like to see in the short term and long term for MMOs.
~ No Servers. We are already seeing games with no distinct servers. I’ll give Champions Online credit here for their server-less architecture. I am never unable to play with friends because we started at different times and happened to choose different servers to play on. You should be able to select a character and a shard on which to play and enter that shard. Chat would be game wide and your friends list would show which shard they are currently playing on so you can join them. I should always be able to play with the people I know. Finding out after the fact that they are on another server and you can’t play with them undermines the social aspect of the game.
~ Detach the keyboard from communication. I think in the near future games are going to be looking at alternates to typed chat messages, if only to capture the large console market without requiring the user to acquire a keyboard. Some already have built in voice chat, but the problem with that is you can’t have 20 guildies all talking at the same time over vent. With guild chat messages from multiple people can scroll by in an unobtrusive manner. I think we might see games with voice recognition that generates chat messages. Being able to generate chat messages verbally opens up a lot of possibilities for users with controllers and doesn’t add noise clutter like current VOIP systems.
~ Constructive content instead of destructive content. Yeah, people like killing stuff. But a lot of people like building stuff too. Just look at Farmville. Someone is going to figure out a really clever way for people in an MMO to create areas instead of just killing things. This ideal system won’t eat up all available landscape. This ideal system will let the player open the area to other players. I have a lot of respect for City of Heroes for trying for user created content. Still, no one has nailed this quite right yet. The company that successfully combines the elements of an MMO with the construction of persistent landscape in a clever and fun way will have a hit on their hands.
~ Sensory deviation between characters. One thing a linked computer game can be very good at is presenting characters with different skill sets a different visual or auditory experience. There aren’t a lot of other mediums where every player is sitting at a different screen with their own window into the shared world. An MMO could, for example, have mages see magical auras that are invisible to non-magic characters. Different races could see or hear things differently. Or characters with differing perception abilities could be presented with different views in game. Alien versus Predator does some of this with the variance on vision depending on which race you play. Computers can do this fairly easily, and it’s a shame MMOs don’t use this technology to give different character archetypes, races, or skills a different gaming experience.
Our grateful thanks to the Asheron’s Call team for their fantastic interviews!