Putting the “Massive” in “Massively Multiplayer Online”

Everyone knew how worlds were designed: They were basically a series of “zones,” sometimes interlocked, sometimes completely detached, accessible only by very special means, sometimes migrating connections from room to room to simulate settings like a sailing ship. You came up with a number of zones, mapped them out, populated them with some monsters and divided them among the servers according to their load. Players would quickly learn the necessary routes – which zones connected, where there were shortcuts, the quickest paths through zones.

And then, Asheron’s Call launched in late 1999 and introduced a radical concept: no zones in a three-dimensional world – just one, big continuous continent. Seamless.

It Keeps Going and Going and Going
Asheron’s Call took place on the world of Dereth, a roughly square continent about 24 miles on each side. Created by Turbine and released in November 1999, AC broke with the well-established norms of its competitors, Ultima Online and EverQuest, in a number of ways. It was set in an original fantasy world that lacked “stereotypical” creatures and playable races, skills weren’t bound to specific classes, and it featured a new technology: dynamic load balancing, which made for wide open spaces. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t a reaction to market forces; Turbine designed AC that way from the very beginning.

“People always seemed to think that EQ, AC and UO were all trying to differentiate from each other, when in fact most of the major decisions had been made long before we even knew of each other,” says Jason Booth, Turbine’s original Lead Technical Artist and one of the earliest members of the team. “We were all just doing our own thing and sort of bumped into each other at E3 one year.”

Their “own thing” included a scalable server-side architecture. It worked by dividing the game world between available servers (in this case, individual computers networked together locally), based on population density in certain areas and the server’s available processor capacity. Depending on how players spread out in the world, the servers would shift processing between themselves, sharing the load. What’s interesting is how different play styles affected the technology, and how the technology reacted to solve the problem.

“On [player-vs.-player] servers, people spread out a lot more, causing more of the world to be loaded and increasing memory usage,” Jason explains. “Whereas on [non-PvP] servers, people cluster more, causing network and processing load to be the limiting factor.”

The players experienced those imposed limits by way of “portal storms,” an in-game term for “too many players in one spot.” When a number of players gathered in any one location, the game instituted a portal storm, which randomly teleported people out of high-traffic areas.

Crossing The Great Divide
The seamless world was incredibly immersive. When you’re crossing a mountain range for mile after snow-covered mile, a five-second load screen can still kill the illusion, especially when something incongruous to the real world happens, like the weather changing from partly sunny to mostly terrible in an instant, or the position of the sun in the sky not matching from area to area.

In Asheron’s Call, when you worked your way across the continent, it really felt like exploring. You weren’t looking for zone walls, you were looking for passes through the mountains, and those passes sported all the dangers of their real-world counterparts.

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Finding shortcuts across mountains or through particularly treacherous areas was an endless quest in itself. It wasn’t just the terrain you were fighting against; a large population of foul-tempered nasties awaited you behind every brush, tree and hill. This made the radar on the user interface a welcome, but not always reliable, tool.

The radar showed the position of nearby players and monsters, but relying on the radar was dangerous; some of the nastiest monsters in the game didn’t show up on your radar until you had already stumbled into their effective attacking range. By the time you knew they were there, you were dead.

In an area full of high-level, radar-resistant monsters, the radar was practically useless. You had to actively watch where you were going and constantly adjust your course to avoid deadly groups of monsters, lest you be drawn into an epic struggle with no hope for survival.

In other MMOGs, one need only run away to the nearest zone border; players pass through, monsters do not. This is called “training”; fleeing aggressive monsters, who then follow behind you, forming what looks like a train. A train of death.

In AC there were no zone borders to train to; you couldn’t count on an easy escape. Monsters would break off pursuit after a certain distance, but with enough monsters – especially the more lethal monsters – the odds were good you would die before your train even left the station. As you fled, you would invariably flee into more monsters, coupling even more critters to your train.

One particularly existential solution to this dilemma was the act of jumping off a cliff, which, while perhaps a bit insane, would actually occasionally save your life. Unfortunately, the train of death would sometimes be so intent in their pursuit, they might jump off the cliff right after you. If they landed on you, you could expect to take damage (more than from the fall anyway). It was a sorry adventurer who, having survived a desperate jump from a great height, believed he was safe only to suffer death from above in the form of a monster bouncing off his skull.

Sea To Shining Sea
A continuous, seamless world is more than just a hook. It gives players in AC a truly unique experience, with a great sense of a massive world that wasn’t present in games before Dereth was introduced. AC isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly gone through its share of problems, but it still stands out as the first real “massive” game, due in no small part to the ingenious design of its server architecture.

Asheron’s Call never came close to dethroning then-leader EverQuest, and today, compared to the millions of subscribers boasted by World of Warcraft, its subscriber base is pitiably small. But after nearly 10 years and two expansions, Dereth remains a diverse, fully-explorable world full of adventure on a truly massive scale.

Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMOG and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.

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