The MMO outcasts searching for new worlds to call home | PCGamesN

The MMO outcasts searching for new worlds to call home

Asheron's Call

On January 31st, 2017, Asheron’s Call’s servers shut down for good after 17 years of uniting people for adventures, misadventures, friendships, and marriages. There were teary farewells and mass gatherings for those final hours of the veteran MMO, which spearheaded the genre alongside EverQuest and Ultima Online. When the dreaded moment arrived, the gathered players evaporated in flourishes of purple light - take a screenshot at the right moment, and those innocuous logout animations could pass for a field of spectral memorial flowers.

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But a year on, with the period of mourning over for most players, I was curious about what the displaced Asheron’s Call faithful did next. How they have moved on from a world they had grown so attached to and, in many cases, were forced to leave. It did not seem tenable to me that the most powerful guilds in the game, for instance, would just disband upon that final disconnect. Surely they would try to stick together and resettle elsewhere?

Or what about the famous Asheron’s Call Grandpa who, through a simple three-minute video showing him playing Asheron’s Call in its final days, captured the internet’s imagination? The 74-year-old’s amiable laugh and quiet contentment playing the game inadvertently turned him into a symbol of what its closure meant for players. In the video description, his granddaughter calls out for people to recommend him a new game, and I am probably just one among many of the million-plus viewers of that video who wanted to know how things worked out for him.

Asheron's Call

I started my search for Asheron’s Call nomads in the obvious place: the Asheron’s Call subreddit. It was not exactly bustling, but surprisingly active considering its parent game has been gone for a year. The most popular thread, titled ‘Searching for Old Friends’, is dedicated to reuniting players who lost touch with each other since the game closed. Reading a bit like a notice board you would expect to find after a disaster, where families are writing into the void in the hope of hearing back from those they have been separated from, there are some heart-warming reunions among its posts. But the majority of appeals go unanswered.

Not that all former Asheron’s Call players are floating listlessly in the virtual ether. One, called Kira, tells me that since Asheron’s Call closed she has found time to invest into her other passion: sci-fi and space westerns.

“I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will probably never be another MMO like Asheron’s Call,” Kira tells me. “But the fantasy of piloting a spaceship has really come into fruition since AC began, so it’s been a perfect time to get into Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen.”

Would she consider going back to MMOs if the right one came along? “I feel like the average MMO player today is younger than back in 2000, which doesn’t suit me as much,” she says. “I’m not sure that another game would ever touch me quite like Asheron’s Call did anyway. I always said that if [the movie] Vanilla Sky was real, then my dying wish would be to have my mind transferred into Asheron’s Call.”

Elite Dangerous

Players who were part of Asheron’s Call’s gruelling PvP server, Darktide, have been seeking out more aggressive thrills, and several I spoke to found solace in survival games like DayZ and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. “You get PvP in other MMOs, but there’s no risk involved in losing your stuff, no thrill,” one redditor, Nextlevelplay, tells me. “The closest feeling I get to Darktide is in survival games, where there’s a consequence for your death.”

And then, of course, there i the contingent of code-savvy players who arise in the wake of every beloved MMO’s closure, defiantly trying to keep Asheron’s Call alive through emulator projects. It hasn’t been easy. The most prominent project, PhatAC, began when the game’s shutdown was announced, leading to the creation of several functioning servers based on its code.

In September, however, the project went dark; servers went down, websites relating to PhatAC disappeared, and the lead coders left the Discord group without a word. Several weeks later, one of the coders, known online as ‘Pea’, wrote that he had received a letter from IP owner Warner Bros. to stop work on the project, shut down the servers, and even take PhatAC gameplay videos off YouTube. While the words ‘Cease and Desist’ weren’t used in Pea’s letter, he said he was signing an agreement to stop work on all Warner Bros. IPs, and warned other Asher’s Call revival projects that they risked the same fate.

One such project is trying to work around the red tape by building an open-source engine for Asheron’s Call. It is not in a playable state yet, and one of its lead contributors - going by the Discord handle Immortal Bob - bemoans what he sees as broken promises made by Asheron’s Call developers Turbine.

“Asheron's Call is an absolutely humongous game, so the biggest problem is the sheer amount of data that has to be inputted into the database,” Bob tells me. “It sure would have been nice if Turbine gave us the private servers that they promised two years before shutdown.”

It is hard work, and Bob admits that there is always the worry of a Cease and Desist looming over them, but for now the project soldiers on.

ACEmu

Progress on the open-source ACEmu project is slow but palpable

Many of the players who were there for the closure of Asheron’s Call are aware of these emulation projects, but not everyone is onboard. One person, going by the Reddit handle of Hemroyed, does not believe these projects could recapture the original game.

“I considered one of the AC emulators, but I think it just leads to a ‘Wild West’ within the world,” he tells me. “I imagine it’s either empty, or rampant with bots and such.”

For all the different directions players have gone since Asheron’s Call, a common theme was that almost none of them were interested in moving onto a more modern MMO, citing a lack of complexity, younger audiences, and too much hand-holding in the way of gated content, maps, quest markers, and inconsequential death systems. The overall feeling was that if they were to settle into a new MMO home, it would need to be in the spirit of Asheron’s Call, staying true to those arcane mechanical traits while offering something new (though I got the impression that for many of them, the ‘new’ part was optional).

And that’s how I discovered an in-development MMO called Project: Gorgon

Developed by a small team led by two former Asheron’s Call developers, Eric Heimberg and Sandra Powers, Project: Gorgon (still in its free ‘alpha’ stage) has become something of a refuge for those marooned by the closure of Asheron’s Call. The creators promise to strip away the conveniences that veteran MMO players perceive to have watered down the genre, and offer a mysterious, dangerous (if small, by Asheron’s Call standards) world to explore, along with detailed control over character development. Even the game’s graphics hark back to over a decade a go - while this is no doubt a side-effect of a relatively small budget (back in 2015, its Kickstarter raised $75,000 from a modest target of $20,000), some players even see the visuals as part of Gorgon’s rustic charm.

Project: Gorgon

One Asheron’s Call veteran, West5ide, says that Project: Gorgon scratches an itch, even if it is too early to call it a true successor to the defunct MMO. He praises how, similarly to Asher’s Call, it evokes a sense of “the unknown,” and champions a hands-off approach that lets  you figure the game out for yourself. “There are limited fast-travel options so you pretty much trek anywhere you need to go, adding to a sense of discovery,” he tells me. “Stuff like crafting and skills are left mysterious, and the graphics are the icing on the cake. They actually add to that nostalgic feeling.”

Another player, Sasho, is part of a large guild in Project: Gorgon called Asheron’s Legacy, which is made up predominantly of former Asheron’s Call players. He suggests that the draw of Project: Gorgon has nothing to do with any modern metrics of what constitutes a great MMO.

“From a certain point, people didn't log into Asheron’s Call to play the game, we logged on to see each other - the game was just the excuse,” he says. “The spirit of the AC community never died, so when looking for a new place to hang our coats, the question wasn’t ‘which MMO is best?’, but ‘Where can I find my old friends?’. And, honestly, Project: Gorgon is an amazing game.”

He outlines Gorgon’s unique qualities. Instead of relying on character classes, for example, you develop your character as you please, based on skills that include elements such as Psychology, Battle Chemistry, and numerous animal forms. Survival elements like character temperature and metabolism play a part, gating is non-existent, and you can curry favour with NPCs to uncover lore or gain access to dialogue, lore, and quests. I suggest that these features are not necessarily unique to Gorgon, and that perhaps the game’s appeal relies on holding onto a precious piece of the past. Sasho acknowledges this, but elaborates that it is also because Gorgon is a fledgling project; a new, uncharted world.

“Asheron's Call wasn't just a chapter closing, it was the whole book ending,” he tells me. “It just felt more natural that we should start an entirely new book as opposed to jumping in half way through one.”

Project: Gorgon

Asheron’s Legacy is led by a man called LaRaj, who founded the guild along with a few of his Asheron’s Call friends who he had bumped into in Gorgon. He describes the guild as “a place where Asheron refugees could go and be among the communities that they were forced from.” Today, the guild numbers around 250 players. But LaRaj is aware that Gorgon’s place in the market is somewhat fragile. “I plan to stay with Project: Gorgon and see it through, but I feel like the MMO world has changed forever,” he says. “With so many options it seems like people are quick to jump from one to the next, and many find the challenges of discovering worlds for themselves upsetting. It’s hard to say if it will be successful or not.”

This attitude is one shared by most of the players I have spoken to when exploring pre-WoW MMOs. Those that stay with one MMO for the long haul are not usually looking for new, novel experiences; they are content amidst the muddy ground textures and shadowless avatars, because these places contain their fondest memories and close-knit communities. Essentially, they become indigenous to that game, and if they are forced to find a new one, it needs to be as close as possible to that original one, something that reminds them of their virtual home, even if it can never quite replace it.

All this leads us back to AC Grandpa and what happened to him since that video. It might not come as a surprise to hear that he, too, made the intrepid journey over to Gorgon. He has been settling in well, reuniting with old friends in this small but comfortable new world.

“Upon arriving in Gorgon, I joined a guild formed by Asheron’s Call players [not Asheron’s Legacy],” he tells me. “My close friend from Asheron’s Call is also here, doing the same things he did back then and helping new players, which is enjoyable to see.”

AC Grandpa

AC Grandpa, seen here playing Asheron’s Call, is happy and settling well into Project: Gorgon

AC Grandpa is happy with the steady improvements he has seen in Gorgon since it began, and says that a selling point for him was that he will get to keep his character as the game progresses through its alpha and beta stages to a full release.

“That’s what really hurt about losing Asheron’s Call. You play the game for some 18 years and that character becomes part of you, a part I badly miss,” he says. And while he is happy to have found a new home, he admits that things can never quite be the same after Asheron’s Call. “All I can say is I still miss what we had with Asheron’s Call and I’m sure thousands totally miss it like I do,” he muses. “It’s hard to understand how a game can mean so much to one.”

Just as his YouTube video resonated with thousands of people a year ago, AC Grandpa’s words ring true today. He doesn’t try to qualify Asheron’s Call as somehow being superior to everything that came after, only that he misses it. Whether it is down to nostalgia, the community, or the mechanical qualities of Asheron’s Call is beside the point, because it is ultimately the most dedicated players’ memories that shape how we remember the game. Asheron’s Call is special because it meant so much to so many.

Veterans accept that they will probably never find a game that affects them quite like Asheron’s Call did, but it is reassuring that there is always a place in games that can appeal to specific parts of that experience; whether that is the sense of exploration found in the hollow beyond of deep space, the high-stakes thrills of PvP condensed into an all-against-all shootout on an uninhabited island, or the comfort and familiarity of a humble MMO tailor-made for the spirited Asheron’s Call community.

GOTW
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