[MUD-Dev] Asheron's Call Interview with Toby Ragaini, Lead Designer, and Jon Grande, Product Planner.

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Mon May 4 12:29:26 New Zealand Standard Time 1998


Asheron's Call Interview with...
Toby Ragaini, Lead Designer, and
Jon Grande, Product Planner.

Some Introductory Questions about the World of Asheron's Call

Desslock: One of the features of Asheron's Call which seems to set it
apart from other massively multiplayer online role-playing games is
the fact that you have prepared a very detailed background history to
the gaming world. Can you give us a few tidbits about the history of
the world in which Asheron's Call is set?

TR: We have a lot of backstory that we are going to incorporate into
the game world. I don't want to give away too much of the story, since
part of the excitement will be from players discovering this secret
past themselves. I will say that the player's characters are being
brought to an island that was formerly inhabited by a mysterious race
of people that the humans now call the Empyrean. The Empyrean were
very advanced in magical and arcane lore, however, they seem to have
all disappeared.  Where did they go and why? No one has answered that
question, although most suspect that the magical portals which dot the
landscape are somehow involved.

Desslock: You have also indicated that you intend to develop an
"overall storyline" once the game is released, in order to allow
Asheron's Call to continually evolve. What are some of the plot
developments which you are considering or which you think might be
possible to implement within Asheron's Call?

TR: We are dedicated to making player characters the main focus of the
game plot rather than predefined AI roles or scripted characters. To
this end, the storyline going forward is less defined than the back
story so that we can incorporate players into the ongoing plot. Plans
that we have include monster invasions, catastrophic events that add
new areas to explore, and other changes that alter the content of the
game world.

JG: The goal of these events is to drive the story forward and, to
some degree, force people to decide whether to work together or to "go
it alone". Decisions made by major players at key points in the game
will have major effects on the direction of the Asheron's Call story
and will affect the state of the universe going forward.

Desslock: At last year's E3, you have indicated that Asheron's Call
would feature only "human" player characters, but that players could
choose to be from one of three separate "heritage groups". Tell us a
bit about the different heritage groups in Asheron's Call. Will the
heritage groups have a history of interacting with each other?

TR: ALUVIANS are an individualistic, warlike people with a strong
sense of justice and loyalty. They are most similar to the English
after the Norman invasions. GHARU'NDIM are proud, desert-dwelling folk
who cherish learning, honor and formality. The Gharu'ndim culture is
loosely based on those of the Moors of al-Andalus (southern
Spain). SHO are a spiritual people who prize duty and self-discipline,
and seek grace and splendor in all things. The Sho are similar to the
culture of feudal China.

Desslock: What will the role of non-player characters ("NPCs") be in
Asheron's Call? Will NPCs also be from different heritage groups?

TR: NPCs in Asheron's Call will be either opponents or
merchants. Monsters are by far the most common NPC. Human NPCs will
belong to one of the three heritage groups, and will appear and be
equipped as appropriate for that group.

Desslock: Unlike other online role-playing games, in Asheron's Call,
all of the players will always be in the same gaming "world", and not
on a variety of "mirror" worlds, represented by different servers.
One of the reasons other online games have divided up gamers into
different servers is because, in addition to server capacity issues,
their actual gaming worlds weren't physically big enough to
accommodate all of the players who wanted to play the game
simultaneously. With that in mind, how big will the world of Asheron's
Call be? Are you concerned that if Asheron's Call is very popular, you
might be "victims of your own success", leading to overcrowding?

TR: Dereth, the island Asheron's Call takes place on, is about 575
square miles. Even at our expected peak usage, the population density
will be about equal to Montana's. It's worth noting that most online
games don't split the world up because of physical crowding. They
split the world because their servers can't handle the load.

JG: Game designers many times belittle the concept of a single world
(potentially because their technology prevents it) but we actually
think that having all players in the same world is key. While it's
unlikely that a player will ever interact with all of the thousands of
other players in the game - we think it's critical that they at least
have that opportunity. We don't want people to have to say "I'm the
best magician on this server or that server." We want people to be
able to say "I'm the best magician in Asheron's Call." Saying it is
easy, proving it is something else entirely.

As far as the size of Dereth and the available area to play in, as
Toby said, the island covers about 575 square miles. For reference,
that is ½ the size of Rhode Island and twice the size of Hong Kong.

Desslock: How diverse will the settings be in Asheron's Call? Will you
have a variety of terrain such as deserts, tropical areas, etc.?

TR: Dereth has all types of terrain from frigid mountain glaciers to
stark desert wastelands. Forests, rivers, swamps, and beaches all
exist as well as subterranean dungeons and crypts.

Desslock: Some role-playing games have attempted to essentially create
a living, breathing world "simulation", where non-player characters
have their own daily schedules, the world has its own interactive
"ecology" and there is an overall dynamic "economy". But I get the
impression that you have a different approach planned for Asheron's
Call. What's your main focus in designing the world of Asheron's Call?

JG: Our primary focus is ensuring that our players have a great
experience and are able to participate in an epic adventure.  Rather
than trying to simulate a closed economy, we've adopted the philosophy
of "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain". We will actively
get involved in the flow of the game to ensure that it is always fun
and challenging for all of our players.

Desslock: Will the world of Asheron's Call have day/night cycles
and/or weather effects such as rain, fog, wind, etc. Will there be
seasons or visible changes to the world as time progresses?

TR: We won't support day/night cycles or weather at launch, however we
will likely add them soon after our initial release.

Desslock: How will players be able to affect the world of Asheron's
Call? Will players be able to make an enduring impact on the world?

TR: There will be ample opportunity for a player to make an impact on the game
world by participating in the social structures within the game. The status your
character achieves in the game will be directly proportional to the number of players
you've made allegiances with.

JG: The primary way for people to have an enduring impact is through
their relationships with other players. We've focussed the design of
the game at providing interesting and compelling ways for people to
interact.  It's that interaction, and the decisions that players make
within those interactions, that will drive the story and ultimately
impact the direction of the Asheron's Call story. We won't be
addressing things like ownership of property (i.e. - real estate) with
the initial release, but we've planned various ways to incorporate
that into the game over time.

Desslock: You have indicated that Asheron's Call will emphasize
cooperation among players in a variety of contexts. What are some of
the advantages that players working together will have?

TR: One of the social systems that exists within the game is the
Allegiance system.  In the allegiance system, higher level characters
are encouraged to take on less experienced characters as
apprentices. By doing this, the patron achieves a nobility rank, and a
small tithe/percentage of the experience points from the
apprentice. At the same time, the apprentice can demand something in
return for his allegiance.  Protection, information, knowledge of a
spell, or a weapon are just a few of the potential demands. It's
entirely up to the players involved. The interesting thing about this
system is that it creates a much friendlier gaming world. Instead of
new players being ignored, or even preyed upon, higher level
characters will view them as resource and something to be sought

JG: The key element here is to create value in new players (beyond
just the value of the clothes on their back and the gold pieces in
their purse). Because of the social fabric of the game, new players
may be able to do things that experienced players cannot. This also
ties into the combat system and the flow of the game. In order to "get
ahead" players will need to specialize - this in turn will require
players to work together - finding other players with complementary

Some Questions on Characters and Gameplay:

Desslock: How will the character creation system work? Will players
get a certain amount of "points" to allocate to skills and attributes,

TR: Character creation is an important part of the game. You will
receive a pool of points that you can distribute among skills and
attributes.  Furthermore, you will be able to customize the appearance
of your character, choosing facial features, skin, hair, and eye
color, as well as starting clothing.

Desslock: Can you elaborate on how the "skill based" development
system will work? Will skills increase as they are used or will
players get a certain number of "skill points" to allocate upon
gaining an experience level?

TR: The skill system works in two ways. Skills will automatically
improve when you successfully use them. This simulates the effects of
practice. Also, when you achieve a specific goal, such as defeating a
monster, you will be rewarded with additional points that you can
spend to improve any skill or attribute.

JG: Unlike other game systems, you won't be prevented from training in
one ability just because you have specialized in another. That
doesn't, however, mean that you will be able to become an expert at
everything. Progress in a skill will require practice and use of that
skill. Spending time practicing one skill may prevent you from
practicing another. The goal is to get players to specialize in
certain skills and then seek out other players with complementary

Desslock: What are some of the skills you are considering including in
Asheron's Call? Will a character have "major" skills?

TR: There are three kinds of skill advancement categories; Untrained,
Trained, and Specialized. In order to improve a specific skill, you
must be either trained or specialized in that skill. You will be
allowed to attempt a skill in which you are untrained, but you will be
at a base level of performance and not able to improve until you seek
out training. A specialized skill is one in which your character is
especially gifted. The character will advance very quickly in a skill
that is specialized.

Initially, skill advancement categories are chosen during character
creation. As your character progresses in the game, you will be given
opportunities to increase untrained skills to trained skills, however
specialized skill must be chosen during character creation.  Available
skills include many kinds of weapon, magic, movement, and appraisal

Desslock: I understand that players can choose from 16 available
character classes - quite a large selection. In addition to
traditional fantasy role-playing classes like Warriors, Wizards,
Rangers, etc., do you have any particularly exotic or unique character
classes? Tell us a bit about the character classes and how they

TR: The character classes, or as we refer to them "professions", are
actually templates that allow players to choose a pre-defined skill
set.  This lets new players create characters without worrying about
defining their attributes or the details of the skill system. Since
our game is skill based, we expect many players to create "custom
professions" which are basically characters with a hand picked set of
skills. You can also modify existing professions by rearranging the
skills and attribute that character starts with.  In this way, players
will be able to create any kind of character class they want.

JG: Customizability is the most unique aspect of the character
creation system.  Players will be able to create characters that not
only look unique - they can have totally unique combinations of
attributes and skill sets. This is especially true since skills will
improve directly with usage.

Desslock: How many NPCs do you anticipate including in the game? Will
there be different types of NPCs (i.e., shopkeepers as well as
characters that play a more significant role)?

TR: NPCs will not play a large role in Asheron's Call. Since this is a
massively multi-player game, we expect fellow players to be the
driving force behind the game world. The roles that NPC will fill
include merchants and various kinds of monsters.

JG: One interesting aspect of the game is that NPC monsters won't all
be identical.  They will have skills, attributes and specialties just
like players. This means that the King of the Olthoi will likely be
more powerful than the average Olthoi warrior.

Desslock: You have indicated that "allegiance" will play a significant
role in Asheron's Call. How will this allegiance system work, and how
will it affect gameplay? What sort of behavior will cause a
character's allegiance or alignment to change?

JG: Players in Asheron's Call won't have an alignment, per se. Their
status and standing in the community is based on their relationship
with other players. If they betray the allegiance of their peers, they
will be forced to deal with the consequences. This provides a much
more dynamic system, where players set the tone rather than adhering
to a pre-defined set of guidelines.

Desslock: Another distinctive feature of Asheron's Call is its combat
system. You have indicated that the real-time combat will not be
"twitch based", and that you intend to include a variety of tactical
elements. For example, you have indicated that a character that always
swings a weapon in the same manner may be more vulnerable to attack in
certain exposed areas. Please elaborate a bit on what you have planned
for the combat system.

TR: Your character will have a variety of possible combat maneuvers
available to him/her. First, the weapon you choose will play an
important role in the way your character attacks. Obviously a bow
behaves differently than a broad sword. Small weapons will generally
make faster attacks, while heavier weapons will be slow.  Second, you
determine the power and speed of the attack. This works with something
called the "power bar". When you first begin an attack, the power bar
appears on the bottom or your screen and starts to fill. If you only
let the bar fill a small amount, your character will perform a fast,
but relatively weak attack. If you let the power bar fill to maximum,
you will perform a slow but very powerful attack.  In addition, there
are three attack heights (high, medium, low) that you choose by moving
the mouse in the corresponding direction (keyboard commands will also
work). Finally, your characters attributes (strength, coordination,
etc.) and skills play an important part in determining the
effectiveness of your attack.

esslock: How many monsters or creature types will there be in
Asheron's Call and how will they differ from each other?

TR: Right now there are 14 major types of monsters.  Each of these
will have many variations that will increase the total types of
monsters to over 50. For example, the tumerok is an evil raiding
humanoid monster. In Asheron's Call, you will find tumerok warriors,
tumerok scouts, tumerok chieftains, etc. each with unique abilities of
their own.

JG: We can vary the strength of these monsters, to ensure that they
get more challenging as players progress. And since Asheron's Call is
an on-line RPG, we can continue to add new types of monsters as the
game evolves.

Desslock: How many spells do you anticipate including in the game? You
have indicated that the more players that know of a spell, the weaker
that spell will become, so that a spell known by only a single player
will be very strong. Seems like you're trying to create a class of
mysterious, secretive and powerful mages.... What can you tell us
about the magic system?

TR: There will be literally hundreds of spells for players to discover
and experiment with. This variety is possible because we are using a
system of components that create a kind of spell "grammar". Spells do
indeed become weaker the more times they are cast. Our intent is not
to create an elite group of powerful mages, but rather to create what
we call a "spell economy".

If you discover the formula to a spell no one in the game has cast
before, it will operate at a much higher effectiveness. In many games,
there would be no incentive to keep this information to
yourself. People would quickly post web pages with spell formula. Now,
players have a reason to keep the information to themselves, and view
it as a valuable commodity. Perhaps you will disclose the secret of
your new spell to your closest friend in exchange for some other
treasure. The spell economy rewards clever players and creates a much
more dynamic game world.

Keep in mind that once a spell bottoms out, and becomes weak, it will
revitalize as soon as people stop casting it. So as you might be able
to imagine, the power of specific spells will be constantly
fluctuating as people discover and rediscover their utility.

Desslock: Player killing or "pkilling"...Some gamers love it - others
hate it, but it has always been part of multiplayer role-playing
games, and Asheron's Call will allow players to attack and kill each
other if that's the style of gaming they want to enjoy. But you have
also indicated that you are considering implementing a system which
allows players to opt out of pkilling, and role-play in an environment
where they are safe from attacks by other players.  Please explain how
you intend to handle pkilling.

TR: Essentially, all players will start the game unable to attack or
be attacked by other players. As they progress in power, players will
be given the option of becoming a "player killer" by completing a
specific quest. If they wish to remain a non-pker, that is their
option. Once this quest is complete, that player will now be able
attack or be attacked by fellow player killers. We feel that this
system will appeal to the widest possible number of players, and
ensure that everyone will be able to have an enjoyable gaming

JG: The significance of enabling player killing is that it will
provide a direct way for players to test themselves against each
other. If we didn't allow player killing, there would be no direct way
for players to challenge each other. With the system that we've
designed, players can choose whether they want to be involved in
player killing, effectively protecting non-PK'ers from those that want
to risk death against each other.

Desslock: Will there be "player-run" and/or "game-run" guilds in
Asheron's Call and if so, what role(s) do you intend for guilds to
play in the game?

JG: There will not be any "game-run" guilds when Asheron's Call is
released, but we certainly expect that players will use the allegiance
system to form guilds within the game world. We do plan on adding some
features (like guilds halls, etc) soon after release

Desslock: How do you intend to implement quests in the game? 

TR: Turbine and Microsoft will have a full time staff dedicated to
adding new content into the game world as well as organizing quests
and other in-game events.  Desslock: It's always pretty intimidating
to have to start a game as a "newbie", especially when you're
surrounded by potentially hundreds of other players who have quite a
bit of experience. How do you intend to make Asheron's Call less
intimidating or "safer" for new players?

JG: The allegiance system and the design of the player killing system
should both serve to protect new players and give them a relatively
easy path into the game. There will be plenty of people looking to
gain allies, in exchange for money, information, weapons, etc.

Desslock: How will the death of a character be handled in Asheron's
Call? What are the consequences (i.e. loss of attributes, skills,
etc.)  of being resurrected (if possible)?

JG: Our current thinking is that your character will suffer a small
degrade in their attributes and will potentially lose some
possessions. When the character is resurrected, at a "safe" point that
the user has previously specified, they will be missing one of the
most valuable items from their inventory. It will remain on the ground
where their character perished. If they wish to reclaim it, they
either need to return to the spot of their demise before anyone else
grabs it, or have made arrangements with another player in their party
to retrieve the item for them.  We'll test this implementation out in
the course of our beta and make any changes that are required to make
it fun and keep the game challenging.

Some Questions about the Graphics, Interface and Technology:

Desslock: Even in the early builds you were demonstrating last year,
Asheron's Call was sporting some impressive first person perspective
3D graphics. Will all of the creatures, characters and items in
Asheron's Call by represented by 3D polygons or will there be some use
of 2D "sprites"?

TR: All characters, creatures, items, and scenery will be fully 3d
texture mapped polygons.

Desslock: Tell us a bit about the capabilities of Asheron's Call's
engine. What kind of effects is the engine capable of (dynamic
lighting, etc.)?

TR: The Turbine Engine is capable of:

  -- dynamic lighting

  -- hierarchical animation system for lifelike movement of characters
and monsters

  -- seamless integration of indoor and outdoor environments

  -- capable of supporting huge geometry data sets creating one of the
largest 3D orlds ever

  -- background downloading of new environments as you explore

  -- latency compensation techniques which avoid the annoying lag of
the internet

  -- degrade mode system adjusts level of detail automatically based
on your processor speed

  -- dynamic color system that allows for large varieties of character

Desslock: Will you include Direct 3D or other support for 3D
accelerator cards in the initial release of Asheron's Call? If so, can
you give us an indication of which currently available cards are
powerful enough to run a 3D accelerated version of Asheron's Call?

JG: We are currently evaluating 3D hardware support for our initial
release. If we don't support it at initial release, we will add it
shortly thereafter.

Desslock: How will conversations be displayed within the game?

TR: There is a "chat box" beneath the 3d view where characters can
chat to each other. You will be able to send messages to all players
within a limited radius, or send private messages to specific
players. Furthermore there are several "emotes" that characters can
perform like laughing, crying, etc.

Desslock: To what extent will the interface be customizable by a

TR: Many elements of the interface can be customized by the user. The
view window, chat box, and various other UI panels can all be
resized. There are also "shortcuts" users can create to frequently
used items or spells.

Desslock: What kind of music will you include in the game? Will it be
Midi or CD digital?

TR: There will be no music in the initial release of Asheron's
Call. Instead there will be a wide variety of environmental sounds in
order to insure an "immersive" environment.

Desslock: Will Asheron's Call include an auto-mapping function? Is
there any "note-taking" feature to keep track of conversations with

TR: There is a map of the island that includes where you are, and your
coordinates. Your character can buy or find books and parchment to
write in. You can use this feature to make a journal, pass a note to a
friend, etc.

Desslock: You have indicated that players will be able to view the
game from a variety of perspectives, in addition to a first person
perspective. Can players move "the camera" around or do you intend to
include a variety of pre-determined views?

TR: In addition to first person perspective, players can move the
camera around the character in several angles, as well as up & down
and zoom in & out.

Desslock: You started taking applications for beta-testers. What can
you tell us about the beta-test? How complete is the game that
beta-testers will get to experience?

TR: We are accepting applications now, and we will be gradually
ramping up the size of the beta pool. We will add features and content
throughout the beta process, until the game is complete and ready for
commercial release.

JG: Through the initial phases of the beta, we will be testing the
core game systems (combat, magic, etc) and as we move towards final
release we will continue to tune these systems as well as continuing
to add content to the game.


Desslock: Since other massively multiplayer games like Origin's Ultima
Online and The 3DO Company's Meridian 59 have been up and running for
some time now, you have the advantage of learning from some of their
experiences. What are you trying to do differently with Asheron's

JG: We're trying to effectively do two things: 1) continue the trend
that Ultima started of boosting the production values of on-line games
to rival that of retail games and 2) focus the design of game-play on
the interaction between players. Playing with and against other real
people is always more challenging and interesting than playing against
AI controlled opponents. That's something that we've all learned from
playing games like SubSpace and Ultima On-line. We're really trying to
build role playing universe that rivals the depth of the AD&D games
that we all used to play in college. That's an incredible elusive
goal, but one that we continue to chase.

Desslock: What are two features (perhaps among many) which you believe
will set Asheron's Call apart from other online role-playing games?

TR: I believe the foundation of our technology and our dedication to
providing an immersive well balanced gaming environment will set us
apart from other online RPGs.

JG: The fact that all players can interact in one cohesive universe
(in first person perspective, if they so choose) and the social
dynamic of systems like magic and allegiance are probably the two
classes of differences that will make Asheron's Call unique. The 3D
nature of the game really can't be emphasized enough - running around
a corner, headlong into a band of tumeroks will really get your blood

Desslock: One of the big design problems that online games face is the
inherent quirkiness of the Internet and, in particular, the resulting
gameplay lag that often results. What efforts have you made to try to
minimize the effects of lag .

TR: We've designed several components in our system to minimize the
effect of latency.  We've imbued within the client software, a certain
amount of autonomy, which allows the client to respond to user
feedback without having to get permission of the server. This,
combined with interpolation between the client and server ensure
smooth, lag free game play.

Desslock: Obviously your beta-test results will affect your timing,
but how close do you think the game is to commercial release? What is
your current target release date?

JG: We're planning on starting our beta in the summer and shooting for
commercial release this fall. We are counting on getting a great deal
of user feedback in our beta and have scheduled ample time to respond
to the feedback that we receive.

Desslock: Have you made any pricing decisions yet? Are you considering
making a variety of options (i.e. hourly, daily, monthly, etc.) 

JG: Asheron's Call will follow the same pricing model that the
Internet Gaming Zone is using for it's other games, offering both a
daily and monthly price. While we haven't settled on specific price
points yet, our goal is to offer a daily price that is low enough to
encourage the broadest possible audience to try the game, as well as a
monthly price that is affordable so that serious players can play all
they want.

Desslock: Lastly, how do you plan to potentially expand Asheron's Call
in the future?

TR: With our extensible updating system, we will be able to add new
content to the game world over time to ensure an exciting and varied
game world even for veteran users.  We expect people to be playing
Asheron's Call for years to come.

Desslock: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions...

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

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