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by Toby Ragaini
Gamasutra
May, 25, 2000

This article originally appeared in the
April 2000 issue of:

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Features

Postmortem: Turbine Entertainment's Asheron's Call

Contents

Introduction

What Went Right

What Went Wrong

A Unique Company Résumé

Asheron's Call is a statistical anomaly. In an industry where cancelled games and dashed hopes are the norm, this project seemed one day away from certain failure for nearly its entire history. And yet, thanks to the visionary foresight of a handful of people, a healthy dose of luck, and incredible conviction from both the development team and publisher, it made it to store shelves and has received a great deal of critical acclaim.

In May 1995, I walked into a small suburban home in southern Massachusetts and met my new co-workers. Having left my previous job at a genetics lab, I expected nothing more than an interesting summer project as "A Game Writer." Little did I realize what was in store for me and this start-up company called Turbine.

Having filled every nook of a residential home with PCs, an enterprising group of about ten developers was already busy working on the game that would one day become Asheron's Call. Although not a single one of them had professional game development experience, I was immediately impressed with their enthusiasm and dedication. After introductions, I was told to scrounge around for a desk. Upon securing an end table and a plastic lawn chair, I sat down and started meeting with various team members to figure out just what this game was all about.

What was described to me was something that nearly every computer game geek is by now familiar with: a 3D graphical MUD. A persistent fantasy environment where hundreds of players could explore the land, defeat monsters, form adventuring parties, delve into dungeons, and complete quests. I'm not sure why anyone thought it was possible. We had no office, no technology to speak of, and no publisher. And I was being paid $800 a month. Yet from these humble beginnings, something truly wonderful was created.

The development team was divided into functional departments. Tim Brennen, a Brown University dropout who had helped develop Windows NT as a Microsoft intern, led the engineering team and would go on to design the server, networking, and character database. Chris Dyl, a former physicist turned programmer, would develop the 3D graphics engine and server-side physics. Andy Reiff, also a Brown alumnus, would later round out the engineering leads as the game systems programmer, responsible for implementing all of the game rules systems and functional interactions in the game world. All of the game's code would be developed from scratch. At the time, this was a fairly easy decision, since licensable game code was pretty much nonexistent in 1995.

On the art team, Jason Booth, a music student with experience using Lightwave, would take on the title of lead technical artist. In this role, Jason bridged the gap between the art and graphics teams, ensuring that the art asset pipeline ran smoothly. Sean Huxter brought his substantial animation and modeling experience to the team as the lead artist.

Dynamic load balancing on the server gave Asheron's Call an expansive, seamless game world that required no load times.

My own contributions to the team were in the area of game design. As the project grew in scope, my role changed to become that of lead designer. Soon realizing the amount of work required to design a game with the scope of Asheron's Call, I put together a team of designers that envisioned and documented the characters, monsters, history, and timeline of a fantasy world called Dereth. In addition, the design team spec'd all of the game rules and systems necessary to RPGs.

Although the team had no professional game development experience, one invaluable thing that the team did have was experience playing MUDs and similar text-based Internet games. Although these games were comparatively simple, the game-play dynamics created in a massively-multiplayer environment are extremely different from a single-player game. MUDs proved to be a very useful model for multiplayer gaming patterns.

Asheron's Call was initially designed to support just 200 simultaneous players, each paying an hourly fee. Turbine would host the servers, which were originally going to be PCs running Linux. Although in today's market, this sounds ludicrous, in 1995 this was in fact the standard premium online game model. Games using similar models, like Genie's Cyberstrike and America Online's Neverwinter Nights, were quite successful at the time. Based on this goal, the original schedule had Asheron's Call shipping in the fourth quarter of 1997.

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What Went Right


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