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Notes from the end of a world

Inside the final hours of Asheron's Call.

It's the final weekend of Asheron's Call. Three days from now, the servers will be shut down, and 18 years of video game history will be lost forever.

The servers are quiet. There are a few last players scuttling through the halls, ticking items off their bucket list before the world is lost forever. I'm here to tick something off myself, too: the Shard Vigil Memorial, located on the steps of the Ithaenc Cathedral on the Thistledown server.

It takes an hour to find it, partially because this is the first time I've played the game - I'm using a borrowed account as Turbine have closed down new account registration since they announced they'd be pulling the plug at the end of January - and partly because Crimson Pain, my willing assistant, has no idea how to get to the memorial.

I wanted to see the memorial because it's a reminder of the glory days of Asheron's Call, a time of monthly content updates and heaving servers, and an early testament to the strength of the game's community. It's where one of the game's most memorable battles was fought.

Asheron's Call launched officially in November 1999 - some nine months after EverQuest.

Now, as we wind our way to the memorial, the in-game marketplace is empty and many of the areas we pass through are devoid of players. Many people have already stopped playing, the coming end of the server making any sort of long term goals unfeasible. On the Asheron's Call Reddit and on several Facebook groups set up to commemorate the game, players are discussing alternatives such as Project Gorgon. The apocalypse is coming, and with most of the players already gone it seems it'll be coming with a whimper rather than a bang.

It's a melancholy end for a game that once went to such great pains to accommodate its players. David Bowman, Telltale Games' vice president of production, worked on Asheron's Call as Turbine Entertainment's vice president of development, and played a pivotal part in the battle which the Shard Vigil Monument pays tribute to. He tells us its story.

"We introduced these crystals over a series of months and the players were wondering what was going on," Bowman says. "The players responded amazingly, and this was the early internet so to have a community discussing online this thing that was going on, and then organising a response to it, that was incredible."

The enigmatic crystals took up positions squatting over several cities on the world. The designers themselves took individual characters and went out into the world to talk to other players. These digital heralds were delivering an unusual message to the citizens of the server: destroy the crystals.

"That was sort of the obvious story line like, "Okay, we'll band together. Combined we'll be strong enough, we'll take down these crystals and it will free our world. It will be fantastic.'" Bowman recalls with a chuckle over Skype. "Thing is, on one server, people organised to defend the crystals against the other players. For weeks, 24/7, people organised shifts of players to be there surrounding the crystal in order to defend it. That sort of mass organisation and decision about what happened in their world was really exciting, really empowering and it was hysterical behind the scenes because we were watching this and we were trying to do something about it because we had to have the servers all synchronised for the end of month updates. We had a timeframe which we had set up where we had to bring all the servers into alignment and there was this one server where the players had decided, no, we weren't going to let that happen."

By entering the dungeon containing the crystal you would be flagged for PvP combat, meaning that any player could attack you and that the militia acting as guardians of the crystal could take out anyone looking to damage it.

Jesse Kurlancheek was a designer at Turbine in his first job after graduating from Brown University. He ended up with the job of Black Jack, the character in charge of rallying players on each server to attack the crystals.

At its peak in 2002, Asheron's Call had some 120,000 accounts.

"We had 10 servers, maybe, eight servers. On all of the servers, people were doing this," said Kurlancheek. "They broke the crystal and started the climax of the event, except this one server. On Thistledown, the players said, 'No, we will not break the crystal.' They coordinated a 24 hour a day defence of this crystal. They got all of the major allegiances on board. Basically they said, 'You know what? We're not breaking the crystal. And no one on our server is going to break the crystal. What are you going to do to me?' We had not anticipated this at all."

This created a big problem for the design team, as each server had to be in sync before the monthly content update was pushed live. The breaking of the crystals was a key part of Asheron's Call's very first story arc, and it would mess up the finale if they couldn't get the crystal destroyed.

The design team were going to have to fight dirty.

"We went in as these characters and said, 'We're going to break the crystal.'" said Kurlancheek "I was controlling one of them. I went and added all my stats, so I'm super powerful. I jump down to this swirling mass of players and I die right away. Turns out one of the stats that we edited overflowed and so instead of giving me a really high defence, it gave me a really low defence. They killed me right away.

"I fixed myself up again. Went back in. But this time I did it right. Basically, I killed a bunch of players. Everyone was having a grand time of it. We eventually broke the crystal. It's my best memory of the game."

The memorial is still there now, daubed with the names of nearly 90 players who defended the crystal.

Asheron's Call was ahead of its time, but after World of Warcraft came along and homogenised the MMORPG genre, the game's quirks and complexity meant it stood apart from other titles in the genre. "I don't want to say it was the wild west," said Kurlancheek. "Ultima Online was out. EverQuest had just started that past spring and we were actually the third large scale MMO to start.

"None of us knew what we were doing. very few people on the team had ever shipped a game before. A lot of the people that were working on it, it was either their first game or their first job out of college in a lot of cases. Some people dropped out of college or high school to work on it. We didn't really know what we were doing. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea, but we committed to doing content updates once a month."

The game launched in November of 1999, and in December the team pushed out a Winter-themed update that covered the world in snow, added several winter quests and dungeons. In January, they did it again. Then in February, and each winter month after that from November 1999 through to March 2014.

In 2014, Turbine dropped its subscription model and announced they wouldn't be doing any more work for the game - rather, it would only be maintained. This didn't stop the audience though, and although Asheron's Call slowly dwindled over time, many faithful players remained.

The last content patch for Asheron's Call came in 2014, almost 15 years after the game's initial release.

These faithful players included Julien, a Canadian grandfather whose video talking about his sadness at the upcoming death of Asheron's Call clocked over a million views on YouTube. He explained to me that many of the older players were here simply for the game's stellar community, and that Asheron's Call's social structure, whereby players are all roped in to what designer David Bowman described as 'a pyramid scheme', is responsible for those bonds.

"It's a monarchy, like a pyramid. It makes senior players with experience seek out newbies to be underneath them for the experience build because it travels up the line. That's the reason why I think this community is so strong and it's bringing a tonne of people back and reminiscing about the game. You look for vassals. You look for people who are new to the game underneath you and the chain keeps going.. I feel that a lot of newer games maybe don't have that experience, which I think might be why a lot of people are missing this. No other MMO does this."

Essentially, players are encouraged to be welcoming to new players to get them in as their vassals. When your vassal earns experience, they kick some of it up to you. When your vassal becomes a more experienced player, they can get their own vassals, with a cut of all of that experience being delivered right to the top. This encourages the game's community to work together amidst a sprawling web of vassals and allegiances.

Julien has been playing the game since it emerged from beta in 1999, and one of his characters, Black Heart, has three months, three days and three hours of playtime. It's just one of 80 characters that he created and played during his time with the game.

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Initially, Julien is shy, but as he talks about his adventures over the past 15 years, he comes to life. As a 74-year-old, he was one of the older players to hop into Asheron's Call at launch, but that hasn't stopped him making friends for life from all over the world.

It's these guys that he'll miss, and he touches on stories about getting a bit too drunk in game and losing lots of gear, or of these friends passing by and coming to visit him.

I asked Julien about the Save AC campaign, a Facebook group of nearly 3000 people all looking to protect the game they love.

Right now, the efforts appear to be stalling, but if they aren't making progress with saving the game, they've managed to bring their community back together again, with Asheron's Call veterans coming together to share their stories and add each other on Facebook. Another consequence is that the famous Asheron's Call guide site once ran by player Maggie the Jackcat has resurfaced, which feels like a portal to another world. Those in the group may not be able to save their dying world, but they're contributing to a touching memorial of everything it used to be.

"Right now it's at the point that I don't think they're going to save it. I think they went about it all wrong. They should have kept charging us all in the first place. Kept charging and kept the game instead of letting it go and now this. I don't understand where they're going."

On the Asheron's Call subreddit too, people are in mourning, eager to share their best memories. One of them even lent me their account.

Standing at the base of the monument, it feels like both a testament to Asheron's Call's stellar community, and the developers that wanted only to do right by them. I thank my guide for taking me on this ridiculous journey and logout, pleased that the community has remained supportive until the end, but also left with a sense of melancholy. Asheron's Call is gone now, but for many people it'll never be forgotten.

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