Asheron's Call was released on Halloween of 1999, and has found a niche in the massive gaming market. Loyal fans were overjoyed late last year when it was announced that Turbine, now sole owners of the game, would be publishing an expansion for the title and its sequel Asheron's Call 2. Jessica Mulligan is the Executive Producer for Asheron's Call, and the Creative Director on the Asheron's Call: Throne of Destiny expansion.
Ms. Mulligan has been in the online gaming industry since the days of GEnie and boasts writing credits on the Skotos series 'Biting the Hand', as well as co-authorship of the New Riders tome Developing Online Games with Bridgette Patrovsky. Ms. Mulligan was kind enough to answer questions about the upcoming expansion, trends in the massive gaming industry in general, and the eyebrow raising announcement that Sony Online Entertainment would be publishing the new expansions to Turbine's games.
Gamasutra: One of the GDC 2005 roundtables featured a discussion about instancing and its place in massively multiplayer gaming, with speakers both supporting and discounting the value of personalized game zones. What are your feelings on this trend in MMO game design?
Jessica Mulligan: I think instancing is a positive step. It isn't the end-all and be-all, however; it is one piece of the puzzle. There are times when players want to have a short, sharp experience with a small group of buddies without having to worry about the occasional griefer or other jerk ruining the experience; instancing is perfect for that.
There are also times when players want to engage in huge battles or intricate, static quests, or festivals, or live, human-run events. We need to make sure we have as many of those choices available as we reasonably can. Instancing is all about giving players more choices, and that is a good thing.
GS: Looking at the original Virtual Worlds (VW), what do you feel is the most significant development or improvement that modern games have over spaces like MUD1 or The Realm Online? Is there something that you feel that the forebears to MMOGs did better that you want to see in newer games?
JM: As an industry, our main advantages over the first and second generations of VWs is experience and money; from the examples of all those games we old farts worked on going back to 1978, we know what works and what doesn't and now we have much bigger budgets with which to work.
To give you a comparison example: In the five year period of 1987 to 1992, when I was producing games at the old online services of AOL and GEnie, I started a total of a dozen MMOs. Total advances for those twelve MMOs: Less than $100,000.
Now, making a decent MMO can run upwards of $30 million to get a decent game out the door with enough content to please today's customers.
As for what the old guard may have done better than today's games: In some ways, it is comparing apples and oranges because of how the technology has changed; it is hard to compare the old text games with today's graphics-heavy games.
In some ways, graphics greatly limit what we can do compared to the flexibility of text descriptions. For example, it takes about ten seconds to add a text description of "You reach down and pick up the book;" it takes days to create the art and models for that simple action and then animate an avatar to do it. This drives the development time and cost upward by at least an order of magnitude, if not several.
GS: Many commentators seem to feel that mass-market appeal is a goal of the MMOG industry right now. What do you feel it will take for massively multiplayer games to achieve the level of penetration in the public consciousness that games like The Sims or Doom currently enjoy?
JM: This is another of those apples and oranges things. When you're talking about MMOGs versus The Sims or Doom, we're talking about three entirely different markets. I liken it to a pyramid and look! I have a pretty picture to show with it!
These are the three general markets in online gaming, as they apply to MMOGs. There are several points to understand about the groups:
- The "Mass Market" is both time and price sensitive. They don't want to spend a lot of time or money playing online games. These are the folks play online card, puzzle games and The Sims. Right now, they comprise about 75% of the market, but only 5% of the income;
- The "Moderate" gamer is generally not price-sensitive but is time-sensitive; he doesn't want to be required to spend 20 hours per week just to keep up. These can be typified by the folks playing Counter-Strike and Unreal online. These players are about 15% of both the player base and revenue;
- The "Hardcore" is the group most often playing MMOGs today. They are neither price nor time sensitive; they'll whatever time and money is necessary to get the game experience they want. They are only about 10% of the total player base, but they are providing about 80% of our income right now;
- Gamers have a hard time justifying climbing up the pyramid to the next level because of their sensitivity to either price or time commitment. That is a prime component in making them separate markets.
To answer the question, then: If you want the "Mass Market" to play more MMOGs, you have to build games to specifically address their needs. To date, no one has done that very well, but it is just a matter of time.
GS: The virtual worlds A Tale in the Desert and Second Life are having a great deal of success with user created or edited content. What are your feelings on this as a VW design choice? What impact do you think user generated content will have on the future of massive gaming?
JM: Are they enjoying "a great deal of success"? I'm not dogging their achievements, which are very interesting, but both games have extremely low subscriber bases. What we need to do as an industry is look both games over very carefully and figure out why something many players ask for - the ability to create or edit content - isn't doing as spectacularly as one might imagine.
In the long-term, I think player-generated content is going to play a very large role in virtual worlds and MMOGs.
GS: It has been several years since the last Asheron's Call expansion. The expansion includes some major additions, including a graphical upgrade. Your blue sky list for the upcoming Throne of Destiny expansion must have been quite long. How were you able to choose among your design concepts in order to decide on the expansion's feature set?
JM: The list of features the team came up with for Throne of Destiny was humongous, indeed. To trim it down to manageable size was actually pretty easy: I simply asked the Live Development team - each and every one of them a long-time Asheron's Call player before they joined the company - what they would most want to see in the expansion. Then we prioritized the list, investigated development times and made our choices from there.
One feature that was in the original proposal for Throne of Destiny that we'll be getting back to after the launch in May is "Land Control". Basically, we wanted a feature whereby players, without being forced into player-versus-player combat, were able to gain control of a new structure on the landscape that would give a benefit by itself, such as a skill or attribute increase. A number of those structures could be formed into large alliances of owners to control nearby cities. Controlling a city would bestow additional benefits to everyone in the alliance. Losing control of an alliance, such as one or more players/allegiances withdrawing from it, would lose control over the city benefits. And at some level, we wanted there to be non-PvP competition between the cities.
Asheron's Call: Throne of Destiny
When we took the idea public in 2004 for reaction, the player feedback was: "Great idea, but it needs more design work." So rather than launch an idea that many players thought was only half-baked, we decided to push it out of the expansion pack and have the lead designer spend more time in the spring and summer of 2005 talking to players about various designs and implementation ideas. Once we have something that more players feel has a better chance of working to their needs, we'll dig in and start coding. Our current plan calls for it to have its own Booster Pack in the fall of 2005.
GS: Given the realities of the MMOG market, you seem to be in a unique situation. Not only are you fighting for players with Everquest, World of Warcraft, Anarchy Online, et al, but you appear to be in a position such that other games developed by your own company are competition as well. How does your development team deal with this situation? Does the design of Asheron's Call seek a comfortable niche, or is the intent to provide mass-market appeal to all players?
JM: AC has it's own unique charms, as does every massively multiplayer game. Rather than try to compete with every other game out there, we concentrate on what has worked for the game and the players for over five years:
- Free content updates: Every month, we add in new quests, games systems and/or features, generally tied together in a continuing story arc that spans most of the year. We've had 52 of these updates since we launched in late 1999 - the equivalent of 8 or 9 free expansion packs. Heck, we've saved our players of somewhere between $150 and $200, money they didn't have to shell out at retail just to get the latest features and content.
- Solo and group content: Having the choice to play any time is a key for our players. One feature our players appreciate is that we take care to have solo content in the game. If a player just wants to jump in and play for 30 or 60 minutes and have a great time, she can. On the other hand, Allegiances - AC's Guild mechanism - and pick-up Fellowship teams have epic quests they can play, usually for epic rewards. So we don't limit how and when they can play; they make those choices for themselves.
In terms of mass-market appeal: We don't try to appeal specifically to the mass-market; this is a medieval fantasy game, after all. We are constantly trying to make it easier to start and learn the game, however. We want new players to dig the content, not spend their first 30 to 60 minutes trying to figure out an arcane user interface. Part of the graphic upgrade, in fact, is a total rewrite of the user interface code, so that it is easier for the engineers to work with and easier to add interface features in the future.
Sony Publishing Deal
GS: In an interview with HomeLAN, Torrie Dorrell states: "SOE has been approached on a few occasions by outside developers looking to take advantage of the infrastructure and experience that we have built up over the last few years." Were you one of the developers who approached Sony about this arrangement, or did they come to you? What prompted your decision to go with Sony to distribute the new expansions?
JM: When we began to look at distributors for Throne of Destiny, we approached a number of companies. Of course, several of us at the company, including CEO Jeff Anderson and Executive Vice-President, Jason Bell, know and have worked with people at SOE before and their track record of sales at retail is top-notch. When it came time to choose someone off the short list, the advantages of working with SOE and their highly experienced and successful distribution and marketing team were obvious.
GS: Given the distribution relationship with Sony that exists with these expansions, do you expect to collaborate again in the future on further distribution projects? Has there been any talk of collaboration on any level other than distribution?
Let's just get through the launch in May and see how it goes. We're not discussing anything that I know of, but we're always open to discussions of collaboration on any level. Any project that comes out of any such discussions just has to make sense for our players.
GS: Many thanks to Ms. Mulligan for her time and thoughtfulness in answering our questions.