As I mentioned in the comments of the previous Devil's Advocate column on levels and skills, I promised I would give Asheron's Call a try in order to make up for not having ever played the game. At the same time, I acquired a key to the pre-alpha for Project: Gorgon, an in-development MMO helmed by Eric Heimburg and Sandra Powers, both of whom have experience working on the Asheron's Call MMO titles.
Today's Devil's Advocate isn't going to try and argue for or against a certain point. Instead, I'm going to state who I am as an MMO gamer, as well as some things I've learned about myself from spending a couple of hours in each game. I'll then leave it up to you to either agree or disagree (you're even allowed to berate me for stating my opinions) as you please.
My MMO Personality
Part of allowing you to understand the reasoning behind my opinions later in this piece comes from being open to divulging my history as an MMO gamer. It is my hope that by outlining some major points in my gaming history, you'll see why certain I hold certain opinions.
My first real exposure to the MMORPG came from a friend's old copy of Inquest Magazine back in the summer of 2000, when the magazine did a feature on the first EverQuest. For me, the idea of being in a virtual realm with a ton of people from around the world was a magical thing. It wouldn't be until 2002 when I actually got to first experience an MMORPG, which wasn't Everquest, but rather a beta for the Philippine adaptation of Ragnarok Online.
My most memorable moment in Ragnarok Online at that time wasn't in the quests given by a handful of NPCs, and neither was it getting stronger. Instead, it was in an in-game reenactment of the institution of Martial Law in the Philippines by the game masters, with the game masters posting a historical play-by-play of the goings-on during Martial Law by spawning high-level monsters in or near cities. It was utter undefeatable chaos, and it was amazing to be a part of it.
A few years after, I got the chance to be a die-hard World of Warcraft player. I did quests, tried some mild raiding, and most importantly, I realized the value of having tangible short-term objectives to bring purpose into your gaming experience.
Most of my other gaming experiences have been predicated on this uneasy truce between emergent, creative gameplay and the chore-like nature of questing. As such, I value both highly in games, and finding a pleasant mix of the two is interesting to see.
Things I Learned from AC and PG
Lesson 1: Outdated game mechanics aren't bad if they're still relevant.
For some, Asheron's Call is awesome because it maintains its old-school gameplay mechanics despite some tweaks throughout the years. For myself, some aspects of the game seem frustrating till I realized more recent MMORPGs have parallel mechanics.
For instance, the looting mechanic in Asheron's Call is a bit annoying to me, as I have to double-click each item I want to pick off a corpse, knowing that my character will bend over to snag loot from a dead body every time. Beau Hindman from Massively put this idea in my head that it was a bit like Darkfall's looting system, where you have to click-and-drag stuff. The idea is that each attempt to get more loot is supposed to be a tense experience, and I appreciated it better with that frame of mind. Age of Conan's combat and Asheron's Call's combat also have parallels, as in both games you can choose where to strike an enemy with your chosen weapon.
Lesson 2: When you're free to roam, there's safety and fun in numbers.
One thing that turned me off regarding the starting few hours of Asheron's Call is that after having this meaningful tutorial where you learn the basics of playing the game, they drop you off in a city of your choosing with the freedom to do contracts (essentially quests requiring you to find the person who made the contract available for sale) or to roam like a madman killing wasps in a ruin. As I went in without knowing anyone who played the game, it was a rather dreary couple of hours in that ruin.
Asheron's Call taught me that a little too much freedom and a lack of compelling breadcrumb-type quests or people to banter with while exploring can make any gaming experience seem lonely.
Lesson 3: You don't need special tech to create meaningful event consequences.
I spent half of my time in the pre-alpha for Project: Gorgon as a cow. I was stubborn really. Near the end of the tutorial zone, there was a tub of old milk. I was dying to figure out what drinking the milk did because prior to this, none of the crud I'd eaten did anything remotely bad. I ignored multiple warnings that it might not end well if I did so... and what do you know? Bovine Barreiro Jr.
There was a breadcrumb quest to reverse the transformation, but it required basically playing the game using cow-based fighting skills and amassing a ton of food to give to a similarly transmogrified wolf-person. Also, attempts to milk other cows (I was a male character) were met with derision from the bovine community.
This unexpected event was emergent gameplay for me, as I'd never expected something like it to come out from a pre-alpha of an MMO. I leveled up my cow skills, kicked some donkeys, and had more fun than I thought I would have.
Lesson 4: Simply looking at visuals does not determine game quality.
I've always been predisposed to visual stimuli. As a result, I had treated Asheron's Call and Project: Gorgon as games that weren't up to par with current MMO experiences, simply because I felt like I was playing something severely dated and seemingly inferior to the current stable of MMOs.
I was wrong, and I'm thankful for being wrong in this case.
Asheron's Call has a character progression system that promotes smart choices and experimentation, depending on your preference, and every new level was a chance to make myself the warrior I wanted to be (who jumps really high). Project: Gorgon provided skill-based character progression where skills leveled up with more enemies defeated or further use, and the game also turned me into a cow.
Suffice it to say that I learned to be more open to chucking out some of my older preconceived notions with MMORPGs and quality. While I enjoyed Project: Gorgon more than I did Asheron's Call, something tells me I'll be back in Deneth once I can find some people to tag along with me. At the same time, I invite people to comment on the development blog for Project: Gorgon and give the game a try if alpha slots open up in the future.