You may have already seen this: NCSoft Austin is being down-sized because Tabula Rasa has not lived up to expectations. These were pretty unrealistic expectations anyway, but that doesn’t make the people who lose their jobs feel any better. Good luck to everyone who finds themselves out of a job because of this!
The article says that they expect to make $16m in 2008. Doing some quick math, that gives us an estimated population of about 88k users. ($15 a month for 12 months is $180 per user, and 180 into 16 mil is 88k.) That’s a totally hand-wavy number, but it feels about right. It’s what I would expect from an ultra-niche game like this.
The problem is not that it’s an ultra-niche game. The problem is that Tabula Rasa apparently went through three complete redesigns. COMPLETE redesigns. (I liked version #1, the space-opera with magical guitars.) The total development time was six years, and it cost over $100 million, largely because of how long it took to make the game.
I hate to say this, but three redesigns is an abject failure. If you have to redo your entire game after it’s left pre-production, you’ve lost your chance at the big bucks. The best you can hope for is to break even. If you have to redo your entire game a SECOND time before you launch, you’re screwed. The best you can do is hope your company doesn’t go under.
I don’t mean to rag on anybody at NCSoft Austin — I doubt there were more than a few people who were involved in the decision-making process for all six years. (And if you’re in the know, I’d love to hear how the decisions came about.) But the fact remains that after $106 million has been spent, the result was a game that generates only $16 million a year.
Just as a comparison, the now-dead MMO Asheron’s Call 2 cost less than $20 million. It had even fewer players than Tabula Rasa, but since it cost a lot less to make, AC2 could break even after a few years. Tabula Rasa, on the other hand, will need to keep all of its 88,000 players for almost seven years before it breaks even.
Let’s look at it another way — they could have created three mediocre games with that same amount of money, and they’d have 264,000 players (88,000 * 3) right now. Then they’d be able to recoup their money in only a couple years, and eventually they’d be in the black. Probably even successful.
Tabula Rasa tried to be innovative, but it was not a particularly good innovation. I’m sure that a lot of people will assume this is why it’s a monetary failure. But I want to be clear here: Tabula Rasa failed because it took six years to make. That and only that. If it had been made in three years for $20 million, it could have been profitable in its lifetime. But now, because it took so long to make, it can never be a success.