Tabula Rasa Took Too Long

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.

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9 Responses to Tabula Rasa Took Too Long

  1. Swift Voyager says:

    Another bonus about having three mediocre games in stead of one is that having three games increases the odds that at least ONE of them will be a hit.

  2. DS says:

    I disagree. Tabula Rasa failed because it took too long to make a clearly niche title. Anyone looking at its design at any point could have told you it was a niche title. If TR had managed to get 300K users, they’d pay off the development costs in a fairly quick period of time.

  3. Allen Varney says:

    “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.” I doubt it. Three mediocre games wouldn’t get 3x 88K players; three mediocre games would each quickly crater and earn basically nothing. Rather, they could have created six or eight small-but-excellent “boutique” games with small-but-devoted audiences of 10-50,000 players apiece — in other words, six or eight more “Dungeon Runners.” You can argue whether the opportunity cost there is too high to be worthwhile, but at least the chances of survival are greater.

  4. Talyn says:

    I hope you caught the followup article, however:
    Here’s a highlight:
    According to what we were able to uncover this very same Korea Times staff writer has earned a reputation for writing sensationalized articles about NCsoft. In the last year he apparently has “reported” particulars from conferences that he never actually attended.

    That said, yes, TR took way too long (sure, they scrapped Plan A and started from scratch with Plan B mid-stream) and spent waaaaaaay too much money for a game that hasn’t turned out to be quite what many of us had hoped. It’s a shame, too, I’ve always been a fan of Richard Garriott whereas I was quite pleased to see Brad McQuaid’s arrogant face slammed in the mud with Vanguard (which, irony of ironies, I’m actually enjoying now that he’s out of the picture).

  5. Sente says:

    NCsoft’s business is still mainly the home market in Korea and some of the other Asian countries. Except for perhaps Guild Wars they have not had a huge impact on the western market. Allowing to start over again was probably in the hopes that the Western equivalent of Lineage (1 & 2) could be made.

    Lineage is still making a lot of money for NCSoft even after 10 years, so if they could have got it right that may still have been worth it.

    I think Tabula Rasa is a quite nice game, but the strong points are mixed up with some weak spots and the setting is not one for wide market appeal IMHO. And marketing mostly seemed to be towards existing MMORPG players who had played a couple of other MMORPGs and partly missing the mark.

  6. Mike says:

    I wonder if these means they were in crunch mode for a large part of that six years…

  7. samuel gompers says:

    A niche game? Yes, Tabula Rasa belongs to that obscure, rarely-seen subgenre: “Scifi-themed games where players zap Martians with lasers.” Everybody knows those never sell.

    The “problem” is simple supply & demand. Subscription fees and level grinding restrict the appeal of MMOs to the limited number of people willing to invest the time & money. That’s why the MMO landscape consists of a tiny ruling oligopoly of hits and 95% flops. The number of possible concurrent hits does seem to have slowly grown over the last decade, but nowhere near fast enough to keep pace with MMO overproduction.

  8. Devon says:

    I think the reason it failed was because they launched an incomplete game. They didn’t even have the military surplus thingy up yet. Class abilities etc. were inbalanced. The ability to clone characters was way overrated. Combat was initially fun but got boring fast, probably since there wasn’t much to do except switch weapons and mash your melee-hit key.

    The lack of some serious PvP system is what really killed it for me, though.

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