Poor Tabula Rasa

[ I know I said I'd blather more about randomness, and then I didn't post for a month... I have 11 drafts on aspects of randomness, but none of them are good enough to subject you to yet. I've enjoyed the discussions people have had in the previous post though, good points, well presented! ]

I wanted to give my condolences to the folks who are losing their job at NCSoft due to Tabula Rasa shutting down. Tough luck, guys, and I hope you bounce back. On the other hand, I can’t say I liked the game.

Actually I have two strong memories of Tabula Rasa from before it shipped. One was from an E3 many years ago, when Tabula Rasa was the darling of the show. Groups of four sat down together to play through a prescripted scenario. I played a futuristic warrior that blasted the enemies with my electric guitar, causing musical notes to fly at him and knock him down. As a group, we managed to take out a boss monster and clear a dungeon. It was fun. The cumulative thinking was, “Huh. Really odd setting, but it has fun gameplay.”

There was troubling talk, however. The presenter told us that they were going to add aspects of a Great War, and everybody was going to be fighting everybody else and it was going to be great. That didn’t seem like a very compelling addition to me. It looked like a fun future-space-opera MMORPG with nice dungeons and interesting set pieces. Having a big PK war didn’t sound like the secret sauce this game needed, but whatever. Still reasonably optimistic.

My other strong memory about Tabula Rasa came from the Last Real E3 Ever, a couple years ago. Tabula Rasa was not the same as before. Now it was all about the big war, I guess. Gone were the silly space opera aspects, and now it was a game where you run around as a marine shooting people but not aiming. I watched people play it for a while, feigning enjoyment before wandering away. The presenter asked me if I’d like to play it, and if so I’d get a free T-shirt. I turned him down. In other words, Tabula Rasa didn’t look fun enough to play it for free, even if they paid me with a free T-shirt. I played a lot of other, much more terrible games at that E3. But this was all about market. I didn’t find the “be a space marine!” hook to be at all interesting. And that combined with the “you don’t have to aim!” hook meant nobody was interested. The wacky vibe from the earlier incarnation of the game had actually been a decent hook — something new and fresh enough to at least get people to play it for a few minutes. But that was gone.

I think the moral is threefold:

  1. Don’t re-make your game from scratch. There’s no surer way to fiscal failure than having to completely change the target audience of your game after it’s already through pre-production.
  2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. They redesigned Tabula Rasa so many times that it became a sterile and bland thing.
  3. Have a target audience in mind AT ALL TIMES, and for God’s sake, spend a few grand testing to see if your target audience actually wants this thing you’re offering. They have companies to do this, they’re called polling consultants. Use them. They are not prohibitively expensive for an MMO company. $10k can get you a lot of really useful data about whether your $20m game is going to work or not.
This entry was posted in Business. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Poor Tabula Rasa

  1. Rookerith says:

    Hey Eric,

    I had some thoughts about Tabula Rasa, and the whole maintenance of mmos, and thought I’d grace your blog with some commentary!

    First off, I must say, I’m a Richard Garriott fan, I loved Ultima, and I hate to see this end this way. As you stated, best wishes to all involved.

    Now to my question/thoughts:
    It may be premature to say this, but NCSoft is starting to form a pattern of shutting down games that aren’t performing; Auto Assult and now Tabula Rasa.

    On the flipside of the coin, it seems like SoE continues to keep their worlds open, independant of it’s success. Of course we don’t have hard numbers, but Vanguard, Matrix, Planetside, PotBS, EQoA, SWG, etc, you’d think one of them atleast has to have hit hard times.

    These two examples being said, do you agree that mmos need to end after a certain point? Is NCSoft’s approach correct, or do you think SoE’s approach is more correct? Whatever anyone’s opinion is of SoE, atleast they keep their most deserted mmos open.

  2. I too was intrigued with the first edition of Tabula Rasa. When I saw that they were scrapping it, it was like oh.. Then they replaced it with something that seemed relatively featureless, and then not having any aiming with guns, as you mentioned really destroyed my interest in the game.

    I do have to say, though, that NCSoft is treating their subscribers with respect. They are getting one hell of a deal. If I remember correctly they can choose between L2 or Aion, get some free time, beta tests, etc.

    Aion, at least to me, looks like it may do well.

    I would say NCSoft’s reputation is better than SOE’s, perhaps because they have a better attitude towards all of their customer handling.

    SOE infuriates its customers continuously, NCSoft just chooses to break up and make up.

  3. Loredena says:

    The first incarnation of Tabula Rasa intrigued me, and I at that time definitely planned to give it a try. Space marines in a ‘great war’ didn’t interest me enough to follow the development, on the other hand (and as it happens, my interest in pvp is about nil, so that would have killed any further interest anyway).

    I’ve actually been happy with SOE — my customer service experiences have all been prompt, polite, and positive. Maybe I’m just lucky.

  4. gattsuru says:

    I suppose it depends on your viewpoint, PlatinumStorm. SOE makes it so you don’t want to play your favorite MMO anymore, while NCSoft seems to be making it so you can’t. It’s a tough choice, but from my limited experiences I’d rather City of Heroes had ED than being shut down. I suppose it depends on when you expect either of the companies to screw you over.

    I think TR could have survived as a sterile and bland thing — quirky, after all, only last so long, as anyone replaying No More Heroes too much will tell you — but it didn’t do sterile and bland well once you get too far into the game. Two months in, there wasn’t any really memorable content or enough critical mass to get real PvP or interesting factions together. The Great War aspect would have been a great game. Taking control of a major town really felt like an amazing part of a game.

    There just wasn’t enough of that, or anything else, to justify the price tag they were putting on it. I’m pretty sure that quirky would have had the same problem. Of course, when they could get Quirky out a couple years and a few million dollars cheaper…

  5. I played TR a few months after launch and I actually liked it. It wasn’t anything like the “space rock opera” that was described before, but it was a pretty interesting game. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that you don’t have to aim, but that you don’t have to be a twitch master to get continuous headshots like you do in many traditional FPSes.

    Of course, I only got up to level 20ish or so. I might play it for the last few months; I got a TR box at Amazon for about $1 when I did my last big purchases for my birthday. Might as well use the free month and enjoy the game a bit more.

    One of the more interesting talks I went to at GDC was Richard Garriott talking about why TR had been such a struggle. He talked about how they had too many leader types for the first iteration, not enough grunts to do the work. They had to restart the project from scratch to get a strong, solid vision for the game. This restart, whether necessary or not, was what ultimately doomed the game, I’m sure. I also heard people at NCSoft say that the project would have been killed long before it launched if it hadn’t been Garriott at the helm.

    Anyway, I’m a bit sorry to see it go.

    To address Rookerith’s question above:
    These two examples being said, do you agree that mmos need to end after a certain point?

    Even separating out my personal opinions since I run Meridian 59, I don’t think so. As a business, if a game is making enough money to turn a profit, there is some justification for keeping it around. Of course, if those resources could be used to make even more money (that is, the opportunity costs are too high), then you have a reason to shut it down.

    One big problem with online games is that we don’t really have a strong sense of history for our games. One of our motivations for keeping M59 around was so that people could experience the game. There are a lot of older online games I’ll never get to experience. In TR’s case here, I wish we could keep it around, especially with the previous version around for comparison. It’s really an educational opportunity for designers to get to look at the game and see what happened. We often lack the context for how games have changed. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to keep an online game running compared to a single-player game.

    So, I’m for preserving games if at all possible. I really appreciate that Sony does keep games around so people can play them. I hope they are able to keep doing so in the future.

    My thoughts.