Tabula Rasa: A Chronicle of the Rise and Fall
Imagine a futuristic world right out of Starship Troopers, where thousands of heavily armed soldiers from earth defend themselves against an onslaught of aliens. With artillery strikes, a variety of weaponry to choose from (including a flame thrower!), and scheduled attacks on military outposts, this sounds like it would make the perfect videogame. This was what Tabula Rasa promised so many ages ago by a team of champion developers lead by Richard Garriott of Ultima fame. Unfortunately tragedy was just around the corner that no one, except that one guy who swears every game will fail, could see coming. I personally clocked innumerable hours in Tabula Rasa seeing almost everything it had to offer in the first 6 months, and could sit here as many others have trying to propose why it failed. Instead of trying to dissect it just weeks before death, why not look over the most memorable events? That's right, we're going to summarize almost 18 months of events for you so let's get started!
August 2007 - Tabula Rasa has been in limited closed Beta for quite a few months. A number of us fortunate ones were in and enjoying most of what we saw in the lower levels. In what Richard Garriott himself would call a mistake later, beta began to roll out in succession. The thousands from Eurogamer and then cagillions from Fileplanet created a wave of people who varied from mildly interested to die hard fans. However, it didn't stop there thanks to what is a frequent marketing ploy to sell pre-orders. If you pre-ordered the game, you got a beta key and what's wrong with that? It meant you got in almost immediately so before anyone knew it, a few thousand beta testers turned into tens of thousands almost 3 months before launch.
They Really Don't Want You In.
September 2007 - On September 7th the stops came out and the NDA for Tabula Rasa dropped. While there was plenty available already on sites that didn't care, nothing was sacred now. Small criticisms started to slip out regarding this mechanic and that feature. To the developers credit they frequently responded with adjustments after a few weeks. With six entire weeks to go before launch, there was plenty of time for people to not only talk about, but continue to play the game for free. Along with all the free players, came the reviews and criticisms. Anyone who could spend five minutes banging out a half coherent forum post, started a blog about how bad the game was.
October 2007 - On October 29, pre-order keys allowed players to hop in the game an entire 3 days early. With Halloween masks and a fairly smooth launch there wasn't much to complain about. A number of network sites began running previews and reviews of the game which weren't glowing but favorable.
November 2007 - The hard launch does not go quite as well due to the four servers buckling under a heavy load. A few tweaks and adjustments fix it a week later, but the first few days are rough. The Test server opens on the 12th allowing players to get a peek at exactly what is in the works. On the 26th, not even a month after launch, the first nerf is announced on a buff called Rage which increases damage.
December 2007 - The first week of December, the developers announced they are entirely revamping the Biotechnician and Medic classes. This works out for these two classes as there are numerous complaints about their utility and even one or two skills not working. Just 10 days later, the Auction system made it's way on to the servers, meaning players could finally sell dropped items. The end of the month brought an announcement to changes in the stat system which was considered at the time ueseless. Now that free game time was up, populations began to thin a little.
January 2008 - The development team is actively fixing piles of bugs which is both positive and negative. The first bit of new content is added, a level 50 instance called Sanctus Grotto. Unfortunately content gaps in the 30's and 40's make this bitter for many who haven't quite made it there yet.
February 2008 - Only hinted at before, the developers discuss the PAU (player armor vehicles) and what they will look like. This generate excitement amongst community and quickly becomes a very popular topic of discussion. Just a few days later, the Korea Times reports NCsoft CEO Jee Jae Ho is disappointed with disastrous sales. Whether based on truth or the ills of post game development, the Austin office is downsized.
March 2008 - In order to address players outleveling areas before experiencing much of it's content, combat experience bonuses are nerfed at lower levels. This means no more quick leveling through grind sessions. Two more classes, the Ranger and Spy, are completely revamped creating happiness and outrage at the same time.
May 2008 - No we didn't skip April, there just wasn't much happening out of the ordinary. More patches, fixes, and changes. Richard Garriott announced an initiative to promote group play which gave bonus squad experience for 7 days. Later in the month, in an effort to appease PvP players, wargames which put groups of players inside mini-battlefields are revealed.
There was Always a Door Somewhere.
June 2008 - The content patches continue with a series of new weapons and equipment to further customize your characters. A group of influential and dedicated Tabula Rasa players are invited to a War College in Texas.
July 2008 - A new instance is currently on test promising a badly needed content injection. In mid-July, long time Community Manager and player favorite April "CuppaJo" Burba announces she is moving on to a new project. Amy "Critters" Crider moves in to fill some very large shoes. A crafting revamp is promised and Clan owned control points are in discussion.
August 2008 - There is little news beyond the fact Richard Garriott is going to space and as many tie ins as possible are made. What is surprising was little presence or discussion at any of the major conferences such as E3, Leipzig, or PAX.
September 2008 - Approaching a year after launch, a mechanic was discussed to allow advancement beyond the level cap using something called the Command System. It would allow players to control NPC's based on their rank and carry on the role of an officer.
October 2008 - Clan owned control points and PAU's are still in the works with no ETA in site. Community Manager Amy "Critters" Crider leaves Tabula Rasa to pursue other interests and once again the community must grapple with another CM loss. An exciting content announcement promises players will return to Earth and retake it from the Bane and an FPS view is introduced to give players more UI options.
November 2008 - On November 11, 2008 Richard Garriott officially left NCsoft and Tabula Rasa was on it's own. Panic set in for many of the few remaining fans, and almost no one could believe the events 10 days later. On the 21st, NCsoft announced on the 21st that the game would be shutting down at the end of February and become free to play after January 10th.
December 2008 - Providing some actual good news, The free to play date is moved up to December 19th allowing even more people to join in.
As you can see, Tabula Rasa has had a pretty bumpy time and there were some definite crossroads which lead it down this sad path. As much as we like to poke, ridicule, and complain about it, there were quite a few lessons taught to the industry. We'll continue to follow Tabula Rasa over the next few weeks until it's last moments so stay with us as we say goodbye.