The Tabula Rasa Autopsy: What Makes Games Die?

We've touched upon the bitterness of loss and have gone over

We've touched upon the bitterness of loss and have gone over the life of Tabula Rasa, and now it is time to poke the corpse and speculate where NCsoft's development team went wrong and what the death of this game means for the MMOG industry as a whole.  Were mistakes made?  Could this all have been avoided?  How does this effect the future of those games still yet to see the light of day?

We'll answer these questions, provide some gratuitous conspiracy theory, and much more in The Tabula Rasa Autopsy: What Makes Games Die?


In the Beginning

From the ashes of an ancient conflict, a cosmic war threatens all sentient beings with enslavement or extinction. As the Eloh and Bane amass their forces for the final battle, the galaxy’s last free sentient beings are the thin line between life and death, between good and evil. From lush forest planets to volcanic moons, the Allied Free Sentients are making their last desperate stand against the relentless Bane.

Join us and free the universe from the Bane’s brutal onslaught!

Richard Garriott is the heart and soul behind the vision of Tabula Rasa.  Having proven his visionary skills on Ultima Online, one of the first MMORPGs, he took a break from the typical sword and magic fantasy setting in favor of guns and aliens.  In a brutal and unforgiving world, players were encouraged to take up arms and fight the menace that threatened to send them into oblivion.

Even if they don't want to admit it now, people did play!

Early in development we clearly see the first of several reasons of why Tabula Rasa never made it into it's full potential.  The game was completely revamped from the original design premise and while this isn't completely unheard of, the lack of direction amongst the ranks was clearly effecting the quality of the game being produced.  Bringing in new devs to work on the project and redoing so much of the game showed a weakness that really is hard to overcome.  Dev teams need to work closely together in a connective unity in order for a game to find their groove and I believe that lacking clear direction and having a team that was less than committed to their project goals hurt TR irrevocably.

Another big bump in the road for TR is the obvious hurdle of player trends.  Yes, MMO gamers need to see new things but breaking them from their habit of high fantasy is no easy task!  Traditionally, first person shooter games tend to snag a limited PC audience, most fans of the genre preferring to pwn face on platform gaming systems.  With a weak design team and trends against them, odds were already stacked.

Launch Falls Flat

Nearly everyone who was involved with Tabula Rasa beta will tell you that it went on WAY too long.  Promotional beta should be short and sweet, giving players a taste and then provoking them to want buy the game to see more.  There is a magic time just before and with launch where gamers are excited and hype is at it's peak, a time when game creators need to ride and encourage the rise to climax in order to get their game name on the lips of gamers all over the globe.

Tabula Rasa tripped, fell, and lunged face first into a pile poo in this regard.  The extended beta allowed way too many players to play for free for more months than the current ADHD-ridden demographic even play any given game these days.  To make things worse, this also gave critics an ample amount of time to gather their ammo and spread it in neon lights across the world wide web at blazing speeds.

TR didn't even have a chance.

The hope of getting out good end-game content and sprucing up mid-level content was darkened by the fact that nearly everyone knew that it wasn't there before Tabula Rasa even hit the shelves.  It wasn't heralded by just a vocal few either, reviews were coming in from all over stating that TR was lacking some fairly major game aspects.  Fans still held fast that maybe the content would make it in game eventually and the loyal few bought TR and kept on supporting it come hell or high water.

Development Slows to a Crawl

After a more than just a little disappointing launch, Tabula Rasa did very little to redeem itself.  Bug fixes went in here and there, but there was still a lot of content that needed some attention and it felt like NCsoft had given up already.  Players dropped off like flies and when TR's own walked away I could almost hear the collective groan signaling the end of an era.  It is said that no game can recover from a bad launch and while I don't quite believe that to be true in every case it certainly seemed to be true for TR.

Innovation is a start, but no game survives on concept alone.

The Future of Tabula Rasa

Servers are to be closed on February 28th, 2009.  I really didn't give this a second thought until I saw posted on our own news page this interesting tidbit about Hellgate: London staying open as a free-to-play game and I was wondering to myself "Hey self? Why doesn't Tabula Rasa do that?"  Self doesn't know the answer and given NCsoft's tight lips these days we likely will never hear why.  I find it hard to imagine that the population is so slim that a game that took years upon years to develop holds no value whatsoever, but I'm not privy to their numbers so I was just about ready to tell self to STFU.  Then I tripped over this:

All 4 servers have a different database where all your character progress and data is stored. We will be merging those databases, allowing you to play on one single server with other Tabula Rasa players from around the world.

They are merging servers?

The conspiracy theorist in me just went wild at the possibilities.  Why would a game that is supposedly closing in a month bother to merge servers?  Yes, I know.  It likely means nothing but prepping for the final count down but still one can hope, right?

A Dire Warning

Tabula Rasa will close next month and while it will never be one single element that killed the game, I think this all could have been avoided.  Unlike 10 years ago when online gaming options were limited and you either played Ultima Online or EverQuest, we live in an amazing time where people have dozens of quality MMOGs to choose from and gamers just won't tolerate any slacking. Players drive the market now and the success or failure of any new game is held in their fickle hands.  Sing and dance for them, show them what they want to see, give them the respect to not feed them half-baked ideas and the game will have a chance in this orc eat alien world.

Times have changed, and now games need to change with it or suffer the fate of the forgotten.  To quote one of our more prolific forum goers (thanks Barbarious for the quotable!) "Innovation is what the MMO industry is dying for."

Tabula Rasa has learned this lesson in the harshest way possible.  Let's hope that the games of the future heed the sound warning.

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