Updated Thu, Feb 26, 2009 by RadarX
The servers running NCsoft's Tabula Rasa will close later this week, ending over a year of first person shooter MMO action in the science fiction game. As players enjoy their last moments and prepare for what is (to them) a historical and sad moment, this isn't a time for blame or finger pointing. What went wrong with Tabula Rasa has been talked about to death and is practically moot at this point. The important facts rest in the lessons that we take with us into the future that can apply to developers, publishers, community managers, advertisers, and even players. I'm going to cover ten such lessons here and include both the positives and negatives to insure that, even after the game is gone, its memory will live on.
1. Before Tabula Rasa's launch in November of 2007, NCsoft had an extensive beta program that was used as much for promotion as it was for testing. This isn't an unusual practice but putting tens of thousands of potential customers into an incomplete client is risky and can cause potential harm. In this case it completely backfired. Negative reviews and comments far outweighed the positive. Despite assurances that the issues were being addressed and wouldn't exist at launch, many potential fans were dissuaded from purchasing the retail box.
These once full servers will close soon.
2. Despite what criticisms people may find, Tabula Rasa did have some foresight it rarely gets credit for. Even in 2006 when Vivox was talking with CCP about putting voice chat in EVE Online, NCsoft already was integrating it. Seeing the need for such an innovation in a fast paced first person shooter, there was never a question of it's inclusion. Obviously they didn't have the resources and time to put into it that Vivox did, but it worked and when utilized was pivotal to playing in a group. It's taken for granted because so many other games now have the capability, including Dungeons and Dragons Online and EverQuest II.
3. The voice chat may have been ready to support highly organized, fast moving groups, but when it came to player vs player combat, things fell a little short. Numerous games have tried to add PvP content post launch and although World of Warcraft has made it work, there are numerous games that have not. If you are going to include PvP in your game (and who isn't these days?) it must be in working order when you launch. No one realistically expects the skills to be balanced or the rewards perfect, but there needs to be something to do besides just kill other players at random. Scenarios, battlefields, control points and other flashpoints are needed to draw players together for glorious mayhem and slaughter.
4. Unfortunately even if a proper level of PvP had been worked into the game, the support classes were significantly underpowered requiring massive revamps early on. If games work on the traditional model requiring “healers” or some type of other utility, they must be given offensive abilities. Their role might be to buff, heal, or enhance but the solo opportunities become very limited and everyone wants to be useful on the battlefield.
5. One other significant piece of the puzzle missing was an auction system. There was no mechanism in place to sell dropped equipment to other players, so you depended on what you saw in channel or quest rewards. This put a lot of useful gear in the hands of a merchant for pocket change and deprived willing buyers of needed upgrades upgrades. With so many classes, you essentially went out and hoped to get lucky enough to find a drop you could use. If you couldn't, you held on to gear as long as necessary sometimes carrying it five or more levels beyond it's usefulness.
6. Along with high tech guns and weaponry came the inevitable use of ammunition. Even the mention of ammunition costs make the traditional MMO rangers and hunters twitch a little. The use of ammo as a money sink might have been pragmatic long ago, but it seems to make little sense to deprive players of a potential weapon because they either forget to buy some ammo or can't afford it. Tabula Rasa wasn't the only game to make such a mistake but it reinforces a valuable lesson other developers can certainly learn from.
7. Live events seem to be rarer and rarer in games but Tabula Rasa showed that these events didn't need to be complex. A great example was their Friday Night Fights which took place, you guessed it, every Friday. Players made a low level character, and with no weapon or armor started punching his opponent with the melee skill. It got so big there were brackets and the developers later actually added a boxing ring for use at the events. This proved that working with only a few resources, it's quite possible to create something special that players will participate in.
It was a great setting.
8. We frequently see big names thrown around in the industry like Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, and John Romero (this can be swapped out with somebody more trendy). Attaching a single name to a MMO game has proven dangerous in the past with Vanguard, and Tabula Rasa repeated history by bringing Richard Garriott to the table. This is no criticism of his talent; he earned his keep ages ago with the Ultima series and pioneered one of the first popular MMO games. However placing the burden of success on a single individual's shoulders is folly, and it's irrelevant how talented they are. R.A. Salvatore, Bill Roper, and Jim Lee may all be talented, but they are all just a cog in the machine.
9. There seems to be a trend in community management to ignore the need for official forums. This mistake was first made by Vanguard to be corrected by Sony Online Entertainment later. Tabula Rasa followed their lead and even today Warhammer Online is reversing their position and creating forums. Without a central location for general feedback, it created a hefty burden for the community management team and forced players to move to different sites for their information needs.
10. Finally comes a lesson that might be one of the biggest of all, zone wars are an awesome backdrop for an MMO game. Hate the mechanics, content, or classes all you want but very few people can complain about assaulting dynamic Bane positions and dodging random artillery fire raining down on you. Tabula Rasa provided an engaging environment where you felt certain there was a war going on, and fought to survive. Games like Fallen Earth or other post apocalyptic themes may try something similar, but it was a solid idea even with a game that eventually didn't make the cut.
As you can see there is quite a bit to learn from Tabula Rasa. Content, community management, and so many other aspects are there for examination and meditation. Will other companies learn from the mistakes and innovations of Tabula Rasa or will history continue to repeat itself? Only time will tell.