[What's it like inside the end of a game world? Gamasutra's Chris Remo visits NCsoft's Tabula Rasa in its final days, joining the community that turned out in throngs for a surprisingly kooky farewell party.]
Last Friday, I visited a doomed world for the first time.
That day, publisher NCsoft had announced that, as a parting gift to the remaining fans of Destination Games' sci-fi MMO Tabula Rasa, there would be a final, decisive conflict between the game's human players and their alien invaders.
Tabula Rasa, initially spearheaded by Ultima creator Richard Garriott, had been open to the public for 16 months, and during that time it failed to generated its intended success for NCsoft. But it did have a dedicated community that turned out in throngs to see it off.
The day before the shutdown, I created a new account -- by that point NCsoft had made the client and subscription free -- and entered the online world of Tabula Rasa for the first time.
Upon spawning, I amused myself with amiable introductory banter in the main chat channel, remarking on how I had just registered the game, looking for a new MMO experience, and how I expected Tabula Rasa to be a nice change of pace from the fantasy norm.
"Welcome Thuhmb! You have 24 hours to get your fill," replied player Glass.
"Bit too late. It's shutting down tomorrow," added Raqshiem.
"Like, for maintenance?" I asked.
"Thuhmb, tomorrow the game is dead, forever," Linwelin explained.
"***," I exclaimed, my profane abbreviation softened by the chat filter. I tried again, adding spaces to circumvent the system. "w t f," I repeated, then: ":("
"We should make an online petition," I suggested, to unenthusiastic response.
Some players chided me for not knowing about a deadline that had been announced months prior. A larger proportion was sympathetic. Mainly, I was struck by the reasonable, grammatical, and -- if I can make an inference from online text chatter -- resigned tone of the responses, enough so that I felt a bit guilty about perpetrating my slightly immature ruse.
It was also immediately apparent that, despite my textual shenanigans, pretty much everything in the world of Tabula Rasa was carrying on as it presumably would any other day. Players were looking for adventuring groups, trading items, discussing skills and equipment. The oblivious NPCs handed out quests and rewards, and my class trainer helped me chart out my competencies for dozens of levels to come.
All that virtual normalcy made me all the more out of place carrying on with some stupid social pantomime for my own amusement, so I got down to the business of actually playing Tabula Rasa, and worked myself up to level eight before I called it a day.
(I admit, every once in a while, when the names scrolling through the chat window seemed to have cycled to a new group, I'd pull the, "Hey guys, still pretty new but this game seems rad!" gag.)
It Was A Good Day To Die
The next day, things were quite different.
When I first logged in, the promised apocalyptic events had yet to begin and the game world itself was functioning as normal -- but this time, the human players weren't mirroring the resolute, unshakeable dedication to the job exhibited by the tireless NPCs.
Some players tried to predict what exactly would happen when the event began, and where it might be focused. Some seemed to want closure, frantically attempting to obtain the final pieces of certain equipment sets or to finish uncovering all areas of the world.
Some thanked the developers for their continued support of the game until the final days; others cursed NCsoft for a perceived botched publishing job; many did both. A few stayed in character, attempting to rise to the occasion. "Men and women of the AFS, it has been an honor serving with you," offered Nebalain.
By the afternoon, the West Coast server Hydra was the last server standing. As more and more of its citizenry logged on for the last hurrah, and foreign players from dead servers poured in to squeeze a few more hours out of the game, it became increasingly congested, buggy, and lag-ridden.
The intended scenario was indeed playing out not just in the game and the fiction but as a metagame: the active duty population swelled as humanity prepared to make its final stand, while the very world itself strained under the considerable weight and struggled to keep itself together.
By the time the event truly began, the server was already heavily taxed. The influx of armies of giant alien creatures wreaked havoc on framerates and client stability. Each of the monstrous Neph invaders was controlled by Tabula Rasa GMs, who -- with the combined advantage of immensely powerful avatars and a player base largely crippled by lag -- had little problem stomping all over the defenders, in many areas pushing the humans all the way back to the hospitals where players recover after dying.
It is probably safe to say that, despite decades of ever more spectacular Hollywood visions of extra-terrestial domination, humanity in its worst nightmares never imagined it would have to contend with spawn-camping aliens.
Angry outbursts about the completely pervasive lag filled the chat window. Though Tabula Rasa was widely agreed to have improved considerably since its launch, old frustrations about an underwhelming debut bubbled to the surface. "The game will end the way it started," griped Protagonist. "Broken. Laggy. Not fun. The only difference will be no Garriott."
Eventually, the players -- or enough of them -- started to get a handle on the situation, even taking back a number of control points. GMs started to hand out instant upgrades to the maximum level of 50 to players who requested them. Players were able to move and fight. The world started to feel more solid again.
The Final Countdown
Then, hundreds of players all over the world began being involuntarily teleported to an extraction location connected to the "Last Stand" area on Earth -- a small string of camps in Manhattan serving as the final holdout against the invasion. Everything ground to a halt for what seemed like ages as more and more players were all crowded into one room, unable to perform any actions other than to ineffectually rage in chat.
"There's over 9,000 people in here," joked Killerton, setting off a meme explosion with his reference to a popular internet catchphrase.
At a certain point, the development team was able to split Earth into a number of instances, distributing out the massive crowd and largely eliminating lag issues for the remainder of the event.
From that point forward, the tone was almost entirely good-natured, as the impending doom became more tangible and there was little else to try and practically achieve. Players began spontaneously shouting nonsense and in-jokes in chat, and heartfelt appreciation for the GMs and developers surfaced.
"I finally did get to see Earth," admitted Herakles. "Even with the lag, this was a good way to end the game."
Steelmercy agreed: "As crazy as this has been, I think tonight went well overall."
"I'd like to offer my thanks to the devs and GMs too," said Daemoniac. "I've been playing since Beta, and I will miss it. Thanks for a great game."
The GMs reciprocated with server-wide missives: "ADMIN MESSAGE: As the clock ticks down, we'd like to take one last moment to thank everyone for playing. It's been a fantastic ride, and we're happy you stuck with us for the last year."
That triggered a coordinated effort to try to engage in an actual dialogue with the people behind the ADMIN MESSAGE curtain. Ericbouchard began repeatedly yelling, "IT'S MY BIRTHDAY TODAY," which eventually prompted, "ADMIN MESSAGE: HAPPY FUCKING BIRTHDAY," much to the extreme, raucous delight of those assembled. (In a minor historical footnote, that might have represented the first and only time that true uncensored profanity had ever appeared in the world of Tabula Rasa.)
Similar back-and-forth exchanges followed, with the GMs even breaking out that most classic of old internet chestnuts. "ADMIN MESSAGE: ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US," declared the server, followed a few moments later by, "ADMIN MESSAGE: ALL YOUR BASE," presumably to make clear the quantity of base in question.
Soon after, the final countdown began, ticking down from ten to zero in 45 seconds and capped off with, "Good night, and good luck!" Then, a freeze frame, a dialogue box reading, "You have been disconnected from the server," and an unceremonious dump back to the title screen.
And, like that, a world ended.
[For tangible, if less evocative evidence, video services like YouTube are also hosting visuals of the final moments of Tabula Rasa contributed by players.]