carried high expectations before a single line of code was written.
Bringing together the father of the first commercially-viable massively
multiplayer game and the creative force behind Korean online juggernaut
Lineage to form an East-West MMO dream team, the “next-generation” MMORPG seemed a good bet to redefine the genre.
Garriott describes the founding of Destination Games as a “second
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Though happily retired at the time,
Garriott decided to take one more swing at online games and founded the
company in April 2001. Much of the motivation came from Garriott's
sense that MMOs were not meeting their potential. Many massively
multiplayer games display the same flaws – players forced into
repetitive action, with no sense of impact, no real purpose, and no
urgency. Mostly glaringly, in Garriott's assessment, the ‘massiveness'
of MMOs inherently removes the sense that the player is ‘special'. The
great promise of MMOs, the ability to create social gaming and truly
shared experiences, was not being exploited. Destination Game was
formed to create a hybrid MMO, one that would offer a shared world
where the story took center stage and players could truly be special.
Tabula Rasa used to look much different than this.
wasn't the only sensing an opportunity – Korean MMO maker NCsoft was in
touch with Destination Games within 48 hours of founding, and by May
2001, Destination had been merged into NCsoft. The vision expanded to
include leveraging the combined expertise of the two companies to
create a next generation MMO that could succeed on a worldwide level.
Garriott assembled what he calls a ‘Dream Team' of MMO developers;
senior staff recruited from Ultima Online and the Wing Commander series were joined by key members of NCsoft's Korean studios, including Lineage creator Jake Song.
Almost immediately, cracks began to appear in the Dream Team dynamic. Nearly everyone working on Tabula Rasa
was at the top of their field, meaning that nearly everyone was
over-qualified for the work they were doing. Supremely confident, the
team looked to innovate on every front, making an already ambitious
design even more challenging. True to the adage of “too many cooks in
the kitchen,” a clash of egos slowed the development process. On top of
that, the combining of East-West expertise that was meant to deliver a
worldwide hit came burdened with communications issues – both
linguistic and cultural. Design subtleties didn't cross borders, and
content by compromise to suit both Asian and US audiences was not
compelling to anyone. With Tabula Rasa floundering, Jake Song left the project.
Moving Tabula Rasa
forward, at this point, meant moving backwards. Garriott and his team
took a close look at what they had: With an eye on time to market, and
a belief that MMOs didn't sell based on graphical quality, the team
that hoped to innovate on every front had chosen to use a licensed
rendering engine. The backdrop of their world was a blending of sci-fi
and martial arts served up in an awkward futuristic art nouveau style.
The choices in male avatar costuming were so poor that nearly everyone
chose to play as a female. A focus on making story the center of the
game led to a dependence on instanced content, making the world feel
desolate and lonely. Despite a chorus of voices warning the Tabula Rasa
team that the game just wasn't working, the developer continued on in a
belief that, according to Garriott, it would all somehow come together
in the end.
the Fall of 2004, Destination Games started over. The weak, licensed
rendering engine would be replaced with high-level internal technology.
The reliance on instanced experience gave way to a focus on war
elements. Most of the unpopular future nouveau art elements were
binned. Perhaps most importantly, a mantra of ‘get it right' replaced
‘time to market' as the team primary concern. The group began to
solicit and listen to feedback.
drastic a change in direction doesn't come without cost. Many
long-serving and entrenched staff were dismissed, and the vision of a
simultaneous worldwide launch was scrapped. Tabula Rasa would
target US audiences first and foremost, with internationalization
follow sometime in the future. In the end, 75 percent of the code, 100
percent of the art, and 20 percent of the staff were cut and work began
Not everything was abandoned, however. Tabula Rasa
retained its original IP backdrop, the first-person shooter look and
feel, and story-driven 30-minute gameplay cycles remain central to the
The changes reinvigorated the staff – for the first time, everyone working on Tabula Rasa understood and liked what they doing. Work continues, now at a more productive pace. Tabula Rasa
employs nearly 100 developers and artists worldwide: 50 in Austin, 10
in Los Angeles, 30 in Beijing, and a further 5 in Seoul. The lesson, in
Garriott's own assessment, come down to a few basic facts: MMOs are too
big for any one person to control everything. Consistency needs to be
maintained by carefully disseminating knowledge and expertise.
Essential trade-offs, specifically the quantity of content and scope of
innovation, need to be managed or quality will invariably be
sacrificed. Finally, explains Garriott, a functional team needs to
include different members with many levels of experience – the so
called ‘Dream Team' is, in fact, just a dream.