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GDC: Designing Tabula Rasa: Lessons From the World of MMOs

March 23, 2006
 

Tabula Rasa 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.

Destination Games

Richard 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.

Korea Calls

Garriott 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.

“Uninspired Results”

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.

Reboot

In 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.

This 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 again.

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 design.

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.

 

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