With his next big thing, Tabula Rasa soon to be released, NCsoft's Richard Garriott was in bullish mood during his keynote at the Develop Conference.
Entitled 'The Rapidly Maturing Genre of Online Gaming', the creator of Ultima Online argued both for the advantages of being in the MMOG business, as well as railing against what he considered the lack of innovation in recent years when it comes to game design.
"The obsession with damage inflicted over time as the mechanic behind combat reduces games to data management," he said. "The fact that people use the nomenclature 'grinding' to describe what they do in online games is a bad sign. Missions have been reduced to taking the next pellet from the slot machine."
Another of Garriott's bug bears was the assumption that other players would provide AI in online games. "NPCs are largely ignored in MMOGs. This reduces overall immersion," he said.
Tabula Rasa is his response to these issues. It's taken six years, two engine rewrites and tens of millions of dollars to complete, but Garriott said "Success forgives all mistakes made along the way".
The combat will be fast-paced, with positioning, cover and mobility key aspects, rather than personal skill. "It's just click to fire. There's no management of shortcuts. We want to make you care about the 3D environment that you're in." Garriott said. "I think it's one of the most successful parts of the game."
Linked into this is the use of a dynamic battlefield, in which players will find themselves fighting as a small part of a much larger war. Using a Capture The Flag-style system, when one side takes control of an area, entities such as shops and missions generators will all change sides too. The game also has a complex AI system, with as many as 100 AI-controlled, if proximity-optimised entities for each player.
Perhaps the most radical change promised however is the use of story. "We're only scratching the surface, even in single player games," Garriott said. "We'll give you missions that are in conflict with each other, that force you to make judgement calls, and think ethnically about who you want to please and who you want to disappoint. Maybe you'll get a mission to supply some information and someone else will offer you money for it."
Taken as a totality, Garriott said he hoped Tabula Rasa would inspire other MMOG developers to expand the genre.
Mining The Online Gold
Digging down into the business of MMOGs, Garriott said it was a great market to be in once you had a successful product.
"With offline games, if you have a hit you bank the money, but that money then becomes the length of time you can operate if you don't have another hit," he said. "With a game like Lineage, we make profit every year and we can invest some of that in new products, and we still have profits left to put in the bank. That's why the amount of money spent on developing an MMOG is irrelevant compared to the potential profit. What you do have to be aware of however is the cost of operation."
Garriott said another strength of NCsoft's position as an established publisher was the way it could leverage its portfolio of products.
"Churn is inevitable. Churn is our friend," he said. "Most online players have moved onto another game within 10 months, and we've worked out it costs around $100 to attract a player to your game in the first place. You need to have more than one product available. That's why NCsoft is a portfolio company. We can make it easy for players to switch to another of our games, reducing the cost of capture."
As part of this, NCsoft will be launching an unified messaging system across all its games. It already has a streaming system which background downloads NCsoft's games to players' hard drives to make the switching process as easy as possible.