History, Timeline and Post Mortem of Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa was an innovative sci-fi MMO created by Richard Garriott. With a huge budget and a long development cycle, it was expected to become a big time MMO. Sadly, it lasted barely more than a year, and closed its doors permanently on February 28, 2009. This article discusses the how and why.
What was Tabula Rasa?
Tabula Rasa was a sci-fi FPS/RPG hybrid MMO created by Richard "Lord British" Garriott. Development began in May of 2001, and it finally released on November 2, 2007. One of the main causes of the long development time was an almost complete redesign of the game a few years into the project. It completely changes settings and themes, 25% of the staff was replaced, and 75% of the code was rewritten.
Tabula Rasa included many of the classic elements of an MMORPG: classes, levels, gear, questing, stat/skill based calculations that affected combat, and more. But there were some shooter/action elements as well: guns had to be aimed (though there were sticky targeting options), cover and flanking affected damage and to-hit calculations, kneeling affected critical hits, and weapons had to be reloaded in real time to name a few.
One of the most unique aspects of the game was what the developers called the Dynamic Battlefield. Many of the game zones were in a constant state of warfare. They had multiple bases or control points that could change ownership between the AFS (the side players were on) and the Bane (the NPC enemy forces). Control of such locations opened up teleporters, missions (the quests of Tabula Rasa), and vendors. Attacking and defending these control points in order to affect the overall battlefield was one of the core gameplay elements of the game.
What Happened to Tabula Rasa?
On November 11, 2008, Richard Garriott announced in an open letter to the players of Tabula Rasa that he was leaving NC Soft (the publisher of the game) to pursue other endeavors. Shortly thereafter, on November 21st, 2008, the Tabula Rasa development team announced the game would cease operation on February 28, 2009. Lower than expected subscriber population was cited as the primary reason.
Active subscribers as of the date of the announcement were given free months of playtime in other NC Soft games. Starting January 10, 2009, the Tabula Rasa servers were made free to play so former or new players could return to the game for its final month and a half.
The development team continued to add new content to the game throughout their final few months. Near the end, 2000% experience point booster items and powerful high end gear were made available to everyone. This allowed all players to reach the level cap in a few hours of play, and experience any parts of the game they had ever wanted to. It also ensured that they could participate in the final end game event.
In total, the amount of new content added by the development team in the final months was impressive. It is extremely evident that this development team took enormous pride in their work, and really wanted to make sure their customers got to see everything they had worked on.
The final end game event itself was quite spectacular. You can read about it here: The End of Tabula Rasa - Server Shutdown Event.
Why Did Tabula Rasa Fail?
It is impossible to know exactly why Tabula Rasa failed, as MMO economics are very complex. A few possible reasons include:
Very rocky launch: At the launch of the game, there were many problems. A significant percentage of the missions were bugged or broken in one way or another. Many zones suffered enormous server side lag due to inefficient handling of large numbers of NPCs on a single map (Mires was one of the most notorious). There was little or no content for levels 40 and up.
User Interface problems: The user interface lacked any significant customization options. Screen elements could not be moved around, and the chat box was very strangely placed in the top left of the screen. Traditionally, MMOs put chat along the bottom of the screen. Additionally, many keyboard shortcut options were never implemented. There were never keyboard commands for targeting oneself or for targeting members of one's squad (a party or team). This made healing or buffing allies or oneself extremely difficult (and prone to sudden unexpected results if another being moved in front of your reticle at the exact moment you pressed the button for an ability). Many aspects of the game left the player feeling like he or she was fighting against the interface rather than using it to interact with the game world.
Lack of direction: Possibly related to Richard Garriotts' preoccupation with his mission to space, the game lacked direction during the late stages of its development and first few months of release. His space flight was announced in October 2007, a month before the game's release. The mission itself took place in October of 2008. During the intervening year, much if not most of Garriott's time was devoted to the training necessary for the spaceflight.
Too much enemy crowd control/status effects: Almost every Bane enemy in the game had a power called "Bane Kick", which knocked the player back and onto the ground for a few seconds. The attack was used frequently, and by almost every Bane enemy in the game. In large battles, this meant players spent significant portions of their time knocked back or down. This was extremely unpleasant. In the first few months of release, the developers added more similarly annoying status effects - a white flash that filled the screen and disoriented the player's camera, a stun that blurred the display and turned it black and white, stuns, freezes, and more. The net result of this was an excess of status effects that removed the ability for the player to act. In an action heavy, run-and-gun type game, this was particularly bad.
Turning to "nerfs" too early: Game balance is absolutely vital to any MMO, but when there are game breaking bugs and zones so lagged they cannot be used, that is not the time to start "nerfing" (power reducing balance changes) the game. The timing of these nerfs was extremely poor, and drove people away from the game en masse.
Not enough content variety: Ultimately, all there was to do in the game was run around and blow up aliens. While this was fun in a lot of ways, an MMO needs to simulate a world and have a variety of gameplay options in order to succeed. Tabula Rasa simply never provided any of this variety.
Ultimately, Tabula Rasa Failed for Economic Reasons
In the end, most direct reason Tabula Rasa failed was an insufficient number of subscribers. NCSoft is a large, publicly traded company that invested many millions of dollars into Tabula Rasa over almost 7 years of development (some estimate exceed $100 million). When a game has that kind of investment and expectation, it has to deliver significant gains relatively quickly. The NCSoft divisions located in North America and Europe have generally underperformed (other than Guild Wars), which puts all of those games on tenuous footing.
After a year, Tabula Rasa still suffered from a small subscriber base (some estimates place it well under 50,000 subscribers, and perhaps close to 10,000). In the current economic environment, it is nearly impossible for a game to justify its existence when owned and operated by a large, publicly traded company. The developers definitely gave the game everythign they had. The final end game event was just one example of that. It is a shame Tabula Rasa was not independently owned, or run by a smaller company. If so, it might still be in operation today.