The End of Tabula Rasa - Server Shutdown Event
February 28, 2009 is a day that will live in infamy for fans of the innovative Sci-Fi MMO: Tabula Rasa. That was the day the MMO shut down its servers and had an exciting, action packed, end of game event to thank its players for a year of loyal patronage.
Update: August 18, 2011
Over 2 years later, and I still really lament the end of this game. The fact that it hasn't popped up as a private server is also a sad thing. There are still thousands of people who miss this game and would love to be able to play it in some form.
What Preparations Were Made for the Tabula Rasa MMO Closing Event?
A few days before the final event, they merged all the US servers into a single server: Hydra. They kept the single European server up as well. This created a very festive atmosphere as these two servers were very active. People ran missions, instances, attacked and defended CPs, and basically played the game as it was always intended.
There were separate, but similar, end game events on both servers. They took place at 8pm GMT and 8pm CST on the European and US servers respectively.
To understand how Tabula Rasa got to this point, read: History, Timeline and Post Mortem of Tabula Rasa.
What Happened During the Tabula Rasa Shutdown Event?
The event began with increased Bane activity throughout the game world. Control points and bases were attacked by larger than normal forces. Even main bases that normally did not face serious attack were assaulted by Tabula Rasa staff run armies - led by superior alien beings known as the Neph. These Neph were extremely powerful foes that could only be taken down through the concerted effort of hundreds of players.
As the event continued, the Bane slowly but steadily gained control of the two main planets in the game. This blocked the players from using the transportation network to reach those planets. Eventually, a "Last Stand" took place on Earth itself.
The "Last Stand" took place on an instanced map so multiple shards could be spawned. This helped not only with lag but also with making sure more people actually had enemies to engage. The battles were enormous in scale, but eventually the AFS prevailed over the Bane and the Neph.
At midnight (GMT or CST depending on which server you were on), there was a countdown from 10 and then the server went dark.
Tabula Rasa developers posted photos taken from their offices during the event. They also informed their community that many former employees returned to the offices, unpaid, to help play NPCs and run the event. They level of effort put in by the Tabula Rasa developers in the final months of the game was impressive.
What Now, for Tabula Rasa Community and Fan Sites?
Fan community sites are still in operation and some intend to stay open indefinitely. The largest fan community for Tabula Rasa, Planet TR, will change its name to "The Planet" and shift focus to fou sci-fi themed MMOs: Star Wars: The Old Republic, Stargate Worlds, Star Trek Online and Earthrise. NCSoft has sent Planet TR a large amount of concept art that it will host in a gallery titled: "The Art of Tabula Rasa". Planet TR has archived its Tabula Rasa forum discussions for future reference.
I asked the creator and administrator of Planet TR for more details about their plans, and he responded:
"When the shutdown of Tabula Rasa was announced in November a number of community members expressed concern over the future of PlanetTR. It didn't take us very long to decide that it would be a terrible waste to to pack it in and lose this amazing community of players so we've chosen to stay open and shift our focus to other games. After polling the community members to determine what new games they were most interested in we had them vote on which of those games would make up our core focus going forward. Though we would happily cover the popular fantasy genre in MMOs if the community asked for it, they chose to have us stick with sci-fi games by choosing Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Trek Online, Stargate Worlds & Earthrise as our new core games. In an effort to be welcoming to players that may not be interested in those particular games we do plan to have sections devoted to other PC Games as well as Console & Table Top games. Where PlanetTR began as a fan site devoted solely to Tabula Rasa, we are hoping to transition into an all-around community site under our new identity of The Planet.
The only other thing I feel strongly about being mentioned is the effort we make to ensure the site is as welcoming as possible to players and developers alike. We feel very strongly about ensuring trolling and flaming are dealt with as quickly as possible because no one wants to be on a forum where excessive negativity runs rampant. That doesn't mean we don't allow negative posts, we just ask that if members have something negative to say they do so in a constructive manner and keep their focus on issues, not people."
The transition to "The Planet" has been completed, though many members are still sharing memories and nostalgic screenshots from their Tabula Rasa gameplay. It will probably be some time before the focus of the site shifts more to other Sci-Fi MMOs.
What Now, for Tabula Rasa?
The officer servers are completely closed, and there has been no news of any other company interested in buying the game. Some Tabula Rasa fan sites discuss the possibility of "private servers" - unofficial servers that use reverse engineered code to run the game - but it is unknown if such projects will be successful or if NCSoft will take action to shut them down.
Aside from this, Tabula Rasa will simply live on in the memories of its players. It is always a bit sad when an MMO closes its servers, as the people who loved the game and made up the community are left with no alternatives. When the developer of an offline game goes out of business, or announces no further expansions or patches, at least the fans of the game can continue to play the game. When an MMO shuts down, the game is completely gone, and very soon the community as well. Players lose touch with many of their in-game friends forever. This tends to leave these players with a sad, nostalgic feeling for the game world they poured so much of their time, energy, and imagination into.
For the long term health of the industry, a better solution needs to be developed for this phenomenon. Creating something people grow to love, and then taking it away from them completely and forever has an element of cruelty to it that is not good for the MMO market. When television shows are canceled, at least fans can relive their enjoyment through reruns or DVDs. No such option exists for fans of a canceled MMO. As more MMOs fail or simply outlive the ability to remain profitable, more of them will close. The bitterness this creates amongst the customer base will only grow and fester. It would be in the best interests of the MMO industry to figure out a better way to handle MMO closings than to just pull the plug and expect people to sign up for whatever game pops up next.
What About Tabula Rasa's Developers?
In the final months of Tabula Rasa's existence, the developers continued to create content and run events. It is truly impressive how hard they worked on continuing to improve the user experience of a doomed game. (For more detail on the overall development cycle of Tabula Rasa, read History, Timeline and Post Mortem of Tabula Rasa). During the final two months, when the game was free for everyone, the community and the game had a festive air to it as people knew they were seizing upon a final moment to enjoy a promising game.
The companies that hire these developers will be fortunate to have found people who deeply care about their work. As a gamer, I cannot wait to see what games these developers create next.
Should Tabula Rasa Have Gone Free to Play?
Many MMOs have switched from subscription to free-to-play ("freemium") to breathe new life into their userbase and their coffers. In many cases it has been very effective. See our article:
The Free to Play MMO Boom: Why Have So Many High-Profile Games Switched to a F2P Model?
Should Tabua Rasa have gone the free to play route?
Do you think free to play might have saved Tabula Rasa?
How would you have designed the Free to Play system for Tabula Rasa?
I personally believe that the huge outpouring of activity and support that occurred in the final few months of the game's life are evidence that some serious interest was there. It was launched at a bad time for subscription MMOs. The truth is that the subscription model itself is really not ideal for MMOs. The subscription creates a situation where it is very hard for a player to participate in more than one MMO at a time. That really hurts smaller, niche MMOs or MMOs with unique concepts. That description fits Tabula Rasa perfectly, does it not?
A solid free to play system could almost certainly have justified Tabula Rasa hanging around for a few more years at a minimum. It is a shame NCSoft was too short sighted to consider this, and instead just shuttered the entire game.
The counter argument would be that NCSoft saw major legal troubles with Richard Garriott on the horizons, so it figured the best course of action was to just wash their hands of the entire project.
This is one of those situations where we can debate it at length, make guesses, but we will simply never know if this would have saved the game.