BRIGHTON, UK--Outspoken industry veteran Richard Garriott (also known as Lord British, even though he has long since lost his English accent) told a packed room of attendees at the Develop Conference today that Tabula Rasa was going to be the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game to truly offer something different.
Other MMOs on the market, he explained--and although he mentioned no names, he clearly included World of Warcraft and new title Lord of the Rings Online in his evaluation--use a number of features that have become standard practice even though they are clumsy. These gameplay elements, he said, include monsters respawning for the next player as if nothing had happened, level grinds, arbitrary and meaningless missions, poor AI, and repetition.
Garriott said, "Tabula Rasa means Blank Slate. It was actually meant to be the working title, because we were starting from scratch to innovate in as many areas of game design as possible."
Garriott explained that the NCsoft team had tried to change a number of these ingrained MMORPG features, including making the combat more fast-paced although still in a style befitting of a role-playing game, and forcing the player to make ethical decisions by giving them conflicting missions. He said, "Say two people send you to do something, but one of those is going to be completable only at the expense of the other, so the player has to make a kind of ethical decision--which storyline are they willing to give up, which character are they willing to lose?"
Also, rather than using respawning as a gameplay mechanic, "everyone is involved in this kind of intergalactic war. When a control point is taken, then all the shops in that area go offline, for example. The world is different."
But if he had to pick the one feature that would be most important in the future of MMOs, he would pick AI. He said, "There's this whole kind of 'we don't need AI because there are other players,' and I think that really undersells the passion of an online game. [In Tabula Rasa] the game operates around the player and doesn't just expect players to be the only one moving in that reality."
When asked about why he thought that the market was filled with fantasy MMOs--as opposed to the science-fiction world of Tabula Rasa--Garriott gave a surprising answer. He said, "We are genre-agnostic--we really want to broaden the type of genres that are successful in the online space. I actually believe that great games make genres popular--I don't think people are fans of one genre or another."
Looking back on the past, Garriott laughed as he remembered how he had to push the idea of Ultima Online. He said, "It took me three years of pitching and re-pitching the game, until we got given $250,000 to build the project. Truly, no one cared about it. They thought it was a waste of time." Then once the game entered beta testing, attracting some 50,000 people to sign up and pay $5 apiece for the privilege of testing out the game, "it became the biggest thing ever. Suddenly we had tons of excess management come down and join us in Austin."
The developer believes that MMOs are a high-risk venture, although they also potentially have high gain. He said, "If you're a one [retail] game [at a time] development company, then all it takes is one mistake, and you're out of business. But if you get an online success, you're set for life."
Tabula Rasa is due for release in the UK on October 5, and is currently in closed beta. For more on the game, check out GameSpot's most recent preview.