Most massively multiplayer role-playing games are set in fantasy realms that wouldn't seem out of place in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. That can't be said of Tabula Rasa, the upcoming sci-fi game that ditches the two-handed swords and plate armor that the genre loves so much and replaces them with lasers and interstellar warfare. Tabula Rasa has had a long development period, but it's finally set to launch later this year. To learn more, we turned to two pioneers in the history of role-playing games. Richard Garriott is the executive producer and creative director of Tabula Rasa, as well as the creator of the legendary Ultima series, along with Ultima Online. Starr Long is the producer of Tabula Rasa and served as the project director on Ultima Online.
GameSpot: Tabula Rasa has been in development for quite some time and has changed drastically from its original design of what seemed like a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid. Tell us about the evolution process that the game went through to change from what it was to what it is.
Richard Garriott: We prefer to think of it as the aging of a fine wine. You are correct that Tabula Rasa has had a very long development cycle. We are committed to only releasing a game we believe will be great. When we started the project we tried to make a game that would appeal to the East and the West equally. Unfortunately, we created something that appealed to neither. So after a few years, we rebooted the project and went in a more obvious science-fiction direction while retaining some of the key storyline elements and the symbolic language. We also decided to concentrate on making a fun game versus trying to please different markets simultaneously. The decision to take this extra time is a testament to NCsoft's commitment to quality.
GS: What kind of characters can you create in the game? Are you limited to human characters, or can you make alien ones? What kind of characters can players choose to play, and how do players develop them?
Starr Long: Our story starts with the invasion of Earth and the scattering of humanity across the galaxy. As with the Ultima series, the idea is that your character is you, a human, transported into another place. To that end, you will only play a human at launch. As we continue to expand the game, there may be options in the future for you to play one of the aliens who are our allies in the Allied Free Sentients.
Even though you are a human, there are many classes, abilities, customizations, armor, and so on that allow you to create a truly unique character. You can be an engineer who specializes in turrets (placing auto-defenses) or a biotechnician who specializes in using armor-piercing injection guns that poison your enemies. What makes Tabula Rasa truly unique, though, is that at any point, you can create a clone of your character so you can explore all the variations of our class tree without starting over each time.
GS: Tell us a bit about the game's sci-fi world. Considering that the story involves refugees from multiple planets in the universe who are fighting against the alien invasion, exactly how big will the world be? Will players travel to different planets and star systems?
SL: We will be starting with two very distinct planets to which humanity has been dislocated. Each planet has a unique environment as well as a unique storyline. Foreas is a lush, wooded world. The Foreans are very in tune with nature and can almost feel the suffering of their world as the alien Bane ruthlessly devastate the landscape and the inhabitants. Arieki is a volcanic planet where the very air can be hostile. It was a prison planet where the alien Brann exiled their criminals. Both planets have multiple continents and hundreds of missions scattered across both instanced and shared maps.
GS: The combat system in Tabula Rasa is pretty interesting, in that it seems a lot faster and more intense than traditional massively multiplayer role-playing combat. At the same time, it's not a flat-out action game that requires fast reflexes. Tell us about how the combat is being "tactical" without using "twitch" action.
RG: We really wanted to make combat in Tabula Rasa feel different than the "whack-a-mole" combat of most online games. We wanted to combine the character progression of a role-playing game with the pace of an action game, without making it based on reflexes. We mix real-time elements like crouching (increases damage done) and cover (reduces damage taken) with role-playing elements like special powers (lightning, crab mines, and so on). Tactical decisions happen on many levels, from unique artificial intelligence (like shield drones who protect enemies) to damage types (EMP weapons take down shields, virulent weapons don't work on mechanicals, and so on).
On top of all this, non-player characters are constantly fighting each other (Bane versus AFS, predators versus prey, and so on) instead of just standing around waiting for you to kill them. We also try to make the AI as challenging as possible. Run behind cover to get away from being shot, and that Thrax soldier you messed with may just run around the corner and kick you in the face. It's not your typical massively multiplayer online game by any means.
The Bane of Your ExistenceGS: Tell us about the invading aliens and what kind of challenge they'll pose as enemies. We understand that they seek to conquer everything and are insidious enough to even reanimate the corpses of fallen soldiers as slaves. What are their motivations? How does the alien invasion tie into the game's story and its regular, day-to-day gameplay?
RG: The Bane believe they are saving us from ourselves. By imposing their version of order on the cosmos, they will prevent galaxy-spanning conflict. The irony, of course, is that the imposition of that order has escalated so far that it has become its own sustaining event that has nothing to do with the original goal. In order to feed the immense effort, the Bane have to constantly wage war, invade planets, and use all available resources. To that end, they invade any planets they perceive as possible threats, like Earth. They then enslave the inhabitants to be soldiers and workers. They also use up any and all available resources, to the point that at later stages the invaded planets almost appear like Swiss cheese.
Once the Bane have used all the resources, they explode the planet and use the fragments as invasion ships to hit the next planet. Those planetary fragments are a combination of troop transport and gigantic bioweapons filled with invasive species, diseases, and so on. Players experience the Bane army seizing territory, and go on missions to save native inhabitants, destroy enslavement facilities (including ones making cyber zombies), and so on. Control points scattered throughout the maps are key points that can change ownership between the AFS and the Bane. Availability of missions, vendors, waypoints, hospitals, NPCs, and so on are all linked to who owns particular control points. This dynamic change in environment is one of the unique elements to Tabula Rasa and a very visceral way for players to feel part of the war.
GS: Could you give us an update on the game's development? What's the team working on at the moment?
SL: We just started closed beta testing. We are wrapping up game features very soon and are moving on to finalizing content right after that. Our main focus right now is adding more maps and missions to Arieki, finishing all the Tier 4 abilities and weapons, crafting, and clan versus clan warfare.
GS: How has the "family and friends" testing that began late last year gone so far? Are there certain aspects of the game that players really seem to be gravitating toward?
RG: Our friends and family testing has gone very well. We have gotten really good feedback on how to make the game better. So far, the favorite aspects of the game are the refreshing sci-fi environments (a welcome change from medieval fantasy) and the pace of adventuring and combat. Our favorite response is people saying they get so involved in the action that they start to forget about collecting experience points and leveling and are just in it for the fun.
GS: Tabula Rasa is finally nearing completion. Roughly when can we expect it to launch and what does it feel like to get near the end?
RG: It has been a very long road, and we are incredibly excited to be getting close to launch. Of course, we all know that with online games, the launch is not the "end"; it is the beginning. We can't wait to see everyone in the game by the end of the year!
GS: Thank you, gentlemen.