One of the earliest genres of computer games was role-playing games, and one of the trailblazers of RPGs back in the day was Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, creator of the famed Ultima fantasy RPG franchise. Since then, RPGs have evolved to become massively multiplayer online RPGs, allowing thousands of players to inhabit the same virtual world at the same time. MMOs let players socialize, fight together, fight against one another, and more. Garriott was one of the pioneers of this genre as well, with 1997's Ultima Online.
Now Garriott, his studio Destination Games, and NCsoft are launching Tabula Rasa, a science fiction-themed MMO that will let you play as a human soldier caught up in a large, intergalactic war. You'll be able to join thousands of other players online as you explore strange new worlds and battle enemy races. The emphasis in Tabula Rasa is as much on action as it is on role playing. With Tabula Rasa launching this week, we caught up with producer Starr Long, a longtime Garriott collaborator and one of the driving forces behind Ultima Online, to find out what Destination Games has planned for the game.
GameSpot: Now that development on Tabula Rasa's launch content is winding down, what would you say was the most challenging part of the game's development?
Starr Long: The most difficult part now is balancing three core needs: fixing stuff, improving the game experience, and adding new features. We're improving the game experience by adding to existing features, like loadout trays for weapons. We have them for abilities now and want to add them for weapons. And we're adding new game features, like new classes, personal armor units, and a bunch of stuff we've not really talked about yet!
The thing is they all have equal priority in our minds, but we still have to prioritize them. Keeping the pace of adding new content while fixing stuff--that's difficult!
GS: Tabula Rasa is known for being a game with a lot of unique features and quite a bit of depth. How will the game make sure new players don't get confused while they experiment with all this brand new stuff?
SL: We spent a lot of time trying to make it so you won't be confused from the beginning of the game. For instance, take character creation. We make that easy by starting everyone off as a recruit. You don't have to tweak any stats or anything like that without the knowledge of how you like to play or how the classes work. You focus on what you want to look like and jump in the game.
You don't make your first character class selection until level five--after you have more exposure to the game. I think we do a really good job of not assaulting players with too many choices in the beginning when they can't make informed decisions. Later in the game, though, there are tons of choices and decisions the players will make.
GS: What aspects of the game do you think will resonate most with beginners or more casual players? What aspects will appeal most to hardcore players?
SL: For casual players, I think the ease of use of the game will have some appeal. You can get in the game, start shooting stuff, and feel like a hero quickly.
For the hardcore players, the clan warfare and crafting system, plus the decisions you need to make in the game--in ethical parables, strategies for fighting enemies (like cover), weapons (weapon and damage types), and moment-to-moment gameplay decisions--will provide them with what they need to keep enjoying the game even after a significant time investment. Later in the game, things like cover become more important, so there will be a lot of decisions to make and strategies to try out.
I actually think there will be a crossover in control points. Casual players may walk by and say, "Oh, look, there's a group taking a control point. I'm going to go help," and have a blast doing that. Hardcore players will enjoy doing that as well, but will probably be more involved in the planning of taking control points and collecting defense tokens.
GS: We understand that Tabula Rasa was intended to fly in the face of what a conventional MMO game is supposed to be like--the typical kind of game that forces players to invest countless hours and always group with other players. How will the game allow players to enjoy themselves even if they can't play for long periods of time or don't have groups of friends also playing?
SL: We try to engineer most of the missions to last 30 minutes to an hour. The rewarding part of our game is that you can get in during your lunch hour and have a good play session. It is a fast-paced game where most of the barriers to meaningful gameplay have been drastically reduced or eliminated.
That said, you can solo or group up in Tabula Rasa. Shared battlefields are solo-able. Really, the key areas you probably want to group are in instances and control point battles.
There's a Big War Out ThereGS: What will the game have to offer players who plan to make that kind of commitment? What can groups of hardcore players looking to migrate from their current game to this one expect?
SL: The pace of the game and the moment-to-moment decisions you have to make are (I hope) more exciting and different from most other games. If you want to invest a lot of time, our crafting system provides thousands upon thousands of combinations. You also have the ability to enhance your items, but beware! You increase your risk of breaking or destroying items the more you try to enhance them.
Clan versus clan warfare, which is in the game now--but we'll beef out a bunch after launch--will really intrigue players who love to invest a lot of time in MMOs. Once a clan battle has begun, it can happen anywhere at any time for the period of a week. Two hundred-person clans could be at war for a week...all over the place!
GS: Tell us about how the tactical combat system will help differentiate the game from standard online games. And how will character development and the learning of new skills keep combat fresh as people develop more powerful characters over time?
SL: The big thing for us is the blend of RPG and action mechanics. How much damage do I do while moving versus standing still? If you are behind cover when a shot is initiated, you don't get hurt. But if you try to duck or run away, that's another story. Cover and movement, balanced with skills and weapons and armor--that blend of action and RPG is unique to Tabula Rasa.
As far as character development is concerned, as you level you get points to spend on abilities. Most games just pump up the impact of a skill (fireball does more damage). We have this too, but sometimes adding points make a new version of the ability. For instance, with "lightning," the first time you get it, you can use it against one target. When you apply another point to it, then it works on multiple targets. Then the third point adds area effect damage and the fourth point gets you a "knock down" effect. So the skill is slightly different each time you apply points. And there are tactical reasons to use each version of that skill, so those abilities don't lose relevance as your character progresses.
Also, you make a lot of decisions at the higher levels. Identifying vulnerabilities in enemies and using the weapon that will give the most damage is a simple example of this. Basically, in this game you're an adult in a war. And with that knowledge comes all of the responsibilities you would have in real life. [There are] lots of choices in this game.
GS: Could you tell us a bit about your plans to support and expand the game in the future? We understand, for instance, that the game will launch with two planets, hundreds of quests, and several war zones. How do you see it growing and changing in the future?
SL: We plan to do yearly large expansions with other planets and all the creatures, missions, etc., associated with that. Between those times, we will be adding content to existing systems, like player-versus-player and military surplus every few months.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Tabula Rasa?
SL: Buy it!
Although we have been focusing a lot about how Tabula Rasa is different from other MMOs when we talk about the game, I think it has a nice mesh of new features that we view as improvements to the genre and familiar things that players expect and love about MMOs.
GS: Thank you, Starr.