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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa

Posted by UnSub Sunday March 9 2008 at 11:19PM
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In all reality, I hadn't planned until playing RG's Tabula Rasa until much further down the track - there were other MMOs I was going to try before coming back to one that had only a 3 day trial available for it. But then more information crept out about TR, the availability of the trial accounts became limited to friend invites only and I thought I should probably give it a go now... just in case the situation changes.

Not that I think NCsoft is going to cancel TR within the next twelve months. They won't, because they've invested too much money into what is (to date) the biggest flop in the history of the MMO genre. To recap: an all-star gaming development team, led by gaming industry legend Richard Garriott, takes a lot of money (given that Robert Garriott was head of NCsoft in North America, it probably wasn't hard getting those cheques signed), restarts development at least once in the life of the project, promises involving gameplay where player decisions are important and positions itself as a next generation MMO.

What launches as TR fails to attract player attention, causes Richard Garriott to plan an escape route into outer space, leaves the awesomely-named Starr Long promising the world that Yes Virginia, There IS a future for Tabula Rasa!, allegedly cost at least the same amount as World of Warcraft (i.e. in the US $50 m to US $60 m range, but definitely less than US $100 mi) and has resulted in NCsoft apparently quietly cancelling its involvement in a number of other MMO projects (e.g. Spacetime Studios' Blackstar was likely a more public example of this cost trimming in action). Was what launched really so bad?

Having trialed TR in a limited capacity for 3 days, I can say that no, as a game it hits all the genre notes for a MMO. It actually does some things very well - the 'living world', where plants regrow and animals / enemies move about, is an excellent step forwards - but at the end of the day, there is nothing that makes me want to go back to play TR. TR suffers from a lack of 'stickiness' that would keep me playing. But I'm ahead of myself a bit.

My actual play experience was a touch limited in that I lost an entire third of it to downloading, patching and then fixing a corrupted file. I'd tried to provide myself enough time to download the TR client and play in the same session, but the extra patching and an extra hour (at least) required to download another 750 MB due to some file corrupting or not being installed correctly cost me any gaming time I would have had that night.

When I actually started playing, I found TR to hav a pretty ordinary character creation system - none of the body models grabbed me at all and I found the colour system to be a bit user-unfriendly. Ultimately I made a character who was "good enough" and launched. Graphics and visuals in TR were nice and the voice acting was fine (if somewhat limited to only the first paragraph of those statements that have voice acting, which was a little weird to have at all if that was the case). Once I got the hang of the map, UI and radar, things were relatively easy. A really nice touch was the animation for using certain access points - the 'blue lines swinging around' (best way I can describe it) looked very good. Another feature I liked a lot was the bonus XP signals for when you were on a rampage of slaughter.

However, even from the first few seconds of logging in, it felt like a game I'd played before. This isn't a good thing. TR was every third-person action adventure game I'd ever played, just more limited and bringing nothing new that I could see. Run along, shoot the monsters, run along, shoot the monsters... yeah, I've done this before. Getting quests off characters with yellow mobile phones over their heads was slightly different for a third person action adventure, but I noted with irony that it didn't appear that I could call them on the phone and have them courier my rewards out to me - every time I had to run back to see them.

Other things raised question marks. Getting schematics I had no idea what to do with just confused me. The drops that were meant to serve as crafting resources had me spending time looking at them, trying to wonder how they worked. I'm sure a quick read somewhere could have informed me, but since I didn't see it appear in the tutorial, I didn't go looking for it. The information about the items carried in your backpack was quite limited, even in the mouseover text.

When I found the first store in the tutorial zone, it also took me some time to work out what each item did and what ammo I needed to buy... and here's where I rant:

What kind of Objectivist, Ayn Rand-inspired universe forces soldiers to BUY the weapons and ammo that they take into battle? Did Andrew Ryan's dream survive from Rapture and now we are seeing where humanity went to from there? Sure, you could make a "US soldier in Iraq" joke about having to buy your own armour, but at least the US Army provided the basics, like ammunition. In the TR universe, they apparently expect soliders who risk their lives defending the slim remainder of humanity against an alien opposition who wants us extinct to also pay for every bullet they use. The hell? It's ridiculous for TR to even try to have an in-game, working economy that relies on currency. I could accept a barter economy - the armourers require resources with which to make armour and soldiers provide those resources - but a cash economy is an internal inconsistency that I couldn't get my head around.

/end rant

My trial period was spent running around, doing quests and exploring. TR looks good and it's instancing was seamless, but it all felt pretty hollow to me. As I said before, there was nothing to grab me.

What went wrong? In many respects, I think the control scheme works against the atmosphere of TR. For the way it handles, I feel that TR should actually be a much faster paced game. Maybe not high level FPS fast, but faster than it moves now. I understand that earlier versions of TR let you kill aliens more quickly, which probably would have made things a bit more exciting. As it stands, being a slower version of an FPS combat system (even with to-hit rolls done quietly on the server) means that combat can feel quite flat and gets repetitive quickly.

I admire what TR tried to do and it feels like its almost there. But at the same time, there's a lack of substance to it, a lack of synergy that would make the game feel fun and involving. Given that I would like to see NCsoft keep moving forward and supporting MMO development in new areas, I hope that TR finds its feet and starts to move forward. However, since TR is apparently lacking the nebulous 'It' factor that separates games from being just okay and being great, I don't know how they are going to do it.

hanshotfirst writes:

"What kind of Objectivist, Ayn Rand-inspired universe forces soldiers to BUY the weapons and ammo that they take into battle?"

Nail. Head. You hit it.

I was one of several making a huge stink over this during closed beta, but like so many things mentioned in game feedback, it just fell on deaf ears. Honestly, to this day I still don't have a clue why they even bothered with testing.

With each patch, it appeared TR had two, diametrically opposed development philosophies. One seemed eager to break with tradition and genuinely attempt to do something new and inspired. The other felt deeply entrenched in old, rigid conventions (like extensive time sinks, money sinks, etc.). I'll leave it to speculation which camp Garriott contributed to.

And speaking of Lord, err... General British, he seemed more preoccupied with tooting his own horn, hosting parties at his lavish mansion, and LARPA-inspired press junkets than the game itself.

My suspicion is after 6+ years and who knows how much capital investment, NCsoft started getting a bit antsy. Who can blame them?
Yet despite all that time and money, Tabula Rasa still felt like an IP that was hastily rushed to launch.

It's a darn shame. There were moments in early development that were really encouraging. The pacing was much faster. Large scale battles were exciting — particularly so when full XP and rewards were equally distributed among all participants, regardless of whether you were teamed or not ("kill stealing" was absolutely a non-issue). You could "clone" your character(s) whenever and as frequently as you wanted. There was also no appreciable death penalty, other than the hike back from your respawn point. Sure there were bugs and balance issues, but nothing that seemed insurmountable.

Then they started to pile on restrictions, money sinks, extraneous prerequisites and poorly implemented "crafting" — I presume to appeal to Garriott's more die-hard, Ultima fans. Meanwhile, the much promised rich storytelling and ethical parables never seemed to solidify. Again, it just felt like a jumble of conflicting design philosophies, with no consistent direction or vision.

From my perspective, Tabula Rasa is nothing more than Ultima VIII all over again.

Mon Mar 10 2008 7:01AM Report
Oyjord writes:

I'm not subbed to TR any more, so I'm no fanboi, but judging a game on less than 3 days of play is childish and stupid.  By spending just a few hours in game, all you're doing is trying to build evidence to substantiate your PREconceived notions about the game, to legitimize your clear bias to the game.

 

Sorry, but there are countless other better reviews out there than this one...from folks who actually took the time to see some of its content and mechanics.

Mon Mar 10 2008 12:24PM Report
BlindShooter writes:

Oh right because 'not being a fanboi' is enough of a excuse for you to be unresonable Oyjord. Go make assumptions to a mailbox please.

A trial is a way of sampling a game, if the game fails to deliver it in the trial, then it flat out fails. If a demo sucks, would you buy the game? That would be pretty silly to say the least.

 

Unsub, good post and seems to nail it in the head.

I always find it silly in-games where you are the savior or a soldier or something like that, and you must get your own ammo/basic gear. I mean... c'mon risking my life and people are trying to make profit out of it?

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that ego got in the way and is showing too much on TR.

Mon Mar 10 2008 2:38PM Report
zergwatch writes:

I agree with all you said. I played the beta for a few days and it was an overall dull and uninteresting dejavu.     You're right on with all of your points... especially the part where wackjob Garriot launches into outerspace while Rome is burning.

Mon Mar 10 2008 5:17PM Report
WiccanCircle writes:

I did prelaunch and the first month of box-play... then deleted as most people did.  This game was poor back when the battles were faster paced.  Now?  The only thing in the least bit interesting was the faster combat and the dev team in its rush to zero population removed that too.

One way to gauge a game is by the posts and comments.  This game goes days between posts because there is simply nothing to say and no way to correct its terminal flaws.  At least TR has faded off the radar fast enough that it wont taint the MMO market too badly.

Mon Mar 10 2008 10:02PM Report
UnSub writes:

Oyjord - the entire point of a trial is to encourage me to pay for the full game. If I can't find enough to grab me in the trial, why would I ever pay money so that I can evenutally find the fun? If the game gets fun after 5 days, why only have a 3 day trial?

If I really wanted to bash the game, I would have gone on about its lack of official forums, or the stupid unicorn helmet, or the fact that your lightining bolt is a better weapon than your gun, or a hundred other minor, petty things. But I'm just interested in playing the trial for 12 MMOs this year and see if any actually make me want to play them. TR didn't pass that test.

Tue Mar 11 2008 2:20AM Report
hanshotfirst writes:

Oyjord, I didn't see a single criticism in UnSub's analysis that couldn't be verified in "just a few hours" much less three days. What "bias" and/or "PREconceived notions" are you referring to? Are you refuting any of his claims?

You admitted yourself that you're no longer a subscriber. Care to enlighten us what's so great about a game you no longer see fit to pay for?

Tue Mar 11 2008 4:01AM Report
streea writes:

Wait, people are upset because *gasp* they have to buy ammo? And that you don't have to do so in the real world?

Game =/= real life people. Money isn't real in the game... it's generated at an unlimited amount and handed out to players. There is no government that has to sign bills and take the money from health insurance and schools to make sure you always have your bullets... it's just a program that creates the bullets and money out of thin air. They aren't trying to "rip you off while you're off saving the world." It's just a game mechanism. So is the monetary system. Sure you could say "well why not use a bartering system?" but even if you take out the money, it's still just money... except in a different form. And the game still creates it from thin air.

If you want to look at it from a realistic perspective though, it makes perfect sense. You're going out, killing things and getting money. You're working and getting paid for it. These NPCs however, with no government support that you know of, have to work to create these items so they can feed themselves. They'd die if they didn't charge you money. But because your work is more important than theirs, it's okay that they starve to death? Then where are you supposed to get your bullets?

Tue Mar 11 2008 9:37AM Report
hanshotfirst writes:

"Wait, people are upset because *gasp* they have to buy ammo? And that you don't have to do so in the real world?

Game =/= real life people."

By that token, why have ammo? Game =/= real life streea.

Oh wait, is this where you try to convince me that either:

a) running out of money in TR is simply impossible, or...
b) having to resort to farming grey-con'd mobs for credits with my rifle's butt-stock is fun?

Sorry. No sale.

It's the end of the world — literally — in Tabula Rasa. Having to "work" merely to AFFORD the "privilege" of having ammunition to stave off the extermination of the last survivors of the human race is beyond ludicrous. But hey, if you're such an Ayn Rand advocate (great reference, UnSub) to believe a "free market" economy (heck, ANY economy) would be practical, much less beneficial in such a scenario, you know where to spend your $15 a month. 

Wed Mar 12 2008 10:18AM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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