When Tabula Rasa (TR) launched slightly over a year ago, it was the jewel in NCsoft's North American operations' crown. Developed with an all-star line-up, figureheaded by the godfather of computer RPGs, a budget that could match WoW's and a raft of innovative features such as cloning and FPS-style combat not yet seen before in MMOs. At this point, TR is officially on life support, to be shut down in February 2009. When this happens, TR will have had a shelf life of a mere 16 months in a genre where titles can last a decade or more. Why?
The official reason is that supporting TR was just costing too much. Despite recent attention-grabbing promotions (hint: flying into space is a weak promotion for playing a video game) and PR statements touting proposed features, player numbers weren't large enough to justify TR's continued operation. According to NCsoft's own figures, TR was only budged to bring in US $16 million in 2008 (with an estimated player base of 88 000 active subscriptions) - a figure that, assuming no extra costs were ever incurred by TR (which it does through operation of about US $1 million per month), would still see it take about a decade to recoup its estimated US $100 million development budget (over three redesigns spanning 7 years). However, this isn't the whole story, since if there were more players TR wouldn't have been axed.
So, where were the players? Why hadn't TR captured more gamers? Personally I had only trialled the game for 3 days (and I was wrong - NCsoft DID cancel TR within twelve months of my review!) but my experiences appeared to match up with those of other players - TR lacked the factors to keep people hooked. Although TR didn't do anything badly wrong, there were enough problems for it to be death by a thousand cuts, while TR's strengths weren't enough to let people overlook its weaknesses.
As so many models have found, appearing in Playboy doesn't necessarily help your career.
Although it is nice to be perscriptive in why a game failed so that people can avoid the problems in the future (i.e. did the world economic crisis, Lord General British and the law of low success rates for new games really team up to kill TR? Short answer: no.), the reality is that TR lacked the X factor that makes people really want to play them. Its strengths were outshone by its competitors; its weaknesses were small, niggling things that got to players in a myriad of different ways. With nothing important or differentiating to hold onto, it isn't surprising that players drifted away.
Although there are groups of players out there trying to save TR, or the idea that if SOE can keep under-populated titles alive why can't NCsoft or even that some ROI is better than no ROI at all, these ideas miss the bigger picture. NCsoft gave every chance in the world to TR and it still couldn't recover. SOE works under a different business model - having cheap MMOs on life support that any one of their Station Pass subscribers can play - to NCsoft, so it isn't something that can be just tacked on, especially for the king's ransom that TR cost. NCsoft is looking at more than 10 years at current subscriber rates / income to even break even on TR, assuming everything remains constant. It wasn't working. It isn't going to work unless 200 000 players were to suddenly subscribe to TR, and that isn't going to happen. NCsoft won't sell TR because they don't want to create another competitor, especially another competitor that only had to pay cents in the dollar to get hold of a large albeit damaged brand / game in the MMO category.
So, February 2009 is the end for TR. If there is a lesson to be taken away from its closure, it has to be 'focus of purpose'. TR ended up being a watered down version of a few different things that meant it had no real strengths - combat was too slow for FPS / action players, crafting was a poorly thought-out side system, there wasn't enough longevity for MMO players and PvP was extremely limited. If the devs had picked two of these - say, action-based combat and PvP - and polished them til they shone, TR would have likely had a very different life. As it was, TR tried to walk the middle ground with every step and only ended up being wiped clean from player hard drives soon after purchase.