Recently, I traveled to Austin, Texas to visit the NCSoft offices and to take a look at the upcoming MMORPG, Richard Garriot's Tabula Rasa. During my stay I got to talk with Garriott about the new game, as well as sample it for myself!
Speaking With Garriott
Tabula Rasa is so named for the blank Logos tablets that players start with, but the name also fits Garriott's approach to the game's design. He feels that our industry has entered a status of stagnation: MMOs today all base their foundations off of UO and EQ. In making Tabula Rasa, Garriott's goal has been to rethink the genre completely, and to start with a blank slate (the English translation of the title).
Garriott feels that TR offers players new approach to MMO gaming, and he highlighted five ways that it does so:
Combat: Garriott described the average MMO combat system as a more technical version of whack-a-mole: you autoattack, watch your UI, calculate what combination of skills produces the most DPS - rinse and you repeat.
Tabula Rasa's combat system is fast paced and tactical - there is no mindless clicking of the same skill, no autoattack, and no massive collection of hotbars to clutter up your screen. In fact, Garriott's description made the game sound like a hybrid MMO/FPS, but the sticky targeting and target lock options eliminate the need for perfect aim or bunny hopping.
Tabula Rasa also brings the environment into the equation. For example, if you crouch down behind a sandbag wall, your enemy is less likely to hit you. Distance, cover, and position all play a part in the die roll.
Battlefields: The traditional MMO map, according to Garriott: players visit level one towns, which send them on level one missions, to level one areas where they get level 1 gear. The area is always the same; even if you kill one bandit, you can wait ten minutes and watch him reappear in the same spot.
In Tabula Rasa, the battlegrounds and even the towns, will change based on enemy AI. Enemies are able to take over towns, as are the friendly human NPCs; a player might head to a familiar outpost to finish up a quest, only to find it under enemy control. To finish their quest, the player will have to help other players and NPCs take the area back over. In fact, some NPCs will give missions to help take over a new base, or to reclaim human ground!
Instances: Most MMOs use instances as private dungeon crawls - maybe capped with a raid or boss target at the end. "We think that dramatically under utilizes instances," says Garriott.
The TR team plans to use instances to allow for more detailed storytelling. Garriott described it further by referencing the single player world: in single player games, the player is always the hero, and the center of the story. In the MMO universe we spend time killing rats, and all the other level 5 warriors are killing rats right next to us; we are, as Garriott put it, "rather average". The Tabula Rasa instances will offer players changing situations, and the ability to influence their areas. Players will be able to rescue NPCs, blow up fuel tanks, etc.
Ethical Parables: Starting with Ultima IV, Garriott's games have always held an extra complexity for players: the presence of ethical choices and the need for decision making. When you tell stories that are relevant to contemporary issues, says Garriott, it resonates with users.
Missions in TR have multiple outcomes exclusive to each other. For example, one mission you receive is to smuggle drugs to soldiers in the field. You can take the drugs to the soldiers for a large cash reward, or turn the smuggler in to his superiors.
Class Tree, Loading Zoning, and Saving: One of the first decisions you make in an MMO is your class - if you want to sample a different class, or don't know what class you want to be, you need to start over at level one. From a development standpoint, each time a player starts over, that's an opportunity for them to start over in a different game.
This also limits players content-wise. A player who doesn't want to play multiple characters will never see the content created for other classes.
In Tabula Rasa, all players start as Recruits. At levels 5, 15, and 30 you can specialize into various class trees, from Spy to Engineer. Along the way, you can create "clones" of your character - perfect copies of skills, quests, and logos found (but not gear!). Each clone shares a similar last name but has a unique first name.
The World, The Enemies, and The Language
After explaining the broad topics of Tabula Rasa, Garriott told us a bit about the world he and his team have built. Tabula Rasa is currently based on two planets, Foreas and Arieki, though a third world is planned. On these worlds you will fight the Thrax, while collecting hidden clues and logos, or symbols, left behind by the Eloh. More on the Eloh, later!
Garriott talked us through some of the enemies that players would meet, and the diverse strategies that will be needed to face them. Each enemy takes a different method of battle; for example, shield drones project force fields, so you have to get in close to attack them, while Juggernauts hit hard but take a long time to turn, so you need to be constantly working your way behind them.
Some enemies carry multiple weapons; one of the most formidable targets, the Stalkers, have a main turret as well as a plasma bomb drop: every 2 to 3 minutes they drop a plasma bomb that kills everything in the area. Players can tell that these plasma bombs are coming by watching visual cues on the Stalkers.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game that Garriott shared - in my admittedly nerdy opinion - was Tabula Rasa's language of Logos.
Through gameplay and questing, players will be able to find Logos, or symbols, left by the peaceful Eloh. These Logos serve multiple purposes: they are a fully functional pictogram language, for one thing! The Logos are used as keys to gain access to instances, and to unlock new skills. One of the early skills that players will receive as a recruit, Lightning, requires the user to have the "damage" Logos. Check out http://www.playtr.com/community/contests_02.html for a contest to decode some of the Logos language.
Hands On- Playtime
After talking with Garriot, it was time to sit down and try Tabula Rasa for myself. Starting off as a raw Recruit, the game was action packed and I felt driven through the instanced starting area - a little too action driven, maybe, as I felt like I didn't have time to really read the quest dialogue.
The controls did feel a lot like playing an FPS, but without worrying about bunny hopping or too much aim. The target reticule "sticks" onto your target as long as you keep it mostly centered; you can "lock" it in place with the TAB key, too, and you won't lose your target as long as they are on your screen.
I spent most of my time watching my screen, and not my UI. Toggling through skills and weapons is easily done with number keys or the Q/E - and quite frankly, you have to watch your screen. I was constantly dodging melee boargars, switching between EMP and laser damage for mech vs live enemies, and figuring out strategies to handle other enemies.
At my first class transfer point, I chose the Solider class, picking up new armor and weapon abilities, as well as the Shrapnel ability (once I unlocked the corresponding Logos). While there aren't many active abilities in Tabula Rasa, I noticed that most of the high level players were still using their original Lighting ability - as you progress, you can train in skills, and they never really outdate.
The quests are fairly varied, but at this point they didn't give me much direction, so I set off exploring the game world. The fast pace of the game and the longer quest dialogues just didn't mesh very well, and I ended up sacrificing story and immersion for speed. My travels though, were interesting: the landscape was a mix of battle-scarred deadlands and alien vegetation; Treebacks and other harmless creatures were a nice touch. Travel in general is very well done; while players must hoof it to new locations, once you've reached a new outpost you can step on the teleport pad and return to any past outposts you have visited.
I made my way to a level 15 area - at this point, I was only level 6. Refreshingly, TR rewards good strategy and cautious gameplay and I was able to hold my own. I encountered a few outposts under attack and helped defend them, but I never actually saw an outpost change hands.
Thoughts on the Game
My initial explorations of Tabula Rasa have definitely piqued my interest; the gameplay was strategic and engaging, the land was refreshing after so many MMO worlds full of castles and pretty forests. Higher end gameplay - namely, the outpost battles - intrigues me... Garriott even alluded to possible future plans of player-owned outposts and PvP, but not at launch.
I am not sure that Tabula Rasa is able to hold my interest yet. The fast-paced tutorial area set a precedent of ignoring mission text, and this lost me a lot of immersion and interest in the story. We will have to wait and see as the game comes nearer to launch.