I followed a slender gray clad figure with a black beret down the hallway of the hotel. Spurs on his fancy stitched black cowboy boots jingled with each step. "Had to be" I thought. "Who else could this be but our charming, gregarious Mr. Garriott?" I called out. He turned. Indeed, it was.
Tabula Rasa is Latin for "blank slate", and hearkening back to the origins of the game, he asked if any of us were familiar with the game or had seen it previously. I was the only one that had seen it in its pink unicorn incarnation before the slate was wiped clean again for this futuristic shooter build.
This is Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa. It's an MMOG with tactical combat - not your point, acquire target and shoot with self-homing ammo, but targets were only acquired if you were actually "on target" with where you were pointing your weapon. Complete with back-story, world history, language and lore. "In most MMOs today," Richard told his audience of three, "stories are frankly irrelevant. In Tabula Rasa though, it is important to pay attention to the stories you are hearing; to the information you are getting." As he tells us, a player can and will receive contradictory information and to move forward in the storyline, he will have to make a decision, and decisions do matter.
"I believe in the Tolkien style of development. A story to be believable, a world that is immersive, will have to have a history, a language, a culture, a style."
In Tabula Rasa, Richard has created a series of worlds inhabited by the Bane - your adversaries and the Allied Forces, backed by the Eloh - your friendlies. He has also created the pictorial language of the Eloh that he simply called pictographs. "Players collect these pictographs and as they decipher the pictographs, they unlock abilities and skills."
In a 20 minute presentation that also included Q&A, Richard managed to cram in some salient points. He brought our attention the very sparse UI, showing only icons representing the right and left mouse buttons which were your weapon and skill respectively, quite unlike the hotkey bars of many current games.
"The lack of clutter allows players to concentrate on the action," explained Richard, "the design is deliberate. Instead, we impart a lot of information from the target ring. When you are being shot at or are shooting someone, the color tells you whether you are completely exposed or behind some cover." The graphic of your character being hit also shows you the direction of fire.
Players enter the arena of Tabula Rasa like they are dropping into an action movie. The battlefields of Tabula Rasa will be filled with NPCs - both friendlies as well as enemies battling each other. Each has a script and you are one among many. We were shown several different battles, mobs and mini-bosses. I asked about character leveling and experience and if there could be many players as well as friendlies attacking the same enemy. "Kill-stealing is not a factor that will be encountered with our experience sharing formula." Said Richard, and if it were, he assured us it would be taken care of.
One very interesting concept shown was the ability to "clone" your character. You start off as a recruit and make choices to specialize in one form of combat or other along your development. At any time along that path, you can basically save your character stats and "clone" it to a new character with new look, new gender if you so choose, and name. Therefore, if you wish to try another class or specialization, or simply wish to take a different route in the development of your character, you may, without having to restart from ground zero. You may not be able to do it with the exact same character, but you don't start from scratch again either. The number of "clones" available to a player has not yet been determined, but as of E3 2007, there were 16 slots available.
"Instanced spaces are a great way to provide detailed puzzle and storytelling arenas," said Richard, "as you progress along the story arc, you move from the open battlefield into these instances." This was designed to be a natural progression rather than the abrupt "gather outside then zone in" feel.
Another concept is that of "ethical parables" - the choices the game presents players in story arcs and quests. We were run quickly through the "Sacrificial Lamb" quest where we found at the end, that to keep an Eloh device powered up, someone had to be sacrificed, and the player has to make that choice. The goal, said Richard, was to provoke thought and contemplate the ramifications of those choices.
As we rapidly ran out of time, we were shown the home bases where you could equip your character, the medical tent where you respawned if you died; the crafting stations to create weapons and bombs. We also saw battlefield control points which players could attempt to take. If successful, it would turn from enemy controlled to friendly controlled points. As we watched, a player character created detonators then disabled the forcefield doorway of an enemy control point with it to enter it and "flip the switch" so to speak, turning the Bane control point to that of the Allied forces.
Tabula Rasa is currently in closed beta and with a launch date of Fall 2007, most of the content is already complete. It looks good. Really good.
Keep your eye on this space. More information is coming, and soon.