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PAX - A Look at TR

Carolyn Koh Posted:
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PAX - A Look at Tabula Rasa

At Penny Arcade Expo, MMORPG.com's Carolyn Koh spoke with Neal Johnson, Lead QA Tester of Tabula Rasa to talk about the game and how the developers have been working to improve it since launch.

Despite recent layoffs at NCSoft Austin and rumors that it would be handed over to ArenaNet, Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa was one of the games showcased by NCSoft at PAX 2008 and highlighted in the presentation of their games. Development seems to be continuing as "business as usual" for Tabula Rasa, without anyone confirming or debunking the rumor.

The release of Deployment #11 (Tabula Rasa's version of game updates) which included a free 7-day trial and the launch of Operation Immortality has brought in new players to the game. Operation Immortality is Richard Garriott's effort to collect and archive the best of what humanity is and has accomplished. He will do this by taking digitized DNA, an archive of humanity's greatest achievements, messages from people all over the world and character profiles of Tabula Rasa characters with him on his trip to the International Space Station in October of this year.

In conjunction with this project, Tabula Rasa has added a lot of related content; including fictional back-story featuring Richard Garriott's space flight and subsequent discovery of a wormhole and a new mission named "Time Capsule." Fans attending PAX were invited to leave their own messages on the Operation Immortality website and submit lucky draw coupons to join celebrities such as Olympic Gold medalist Scott Johnson, Author Tracy Hickman of Dragonlance fame and American Gladiator Matt Morgan in sending their digitized DNA into space with Garriott.

Also highlighted during the presentation was the new content that had recently been deployed into Tabula Rasa; the new Boot Camp (new player tutorial), Hybrids (new playable characters) and Military Surplus (the marketplace). To find out more, I spoke to Neal Johnson, Lead QA Tester for a deeper look into today's Tabula Rasa.

"We didn't have the best launch," admitted Neal, "but we're working hard to make Tabula Rasa into a great game."

That was the entire tone of the interview, the message was, "Come back and take a second look at Tabula Rasa." I have to agree that Tabula Rasa was the first in a different kind of MMOG. It is an FPS-MMOG with two different UI modes to accommodate the FPS player and the MMOG player who were familiar with different keyboard / mouse setups.

Since launch, monthly updates have provided new instances, new PvP maps, end game content and set gear - many improvements and new content that the player base has asked for. Apart from that, the game itself has been improved and made more user friendly.

So what has been changed or enhanced? Neal had a full laundry list to impart, the most important being the new tutorial:

"We've redone the entire front end of the game," he said. The new player tutorial wasn't doing its job to impart to new players all the skills they needed or teach players to play the game adequately. For this hybrid FPS-MMO game, a good tutorial is critical. That is also where the hook lies for any game, the new player experience.

"Our metrics showed that the game was just too hard," said Neal. "Many players were leaving before level 5."

Quite an admission from any developer, and what resulted is the new Boot Camp and a 7-day free trial. During this trial, players are not restricted in any way. No trading, level or area restrictions. With no artificial constraints, players get a taste of what the game is like just like they were a subscriber.

The UI has been enhanced and visual cues strengthened and made more intuitive, making the game friendlier. Tooltips have been improved. They've even taken a look at all of the abilities in the game and have examined the unpopular abilities to find out why they were not being used. These were then tweaked to make them more useful to players.

"We've performed many player usability tests and continue to do so in-house with internal testers as well as pulling in family, friends and friends of friends, many who do not play MMOGs," said Neal. "We've added a lot of voice work into the game to make the experience more immersive, and we've used the voice actors to help us in the usability tests."

Tabula Rasa does have a community of hard-core players, gamers who love the game and the re-playability available because of the cloning process. For those unfamiliar with this game feature, players can "clone" their characters at various points in their development so that they can go back and play those characters at that particular point, and take on different abilities and skills. If cloned at key stages, there's no need to replay, say... levels 1 - 10 or 1 - 20, etc. Just go back to that particular clone and play it from there.

"We have not raised level caps," said Neal, "but we have provided more end game content for those players and many of them continue replaying their clones to enjoy new lower level content as well." One of these features is the Prestiege system which rewards players with points that are then used to purchase Prestige gear. Launched in April, it will feature strongly in how Clan owned control points will function. A feature that many players look forward to and which is still being worked on.

To illustrate the strength of their community, Neal described a recent event that players put on in conjunction with the Summer Olympic Games, the TR Olympics, "It was set up and totally run by the players."

The Tabula Rasa team thought it was such a great idea that they supported the players through publicity of the event and gave out prizes to the winners. Held on the public test server, what started as a small event with three competitions eventually evolved to a full Olympics that lasted as long as the 2008 Summer Olympics themselves and included PvE and PvP events such as Shooting, King of the Hill, Soccer and Swimming.

For a rumored dead property, Tabula Rasa seems to be pretty much alive and kicking from what I saw at PAX, and with a 7-day free trial boasting no credit card required, this might be the time to give this game a second play.


Carolyn Koh

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn Koh has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.