From AGC – Richard Garriott, aka "Lord British", discusses his new game
Richard Garriott is one of the few names in this industry that raises the profile of a game simply by being attached to it. He invented the Ultima series and was a key member of the team that created Ultima Online. Now with NCSoft, Richard serves as the Executive Producer on Destination Games’ Tabula Rasa.
Originally announced some time ago, the game underwent a marked shift just before E3 2005. Richard explained how it began with a rather trivial observation: everyone on the development team exclusively played female characters.
Why was this? Well, they discovered that as the game’s extremely far-fetched high fantasy style evolved, it became harder for male gamers to connect with their male avatars. Thus began a period where they tried to put a little more grit into the game; a process that would eventually completely redefine its setting.
Despite the marked shift in style from fantastic high fantasy to gritty alien vs. human doomsday, the ideals that inspired Tabula Rasa largely remain unchanged.
Instanced missions remain the foundation of the game. Originally, the game was to feature 100% instanced content, with one central staging area from which players jumped into missions. This is one of the few core areas that has evolved. Now, the team has added the concept of battlefields, which are common battle areas that then lead players into the instanced content.
One of Garriott’s biggest problems with MMORPGs is the way in which players interact with the content. The average game casts players as a hero, he said. Yet, players go out and find ‘bad guys’ who in reality are just minding their own business. It is quite contradictory. In Tabula Rasa, the battlefields address this problem.
These areas are more akin to a map in Battlefield 1942 then the average MMORPG level. “The Bane”, an NPC enemy faction, and players wage an eternal war over key points and goals in the various areas. Much like players are expected to capture control points in online FPS titles, the same is true in Tabula Rasa. The Bane attack players. They do not just spawn and wait for you to kill them.
This also addresses another issue of Garriott’s; that “avatar specialness was lost.” Players are encouraged to take part in frantic and meaningful – taking control points and completing other goals – combat.
The issue of player importance was one of the reasons instancing took such a grip in this space. In MMORPGs as compared to their traditional brothers, players were forced to be just like everyone else. They were no longer heroes. From here, instancing evolved to put players at the center of adventures. Yet, by being private and repetitive, another form of “specialness” – global impact – was lost.
Completing that mission can change the face of the battle for a time, and unlike an earlier design where one group completing a mission could change a battle until the wall was restored by the enemy, they have divided the wall into segments, which allows multiple groups to try and achieve that goal. The more who do it, the bigger the impact.
The missions themselves, aside from their larger impact, also provide some depth to the game.
“We’re using [instancing] to do the storytelling and puzzle solving,” said Garriott. The battlefields are hectic, dangerous places with arcade-feeling combat. In the missions, players can slow down and immerse themselves in a story as they try to achieve their goals in a variety of ways.
Combat in Tabula Rasa is quite unique. Like every MMORPG since Ultima Online, Garriott and his team are trying to solve the monotony of “target, click, wait” combat. In Tabula Rasa’s sci-fi universe, players control their characters more like an FPS. However, unlike an FPS where your skill at aiming determines your fate, players instead automatically lock onto enemies as they pass their gun over them. When they click to shoot a dice roll, much like any regular MMORPG, determines the chance to hit.
This achieves a feeling of fast past arcade combat, but retains the character progression and character-skill based approach players are accustomed to. This is not to say that player skill plays no role. Players determine their rate of fire in that they only shoot when they press the button, and they can also try to gain an advantage through good positioning and knowing their surroundings. For example, if I am half hidden behind a rock, there is a much smaller chance the enemy will hit me.
Tabula Rasa continues to march through production and occupies a niche that lost a challenger in Mythic’s Imperator only a few months before. The next generation of sci-fi games continues to be a weaker niche than fantasy, and with backers like NCSoft and the direction of Richard Garriott, Tabula Rasa has the potential to be a mainstay on the sci-fi MMORPG fan’s radar.
Thank you to Richard and NCSoft for taking the time to talk to us.