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E3 2006 Preview

Dana Massey Posted:
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Starr Long spills the goods on PvP, consoles and much more

One of our writers jokingly suggested that we award Tabula Rasa the “most times at E3” award. It is no secret that this NCSoft product has gone through a series of trials, redesigns, staffs and visual overhauls during it’s development cycle. Now, with a hardcore action RPG design, it finally seems as if Tabula Rasa is a reality.

Starr Long, the longtime right-hand man of Richard Garriott and Producer of Tabula Rasa, met with us to talk about player vs. player combat, the development of the game and more.

Tabula Rasa is a futuristic action MMORPG where players fight NPC enemies for control of planets. The game combines FPS and RPG mechanics seamlessly. At this stage, the team is all but done with the first planet Foreas. They’ve also begun on their second planet, a more hellish environment named Arieki.

“[We’re] a good chunk into the advancement tree,” adds Long. For launch, they plan to have seven classes. At this stage, Long estimates they’re 1/3rd of the way through. He also noted that half their planned creatures had been built. Before launch, they need to complete the other 2/3rds of the skill tree, half the monsters and the second and third planet. So when will Tabula Rasa really launch?

“When we’re ready,” Long told us, not unaware of the cliché. Despite the long road ahead, Long seemed excited. The game had, for them, finally reached a point where what they had so far was fun. This is a point every development reaches and re-energizing for the people who have labored for years on a project.

Tabula Rasa’s defining feature is it’s combat.

“There are some real time factors, but at its heart it is an RPG,” explained Long, as we sat across from each other during a private meeting in their Concourse Hall meeting rooms.

The game uses a console style FPS attack system where characters can quickly lock on targets and fire their weapons. There is no missing in the game when locked on – it’s simply not fun according to Long – but the damage you do is based mostly on character and enemy skill. The FPS elements have to do with positioning. For example, if you’re character crouches half behind a rock, there is much less chance you’ll get hurt.

Long joked that they knew they were on to something when Robert Garriott - the President of NCSoft North America and older brother to Richard Garriott – who is notoriously bad at FPS games, said he had no problem with Tabula Rasa. The key is that they provide the illusion, excitement and pace of an FPS, without making the game twitchy and entirely reliant on player skill.

“A lot of the time, if you do not tell people this is an RPG, they think it’s a shooter,” he added.

Another core feature is their desire to make players think. Most monsters in the game are a puzzle. You cannot just fire on them blankly until they die. In Tabula Rasa, players are in a war with The Bane. This NPC controlled enemy wages battle against the players across the three planets.

However, they do not attack blindly. They come in groups and play roles. Examples include caretakers (healers) and shield drones. If you come across a large group of Bane, you need to take out the caretakers or they’ll keep healing and rezing your opponents. If you find your attacks are not getting through, perhaps there is a shield drone to fight. This ties into the personal puzzles, such as the flying ship you need to hit with a rocket from behind, and the multiple paths to victory concept in their instanced missions.

Now for what you’ve all been waiting for from the lead: player vs. player combat.

“One of the things playing the game… it begged for PvP,” Long explained, before adding the caveat that the entire system is entirely on paper at this stage and it remains to be seen if it will work in practice as it does in theory.

All PvP in Tabula Rasa will be consensual.

Like any good FPS, players can form into clans (or guilds). These clans have the ability to declare war on other player clans. If accepted, the leaders negotiate terms. This includes the levels of those involved and the overarching goals of the battle (such as a number of enemies that must be killed, etc.).

To make it more interesting, they’re also considering allowing players to wager their guild bonus, temporarily. Guild bonuses are something guilds earn and develop. It is a guild-wide stat bonus to all members. If Long has his way, guilds could lose their bonus to their enemy for a time if they come out on the wrong side of a war.

Other forms of PvP include the more typical arenas, duels, etc.

Tabula Rasa will also have crafting, but it will be 100% combat oriented. For example, players can harvest ore from rocks, but only to build weapons and armor. Three ways of gathering material are mining, organic harvest and salvage. The later two are gathering from monster remains.

At this time, Destination Games has no plans to add player housing, nor should you expect player vehicles for the initial launch. There is also no plan for space travel or combat. At it’s core, Tabula Rasa is a land-based sci-fi combat game and players can expect it to remain that way.

One hot topic in MMOs is kill stealing. This is the original reason for instancing. Tabula Rasa turns this concept on its ear by introducing a world where all players must cooperate to fight off a single NPC enemy. Thus, you can expect a lot of random people to join into battles. Long assures us that they have mechanics to work out to make sure everyone gets their fair share of the loot and experience.

As the interview came to an end, all the talk of console style FPS mechanics made me wonder: why not have Tabula Rasa on a console?

Long acknowledged that they’re in negotiations with consoles, but that they are not actively developing anything on that front at this time. “But we all want to,” he added.

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Dana Massey