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Preview, Part One (Panel)

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GDC Panel: Designing Tabula Rasa

In the first part of our two part preview, we cover Richard Garriott's GDC talk

On Thursday morning at GDC, Richard Garriott gave a seminar about the history and future of Tabula Rasa. The seminar was one of the more popular. Richard is a legend in the MMO community so it was great to hear the struggles and triumphs the team on Tabula Rasa has gone through. Part two of this article will focus on the sit down interview I did with Richard after the seminar.

One of the main points that Tabula Rasa is trying to give individuals is the special feeling you get from solo player games. Rich’s point that MMOs are simply about numbers of players takes away from a persons individual experience. The other important element that Tabula Rasa is trying to implement is a system where both Asian and western players can join the same game with very few barriers in language or culture.

Richard listed out the fundamental flaws in every MMO on the market. The first being that level grinding is your life. The constant grind to push through experience points and gain that next rank has taken over the MMO mindset. The next is farming monsters or encounters in a static environment. Worlds never change and grow with their players. Because of this players do not get a feeling of purpose or success. The game almost takes on a mindless state at some point. Lastly, the point was made that there is no sense of urgency or world impact. These hold true for many MMOs on today’s market. I think many people will agree with Richard on these issues.

After the success of Ultima Online, Richard and his crew set out to join up with the Korean team who had produced Lineage. The minds behind these two games really expected to extend MMOs onto a new horizon. The game began development in 2001 with teams from both Korea and the U.S. One of the biggest problems that the company faced was having too many cooks in the pot. Another issue that was addressed was the language and cultural barrier that the developers had when creating the game. These were also followed up with a vision of the game that did not take feedback seriously. Once all these business decisions started to fail the company began to compromise on a lot of elements. Technical aspects, artwork, were lowered to fit the plan the developers were going for. These types of decisions led to a major change in the game.

From a game set up perspective the developers went for a totally different feel. They did not want a sci-fi or fantasy game but a new kind of world for players to explore. There was a very futuristic martial arts feels to the game. The layout and character design did not give the players the types of heroes that would be popular in main stream markets. Things like clothing and weapons were too unfamiliar to the regular gaming crowd. They went with a no guns, no swords approach to the game. Unfortunately this style of game did not go well with the people involved with the project. Again a change was needed from both a design and business point of view.

In 2004 the game was given a huge reboot, as Richard called it. Much of the staff was let go and new artists, developers, and technical people were brought in for the revamp. The game story was shifted to a much more futuristic compelling story that players could understand. Players now had a more battlefield type setting to explore but the goals of characters were kept similar. Richard is certainly one for story, especially giving players an individual story in an MMO even with millions of other people online. This sci-fi setting became much more interesting for the staff and everyone got the concept. To break away from the standard MMO the game was planned with thirty minute play cycles packed with excitement. The question was asked, what are awe inspiring game play moments? Developers came up with several answers and added ideas to give players something to strive for each night they sat down to play. The company began listening to feedback and the changes started to work for the better.

Richard was very happy to point out the language concept that would help players from different areas learn a single game language that was designed for players. The symbols Tabula Rasa is using for signs and language is very simple and easy to read. Basic human concepts were taken into account and given symbols to explain them. For example an hour glass shows time, a small stick figure is one person, two figures are many. These may sound very simple in this article, but there were many variations on words that all languages use to bring everyone together. There is a picture of the symbolic language from the convention that was shown on a huge screen during the presentation. If you look closely at that you will get a better feel for how the symbols will play a major part in the game. Richard did state that you do not have to learn an entire new language to play Tabula Rasa, you can just go about things on your own. Those who take the time to study the symbols and learn a little more about them will uncover various puzzles and certainly learn more about the story.

The final statement on where Tabula Rasa resides from Richard was simply, “very late, but hopefully great!” This seminar was certainly a lesson to all game designers on what to do and what not to do when building a game. With all its ups and downs, the team of Tabula Rasa really seemed to have taken the lessons they learn in designing the game and put them into the game itself to make it better. The key elements that Richard and the staff remain true to are story line, giving players a more individual feel to the game even though it is an MMO, and most of all creating a symbolic language that can bridge our own language system here in the real world. It just shows that games are not very different than what goes on in the world today and the two sides can certainly work together.

Remember to check back tomorrow for the second half of our look at Tabula Rasa.

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