Tabula Rasa: Not Slated

By Kieron Gillen on November 22nd, 2007 at 9:11 pm.

Must... defeat... beta... impressions.

The lovely chaps over at C&VG have placed my Gamer review of Tabula Rasa on an info-podium for the assembled hordes of the electric internet to gawk at. Join them! In it, I find myself surprised to find myself saying things like…

Open betas are awesome things; you get to play a game for free. Open betas are terrible things; the game you get to play may not be awesome, at least yet. When I played the Tabula Rasa beta, I found myself charmed by some of it, but with a mass of worries. Now it’s released, it’s probably my favourite persistent-world MMO since City of Heroes.

Loads more about Betas, MMOs in 2007 and Tabula Rasa beneath the cut.

As I note in the piece, it’s my favourite MMO of the year. Which, of course, isn’t saying much. As the seasonal-round-ups creep towards us, the topic “is this the best year ever for games?” has turned up an impressive amount of times, but that general surfeit of excellence doesn’t mean that all tastes are equally catered for. The two obvious exceptions are the MMO and the Western RPG, neither who have managed a game which reaches beyond their heartland.

(I liked Lord of the Rings Online, but found it a little uninspired and terribly cynical. While my review isn’t online, that people always end up talking about is the music system where you can actually play says a lot. And the trad RPG has managed The Witcher and a decent add-on for NWN2, neither of which are genuine break-out must-haves. Which may be a pity, for fans especially, but doesn’t really change that it’s true.)

But Tabula Rasa, I like. When I first talked to Garriott about it, I was aware that it certainly had the potential to be interesting. When I played the Beta, like many others, I was worried it was going to be this year’s Daikatana (i.e. A game which reduces a once legendary figure reduced to laughing stock, and fuck how important the work they once did was. Us gamers are short-memoried fucks sometimes, y’know.). Worried, but not quite convinced – while nowhere near as revolutionary as it was hyped (I mean, what is?) where it was trying to push was the areas in the MMO which annoy me most.

Mainly, any lack of an attempt to do something with atmosphere. In most MMOs I feel less like a warrior than a literal farmer, cutting down vaguely ambulatory wheat to turn into XP-bread or whatever. Previous favourite City of Heroes, just by having more imaginative idle animations – muggers robbing, villains scheming, whatever – created a sense of place which I love and still love (City of Heroes remains the MMO where I have most fun just moving around). Tabula tried to make a warzone, having friendly and hostile AI at each others throats constantly. Rather than simply spawning, a drop-ship bringing in fresh troops makes it all a little sexier, makes it hold together…

Well, abstractly, anyway. It didn’t work in the Beta, and word of mouth was bad. I merely thought it bland, and expected a mark in that 60%y range.

Except, come release, it’s actually good. I stopped playing in mid-Beta, but talking to people on Qt3 who were in it even in late Beta are noting how more fun it seems. Bar an increase of polish, the main change is a simple one – they turned the dial way to the right in terms of opponents and rewards. While loot isn’t the game’s strong point, you get a lot more cash to spend than when I played it. Similarly, there’s just many, many more opponents to shoot – and you can deal with them. While most MMOs thing you versus a couple of people sounds about right, in Tabula, you’re dealing with mobs single-handedly. Since there seems to be more people you’re dealing with, the skill factor ups, and your positioning is essential and so on and so forth. Along with the atmosphere, it actively reminded me of the early days of City of Heroes, when it was more than a little unbalanced – but unbalanced in an amusing way where you could BE a bit of a hero.

I like the PvE. I like the worlds, and how they kind of feel like one if you squint and how you seem to be fighting for something other than just those experience points. I like how the exploration, no matter how artificially set up, works. I think the ethical parables don’t really do anything, but I like to see them trying. I like the fact that to shoot a non-automatic weapon, you have to press the mouse button rather than hold it down (Hellgate felt like hoses of death +3, by comparison). I even like dying my armour hot pink.

So I write a positive review. I say I like it.

Who the fuck’s going to believe me?

By having an Open Beta, anyone who cares about MMOs will have already played it. And when they compare their experience to a reviewer, they tap the side of the head knowingly. Because they’ve played it, and it was a bit nob. Look at the comments thread for Eurogamer’s positive review for some evidence.

And I don’t blame them at all.

They have played it and to overrule their own experiences due to what some English bloke with an ill-advised beard says would be insane. Now, while every developer says that Betas aren’t the finished product and shouldn’t be judged as such, they’ve increasingly found themselves used primarily as a marketing tool. And normally, that’s fine. Good games get a bit of extra hype. Ones which are in clear trouble have word of mouth give people the nod and everyone backs away, murmuring.

(As an aside, worth noting that it isn’t to say that anyone who hates Tabula Rasa is doing so just because the Beta’s underwhelming nature. Games rub people up the wrong way. I just mean that there’d be far less of them.)

But Tabula Rasa turned out pretty neat and now it’s got a large number of people who’ve played the game who’ll roll their eyes at its existence if mentioned. There’s a battle there for the developers (and their marketing bods) and I sincerely hope they manage to pull it off. In a best case scenario, there’ll be a proper free-trial in the relatively near future, and people who were turned away from the Beta will notice there’s a surprising number of people like yours truly claiming that – hey! – it’s cute, and decide to give it a second shot. But the worst case? A decent game just fails, primarily due to an ill-chosen Beta test.

In which case, Tabula Rasa becomes a cautionary tale, but not for the reason people were expecting.

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25 Comments »

  1. drunkymonkey says:

    I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t do well. While I’m not interested much in it, it’s got some damn good ideas, and Garriott is the man. I’m just too busy with WoW to play another MMO.

    It doesn’t help I suppose that Yahtzee slated it too.

  2. dartt says:

    It sounds like the beta did exactly what it was supposed to in terms of QA, they looked at the feedback they got from the players and made the game better with it.

    It’s just a shame that the people involved in that process will only see the BEFORE and not the AFTER (after seeing the before :) ).

  3. schizoslayer says:

    That would largely be because to see the AFTER you have to pay money. Everything I’ve heard says there is no free trial which I still believe to be an absolute requirement for a sub based MMO. You can’t just give it a go. You have to commit up front and that sucks.

  4. Bozzley says:

    What annoys me is that, while I loved the beta content, I was suprised by how quiet it was on any server I went on. For me , personally, IMHO etc lolz wtf, the other people in the game make the game. Tabula Rasa was the first MMO beta I’d participated in, and no-one talked. I’d ask a question, and I’d more often than not wait for an answer that would never arrive. Seemed like everyone was hellbent on getting to the level caps for the available clones. And to be perfectly frank, this upset me a bit. I loved the content and the gameplay a ton, but feeling like finding a like-minded group of people to play alongside would be an uphill struggle, I left it alone. Eventually, I crept back to WoW.

    Thanks to Kieron’s review, I’ll undoubtedly give TB a go again once the player base has built up a bit, and I haven’t even touched on the fact that it’s a perfectly decent game when soloing. For me though, I want a nice and open community first. If I want to play a single player game, I’ve got a stack to get through at any time. I like the MMO part of my MMORPGs.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Schizo: Exactly. Actually there is a kind of trial – players can invite another person to have a free three days with the game or something similar. But it’s not the open one which it requires, in my opinion.

    Bozzley: One thing I was going to mention is that the fact that there’s only one server in Europe means that the population is really quite high constantly (There were WoW-esque queues to get on the server occasionally in the first week or so). It meant that anyone running the instances pretty much found a team by just asking on the LFG channel. Just checked now, and at 12:30am, it’s low. Which isn’t that surprising, to be honest.

    KG

  6. Hump says:

    It’s interesting you brought this up because I see the same exact issue happening with the Frontlines: Fuel of War beta.

    99% of Fileplanet’s “betas” are simply, as you said, marketing bait. Kaos Studios seems to have made a mistake to think that the same environment would be a good place to hold an actual beta that requires patience, maturity and regular reporting/participation (it’s a “true beta” as Frank Delise stated). Because of the state of the MP beta, most game sites who have written pieces on the game are now accompanied with reader commentary that is almost all negative. Most comments are from beta participants or those who have heard about the game second hand from friends who had less than optimal experiences in said beta. Of course NDA’s mean nothing to most of these types so the game is now having to fight negative word-of-mouth. Something no game should have to deal with this many months before release.

    Oh, and despite what anyone else says, Tabula Rasa is the shit.

  7. Cruz says:

    Think ‘friends and family’ type betas would alleviate some of the problem? Part of my problem during the TR beta was the fact that I didn’t have anyone from my guild with me. We are an anti-social bunch who don’t trust going outside of our circle, so the experience of the beta suffered. I don’t play MMORPGs to solo. When I went back and spoke of the game to my guild, I didn’t exactly give it a glowing review, and now my guild remains homeless in a post-WoW landscape.

  8. MindBrain says:

    Man I really wanna try Tabula Rasa, but how can I pay 50 bucks up front, and then 15 more each month I play?? Come on, they should really do away with that, just charge 15 bucks a month to play, maybe 20 bucks for the first month.

  9. Johno says:

    Before playing the beta and reading your previews I was looking forward to TR but after playing the beta I did feel it was missable. In betas they just need to hammer it home much more that this is not the final product and substantial changes will happen by release time. Hell put that message up on the screen at all times if it helps, the Halo 3 beta had something similar.

    After the positive reviews I’d be happy to give it another try if they offer a free trial as you suggest.

  10. Oasx says:

    Don’t the free trials usually come later in an MMO’s life? i dont recall a game ever having it right away. There Are 3 days trials that subscribers can give away though, so if anyone is really interested i can send one or two

  11. darkripper says:

    Two things:
    first, I must say that the game still feels rough. Some zones have serious lag issues, the euro server is crowded, and there are a lot of quest bugged or with poor descriptions. Also, I’m seriously annoyed by the maps of the game (I hope someone less lazy than me have actually wrote a line or two to the devs about them). More than with other games you gotta really feel inside the game to not care about this problems.

    Second, good news: the auction house is on the testserver, with a lot of other improvements and fixes. I still think the economic system will not be very interesting (just remember you can simply create a crafting clone at level 50) and the only resources will be recipes.

    I’m still uncertain, but even if I’ll not renew subscription after the 30 days I will still remember the game as good fun.

    And, guys, a marketing beta was an NcSoft idea: if you want serious work and bugfixing from your players you don’t give up serials on Gamespot and Eurogamer.

  12. drunkymonkey says:

    Your last point was a damn good one Ripper, although that’s where I got my key from!

    Did it even get put up at the usual beta-testing sites, or…?

  13. darkripper says:

    Well, I don’t think we’ll see a Warhammer Online public beta anytime soon. Mythic is picking their beta players from big clans and the fanbase. That makes sense to me. A beta shouldn’t win the hearts of gamers, should be actually used to fix problems and give feedback to the developers. And then, when the game is almost finished you can open it to everyone (or anyone fast enough to grab the code). At the time of the launch of the beta, TR felt a lot like a work in progress. For example the bane didn’t attacked the control points…

    So I guess it’s a critical decision when to open a game to everyone. Funny thing, they already knew it, because of the AutoAssault trainwreck. I guess some people never learn.

  14. drunkymonkey says:

    I’ve been signed up for the beta for WH:O for I don’t know how long, and never gotten through to playing the damn game. I do agree that betas shouldn’t be glamorous affairs (I think the likes of Halo 3 and COD4 have really brought forward this idea of public betas that I’m not ultimately sure are at all healthy), and certainly for Hellgate: London the vast majority of the posts on the beta forums were nonsensical and devoid of coherent feedback, which was a shame. It has to be said though that there were a few threads of excellent insight into the workings of the game and how they could be improved upon, and although I came from Eurogamer I tried to be as helpful as I could. I couldn’t say how useful the beta was to Flagship, but I’m willing to bet that it took a lot of cutting to get to the real stuff of worth.

    If it was an invite-only basis, or through sites that specialize in this sort of thing, then I can see betas as being extremely helpful to the developers. Having actual applications would doubtless take a lot of time, but evaluating the strengths of testers based on their prior experience, politeness and sensibility sounds like it could really help developers make the last-ditch changes to the games before they’re sent out to be picked apart by reviewers and the gaming public as a whole.

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    Darkripper: Agree entirely that the game is far from perfect and that the Beta situation is completely NCSoft’s fault.

    KG

  16. Greg says:

    I did the same as the poster, I played half-way through the beta and then quit because it just wasn’t up to scratch. But this wasn’t before I had put in a pre-order at Amazon.

    So when the game turned up, obviously I played it, hell I payed for 30 days so I was going to play 30 days! I was pleasantly surprised, whatever it was that made the beta feel wrong and dissapointing had changed. The game is good fun, really good fun, what-da-ya know!

    There is room for improvement and there is room for new additions and content. To put it in my wife’s words (who is used to wow), is that all you do, just shoot things all the time? zzzzz…. boring. But it’s not just shooting things, it’s a war zone, it’s strategy, it’s tactics, hell, it’s damned fun!

    Going back to wow after playing TR I just think, jeez, how much down time is there? Travelling la la la, find a trainer la la la, etc.. In wow it feels as though the mobs are presented to you piece meal, and you can fight them at your own pace, or not at all if you choose. In TR, omg! You fight or you’re dead, there are onnly a few safe places that a squad of Bane couldn’t just beam down into. The rest of the time keep your weapons loaded and handy and brush up on your FPS skills, it’s not an FPS but those skills will still come in handy!

    The only question mark I have about this game is will it keep my interest in the long term? Will there be an end game?

    I am encouraged to see that they have a very active development cycle at the moment, auctions houses (miltary surplus) are coming in the next patch. PAUs (mounts, of sorts) are due soon. There’s so much cool stuff that can be done in this world and I really hope they keep it up!

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah – you worry about the endgame, but – at the moment – it’s just fun. I don’t really see the probablem with just playing an MMO for a few months and then trying something else and TR, for me, is definitely worth that time together.

    KG

  18. Thelps says:

    While I agree with you, Kieron, my fear with MMOs as played more casually, like you suggest, is the danger of falling behind the curve of my guild/friends/regular playgroup. I don’t know a great deal about TR as I haven’t played it, but before I’m willing to pick up an MMO just to play through to the level cap and then drop, I need to be assured that failing the game doesn’t support large level disparity in groups that there’ll be a healthy number of people online for instances and going LFG. The one thing I can’t stand is huge waits for groups in an MMO, as it’s a ridiculously large waste of time I could spend doing better things.

    As such, like I did in my past WoW ‘career’ (huhuhuh) I either go full on hardcore into an MMO, or I just don’t play it. That’s what’s putting me off the entire genre at the moment.

  19. kiit says:

    Tabula Rasa near the end of beta was nice.. Then they nerfed all higher level weapons leaving starter weapons as the best overall choice for all classes excepting the spy, whose blade was the only unnerfed weapon left.

    After release they nerfed the drops severely (so your point about late beta drops being nice to have so much loot to choose from is no longer true).

    The low level game does play the way you noticed, taking on large groups without having to carefully manage your agro and targets is spot on. Once you pass levels 25-30 this begins to change, going past 35th everyone is pretty much forced to group. Seeing the new nerfs coming from the current version on the Test server indicates forced grouping for all classes from 30th on.

    Given the massive number of bugged quests and game mechanics (simply listen to general chat for an hour and note how many people ask questions about quests or skills and see people still saying ‘its bugged’ to see just how invasive these problems are)… I am getting very tired of the interface not registering key presses and mouse clicks in high threat situations leaving me to die and having to recover for 20 minutes or more on long runs.

    I will be dropping this game when my current time is up and not re-newing. I might come back if they every actually fix stuff. As for now, City of Heroes, Second Life and the lovely Lord of the Rings Online with its wonderful story-quests keep me quite happy and occupied.

  20. drunkymonkey says:

    “I don’t really see the probablem with just playing an MMO for a few months and then trying something else”

    I think it’s because of the whole subscription fee thing. Personally, if I stopped playing WoW after only a couple of month, I’d feel I’d wasted 18 quid.

  21. Matt says:

    I played in the Beta and for me it didn’t offer anything new in terms of mmos. Also I didn’t feel like part of an army just one of many people running about trying to get guns and loot. I had no sense of being a displaced and desperate people, threatened by a brutal alien force. The game just lacked character or innovation. (Despite claiming innovation was the forefront of its design.)

    I just got annoyed by Garriot’s interviews, and the game previews, they really misrepresented the game to my mind. I would play the game then read some preview that suggested all kinds of things that the game didn’t do. And personally I can’t help but feel because they have already been untruthful regarding the games features, this whole “beta players didn’t see the finished game” thing is another publicity exercise to try and reduce the damage that was caused by word of mouth. I find myself thinking the gap between the end of beta and the release of the game was a matter of days how different could it be?

    I think a free trial, is something they should definitely go with. If they are confident in the finished game, they should put their money where their mouth is and let people find out for themselves. Offering a short trial would send out a message that they are confident in their product. I would try it again if they did, just to see if they were lying to me again.

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