Have You Played… Tabula Rasa?

Well, you can’t. It’s long dead. That was never the plan, of course – Tabula Rasa was supposed to be Richard Garriot’s grand comeback and the game that took down World of Warcraft.

Tabula Rasa cost NCSoft a fortune, so sure were they that combination of a legendary developer and spaceguns in a World of Warcraft structure would be the MMO to end all MMOs. It didn’t exactly work out like that (and we’d see remarkably similar folly from them half a decade later, with WildStar). Which is a shame, as the fault was less with the game and more with impossible expectations – both from the people behind the game and from the millions of people they spent a couple of years convincing it would be the answer to their every prayer.

What a strange time 2006-2008 was. So many of us were so desperate for a World of Warcraft alternative, specifically because we spent our every waking hour for months playing World of Warcraft, loving it to bits, then burning out of it. How could any game using the same approximate structure somehow achieve that? We had all seen Oz behind his curtain by that point, and no self-proclaimed WoW-killer stood a chance.

Tabula Rasa wasn’t bad. Short on a personality of its own, unless you were one of those who’s happy to take a deep dive into lore, and the shooting was a slightly awkward blend of cooldown skills and real-time, but it was science fiction, aliens, robots and guns in a time when we were drowning in swords and goblins.

It was a little bit different and a little bit the same, which was what we wall thought we wanted. It seemed, for a while, as if it had an open goal for success: was it that it took too long, that it cost too much, that it didn’t achieve that sense of otherworldly mystery that early WoW did? Or was it simply that MMO town was never bigger enough for two?

45 Comments

  1. Chentzilla says:

    That girl’s body looks like an insect’s head.

    • Yay_Anonymity says:

      That is… strangely accurate.

    • fray_bentos says:

      That is no girl. We are left in no doubt that is definitely a woman (tats with a gnat’s head).

    • Ronrocken says:

      Well, she has the Outwars logo on her chest. Can’t be a coincidence?

  2. Premium User Badge

    Halibut Barn says:

    I remember playing it for a bit and it definitely had promise and I enjoyed what I saw of it, but it was also woefully incomplete. Very little content past the mid-levels, a completely useless crafting system that needed a complete overhaul, many skills still needing rebalancing, etc. It really needed another good year in beta, but there was no way they could afford that, so it got pushed out as-is to die.

  3. Nibblet says:

    Tabula Rasa had a lot of horrible design decisions.
    For one, it was a real pain to traverse the world on your own as every inch of the map was covered in hostile npcs.
    To make matters worse, said npcs could take over quest hubs, making it impossible to hand in or pickup quests until at least 5-6 other people arrived to help clear it out again.
    Then there was the quests themselves, which were usually of the “collect 50 grubbin toes or the world shall asplode!” variety.
    Combat was also pretty bad, as per NcSoft’s infernal contract.
    There was also no real content apart from combat, and nothing to build a community around.

  4. Orageon says:

    I don’t feel bad about Tabula Rasa, but dayum I do for Warhammer…

    It brought in a couple nice new ideas to the WoW archetype, some of them re-used then by other games. For example the big lore book with achievements that unlock special titles and so on, the public “events”/”join-in” quests concept (Champions online took that concept as well afterwards if I memory serves me correctly, at least), the physical collision between player models, allowing for an actual frontline in PvP by the tanks etc..
    So it was still a WoW-like, less colorful and funky than WoW, but for me it should have had its place alongside it. But MMOs nowadays don’t have much time to adjust and improve on weaker points before they are judged against the elder WoW.
    And that in a time where FFree to play was on the rise, if I remember well, and paid subscription were less and less popular (except for Wow, such hypocrisy, or games that have means to farm for extra game time somehow).
    what a waste, truly…

    • Infernal Pope says:

      Man, I played the shit outta Warhammer. To this day, it’s the only MMO I ever really got into, including WoW (and Tabula Rasa). It’s also where I learned that tequila makes me a better healer. I drifted out of the game even before it started going really downhill, but I still get nostalgic for it sometimes.

    • zulnam says:

      Warhammer online is still a thing. Google Return of Reckoning. It’s a server run by the community with Games Workshop/EA’s blessing. Peak hours it can get up to 1000 people online

      • vahnn says:

        I never played this game and I REALLY wish I had. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

    • Merus says:

      I really liked how Warhammer adapted the trinity to multiplayer, but I was rather less enamoured of it attempting to ape WoW so heavily when it was actively competing against WoW.

      So many games at the time did not understand that: in other genres, you could take another game as a base and improve on it, but in MMOs, you are actively competing against your inspiration and they get about a year to steal a march on you. You have to throw out a bunch of rules so that playing your game feels different enough that you can survive being inferior for as long as it takes to fix yourself up and survive past novelty. Guild Wars 2, in my opinion, did the former (but never really fixed itself up); FFXIV did the latter, being extremely derivative and also very bad, but it had unheard-of institutional support and a director who managed to keep what worked and jettison a lot of the bad.

  5. Sleepery says:

    Loved it to bits. Dyanmic world, interesting classes and weapons, pesudo-action combat. Got really slick in the months leading up to its cancellation too, the team really stuck with it.

  6. aircool says:

    It was sooooo shit, and then Garriot had the cheek to blame it’s failure on the beta testers. Perhaps the dev’s should have listened to the feedback.

    Mind, it was still a hundred times better than No Man’s Sky.

  7. Stargazer86 says:

    I vaguely remember beta testing it and thinking it was at best supremely mediocre. I distinctly recall hating the mix of cooldown and real-time combat or whatever it was that they were attempting to do.

    I always find it a bit amusing whenever someone came along claiming that THEIR MMO was going to be the WoW killer. And then it turns out they essentially just remade WoW with a different skin. Even today most MMO’s still hang perilously close to the “theme-park” formula that WoW distilled. Only a few offshoots like EVE have attempted anything extraordinarily different and they’ve only developed niche success.

    So really, you either copy WoW and fail, mirror WoW and become mediocre, or don’t copy WoW at all and remain niche. THere’s no killing it. Only Blizzard can do that.

    • MisterFurious says:

      The irony there is that all Blizzard did is copy EverQuest.

      • Rashism says:

        For sure.

      • Artist says:

        You must be really naive if you think all Blizzard did was to redo EQ. Blizzard rather refined the mechanics of the 2nd generation MMOs, added more shiney with professionals from the gambling industry and polished it into the psychological theme-park trap that it was at its peak time.
        Blizzard drew the right consequences from the 1st and 2nd generation of MMOs. Far more than just a “copy”..

  8. left1000 says:

    I loved this game. The combination of an mmorpg with mild aiming was revolutionary and fun for me at least. The game mostly failed due to corporate contract reasons, like having to pay to send someone to space despite the game only selling a modest amount.

    Wildstar basically cribbed the idea, although that also didn’t do that well.

    Another nifty feature was that every time you leveled up and were given an archtype/class choice branch specialization. Like in swtor choosing between the two advanced classes you were born to be able to spec into… you could copy your character and just choose both!

    It could have been a mild success such as games like tabula rasa, but like I said, for some reason they had to send a game designer to outer space which bankrupt them entirely.

  9. Arglebargle says:

    Kinda liked Tabula Rasa, but it was a kludge.

    Discussing this with a reliable friend who was on the dev team, he felt the game’s failure ultimately rested on Star Long’s shoulders, for not reigning in Garriott’s usual clueless feature creep tendancies. Years of rewrites, direction changes, and redos. Eventually NCSoft got tired of all this and took over the game, put in its own managers (too many of them), and then just released Tabula Rasa as is, despite it being a hodge podge of design elements at that point.

    Of course, then NCSoft shot themselves in the foot by actively and far too obviously trying to exact revenge on Garriott, and eventually losing big in court.

    • DenzelJoshington says:

      Thanks for sharing that. The part about Long not reigning in Garriott confirms a gut instinct I had when I visited Tabula Rasa for a demo at E3 ’05 as a young RPG fan site writer. We were in this curtained off room to see a demonstration of what they had so far and there was this short interaction them that I wouldn’t recognize until I got further into the workforce and had more experiences.

      It was this situation where Long had just been introduced to us as the head of the show and was a really nice, impressive guy, but then his vibe completely shifted with Garriot. There was some bit where there was a question of what to show us and I think Garriot was just casual about it, like “let’s just show them this and then talk about this.” If I remember right, it was Long had a more formal approach he was gonna take, and then Garriot’s input switched things to Long suddenly having to switch gears to accommodate the auteur. I loved Garriot, but he felt way to casual and informal about showing several writers a demo for a game that they were in the middle of overhauling and then trying to convince us this new design was better. It was a stark contrast to a little team that showed up out of nowhere at the same conference wearing matching shirts and inviting us over to a hotel for an impressive demo of a new game called The Witcher.

      Anyway, I would see the Long/Garriot scenario again in jobs later in life and it’s totally this situation that happens where a veteran is in charge, but there are no veteran peers to reign him in. He’ll have excellent talent working under him, but the talent doesn’t have the same room to push back as strongly like the veteran’s peers did when he was first starting out. It’s a situation that always seems to result in delays and a mess of design decisions.

      • Sithinious says:

        Have you read Garriot’s book Explore/Create? I really enjoyed it. A very cool look at the birth of the MMO industry, actually of computer gaming as a whole. Of course it’s colored by Garriot’s enormous ego, but still a very good read.

        Said ego is hard to stomach sometimes, but when someone has been to the wreck of the Titanic and the International Space Station and helped shape the computer gaming industry, some ego inflation is to be expected.

        Ok, yes. I’m a bit of a Garriot fanboy. But I grew up playing the Ultimas so it’s really no stretch to say he had a hand in making me the computer gaming grognard geek I am today.

      • milligna says:

        This happens every day in the industry. Please, give generously to the Chris Roberts Foundation.

  10. Axyl says:

    Loved TR, but if we’re talking failed NCSoft MMOs, it HAS to be Auto Assault for me.

    The single most unique and (potentially) fun MMO i’ve ever played, and I still mourn it’s loss even now.

    You’ve never leveled up until you’ve leveled up at 120 miles per hour while driving your armed-to-the-teeth dune buggy through a scavenger shanty-town. :D
    (and I do mean “through”.. like, through walls of buildings and the such)

    • malkav11 says:

      I did love Auto Assault. They also did a digital card game that lasted an even shorter time based on it. No idea why. Still have the files for the card game on my hard drive somewhere even though the servers are long dead.

    • Sithinious says:

      Yes!!! I loved Auto Assult!

    • Xwing Pilot says:

      Auto Assault.
      The only way to drive

  11. Foosnark says:

    I seem to recall there was all this super-cool, way-out-there-weird lore for the game originally, that I thought would make a pretty great setting for any sort of media you wanted to throw at it… MMO, TV series, novels, whatever. I don’t recall any specifics but there was a pretty good length magazine writeup at the time.

    And then 98% of the cool lore got thrown away in favor of generic space opera with laser pistols, and I lost so much interest I never played it, and the people I knew who did said I wasn’t missing anything.

  12. Danarchist says:

    I remember enjoying it at first despite the numerous bugs. Trying to move from area to area however was a huge PITA, and you could not stop to pick your nose or move your cat off the keyboard before the things you just killed dropped out of a ship on top of you again.
    What killed it for me was the balance whiners in forums convincing the devs to make stupid changes. Every time I would log in I would find my character changed in some minor way that pissed me off. I honestly cant remember what drew me away from it, but it was mostly meh. Unlike wildstar that sucked from day 1.

    • Darloth says:

      While much of that is true…

      It also did a few things REALLY right.

      Let’s take the enemies always dropping on your head – they actually DROPPED on your head. No teleporting in, no lame fade in from nowhere, you could hear the dropship, you could see it coming, and if you were specced just right and maybe had a couple of friends you could SHOOT IT DOWN on the way in.

      Why has this not been copied?

      It also had really nice lore – I’m very disappointed Tabula Rasa didn’t work out for them, though I completely acknowledge the dozens of good reasons why it didn’t.

  13. jcrNOLA says:

    Just curious, has anyone played his current game in development Shroud of the Avatar? I remember seeing it on Kickstarter a while back but I think it’s still in development, possibly greenlighted on Steam.

    • Titler says:

      Yes I have.

      It’s not just still in development, they asked for $1m on Kickstarter, have had $18m in public funds, are now 3 years beyond the original Launch date, and are asking for a second Kickstarter to finish the rewards of the first, have a SeedInvest page running as well as 3 telethons in a month to keep the lights on…

      … because as the independent financial analysis they had to accept to run the SeedInvest warns “even with a successful campaign, Portalarium “will require additional funding after this offering to complete the development and then launch our product,” and that there’s a “substantial risk” that additional funding may never materialize”

      And whilst Richard Garriott imagines he’s building a deep narrative driven game, apparently unaware of what’s actually happening in said game, his developers have dragged it off into a Real Money Trading driven nightmare where there’s no level capping, virtually the only gameplay is grinding gold to try and get the the endless and exclusively Add On Store content off the RMTs, and despite the game being only 2 months from running out of money, basic systems like how combat even works still isn’t fully designed.

      Which explains why, even in the middle of a Steam summer sale, Shroud is struggling to maintain peak player numbers of even 180. Total peak when you include the 48% of accounts not linked to Steam would only be 320 or so.

      Which is why ALL the current positive reviews are from prior backers who’ve edited their Steam review, or just put one up, to try and make the game look just a little bit more alive… and they ALL have hundreds or even 11,000 hours plus dedicated to the game already. That’s not an exaggeration. See if you can spot the account with 11,000 hours logged.

      And that’s before you get to the increasingly toxic community; which includes the devs themselves, astoundingly. Check the “catnipgames” account on Reddit. That’s one of the main developers Chris Spears, taking to Reddit to abuse people, make outlandish claims, slander his audience, send PMs to people begging them to stop being so visible… whilst the wider community laughs about and shares tips on how to harass and commit outright crimes against critics. My own email was hacked by one of them, and another had his family threatened. We reported all of this. No action was ever taken, despite the person involved bragging on their forums about doing it…

      But apart from that… well, the housing models are nice, I suppose. Even if you can get them for free in the Unity store. $50 dollars to you in the Add On Store, Guv.

      So basically… stay far, far away from Shroud of the Avatar.

  14. racccoon says:

    The ideas were there, it was a good game I enjoyed it, and it was ahead of its time! Look at today’s games those very ideas are in games today, everywhere.
    So Tablu Rasa had it. It just wasn’t the right time.
    With Lord British at the helm, the game was greater expected in all avenues, not even he knew all they had wanted. They over expected him to do something else. That’s why it flopped. Expectations were way over exaggerated & dreamt up by his fans that it had to be a disappointment know matter what he did anyway.

  15. ludde says:

    So many of us were so desperate for a World of Warcraft alternative, specifically because we spent our every waking hour for months playing World of Warcraft, loving it to bits, then burning out of it. How could any game using the same approximate structure somehow achieve that?

    That’s what many were asking at the time. Somehow the money people never did.

    It was a shame to see promising MMOs spell their own demise by changing development to be more WoW-like. Warhammer Online specifically comes to mind.

    • MisterFurious says:

      Money Men are idiots. They have no souls. They see something making money and they think “Hey, that’s making money! If I do the exact same thing then I’ll make money, too!”. That’s why so many movies or TV shows or games are just the same old same old over and over again.

      • po says:

        And when it comes to MMOs, that logic falls flat on its face.

        1. You’re competing with WoW (or to a lesser extent any of the other big MMOs), a game that has a huge established playerbase, and has received years of development at a cost of untold millions. You are not going to make a WoW killer. Period. Not if you could hand pick the best in the industry, and give them 10 years to work on it.
        2. MMOs are the kind of game that sucks up a huge amount of a player’s time, so they can’t play other games much, meaning MMO players tend to play just one MMO. It’s not like films or music, where you can listen to several artists, or go and watch half a dozen superhero movies in a year.
        3. The market is saturated. The only MMO that can be considered anywhere near as successful as WoW, in terms of actually growing in player numbers over the several years since its release, is Eve Online, and that is probably because it has very little in common with WoW.

        So if you set out to make a ‘WoW’ clone, you’re not going to make one that comes anywhere close to ‘WoW’ in quality, or sheer quantity of content. To put it simply, players might give your game a few weeks, or maybe months at the most, and then they’ll run out of content, get fed up with all the issues that aren’t getting fixed, and go back to the better game.

        The only way to get around this is to find a gap in the market, and set out to do something very different so that you aren’t competing with the biggest names in gaming.

  16. Eater Of Cheese says:

    Tabula Rasa was awesome. Exploration, story, lore was interesting, shooting was fun, taking/sieging bases was great, the scope was amazing, way ahead of its time. Just needed more dev time and polish, IMO, and it would still be around today.

  17. DThor says:

    I remember desperately wanting this to be great. Five minutes after my first character was spawned I got stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Literally.

    Not a good omen.

  18. goettel says:

    To me the best thing about TR is it cured me of Garriott hero worship (I lived for Ultima once) and helped me avoid Shroud of the Avatar like the plague.

  19. FroshKiller says:

    Never played, but I thought the signature character Sarah Morrison (the lady in the image above) looked pretty cool in the advertisements. Then she appeared in that “women of video games” feature in Playboy, and that just made me feel gross.

    • FireStorm1010 says:

      Why would her posing nude or non nude be gross is beyond me. She is hot:)

  20. cpt_freakout says:

    I played it with my bro looking for something to pick up after being huge City of Heroes fans and it fell flat. Like, horribly flat. The systems did not meld together well, there was not much to do, the lore was barely coherent, and the promised ‘action’ was a combat system that was barely engaging. I thought it was a terrible game, maybe because expectations were high and the press sold it quite well.

  21. Artist says:

    Tabula Rasa was stillborn. Everybody who was in the alphas could have known that it wont survive for long.
    Hybris of the producers? Probably. We saw the same with Warhammer Online and Age of Conan. Millions sunk into something that clearly couldnt work out.

  22. level12boss says:

    With each passing year I’m more convinced that the one insurmountable flaw any serious competitor to WoW had from the mid-2000s and forward was pretty simple: technology.

    Right from launch, WoW was a smooth, good looking experience with immersive vistas and landscapes even on really mediocre hardware. And not only did it run smooth, but the UI was relatively frictionless compared to other games at the time. Performance, good visuals, and a smooth experience gave WoW a huge advantage in terms of potential player base and, I’d argue, long-term player retention. For the mass of so-called “casuals”, WoW was just obviously better than everything else out there.

    And that remained the case for quite some time. In my own example, I was as eager as everyone else to get into a new MMO with more dynamic gameplay. I’d try each as they were released — Tabula Rasa, Warhammer, Lineage 2, LotRO, and so on. A lot of these had really innovative mechanics, Warhammer 2 in particular I remember enjoying, and other games looked pretty good (LoTRO). But for the computer hardware teenage me was able to afford, even as the years went on, nothing could yet compete, overall, with WoW.

    By the time the hardware / graphics curve became less relevant I, like many others, were pretty much over grindy-looty style MMOs entirely. And I think this is reflected in WoWs overall decline in subs since 2010. I’ve dipped into stuff like Planetside 2 over the years. But nothing really seems like it’ll ever capture the unique moment that WoW did in the mid-2000s. It really was a singular and historical game that seized the moment. And at this point, the present and future of massive online gaming seems defined by much more dynamic worlds like Minecraft that really question whether there will be another game handcrafted and structured like WoW again.

  23. HumpX says:

    I really really enjoyed this game. Shame it tanked.