March 19, 2009

Eulogy for Tabula Rasa (Part 1)

This is the first of three posts on successful design decisions in Tabula Rasa.


When a person dies, we give speeches that focus on their good qualities, even if they may not have had very many. When a videogame dies, we dance on its corpse.

We've all seen the landslide of commentary on why Tabula Rasa failed, how badly, when, whose fault it was, etc. Clearly there were a lot of things wrong with it, but that doesn't mean there weren't some good ideas in there too.

I didn't play it long enough to get to the endgame, but I did see some things that I don't think should be allowed to fade into obscurity. Feel free to add to the list, just keep it civil please.

Tabula Rasa loved alts

Of all the design decisions that the TR team made, the choice to include lots of support for player alts was one of their strongest and most apparent.

Footlockers - It's a given that people are always going to want to send items and cash between their characters. In TR, there were footlockers located in towns, which were very simple shared banks between any character on your account. If you wanted to send some loot and spending money to your alts, you could just drop it in the footlocker and any of your other characters on that server could take whatever they needed.

Shared character surnames - In TR, all your characters on a server had a unique first name and a shared last name. When you spoke in chat, your last name was displayed. This removed all confusion among friends as to which character was which player's alt. It also meant that players couldn't behave badly with no consequences just by logging onto an alt. Have other games before TR done this? It's a brilliant idea.

Cloning - If you ever read gamebooks as a kid, you can probably remember how tempting it was to keep a thumb marking your place just in case your choice led you to a bad ending. Cloning is the gameplay equivalent of that comforting bookmark.

Knowing that you could go back and take that spare character in a different direction later meant it was easy to try out all the classes and find the gameplay you liked best. You could always change your mind and take the other path, or just play both characters for more variety.

Tabula Rasa's world was exciting

Compared to the other MMOs I've played recently, TR's world felt really dynamic and active. They must have spent a lot time scripting each map, and I think it was worth it.

Dropship ambushes - In TR, Large fields full of static mobs waiting to be killed seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule. Instead, enemy aliens would often be deployed periodically by dropships.

The lack of static spawns made it much easier to walk around the world, and yet the possibility of a dropship attack made traveling something that you had to pay attention to a little more than most games.

Control points - The first time I was in an outpost and it was was attacked by an alien army, I was completely taken by surprise. The NPCs all started shouting and fighting, and I was happily distracted from my banking by a surprising in-game event. Seeing enemy-controlled outposts on my map and going to attack them was a lot of fun too, even when other players weren't around.

Friendly NPCs - The reason dropship attacks and outpost battles were fun even when I was soloing was that so much care was put into the friendly NPCs. Everywhere I went, it always seemed there was a squad of AFS soldiers there to help me fight a wandering boss or to help in attacking and defending outposts.

There were actually a few times I was fooled into thinking an NPC was a player who'd helped me out of a tight spot. I ran through several spawns with a friendly patrol and rushed an outpost before I realized friendly dropships were landing and the whole thing was scripted.

There were also lots of places where you'd come across small skirmishes and could decide to help out. All of this care taken with the friendly soldiers went a long way toward making the world feel like a warzone, as well as making it feel as though you were really part of an army.
Continue to Part 2


Tesh said...

I never did make time to play the game, but Cloning looks like it's brilliant. I'm actually more of an open skillset kind of guy, but if you're going to have classes and alts, clones take a lot of the grind out of the process. I deeply appreciate that.

DM Osbon said...

Played a little but it just didn't ring bells for me - most MMOs I have tried now lack what I'm looking for in a good gaming experience.

Am not beta testing another MMO as long as I game!

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, cloning is a really cool idea. The way I see this is that they had probably one really good designer on their team who cared about alts, and managed to get several nice features for them put in.

The game did fail for a reason, but the things it did well it did very well.


Eolirin said...

Guild Wars does link all your character names to your account, but it doesn't do it the same way; you can't really use it for reputation since it doesn't display to non-friends, but when your friends add you to their friends list or try to message you, it's very clear that it's going to you regardless of which character you happen to be on. GW also does the footlocker thing too.

What I liked most about TR was that combat felt like it was something that I could actually get better at just by learning how to *move* better, rather than try to figure out arcane formulas for when to press my 1 2 and 3 keys. I also liked that it went to the effort of actually having branching quest paths, but I would've liked to have seen it implemented a little better in the beginning.

It's a sad thing that it failed so badly, there really was a lot in there that was good, and even more that would have been had it gotten more attention and polish applied. =\

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, I thought all the movement in combat was really fun, although I was often confused as to when I was or wasn't receiving the benefits of being in combat.

I also really liked how each enemy and weapon type seemed to interact with the shields and health, though that also was a bit opaque for my liking.

Eolirin said...

Yeah, queue the more attention and polish. It needed a lot of work on UI hints and providing correct feedback to the user, but the underlying systems were sound.

Mike Darga said...

I see TenTonHammer picked up this story, cool!

Welcome everybody, I'm looking forward to hearing more feedback on these posts, and any of the others you find interesting here.


theParser said...

When a person dies, we give speeches that focus on their good qualities, even if they may not have had very many. When a videogame dies, we dance on its corpse.

If I hadn't read another word, that would have made the article worth reading, right there.

My employer has a lovely website where you can read their official statements and views. This is not it.

Again, worth the price of admission.

Mike Darga said...

Haha thanks theParser, I'm glad you enjoyed those.

Everyone I that knows me in real life keeps requesting more humor.

Hopefully I'll be able to find a good balance.

Andrew said...

I really enjoyed these write-ups about Tabula Rasa.