March 25, 2009

Eulogy for Tabula Rasa (Part 3)

This is the third of three posts on successful design decisions in Tabula Rasa.
Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

Tabula Rasa let players plan

While I spent an entire post yesterday talking about how TR let players remain in the action with very little downtime, the little downtime it had was very efficient, especially when it came to letting players decide what do do next.

Tabula Rasa's UI always provided players with lots of easily accessible information, which always left me with a feeling of purpose. It also made me happy that I didn't need to constantly tab out of the game to webpages with guides and databases.

Detailed class/power info - I've posted before about how TR let players specialize gradually over time, via several sub classes and sub-sub classes. Also, the preview UI showed examples of powers and gameplay for every class, allowing an educated decision. This was a great example of the kind of thing that most games would make you go to a webpage for, but TR included directly in its UI.

No fog of war - When players entered a new zone in TR, its full content was fully revealed, complete with landmarks and connections to other zones. In some games, the choice to explore would have been more enjoyable, but with TR's self-contained maps and goal-oriented gameplay, I think it was a much better choice to reveal everything immediately. Also, it fit very well with the fiction of the game, as an invading military would have extensive intelligence.

Instance maps and cutscenes - Similarly, expository cutscenes at the beginning of instances and the full instance maps felt like more military intelligence. The cutscenes in particular were sold as military briefings, and really made me feel like I was being sent on a mission, as opposed to a quest.

Great Icons - Tabula Rasa's map and minimap system was one of its strongest features. It was key to both keeping players on the move and helping them make a plan. In particular, the variety of icons it was possible to show and hide on the map were especially useful.

The map icons showed trainers, teleporters, control points and their status, map exits, hospitals, crafting stations, and just about everything else. The added functionality of showing and hiding each of these icons individually was also very useful. I just wish the map would have let me zoom in further.

Quest locations - Speaking of informative icons, nearly all quests in the game displayed special indicators on the map which revealed their general location. This was another good choice, given that the game's zones emphasized action rather than exploration, and the military fiction. It was also a way to keep players in the game, rather than reading quest database webpages.

Information about zones - In addition to its many icons and markers, TR's map also had a list of all the maps in the game, which players could examine whether they'd been to them yet or not. Each map and instance was marked clearly with its level range, and even instances were included. Again, this availability of information fit in with the fiction of military intelligence, and was yet another way to keep players from needing all sorts of extra webpages as a supplement to playing the game.

Built-in coordinates - If even the map icons weren't informative enough, the map's coordinate system easily indicated the location of the mouse cursor. This made meeting up with friends, finding a specific mob, etc much easier than it would have otherwise been.


Well, that's all I've got for now. I'm glad I didn't try to cram this all into one post. Post more comments! It's great to hear some other opinions, and people have pointed out more than one great feature that had totally slipped my mind.

I think it's very important for game designers to have some sense of history, and my own isn't quite as developed as I'd like it to be. I'll probably be posting more eulogies like this for games that have died or that die in the future. When games close down it's a horrible waste of work and love, but it's not a total waste if we manage to learn from them.


Mike Darga said...

In other news, the blogger spellchecker doesn't recognize the word "teleporter." Tsk, very unfuturistic of you, Google.

Chris said...

I have to admit that over the lifetime of the game, its impressive how much the UI actually evolved (even though it *still* had its niggles)

The map was probably the best part though, for when they redid it, it was *very* hard to actually get lost in the game (shame really, as i actually preferred the satellite image look that the minimap had).

The "preview" of the classes was a recent addition as well, but it worked for giving NEWER players the major points of the game (although some clarifications *might* have been needed, they did a good enough job).

The only downside of the map thoguh i would say is that it could present *too* much information to a newer player, who would then possibly struggle getting the information sorted out to how *they* themselves wanted it. But once again, on the flip side, the player had the option to filter accordingly.

Good write up's and i have enjoyed them a lot personally.

Now maybe you could do a "things that TR did wrong section" ;) I think you could do it well, and i would be willing to comment on them (and also put counter arguments out :D )

Eolirin said...

If I may offer a suggestion, and if it wouldn't get you into trouble on account of the fact that you're actively working on one of these, a similar series of posts for games that haven't necessarily died, but may be under-examined would be really really awesome.

Hiroshima said...

Very well done i've gotta say :)

Enjoyed reading this a lot.

Although i disagree about too much info cuz for new players they could set a goal to be able to get to those places ;).

Tesh said...

I lean heavily on the side of giving too much information rather than too little. I can wade through superfluous information easily enough, I'm an internet savvy consumer after all, but when the information I'm looking for just *isn't there*, I'm disgruntled.

Maeson said...

As a long time player of TR I can say that on the maps, a few things should of originally staid hidden.

For instance the caves and other such areas you have to explore for missions or logos. Sometimes missions say "Go in and see what's inside." Then a Diablo2-esque Fog of War on the (mini)map but not in world view, would work well. Sorta give a feel like you're contributing to the cause and not just doing a mission countless others have already done.

One more thing that the game did right on some things is that during some smaller not story important missions, your character wasn't treated as the second coming of Christ.
But as a soldier, who was in the area, being called in for an assignment that they just can't spare anyone to do.
This created the feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself. That you, though important, are not irreplaceable. We're all expendable in the face of such an enemy as the Bane. I just wish they had done the game to reflect such an idea a bit more (I even put in a suggestion to create a weaker non-receptive class system where alone, you did ok, but a receptive would be better, while as if you get two or more of these non-receptives together, you have a formidable force)

Mike Darga said...

@Chris: That's a very good point. By joining the game so late, I saw things with fresh eyes, but I also don't have a good sense of what changed over time.

Improving games over time is hugely important to me. I'll play a game that's in rough shape, if I know it's constantly getting better.

I think by this point the game's flaws may have been discussed a little too thoroughly!That's one of the reasons I wanted to write this in the first place.

@Eolirin: I'm sure I'll write more posts like these about other games, both good and bad. Hopefully I'll find a good mix of specific game feedback, high level concepts, and actual implementation details.

@Hiroshima: Thanks!

@Tesh: Yeah, I think I'm on that side too, although perhaps some extra information could have been optional and default to off at first, as Maeson suggests.

@Maeson: I think you've hit on something really interesting there with your comment about just being a dude in the army.

I actually really liked that the game never made me out to be the chosen one and explained how I was one of several hundred thousand people like me, because honestly MMOs can never deliver on that promise.

At the same time, though I'm intrigued by the thought of that aspect being one of the very things that caused the game to fail. While I think it's silly to be told that I'm so important, I know a lot of people who really like that in a game like WoW. I'll probably post on this more later.

zaphod6502 said...

@Mike: I played Tabula Rasa from the beginning and the early versions of the game were poor with many missing features that should have been included by default.

Having said that I agree the "living world" made the game very enjoyable with random dropship attacks and outpost battles bringing a lot of life to the game.

It is a damned shame a lot of the best features only appeared in the game towards the end. The developers were very lazy when it came to updating the game. Players aren't going to wait years for content developers to get their s..t together.

Mike Darga said...

I'd like to think they were working hard. From what I've seen of the dev team, there were a lot of dedicated people on it.

I know it's pretty frustrating to be on the player side of things and wonder why developers "aren't doing any work," but I don't think that's usually the case in the end. It's just hard to see those results as quickly as you'd like to as a player.

Lex Striker said...

Even though I did not play or support TR as much as I would have liked to, I really did like the game. For whatever reason, it did not grab me as a primary game. However, I always found myself coming back to it. After a break, it just seemed refreshing to come back to it again. So I guess it was one of those games I periodically got tired of and just needed a break.

Just about everything stated above by the author of this thread is true. I will really miss TR. I think it is one of the few games that I feel that way about. I am still hoping that perhaps it will be reborn, in one way or another.

Drummer Girl of Doom said...

The people! What a heck of a great community TR had. People were helpful, you could just join up with random people and it was fun. Control points were great for that.

And a top notch dev team - friendly, approachable (I got the chance to meet some of them at PAX last year), and involved.

Great points, it made me really happy to read all of it and remember all the things I loved about this game yet again. :D

Really missing Tabula Rasa these days, but I still have all my goodies and memories.

Rev said...

TR certainly had some good ideas but it was overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of monotony. Once the newness of the game wore off and you've completed a map or three, it really was a let down of how much the game play was "more of the same". Bases were nearly identical, mobs were nearly identical, missions were nearly identical, and it got to a point where new maps fels like recycled versions of earlier content. I played for about 3 months after the launch so it also had its share of bugs at the time but it wasn't the technical issues that finally drove me off but rather the repetitive and uninteresting content.

George said...

Great post, constructive and positive - a much needed breath of fresh air. I'm sure if anyone who worked on TR passes by here they would appreciate it being given a 'second opinion' of sorts, rather than just another rehashing of it's problems.

I never got a chance to play TR so it's really interesting to see it abstracted down to a laundry list of useful/innovative features, thanks for the info!

Mike Darga said...

Glad you Liked it George. Stick around and hopefully you'll like some of the newer posts too.

Targete said...

Hey Mike,
Great post, it's nice to hear the point of view of a designer. As one of the art directors on the game at(NCsoft LA visual studio), I always felt I needed to be there in Austin very early on when the designers were creating the bone structure of the game play and fleshing out maps. Not to interfere with it but just to be able to talk to them and have a little time to visualise everything and ask questions. I really did like the idea and story concepts for TR. I also feel everyone there from designers to artist and programmers worked very hard to make TR into something special and it was a great honor for me to have been a part of that regardless of the games commercial failings.