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An Inside Look At Tabula Rasa's Failure 44

Massively notes a couple of posts from people who worked at NCSoft while Tabula Rasa was in development. Adam Martin says the lengthy, wandering development cycle led management to push it through before it was ready. "Very late, they eventually hit upon a good formula, a good core game," but, "Before they could actually make that game, a difficult decision was taken to push the team to the wall and force an early beta test." Scott Jennings suggests that early warning signs, like the tepid reaction to the beta, were largely ignored. "One of the mantras that went around production discussions after Auto Assault's launch square into the pavement was that if you can't get people to play the beta for free, you have serious, serious issues. Tabula Rasa had those issues. Not as bad as Auto Assault — there were people doggedly playing every night and presumably enjoying themselves, and metrics were duly assembled to measure every movement those testers took. But it was pretty clear, at least from my completely disassociated and busy with my own thing viewpoint, that there wasn't a lot of excitement."
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An Inside Look At Tabula Rasa's Failure

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  • Ya well (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @03:22AM (#26504023)

    Only so long you can take. While it is nice to say "We'll just keep working on it till it's done," that isn't realistic. There's two major problems that can result:

    1) It costs too much. Publishers have to make money on the games they publish. You can't ask them to just toss money down a black hole. Well if a development team spends a decade working on something with nothing to show for it, all the while collecting their salaries, needing equipment and so on, this puts the publisher in a bad position. They are so far in the hole that even if the game is successful, they may not make back all they spent. So while I can certainly understand why publishers are going to push a release at some point.

    2) Duke Nukem Forever syndrome. Here's an example where they are self financing so they CAN do development for many years. The problem is it isn't working. At a certain point, you can't improve you game. Part of the reason is just that with really long cycles focus can get lost and such. However the bigger reason is technical. You are developing for 1995 hardware. It is now 2000, your game is outdated. So you have to redo your art assets, you have to rewrite or buy a new engine and so on. You get stuck on a treadmill of doing the same shit over and over. DNF has gone from Quake to Unreal Engine 1 to Unreal Engine 2 and will have to buy Unreal Engine 3 if they want to release a game today. That's a lot of respent effort (and money).

    So I certainly don't condone publishers hurrying releases out the door, but I can understand how after a time they'll say "Enough is enough, we move forward with the launch." You can't ask them to wait forever. Often the end prodcut won't be good, or even get done (see DNF) and even if it is good, it may still not make enough money dur to the costs.

    • Re:Ya well (Score:5, Funny)

      by Winckle ( 870180 ) <mark AT winckle DOT co DOT uk> on Sunday January 18, 2009 @03:32AM (#26504053) Homepage

      Are you suggesting Duke Nukem Forever won't ever come out?

      You have lost faith my child. Replay LA Meltdown 10 times, and say 5 hail Dukes and you should be fine by the morning.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Adriax ( 746043 )

        It is good to see another keeper of the faith. Duke's next coming will be grand.

        Go in carnage, and may you forever be out of bubblegum. Amen.

    • Re:Ya well (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:00AM (#26504653)

      There's no such thing as "done" in an MMO. Actually, when it's "done", you should start to get working on the next because you'll probably close this one down within a year or so.

      There is such a thing as "not done enough" in an MMO. Sadly, this applies to far too many MMOs that get released. You needn't be "all finished and polished". People are well able and willing to accept a few bugs and some problems. The WoW release wasn't really all smooth and roses either, IIRC of the first 30 days you could play at about 15 or so, provided you didn't happen to live in the "wrong" parts of the planet. But the game was "done enough". The main quest lines worked. The main skills worked. And while balance was an issue, it wasn't broken to the point where one class could solo bosses while others were struggling to survive against trashmobs that barely still gave XP (that was actually the case with TR at release).

      The failure of TR can be summed up in one sentence: When you decide to scrap a game when it's near the "almost done" stage and pretty much restart it from scratch, you will produce a failure. At the very least it will be a financial disaster.

      When you look at early (pre-2006ish) TR teasers and trailers, you will not recognize the game that TR finally was. The original TR was a fantasy-scifi game, complete with unicorns and bards. They scrapped it almost completely to retool it into a high tech scifi game. Of course management got cold feet when they saw the millions roll downhill with no product on the horizon and pushed for the release. About 3-4 years of development should be enough. Usually they are. Unless of course you decide after about 2 of those years to start over.

      Of course this led to a game being released that was about a year from maturity level. TR would be ready for a release now. Now that it's closing down. Try it while it's still around, it's free now. It's pretty much done now too. Quests are working (mostly), skill sets and classes are fairly balanced, overall now the game could be considered "done enough".

      Too bad it's about a year too late. Or released a year too early, your pick.

    • You are developing for 1995 hardware. It is now 2000, your game is outdated.

      In 1995, the PlayStation was hot droppings. In 2004 through 2008, the Nintendo DS is the big money maker, and it has hardware comparable to that of the PlayStation.

    • Anybody else notice that DNF can also stand for "Did Not Finish?"
  • by Adriax ( 746043 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @03:35AM (#26504067)

    I've been jumping into every MMO beta I could ever since asheron's call, and frankly TR had the worst quality beta and launch I've ever seen.

    Dungeons were unfinished. There were some very clear best and worst class tree picks. The control point assaults were terrible, to the point most people just ignored them. Holes in the terrain geometry were scattered everywhere.
    It just had a whole game feel of not all there, much like the feeling you got playing starwars galaxies.

    Personally I found auto-assault to be a much better game, and I still wasn't surprised when that one tanked.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by necro2607 ( 771790 )

      "I've been jumping into every MMO beta I could ever since asheron's call, and frankly TR had the worst quality beta and launch I've ever seen."

      Damn.. did you play Hellgate London beta? I thought it was freaking horrible. I was honestly surprised that the game I was playing, was one that was supposed to be launched/live in like 2 or 3 weeks. Wasn't even slightly surprised when I heard the servers would be getting shut down...

      • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @05:39AM (#26504549) Journal

        Actually, I haven't been in the beta for either, but the released product... well, it's probably misleading to say that HGL was better, but let's just say that Tabula Rasa was actually genuinely worse. In fact, since the OP mentioned SWG, I'll up the ante and say that NGE SWG was actually more fun than TR. Or more exactly, TR was actually less fun.

        And I don't just mean the bugs and unfinished content, that everyone loves to hammer on, because those are _easy_ points to make. The problem is that even if you managed to avoid the bugs, the game just wasn't much fun to play. The design was flawed in a dozen different ways.

        The problem was the whole "Tabula Rasa" concept. Lord British actually planned from the start to wipe the slate clean, and reinvent it all from scratch. I.e., work in a vacuum, and ignore a whole decade of proof of what works and what doesn't in a game.

        In a way it was a continuation of how Ultima Online invented the graphical MMORPG, and ended up in third place as soon as there were two other competitors.

        UO didn't _have_ to invent everything. There were already thousands of text-based MUDs, and whole discussions, correlations and theories (e.g., Bartle's) as to what works and how it works. You could tell from the start why a whole bunch of Lord British's ideas won't work, or won't make players happy, because the exact same had happened a thousand times before on MUDs.

        But British basically chose to ignore all that. And to ignore the players complaining about it.

        "Tabula Rasa" was basically the same failure mode repeated verbatim one more time. Now I'm all for innovation and trying new things, don't get me wrong. But it's not innovation if you repeat someone else's mistake. And it's not really "new things" just because British refuses to acknowledge the many people who tried the exact same things before.

        • "UO didn't _have_ to invent everything. There were already thousands of text-based MUDs, and whole discussions, correlations and theories (e.g., Bartle's) as to what works and how it works. You could tell from the start why a whole bunch of Lord British's ideas won't work, or won't make players happy, because the exact same had happened a thousand times before on MUDs."

          I'm confused by this; are you saying that UO was rife with ideas that didn't work, or didn't make players happy?

          Because 11 years later, it's

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Moraelin ( 679338 )

            1. SWG before the NGE? Just because _you_ can't name one, doesn't mean they don't exist, ya know?

            2. Also, in the meantime UO did fix a bunch of the stuff that wasn't funny. Most of it after Lord British gave up. So it's a bit misleading to showcase UO _now_ as a testament to Lord British's skills.

            3. Well, tastes being a subjective thing, I don't doubt that there is a niche that still likes UO.

            But to put things in perspectie:

            - 110 times more people currently prefer to pay more for WoW than play UO

            - EQ peaked

            • 1. SWG, even before NGE, was/is an abomination against the gaming gods and should never, ever have been released. For one, it fails the "interesting combat" test. For two, it was just atrocious.

              2. I thought UO was great *then*, regardless of what it is now.

              3. There wasn't a "minority that actually likes UO." You're mistaking the vastly increased MMO market of now from what it was 11 years ago. ~12 million people didn't try UO and decide they didn't like it.

              The "cold hard fact" is that UO was really, rea

              • 3. There wasn't a "minority that actually likes UO." You're mistaking the vastly increased MMO market of now from what it was 11 years ago. ~12 million people didn't try UO and decide they didn't like it.

                The "cold hard fact" is that UO was really, really popular at the time. It grew the MMO fanbase, and EQ grew it even more with a generic fantasy world and true 3D graphics.

                The fact that it STILL has players is proof enough that it is fun.

                The actual cold hard fact is that the Earth's population didn't increa

                • Ah, someone that truly understands the utter lameness of UO!

                  You basically summed up my experience with UO. I played it while it was the only game in town, and after a few months, gave up in complete disgust. Some time later, just after the Kunark expansion had been released, I picked up EQ. Ended up playing that for over 5 years, and the wife started to play some 6 months after I started.

                  I'm constantly amazed at how many people think UO was such a brilliant game. Yes, it fit the bill for a niche audienc

                  • Well, that's actually the funny part... Lord British was good at one thing: telling a story. Think about those single player Ultima games that you mentioned, and really that was what made them interesting. The game systems weren't particularly balanced (e.g., magic doing everything with one skill was there before too), and so on. They had the same problems that would plague UO later, but it didn't matter because it was single player.

                    So he takes basically the engine of U7, removes the story, and makes it an

    • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:04AM (#26504927)

      TR beta was no beta. It was one by name, but I've been in a few late-alpha / early-beta tests that had better stability and fewer killer bugs. TR beta was a nightmare. Suddenly you were ... somewhere. Shortly thereafter, you were at your Desktop. Logging in put you back to ... somewhere, only without a way to get out. Quests were simply and plainly broken, most had to be done to the letter if you wanted to have any chance to finish them, and even then it was often a matter of luck whether the right triggers fired at the right time of you were stuck with a permanently failed quest, which actually got worse through the levels, post level 40 quests seemed to be completely untested. Some skills simply didn't work at all. Others didn't work as intended. Skill progression was a joke, some things that worked great on early levels left you stranded as soon as you progressed, simply because damage did not progress. Ammo cost was insane for rapidly firing guns, limiting your choice pretty much to using a shotgun.

      And that's only what I can remember without even investing a minute to think about it. And no, we're not talking about early beta or anything. This is the state the game was in right before release, and even well into its live stage. Hell, they redid the skills until well into the second half of 2008. And I don't mean skill tweaking. I mean ripping out whole skills and replacing them with something completely different.

      Does this sound like a game that's live? That doesn't even sound like public beta.

    • by Salgak1 ( 20136 )
      And then. . . there was Hellgate:London.

      The mother of all beta-to-live failures. I should know, I was an alpha and beta tester. Flagship had roughly half the game done when they released. As a result, everything that WASN'T in the beta (the entire last two acts) was a cut-and-paste of the first three acts with some of the details randomised and the difficulty turned up.

      The storyline was there, but that was about it. But what killed Hellgate was the truly horrendous launch: massive billing problems (p

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:16AM (#26504709)

    Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty sure the writer has his valid points, but some parts really read like he blames NCs focus on TR on the failure of his project. Maybe rightfully so (when you have a tenth of the budget and manpower of another project but are expected to outperform it, you are prone to fail), but it sure sounds like it.

    • It's a pretty legitimate gripe to have, especially once management regresses to screaming and throwing poo following the flaming death of a 'sweetheart' game they'd thrown a lot of money into.

  • I blame Garriott (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SupremoMan ( 912191 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @09:06AM (#26505439)

    If he had any creative control over this game then he clearly did not comprehend why Ultima Online was successful. If he did know why it had been successful, but chose to go another direction, then he is a moron. He failed at making "WoW with guns," which is the only thing I can derive from the essence of TR.

    Just so I don't sound like a whiner, I will toss in some info. What made Ultima Online successful? It was not your run of the mill RPG. It had near total character freedom. You could be a warrior one day, mage the next. Your characters were not stuck in some Arch-type mold, but rather could be any combination of the many (I think 40+) skills available in the game. Naturally some skills worked better together than others, but still there was a lot of freedom. You wish to be a Mage Blacksmith? Be my guest! A Warrior Tamer? Ok, it's up to you. An Archer Bard? Sure! FREEDOM

    Furthermore, there were no levels. You character didn't magically "ding" and he was higher level. Instead he gained skills through using them. This kind of progression was really great. Of course one had to learn, usually through trail and failure, what monsters they can and cannot kill with their current skill level. But that was fun of the game. Hell when I started the game and picked rather confusing ensemble of skills. I quickly found myself crying out for help, because I was losing a battle against a small bird while using a dagger. The game was just awesome.

    Now why did TR fail at being a "WoW with Guns?" Lot's of reasons. For one thing if you try to copy WoW, you should have at least 2 factions. Not the numb Humans vs the NPC alien invaders. That gets boring real fast. There should be at least 2 factions of players. I can only assume that money was the reason they did not go this route.

    Money seemed like the source of a lot of the problems. Why the map was so small? Well at least it felt small, small as hell. Maybe it wasn't, but the instant-warp points made it feel small? I can't tell.

    The game had very little choice when it came to your character, this was a huge failure. Maybe they thought that giving the player few choices would be more casual-friendly. But whatever the group-think, it was wrong. On top of that, none of the classes were well balanced. Most classes were useless. And as another posted points out, shotgun was really your only option.

    Worst failure of all, total lack of player interaction! There was no PvP, no economy, and no reason to adventure together. The game was basically single player game, where you could chat to other people playing the same single player game.

    All it's faults came together in making TR probably the most boring game I ever played.

    • What made Ultima Online successful? It was not your run of the mill RPG. It had near total character freedom. You could be a warrior one day, mage the next.

      This is one of the reasons I enjoy Eve Online [eve-online.com]. Any character can, in time, learn to do anything in the game. You're not stuck in a certain linear path of progression. I have been playing this game for a year and a half so far, and there are still tons of things that I haven't done. This, after vowing never to pay a monthly fee to play a game. (o;

  • by Flentil ( 765056 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @09:30AM (#26505549)
    I was in the Auto Assault beta test. It was a fun game but it's problems were many, starting with the beta system itself. They only had the servers up for a few hours at a time, a couple days a week. Something like 6pm-11pm on tuesdays and thursdays. I had a hard time matching my schedule with theirs, so didn't get to play much. When I did I was frustrated by way the game handled vehicle upgrades. Killing things in the field caused many many items to drop and almost all of them were useless, either outright useless, or useless because it's something that too high level or too low level for my car. Even if I found something that was in my level range and would fit on my car, I couldn't install it without having high levels of crafter skill. So I spent a good deal of the little time I was in there sorting through useless crap in my inventory and selling it to a junk vendor. I also didn't like the disconnect between player characters and cars. You were either outside playing a car, or inside a walled no-combat possible city playing a buffed out avatar wandering around looking for quest NPCs with exclamation points over their heads. There was also no good reason to group up with other players. Still, once you got out in the wasteland with your vehicle it was fun to explore and shoot things. They got that part right pretty much. It was everything else that was wrong.
    • by aafiske ( 243836 )

      I always thought it would've made a great single-player game. The car-in-wasteland gameplay and engine was pretty cool and fun. But as a mmo it just sort of became same-y real fast.

  • I didn't even know that TR existed before I read the news that it was about to close.

    I think that is a marketing error. Or maybe they never did trust their own game.

    • I suspect you've probably been living in a cave. I couldn't avoid hearing about TR, till like, right after it launched.
  • It's True that the TR beta wasn't very good and the game had bugs, BUT there was always a way to report the bugs and the developers were pretty fast to fix bugs. I will really miss TR. I haven't found a game to replace it yet. Any suggestions?

  • When I heard that TR was closing up shop and setting the servers on "free play" until they shut them down, I thought I'd go look at the official web page.

    Now, I may just be a spelling Nazi, but... I really think that having a web site up for a year is plenty long enough to go through it with a spellchecker and take out the obvious spelling errors. I ran into more than a few, looking at class descriptions.

    And for those knee-jerk, "Y do U care? Spellang ain't important! ur a noob!" people, I'll point out o

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