I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Richard Garriott, for two reasons. First, Ulitma Online was my first, and favorite, MMOG. Second, his brother Robert got JR and me a cab when we were stranded outside the NCsoft Austin offices last September. Good family, good people. So, when we were invited to sit in on a presentation Garriott was giving on his new sci-fi MMOG, Tabula Rasa, it was a no-brainer must-see.

As he took us through a mission, Garriott emphasized the combat technology, which looked more at home in a third-person shooter than an MMOG. There’s sticky targeting reticles, modifiers for taking cover and intelligent, independent NPCs that dynamically work with you to take out large groups of enemies. And aliens. Tons of aliens.

Gunfights are chaotic, to say the least. Bullets whiz by, bombs and lasers fire overhead, and robots tick across the ground, then jump up and blow up at waist level, the futuristic equivalent of the bouncing betty. There’s electric discharges and carpet bombs and healing devices. It’s like Battlefield: 2742, only persistent.

In talking to Garriott, he says the majority of your time is spent in situations like these, battling an alien race called the Bane, which have destroyed the world on which you live. You’re a survivor working with friendly alien races to repel the Bane. The game is story-centric, and most of the missions are geared toward that, ultimately building up into a rough conclusion – well, a personal one. When I asked Garriott how a story-based game can really have endgame content, and why someone would continue playing after making his way through the story, he said the story is more about the character and his achievements, rather than what actually happens in the game’s arch. He referenced Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces” theory, saying every good story is ultimately about the growth of the people involved.

“Our story is about you,” he said. “The fact that it involves the Bane is secondary.” They’re able to keep the story from ending throughout the world by merely ending the chapter on the character. “You basically graduate from [the world]. You’ve taught people how to help defend themselves. … Your work is done.” And from there, you’re free to keep playing, or to return to a character’s “save point,” a point at which your character branches down the game’s class tree, and try out a new class.

In terms of actual time investment, Garriott said it should take “100 to 300” hours to go from start to finish on one character, but with the save point system, subsequent character advancement is much faster. It’s obviously a good way to speed the game up for hardcore players who’ve already invested a lot of time in the game, and Garriott figures keeping experienced players away from the newbie doldrums and dropping them directly back into higher-level content will keep them playing the game longer.

That’s a good thing, too, because from what I saw, there’s little emphasis on grouping. Since there’s so many NPCs helping you out, you only have to group when you want to, and Garriott said the team worked to create an entirely-soloable game. Since over half of the game is instantiated, it may be possible to never have to play with another person. A bold move in the MMOG field; not one I’m sure I agree with. When forced grouping in an MMOG works, and it very rarely does, it’s extremely rewarding. Given the “I don’t like dealing with jerks” contingent’s constant growth, I don’t see this bothering everyone as much as it bothers me.

And really, the game is exciting. Garriott’s riding again, and he’s doing a lot of the stuff he did right with the Ultima series. He’s even designed his own pictographic language, Logos (the “S” sound is an “S,” not a “Z”), which he plans on using to both flesh out the game’s back story and also give players a Lingua Franca across the numerous countries in which the game is set to launch. After seeing it live, I’m definitely keeping an eye trained on it, and it’s not just because I owe his brother cab fare.

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