GDC 2007: Tabula Rasa Preview

Richard Garriott’s brainchild is on the way in 2007, NCSoft promises. This sci-fi shooter/RPG was on display at the Metreon in San Francisco during last week’s GDC. Garriott showed off the game, his language Logos and much more. Here is our report.

GDC 2007: Tabula Rasa Preview
Based on presentation by Richard Garriott
Article by Dana Massey

imageWhen Tabula Rasa ships later this year, it will likely have been in development for over six years. In that time, the focus has shifted from unicorns to space aliens, but the headline draw has remained the same: Richard Garriott. Garriott was the man behind Origin, who developed Ultima Online, the Ultima RPG series and dozens of other games, it has been quite some time since a game designed directly by “Lord British” made it to market.

“[Tabula Rasa] really makes a substantial leap forward [in the genre],” Richard Garriott told the assembled press during his GDC presentation in the Metreon next door to the San Francisco convention center. It was a little island of quiet, away from the throngs of people, that NCSoft lined up to present Garriott’s baby and City of Heroes.

Tabula Rasa is defined by fast action, shooter-style combat and active, meaningful and ongoing battle between player and AI factions.

With a unique combination of shooter and RPG mechanics, Tabula Rasa tricks the user into a fast-action mentality, while preserving the integrity of the underlying RPG mechanics. Guns in RPGs are one of the toughest things to pull off and in Tabula Rasa, they seem to have done. The palyer controls their crosshairs with the mouse, just as in most shooters, but as they pass over enemies, the targeting sticks. To fire, they click and then the game mechanics determine the rest. Thus, while players quickly move from target to target with their attacks, there is no fear that a bullet will pass between the enemy’s knees and miss. It’s all about the player’s stats vs. the enemy’s.

The way Destination Games blended the environment into this faux-shooter system made it even more impressive. Players can use their surroundings like buffs, for lack of a better term. If a player crouches, they get a statistical chance to hit increase, are a smaller target, but are more prone to melee damage. If they stand behind a fence or in a bunker and 50% of their body is covered, then there is 50% less chance that the enemy bullets will strike true. This means players need to be tactical, choose and evaluate their environment and consider the consequences of their movement. They also need to maneuver and flank their enemies to be successful. In Tabula Rasa, players cannot just spew buttons and hope for the best. The forces they fight, while NPCs, are not mindless automatons. They take cover too and if they see the player crouched behind a fence, they’ll do their best to flank him.

They have also designed each enemy to be a puzzle of sorts onto itself. For example, a shield drone. This creature surrounds a group of enemies and makes them impervious to outside attack. To undermine this, one player must effectively sacrifice themselves by running inside their sphere of protection and shooting the drone. That might well get them killed, but it also furthers their cause. At past events, Garriott had also shown overhead battleships that could only be shot in one specific place, which forced players to hide, wait for the enemy to pass and then fire a missile as the enemy flew away.

image“The game has an ebb and flow even without players,” Garriott said in reference to the battlegrounds where the NPC alien invaders – the Bane – fight against human defenders. Each battle area has control points and over time, NPCs on both sides will push and redraw the lines of battle. The players are the X-factor in this war and it is up to them to really push the Bane back and turn the tide in favor of humanity.

While instancing often draws players out of the MMO aspects of these games, the small instanced in Tabula Rasa have consequences on the common areas. Side missions within the core battle areas have significant ramifications on the greater war. The advantage for the team is that not only do they get to create small, focused and interesting missions for groups and individuals, but these also mean something to more than just that group. Even if it is still an instance, it makes the whole exercise feel more like an MMO.

“We use instances to do much more detailed puzzles and storytelling,” Garriott underlined. In one shown at GDC, they had broken into a facility that the bane were using to study and transform the fallen bodies of human warriors into mindless drones that were then sent back at the enemies. A giant machine converted coffins into warriors and clearly hurt the war effort. This instance combined old fashion dungeon crawling, single-player style RPG fair and puzzles to entertain the players. For example, in one room, it was necessary for one group member to stay behind and watch the cameras, opening doors and letting their group mates rescue prisoners and gather clues. Eventually, the group had to take out the machine and stop the production of drones. They get the experience for doing this, but it also means that on the battlefield, the flow of enemy soldiers is significantly reduced.

Garriott also spoke of how he tried to make sure each mission had choices, ethical concerns and conflicting goals. These were not readily apparent in the example mission, which seemed rather linear and straightforward. However, it is a noble goal for an MMO. One thing we did see is what he called culminating impact, which is not just a larger impact, but also the visuals to go with it. In this case, when they destroyed the drone building machine, there were explosions and broken machine everywhere, followed directly by a firefight. That definitely qualified.

There are also side mission out on the battlefields, which again alter the battle. One example Garriott gave is a mission where players need to clear and repair communication lines between the battlefield and a local village. If successful, the good guys get more NPC allies until the Bane can take out the communications again.

imageThe new game also alters the dynamic of level progression with a neat twist on the regular dynamic. They have a tree-based advancement system where players can branch and become more specialized at regular intervals. Yet, to get rid of the annoyance of starting over whenever a player wants to try something new, Garriott added “cloning” options at each stage. This gives the player a chance to copy their character’s skills into a new character at any point. Kind of like saving along the way, this option allows players to go back to a previous branch, rather than starting over completely.

Each clone gets its own name, its own face and other specifics. It does share a reputation across characters though to prevent griefing. Each account also has a shared bank box that allows them to outfit their older characters with armor and weapons. This one idea scares me a bit though. If alt-characters are more prevalent as a result of this system, the good old fashion “here’s some armor n00b” that his own Ultima Online began seems like it might well be a thing of the past. If that does happen, it will be a great shame.

They’ve also worked hard to make Tabula Rasa a casual-friendly experience. They work with the hope that players can enjoy their game in short, 30-minute play-bursts as opposed to the regular hours of commitment most MMOs seem to require. That said, no MMO in the last five years – with the possible exception of Vanguard – has ever not promised to pull this stunt off.

Visually, the game looked a little reigned in from previous viewings. It’s hard to put a finger on, but the game just kind of looked like City of Heroes (the previous demo). Not in style or substance, but in technical level. CoH still looks good, but for a brand new game, more is expected. Hopefully, before launch, they pack a little more visual punch into the experience. It could also simply have been the areas, as I don’t remember it looking bland at previous viewings.

Finally, we come to the language of Logos. This pet project of Richard Garriott’s is both fascinating and troubling. I was impressed that it has evolved beyond whacky side-show and into an actual part of the game, but I cannot help but wonder that time could not have been better spent elsewhere in a game on a six year development cycle.

imageLogos is a fully functional pictorial language where intuitive characters represent single words. One advantage is that this transcends borders, to an extent, by removing English-language art objects. That is a problem all teams face, but rather than having Garriott spend weeks inventing a language, it seems like they could have just made alternate assets. What’s more, it is not clear how this language actually conquers language barriers. The order of words is not the same across all languages, Greek for example is not even close and the romantic languages have large differences. I am hardly a linguist, but I have little doubt that non-English speakers are going to have a tougher time with Logos. Luckily for all, there will be tool tips for players as they learn it.

The upside of Logos is that in their attempt to stitch it meaningfully into the game, they’ve created a fun Pokemon system. Players learn them by finding the letters hidden around the world and require them to activate certain skills. Garriott admitted that the later requirement had caused problems, so they have even added quests that make sure players find the “core” words. This is a nice little passive adventuring reward system and a good idea. Unfortunately, Garriott told us that there are no plans to allow “teaching” or trading, which is a missed opportunity.

Tabula Rasa looked solid and seemed to be innovating in a few places. The concern is that some of these innovations, while great on paper, may not actually be problems that players want solved. I fear that despite its strengths, the game itself is about two years too late. Hopefully they make me eat that last sentence.

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