Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa has entered its home stretch and recently we got the chance to travel to Austin, TX and talk to Garriott, his team and play this unique game. In many ways, it is an answer to the long-standing norms of the MMORPG genre. We look at how its different in this new preview.
Based on hands-on play, interview with Richard Garriott
Article by Dana Massey
When Richard Garriott speaks, it’s one part video game history lesson and one part preview of Tabula Rasa. So, when he talks about the core assumptions of most MMOs on the market – many of which he helped create – and then explains how Tabula Rasa changes, builds upon or shatters those assumptions, his word carries a bit more weight than any regular developer. When it comes to Tabula Rasa, it is clear that the core design was developed as a way to challenge those assumptions that seemingly every MMO makes.
Tabula Rasa, there is no question, is different from any MMORPG that’s been released to date. Innovation is a noble pursuit, but innovation for its own sake is a waste. With Tabula Rasa, Garriott and his team in Austin have struck that balance and have created a game that will undoubtedly expand the way players think about MMORPGs.
“In other MMOs…” Garriott would begin as he explained each core feature of Tabula Rasa. He used this strategy an innumerable number of times (I tried to count, but lost track quite quickly). He would explain the way almost every MMORPG did things such as combat, then explain why Tabula Rasa did it better.
“It’s a standard we invented,” Garriott noted, referring to the hot-bar, special move combat used in seemingly every MMORPG from 1997’s Ultima Online to April’s Lord of the Rings Online. In World of Warcraft, Garriott pointed out, that style of play had reached its potential. After ten years, he thinks there is room for a game that tries something new and, he hopes, invents a new school of thought when it comes to MMO combat mechanics.
Tabula Rasa is a science-fiction RPG/shooter, where players lock and load with a range of guns as they fight aliens (The Bane) who have already destroyed Earth and threaten the entire universe. Players control their character in third person, but with a persistent mouselook mode allowing them to aim in a style similar to single-player shooters like the Hitman series. As they pan around the screen, their crosshairs stick on enemies and when they click the left mouse button, their weapons fire. Instead of real-time FPS action though, that’s when the RPG dice rolls take over. It all depends on the character, his skills, his weapon and the skills of the enemy as to whether the shots hit or miss, and how much damage they do.
There are tactical elements, though. If a player is running, the game builds that into the accuracy calculation for him and his opponents. If the player kneels behind a log, which reduces the chance his enemy hits him. But while these considerations are important, it always comes back to basic RPG mechanics. The trick and key to Tabula Rasa’s success is that with its frenetic pacing, that fact is easily forgotten.
The game has the excitement and energy of a shooter, without the hand-eye coordination. What is more, it is also much more tactical than most would assume at a glance. There are a range of damage types, for example, and many of the monsters are literal puzzles. If you skip the quest dialogue and are not told how to kill them, they can be quite a challenge.
Quests and Story
Combat aside, the most impressive feature of Tabula Rasa is the way they’ve woven story, quests and what Garriott calls “ethical parables” into the game. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Tabula Rasa as a shoot ’em up alien gore-fest, but in reality, this game appears to have some of the more complex, meaningful and engaging stories of any MMO on the market.
“Most MMOs abandon story,” Garriott told us. He went on to explain the difficulties of telling good stories in an online environment and reiterated that most people’s solution was simply not to try. With Tabula Rasa, he emphasizes the last three letters of the MMORPG acronym.
One way he does this is through instanced missions that look and feel more like single-player RPG missions than typical MMO instances. In the example show, he runs through an underground energy plant and eventually blows up the main reactor, crippling the Bane on the surface above for a short period of time. This mission has meaning, individuals cannot repeat it and it affects the world for all players in a small, but meaningful way. The only flaw is that in an MMO, everyone gets their turn. Garriott, however, does not believe that other people are concerned whether or not they were the only one to undertake the mission, so long as they had fun doing it.
The second prong of his attack is what he calls “ethical parables.” These missions make up about 20% of the total missions in Tabula Rasa and force players to make tough moral choices. In most MMOs (there’s that phrase again), players do exactly what NPCs tell them and that is one of the big reasons they likely didn’t even read the quest text. Sometimes, and players never quite know when, missions take on a greater significance. Players must make a choice between two courses of action, competing interests and ultimately the greater good.
No matter what they choose, there are consequences. Often, these missions are designed to challenge people’s real world beliefs. Garriott was careful to emphasize that he is not trying to moralize or take sides in these issues, but simply show people the possible side effects of their choices.
One example of a mission is the player must choose to either help someone cut off a supply of illegal drugs to the troops, or keep it going. Most people cut it off, but while that provides some initial rewards, they will eventually find that what they really did was simply help someone in the human hierarchy gain a greater hold on the supply and upset the morale of those troops who relied on the drug simply to survive the intense threat of death. If the player goes the other way and keep the drugs flowing, there are again distinct consequences.
In Tabula Rasa, players are encouraged to be aware and do more than just swallow what they’re told wholesale. Each group the player meets has its own agenda and its quests are for their benefit, which may not always correspond with the wellbeing of the player. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes Tabula Rasa feel less like a theme park and more like a world.
One of Garriott’s favorite tales is a surprisingly accurate simplification of most RPGs’ plotlines. Players are told from an early stage that they must fight the bad guy. They then spend the whole game killing, maiming and slaughtering people so they can prepare to fight that enemy. This bad guy waits at the bottom of a dungeon for the players to come kill them. At the end of the day, the body count is almost always much higher on the players’ side of things than the bad guy’s. In this, games diverge from traditional forms of storytelling, in which great lengths are taken to show how the bad guy truly does deserve to meet the end of the hero’s blade.
Tabula Rasa reverses this trend through, among other tactics, active placement of enemies in the world. It is not perfect, there are still apparent “spawn zones” where players can find specific creatures and enemies, but generally the enemies feel like they’re doing something, not just waiting for you. Again, it’s about making the place less of a theme park.
For example, outside one of the towns on the planet of Foreus, a horde of Bane soldiers engages the locals in a firefight. Regardless of my quest, the player feels compelled to stop and help out the good guys. It’s an MMO and eventually the game needs to recycle content, so the third and fourth times they go by that similar firefight, it makes sense to skirt it. Yet, just that touch makes it feel like the Bane are a real enemy, not some pre-programmed automaton who sits on a hill, waiting to be hit with a stick so it can give out candy.
Tomorrow, we’ll conclude our preview with the second half of our look at Tabula Rasa. This includes a look at some of the other places they set out to change the dynamic and some flaws in the game.
For more, there is a second half of this preview. You can find it here.
Now let us know your thoughts.