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After six and a half years in development, NCsoft finally launched Tabula Rasa today. It had been a long road for the science-fiction MMOG from the mind of Richard Garriott. At one point, they basically had to start over, but as it reaches market today, Producer Starr Long believes they have a product that could change the way people think about MMOGs.

Garriott and Long worked together on Ultima Online where they helped establish many of the conventions that are familiar to online gamers. In Tabula Rasa, they threw many of them out and instead opted for a simpler game that blurs the line between FPS and RPG. In Tabula Rasa, players select their weapon and then shoot, like an FPS. The difference is that while the formula does consider movement, cover and other FPS factors, it is just that, a formula. RPG mechanics drive the game, but its fast paced feel give players the feeling of an FPS.

“[Tabula Rasa] is intentionally easy to understand and get into, but definitely evolves over time,” Long told us in an interview just prior to the launch. The base mechanic of aim and shoot is obviously simple, but as they advance in levels, players need to do more than just aim and shoot. Many enemies are puzzles unto themselves. In effect, there is a rock/paper/scissors game, where enemies don’t deal well with one kind of weapon, but are extremely vulnerable to another. If the player doesn’t consider these factors, they can make their life quite difficult. Elements like that are what Long believes helps give a rather simple premise long term appeal.

TR is set in the near future after an alien invasion by a species known as the Bane has wiped out the Earth. What few survivors there are go from planet to planet and try to make sure that the same fate does not await other planets. Along the way, they learn of Logos, which is a language of a long-dead (or are they?) race that has the power to unlock special abilities within certain people. Those people are of course, the players.

Combat is thus a combination of small-arms fire and psychic abilities, akin to magic in most games. All of this is achieved through simple right or left mouse clicks.

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“The making a faster paced MMO,” Long responded when asked what he is proud of in Tabula Rasa. “I think we totally got that.”

As players advance through missions, they eventually find themselves in an eternal war with the Bane on dynamic battlefields. These are the signature of Tabula Rasa. The AI on both sides is constantly at war and its up to the players to tip the scales. The maps are akin to something found in a game like Battlefield 1942, where two sides fight for control points. As the players push forward, they can capture points, which cripple the Bane advance, inspire retaliation and unlock new safe spots, vendors and quests for the players.

“Once we got all the content associated with [control points], we were surprised how cool it was,” Long said.

Another signature element of Tabula Rasa is what they’ve called ethical parables. These are quests where real-world problems are examined through the fictional backdrop and players must make large decisions, both with positives and negatives, that reflect what they (or their character) believes. For example, one gives players the choice of turning in a drug ring among the troops. Either way, there are unintended consequences that make players re-examine their actual stance on the issue. If they expose the ring, the more senior official who they exposed it to corners the trade and the troops become a bit upset with the player in later missions. If they don’t expose it, they make enemies with the commander who lost out on his chance to corner that market.

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While these sound cool, one complaint Beta testers had was that for all the hype, they really a small fraction of the overall content. Long admits the game has its share of more traditional quests, but also noted that they have done some work later in Beta to make sure these show up earlier in the character arc and more frequently.

“You didn’t even encounter your first one until between level seven and ten,” Long noted. “We made a change that one of the very first missions when you come out of the boot camp tutorial is a little ethical parable.” Over the Beta, they endeavored to add as many as they could, but nonetheless, like many MMOs, the really cool stuff must wait until the end.

“When you get to the level 45 plus missions, that’s when it becomes really interesting and unique,” he said. “A lot of people haven’t gotten there yet, but when you do, there is a big pay off.”

This is still an MMOG and so it follows that some grind and element of a hidden treasure at the top of a mountain is to be expected, but NCsoft has mitigated that through another tweak on tradition: character cloning combined with a branching class system.

In simple English, that means that players do not select a class on day one, but instead go through a series of forks that make their character more specialized. They combined this with cloning, which is where players are able to copy over an exact copy of their character’s progress through the world, but under a new name and body (or even gender). Thus, players can essentially “save their game” at each fork in the road and never need to start from scratch if they want to experience a different class and the content associated with it.

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Originally, Tabula Rasa had been slated to launch earlier in October, but NCsoft took the unusual step of a very short delay to further polish their project. Many found the move curious and Long explained.

“It came down to there was just a list of critical things we wanted to fix,” he said. “Balance was a huge one.” He also noted optimization and sever stability as two other things they tackled that should make their launch much more smooth.

“It wasn’t a lot of time, but it was exactly enough time to get there,” he added.

MMOG gamers always want more though and now that launch is finally here, what else does NCsoft have planned?

“Interestingly, we are already rolling into post launch plans for a while,” Long told us. “The art team actually moved into expansion art at the end of August.”

The plan is to release several free content updates each year, but unlike most other NCsoft games which only do these free updates, Tabula Rasa will also have retail expansion packs. Long believes they’ll make it an annual event.

So how is Tabula Rasa going to do? Long played it smart and didn’t make any bold predictions. “We’re prepared for just about anything,” he said and explained how they have the hardware on hand for any kind of launch imaginable.

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