WarCry sat down with Tom Potter, lead designer of Tabula Rasa, to talk about the game’s present, its future and Richard Garriott’s impending spacewalk.
WarCry: First off, what’s your name, and what’s your role on Tabula Rasa?
Tom Potter: Hello! I’m Tom Potter and I’m the lead designer of Tabula Rasa. I help determine the future direction of feature development and maintain the overall design vision of the game. So I mostly wander around the office and cause trouble.
WarCry: How have players responded to the veteran’s rewards?
TP:It seems that this round of veteran rewards (6-months!) was well received. Overall, I think players enjoy recognition for their loyalty and we plan to continue rewarding players for their dedication to Tabula Rasa. Players really seem to dig the emotes, but they also want something that is cool and functional – something they can show off and use to make players envious. From a design perspective, veteran rewards are actually more complex than you’d think. The hardest thing is trying to top the previous reward package (which I think we’ve done, and we plan to do each time). On the design end, we want to balance the fun stuff with the useful stuff and avoid rewards that force them to swap out their current equipment. It’s a tightrope walk, really. The brass knuckles are a good example of something players can use, but something that has a specific time and a place to use it. We’re exploring a number of options that are similar to this currently for our 9-month rewards.
WarCry: Have many players been interested in Logos? Are they using it as Richard Garriott originally intended?
TP: Conceptually the idea of “Logos” has been pretty consistent with Richard’s initial vision, since as you may know, he invented the whole system. For those who aren’t familiar, Logos is an alien language that players encounter throughout Tabula Rasa in various forms. We currently use Logos as prerequisites to owning skills, as keys to open specific locked doors, and as keys to unlock reliquaries full of loot. Logos can also be found imprinted on various artifacts throughout the world. Some players may have discovered that these artifacts tell stories about the Eloh and the world around them. So I think Richard’s initial vision of Logos as a way to convey information about an alien society through discovery and as a code breaker minigame of sorts has been realized.
But I think there is still a lot of room for exploration. Actually we’re considering ways to use Logos in a some of Tabula Rasa’s other game systems so that they have an even more important role in the game. I think there is a lot of mileage here.
WarCry: Obviously, the game didn’t sell as well as NCsoft would’ve liked. Do they have a plan to help the game grow on a different curve, similar to how EVE did after its launch?
TP: You learn a lot about your game once it’s unleashed for public consumption, and we’ve definitely learned a lot since launch. I think now, perhaps more than ever, the team knows more about what they need to do to both keep existing players happy and to acquire new players. The importance of polished releases is constantly on our minds. As the service has evolved we have learned much from the community about what features are most important to them and what keeps them coming back for more. We knew control points would be popular, but it wasn’t until the game went live that we truly appreciated the potential for elaborating on the design.
Our general plan is to a) continue regular updates to the game to improve quality of life issues and refine the existing design and b) add new features that enhance the existing game. For example we’re currently working on a number of PVE, PVP, and group play balance issues, improving general performance, improving pet AI, and adding new instanced maps. We’re also working on new features like the clan-owned control point concept, where members of clans can own territory within the game and acquire gameplay bonuses for that ownership, and the looking for squad system to allow players to find groups more easily. And then of course we have a ton of new features that we are working on, like personal armor units (PAUs) that will come online in the future.
Next Page: Richard Garriott’s space travel plans.
WarCry: How key a role has Richard Garriott played in the game’s design post-release?
TP: As you may know Richard is preparing for his life-long dream of going to space. That requires an amazing amount of training, so he’s been spending a lot of time overseas. Since he can’t be involved in the critical day-to-day operations of running a live service he has taken on a more creative advisor role for the time being. That said, he has still been in regular contact with us. So he is still around, albeit from Russia at times!
WarCry: A recent re-review in Eurogamer gave the game a 7/10, but said the lower population numbers have really made the game less fun to play. How do you plan to bring players back to the game now that it’s been patched a bit?
TP: As mentioned we have been working on a number of features in the game since launch and we think the game is better for it. We have a number of incentives planned in the short-term like re-enlistment weekends where players that canceled their accounts can jump back in the game for free to experience all the changes we’ve made to the game since launch. We’ll also be doing more free trial weekends to get brand new players playing the game. We’re finishing some other key items so this summer you’ll see some new initiatives meant to bring out all of the additions and improvements that we have made since launch, with efforts to get the game into more hands. (Incidentally, we’re working on our eighth “deployment” – our word for our free updates – now, and have many more coming through the end of the year!).
WarCry: Playing the game feels like a very fluid experience on the first go. Everywhere you go, it seems as though the world adapts to you, spawning enemies on the fly and such. However, once you visit an area more than once, you quickly realize a lot of what felt dynamic is in fact a static experience. Is there a way in MMOGs to actually make an open world feel as though it’s tailor-made for each player?
TP: An MMO that is tailor-made for each player is actually a pretty complex design challenge. Letting players affect the state of the game is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that MMO game developers face. Ideally you want players to feel like they have an impact on the world, that their actions somehow affect the outcome of persistent events. However the idea of persistence makes this very difficult to design in a meaningful way. The more tailor-made you make something for an individual, the more you have to sacrifice group play to some extent.
Take this extreme example:
Roaming through the wilderness you encounter a bridge spanning an infinite void. The only way to access the area on the other side of the void is via this bridge. You just so happen to have a quest to destroy said bridge. After the dust settles all that remains are a few beams where the bridge once stood. Now no player in the world can use that bridge, thus no player can access that area until the bridge returns.
Does it respawn back in the world? If it does you really aren’t having a meaningful impact since the world returns to the same state as if you took no action. If some player interaction, like bridge repair, is necessary, you have to build a system to support that. And that’s no easy task. Start adding more and more of these elements to the game and your design becomes infinitely more difficult to manage. The quality assurance time alone would be staggering.
The actual concept of player actions having a real impact on the world is certainly possible, and is often done on a small scale. A lot of MMOs try to solve the problem through instancing out encounters, where the experience is specifically crafted for small groups and separated from the persistence of the world. Some games do things like allow player housing, or story NPCs can be affected by some player outcome. Some MMOs use planned dynamic events to this extent as well. But the more impact you want those choices to have, the more complex the design must become. Pretty quickly you run into a situation where the design and resources necessary to accomplish this becomes overwhelming to many game studios. It’s definitely not impossible, but to make a game where players have real impact on the world, your team has to make certain compromises to make the design manageable. And in some cases those compromises alienate your audience.
In Tabula Rasa we have the concept of Control Points which are a dynamic experience as bases shift in ownership between AFS and Bane control. These bases are constantly being assaulted by Bane and AFS forces, but it is players’ action (or inaction) that determine what faction claims ownership ultimately. If a base comes under attack and players choose to do nothing, then it will likely be taken over by the Bane. Players collectively will then lose access to things such as waypoints, vendors and in some cases mission arcs… until they gain control of the base again. We’re also in the process of adding clan-ownership to some of the Control Points, so players will be even more invested in what happens in the game world. I’d love to add more elements like this to TR that give players the feeling that the world is not only dynamic, but also that it is responding to their actions.
Next Page: Life after WoW.
WarCry: What’s MMOG development like in a post-WoW world?
TP: I think there is a false perception about current MMOs that if a project can’t compete head to head with WoW it can’t be successful, which just isn’t true (look at City of Heroes, for instance, they’re doing great). I really admire companies who are dedicated to iteration and polish. But in all fairness that requires a lot of resources which is probably out of the reach of many studios. I think we’ll see a lot more games providing an alternative to WoW, hoping to capture players that are either not interested in fantasy games or have burned out. That’s not to say there won’t be a WoW-killer in the future, but the timing of that release will be key. Although some labeled us this way, our goal was never to be a WoW-killer. We’re actually interested in a different sort of player.
Tabula Rasa is fortunate in that the design has always been different from the standard MMO design. We chose to be more action oriented where there is more combat than downtime. But the Catch-22 is that while players may be seeking an alternative to a standard MMO like WoW, they still expect to see those standard features since they are extremely familiar with them. Now I’m not saying all players, but enough to make a difference. Deviate too far from those standards and you have to spend precious time basically deprogramming people and explaining how your features work. Then that starts the whole “accessibility” quandary that sci-fi MMOs have in general since fantasy is so ingrained in people’s minds.
WarCry: How does the average TR player spend his time?
TP: I’d wager a lot of players spend a significant chunk of time fighting around control points. Often I go to a CP to get/finish a mission, a Bane invasion begins, and the next thing I know I’ve been there an hour blasting Bane over several waves of assaults. And it’s funny, during assaults I see a lot of players running by on some mission presumably and they make a sudden detour to join in on the mayhem. It’s really hard to ignore the complete chaos of the control point battles so they tend to aggregate players on every map.
WarCry: Where do you hope the game will be in the next six months? A year from now?
TP: It’s always difficult looking too far out for an MMO project because community feedback is crucial for determining the course of production. The team might have expectations about how a certain feature is going to be received by the community, but sometimes players throw you a real curveball. For that reason alone it’s critical to maintain flexibility so that you can course correct when necessary.
But with that said, in the next 6 to 12 months players will be enjoying a very different TR. By then clan-owned control points will be a mature feature and will have evolved considerably based on player feedback. Players will also be blasting Bane in their PAUs. For those that aren’t familiar, PAUs are giant mechs piloted by players! This feature could really change the way people look at the game. As we add more compelling features over the next few months we hope to continue to increase the number of players. We hope to increase our growing online community while making the game better and better with time. I’m excited about the enhancements coming down the road very soon for the game, and I’m happy to be able to take a lead role in getting them out to our players.