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GDC - Trials of Tabula Rasa 37

Posted by Zonk
from the it's-hard-to-make-stuff dept.
Richard Garriot has been lauded over his long career for his work with the Ultima series. Last night he received a Lifetime Achievement award for that work, a testament to his perseverance. This morning he talked about the "Trials and Tribulations" of creating a MMOG, specifically his ongoing project, Tabula Rasa. Read on for notes on his discussion of the long road his project has taken.
Status Summary. The project began slowly, and had some large bumps almost immediately. In 2004 they completely revamped the project, in design and other areas. It's proceeded very well over the last year, with an international team. He's going to focus on that harsh first year in this talk.

Solo vs. MMOGs. In solo games, you're special and alone. In MMOGs, you are not alone. The original idea was to 'take your friends along'. The cost, though, is that you are in no way special. 'Your life is pretty darn average.' MMOGs are flawed, and have several consistent problems. These include:

  • Repetetive level grinding as a character's life.
  • Even if you're 'on a quest', what you're really doing is farming a static environment for XP and Money.
  • There's no real purpose, or measure of success.
  • There's no sense of urgency, and your character has no real impact on the world.
They set out to fix this. They launched Destination Games in April 2001. His work on Ultima Online had proven the worth of MMOGs, but a lot of publishers had failed in the space. Destination Games, for he and his brother, was really a 'second-once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity.

They hooked up with NCSoft, and merged with them the very next month. Destination's goal was to make a Worldwide Best Seller, and become the MMOG leaders of the East and West. They have a very experienced production staff in both key markets. 'It will be easy'.

They forged an international 'Dream Team'. Garriot, Star Long, UO team, plus Jake Song from Lineage ... the entire team was 'overqualified'. This was their first mistake, in his mind. They tried to innovate on 'every' front ... except for 3D tools and technology (big mistake). They wanted to move so far from fantasy/normal s/f that it lead to some misunderstandings about the title. They felt that they could focus on their 'time to market', and skimp on the visual representation.

They weren't making: Ultima, LotR, D&D, Wing Commander, or Star Wars. The goal was a "Grand Vision", an MMOG with a solo-style game, where you really made an impact on the world.

Plan of Compromises. Too many intelligent and creative people on the team, too many to compromise."too many cooks'. Not only happened at the top, but at *every* level of the company. Lots of language barrier issues, with hard to communicate design subtleties. Cultural issues became a problem. He gave some feedback on Lineage 2 during development, and there was a lot of backfire from his commentary (well meant as it was).

The goal initially was a blend between US and Asian tastes. Despite that, the Asian art never felt 'right' for either culture. (Good guys are small, Bad guys are big for example.) Even their choice of architecture became problematic, because of cultural issues. The mixture just wasn't compelling. After a time, Jake Song took his leave of the project. Tabula Rasa was refocused as a 'U.S. Game'. Most of the team was US, so they need to 'make what they know'.

They focused on off-the-shelf tools, in theory to cut their time to market. The result was sub-standard capability and took a long time to tweak. They focused on a 'S/F Martial Arts' feel, with elements of 'Warriors of Zu' and 'Chinese Ghost Story'. The result was just too strange for US players. They focused on instances exclusively, with a Disneyland metaphor initially. That worked, but the result was that the world lacked the 'feel' of an actual MMOG. There was no 'feel that you were in a world'.

The focus on the unique vision of the future was very 'art nouveau'. He convinced himself that this was the way to go, but nothing that really ever worked. That led to nothing compelling for the players, and should have been abandoned earlier. Time to Market vs. quality led to a lot of compromises. The feedback became very vocal, that the game was 'obtuse and bad'. A lot of Ego went into keeping the game on the same path all along. The human clothing and architecture was just too alien. The male outfits were the worst. He shows some sketches, with very nouveau influence. All elements of the game were 'unique', and people just didn't 'get it'.

In fall of 2004, there was a total reboot of the project. "While we all wanted to believe and we could tell a great story, it was clear we were failing to make our 'vision' work".

They ramped up the tech, and rebuilt all the art on a basis of contemporary elements. They focused on the War Elements, with battlefields and shared spaces. Only a certain element of the game kept the nouveau. They let go a lot of the entrenched staff, who couldn't deal with the change. They hired only very top artists, with a dedication to the vision. They focused on 'TV Moments', moments that are awe-inspiring. They need to get it right rather than get it to the market quick. They also opened up, and listened a lot more to feedback.

Some elements did survive. The backdrop of the game was kept, with some of the story and language and 'science'. The goals of the 'feel of play' were kept. Devote the player to 30 minutes of play, no farming, story driving, with a real contribution to the game world. The combat structure was also focused, giving the game a feel of immediacy, a 'shooter' feel but still very much an RPG.

They dropped 75% of the code, all of the art, 20% of the art, and about 50% of the design. Once that shifted, everyone 'got it'. Everyone 'got it', and liked it. Everyone was on the same page for the first time, so everyone knew their part. Their results now matched expectations, and the project took off.

The game is now very large, and moving fast, so there are many challenges. 50+ people in Austin, 10+ in LA, 30+ in China, 5+ in Seoul, plus a bunch of outsourcing. They just couldn't find enough people who could contribute to the game's art at the level they wanted in the US. Management has gained a number of layers, which makes holding the quality bar high difficult. The sheer amount of work involved in a MMOG means there is no one person who knows everything.

They've moved on to a much more beautiful world, with specular lighting and an understandable metaphor. They started with an earthlike world, to provide a familiar basis for all of their more alien places. There will be a moral element to the game, like his Ultima titles. They're now in the worldbuilding stage, with one completely done, one under construction, and one currently in development. The game is obviously very late, but TR today is going to be a great game (he hopes) and he thinks the journey was worth it.

The bottom line: Too many cooks spoil the broth, high end tools are essential to success, and you need to manage the amount of innovation to attempt with one project.

One of the elements that survived is the symbolic communication. There's an in-game language, which is easy to read for the whole world. It helps make a real, compelling world that isn't just a plagiarized Tolkien world. He sees most MMOGs as just grinds with a thin film of 'story' lacquered on top. In UO he started with Runes, but that was only easy for English-speakers. He spent a long time thinking of basic concepts, with research into symbolic languages that use caricatures to communicate concepts. The result is a language that has been left behind by an alien race that attempts to be universally understandable.

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GDC - Trials of Tabula Rasa

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  • Congradulations Lord British. I hope the new game is as good as it sounds. Tabula Rosa is supposed to be a FPS and I think that is fitting considering he was partially responsible for one of the first first person games, Ulitma Underworld.
  • I've been hearing hype about how great this thing is going to be for years... It's starting to have the Duke Nukem Forever feel to it.
    • I heard it's going to be bundled with Team Fortress 2.
    • ...After reading this article I'm actually interested in the game. When the designer actually has the guts to redesign the game completely because it isn't working out, that's a good sign. I don't think I've ever heard of a game where someone tried this, with the exception of SWG (but that was when they took a good game and completely destroyed it, so that doesn't count)

      On the other hand, those of you who remember Guild Wars back in E34E (E3 for everyone) will remember that it was, quite simply, the best g
      • The recent screenshots I've seen give it this parody feel. It looks like a cross between Everquest and Unreal Tournament, except they didn't actually cross them, they just cut and pasted graphics from each in there. Not only that, but all the stuff they were saying originally about how content was going to be player created seems to be gone. So why is it still called Tabula Rasa? Are they just trying to capatalize on the original hype? What they were originally planning sounded like fun. What they've got no
      • by Anonymous Coward
        I don't think I've ever heard of a game where someone tried this, with the exception of SWG (but that was when they took a good game and completely destroyed it, so that doesn't count)

        The original Half-Life had to be redesigned from scratch after several years of work, when the company realized they were about to conduct a gigantic turkey drop. That's one data point in favor of being honest enough with yourself to admit your game sucks and start over, schedule be damned...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The thing that still confuses me though is this: The original intent of Tabula Rasa, as far as I knew, was to make a game in which there were thousands of other people, like in an MMORPG, but every character is the "star"; the game is MMORPG-sized yet every person is the focus of their own plotline, like in a traditional RPG.

    So from reading the article they seem to think they're reaching this goal. How?

    How do they make this work?

    The article mentions something about "30 minutes". What does this mean?
  • by Xunker (6905) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:33PM (#14981991) Homepage Journal
    "They dropped [...] all of the art, 20% of the art..."

    ..Guess they dropped people good at math, too?

    (moderator note: this is -1 Redundant, btw).
  • by Skynet (37427) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:38PM (#14982041) Homepage
    Garriot has been so influential to game development, it's good to see that he is still going strong and working hard to push things even further.

    It's also nice to see a company make the very tough decision to abandon a project and start from scratch.

    I had high hopes for Tabula Rasa, and my hopes have now been reaffirmed. Thanks Mr. Garriot :)
  • I played this.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by zyte (896988)
    I played this game last year at e3 and while I have full faith in Lord British, I just wasn't that impressed. It's an mmofps and I've always had my doubts about that working. At the time it was basically point in the general direction of the monster you want to kill, click to fire, and hope it hits, hit would be determined by your skill. Plus there was a bit of lag between click and fire, enough for me to notice, enough for the cs kiddies to go batshit crazy over. Granted it was in early development, I just
  • No, it's not. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @02:44PM (#14982080) Journal
    The bottom line: Too many cooks spoil the broth, high end tools are essential to success, and you need to manage the amount of innovation to attempt with one project.
    No, the bottom line is that a big name, previous success, talent, money, and 'vision' (whatever the hell that is) isn't enough to create a compelling, fun product.

    It doesn't help that they totally were ass-backwards from the beginning, fixating on the medium and not the message. Garriott brothers, please meet John Romero. You've just re-invented fire, congratulations.

    I look forward to seeing the transcript of this talk, if it's available, as it could be a useful negative object lesson on how NOT to go about designing something.

    Look, if you have a fun game-concept, and it will be made FUNNER by putting it into the MMOG gamespace, great. Good luck. But to say 'hey, we've got this cool concept of playing a game with a gajillion other people and making a pile of money, let's design something for it' is about the equivalent of when you got your first cell phone, and called your friend and said "hey, I'm talking to you on a cell phone!" "COOL!" (silence) "OK, say something" (silence) "No, you say something." (etc.)

    Having a good way to COMMUNICATE a concept or game experience isn't a substitute for having a game concept to begin with. Duh. I don't really blame them, not directly: if they weren't surrounded by fanbois that are busy collecting their nail clippings to sell on ebay, SOMEONE should have had the commonsense to say "guys, STUPID concept!". Kind of a George Lucas Syndrome.

    They dropped 75% of the code, all of the art, 20% of the art, and about 50% of the design. Once that shifted, everyone 'got it'. Everyone 'got it', and liked it. Everyone was on the same page for the first time, so everyone knew their part. Their results now matched expectations, and the project took off.

    The game is now very large, and moving fast, so there are many challenges. 50+ people in Austin, 10+ in LA, 30+ in China, 5+ in Seoul, plus a bunch of outsourcing. They just couldn't find enough people who could contribute to the game's art at the level they wanted in the US. Management has gained a number of layers, which makes holding the quality bar high difficult.


    Does that smell like Daikatana to anyone else?
    Sounds like desperate retrofitting to match 'legendary game designer' expectations, riffling through talent until they find enough people to 'buy into' the 'vision' (aka 'swallow the koolaide for a paycheck'). "Managment has gained a number of layers" WTF does that mean? Sounds like design-by-consensus to me, and we ALL know how wonderfully that works out.

    I have one last cliche that seems appropriate: "dead on arrival".
    • I was entirely to distracted by "FUNNER" to understand what you were ranting about.
    • You seem very negative about this, considering that the product hasn't even been released yet. Why is that?

      No, the bottom line is that a big name, previous success, talent, money, and 'vision' (whatever the hell that is) isn't enough to create a compelling, fun product.

      This is true, just look at John Romero. But keep in mind that Romero had a basic game concept and made a couple of games from it that were hits, and then tried to reinvent it. Garriott, on the other hand, was responsible for a very lo
  • Richard Garriott (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @03:16PM (#14982340) Homepage Journal
    The younger gamers out there who've never heard of Garriott/Lord British would do well to check out his Wikipedia entry [wikipedia.org] and learn of his awesomeness.
    • by ivan256 (17499) *
      And the older gamers who worship him would do well to listen to the people looking at his current work without the rose colored glasses... And I *am* old enough to know all about him.

      Past awesomeness is not an indication of future performance. Everything about this game makes me wonder what the hell they're smoking. Have you looked at the screenshots? (and I don't mean for the graphics)
      • Spot on. He hasn't significantly contributed to any video game development since Ultima IV, technically. Also, I don't know why the article claimed he made any contributions to UO. I know(or knew) some of the QAs and programmers working on UO back in the day, and Garriot didn't do jack for UO during development or after release. He barely even logged on(and one of the times that he did, his invulnerability flag wasn't set, allowing the infamaous Rainz to kill him with firewall scrolls at a publicity eve
  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Thursday March 23, 2006 @03:19PM (#14982353)
    Tabula Rasa seemed a lot more compelling in the first iteration. Now it looks like a glorified FPS, and one which seems to have taken the storyline from Starship Troopers.

    Companies seem to be a bit too eager to attract the FPS crowd through MMOs but I don't know if the two can really mix, at least not yet. Developers need to realize that not everyone wants to play an FPS.

    Maybe the end result will prove me wrong, but I don't have high hopes for this game as it looks now.
    • I'm not much into RPGs but a MMO FPS does hold a certain appeal. I've always that the Warhammer 40k series would dovetail nicely into a MMO, but I don't think anyone is working on it.
    • Planetside had plenty of people playing it back in the day and is still alive. But bugs and faction imbalance and other games eventually drove a lot of players away.

      I played PS way back near release. It was a good time. The friendly-kill-points was a good way to handle TK issues if a bit more forgiving than it should have been, but hey. I'm not sure I really liked the system though -- the exponential leveling scale meant it was more effecitve to have a number of characters to have one who does vehicles, one
  • Being a member of the "media" I was able to play Tabula Rasa at E3 last year. Frankly, I was blown away... not to mention hooked - line and sinker! Won't be making it to E3 this year, but some of my http://www.gamedaily.com/ [gamedaily.com] compadres will be checking it out in my absence to see how much, if anything, has changed. If it's still similar to what it was last year (it completely changed between '04 and '05 - FOR THE BETTER)... TR is gonna rock!!
  • Starr Long is a really interesting personality. I spoke with him at length about MMOs, specifically about instancing design ideas.

    The site with the interview is down, else I'd link to it.

    One thing that we talked about, I think I brought it up was the fact that there are 1000s of players playing counter-strike every day, for hours on end. Why would such a repetitive game have such a huge playerbase, if the repetitive actions in MMOs are a turn-off.

    The resulting conversation focused on the player, and their
  • NCSoft is good at making MMORPGs and its great that they have Lord British, yes I'm old enough to know who he is, on their side.

    Lineage II is a great MMORPG, in fact one of the best MMORPGs that sadly not enough people have discovered. They're all running to WoW, EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies...no, forgot, their running "away" from SWG. My bad. :-p Plus, the game has the most creative use of the Unreal engine I've ever seen. Its a continuous, presistant world with no ZONING or loading screens betwee
  • They just couldn't find enough people who could contribute to the game's art at the level they wanted in the US.

    Now, while some of my favorite comics/manga are from Japan, I dissagree with this statement. Most manga is crap, and 90% of anime is an animated version of a manga story. I guess they forgot about our collection of artists that make all the comics we have today. Sure, it seems today the comics styles are trying to fit a Japanese/Asian mold, but they hold up well enough. What I think the aut

    • They just couldn't find enough people who could contribute to the game's art at the level they wanted in the US.

      Now, while some of my favorite comics/manga are from Japan, I dissagree with this statement. Most manga is crap, and 90% of anime is an animated version of a manga story. I guess they forgot about our collection of artists that make all the comics we have today. Sure, it seems today the comics styles are trying to fit a Japanese/Asian mold, but they hold up well enough. What I think the author

      • Ah, that is totally true about the 3D modeler aspect. They probably meant that. However, I would also think more quality 3d modelers reside in the US than anywhere else. Not only do we produce all the major 3d software out there (Max, Maya, Lightwave, etc), we have all the people that use it for major movies and productions. Saying there isn't enough good modelers in the US is total crap.

        As far as the line thickness goes, it is a major part of the style. It was heavily enforced in the cell animation

        • Ah, that is totally true about the 3D modeler aspect. They probably meant that. However, I would also think more quality 3d modelers reside in the US than anywhere else. Not only do we produce all the major 3d software out there (Max, Maya, Lightwave, etc), we have all the people that use it for major movies and productions. Saying there isn't enough good modelers in the US is total crap.

          You forget that the talented 3D modelers aren't just sitting by the telephone and waiting for someone to call, no, th

          • There is in fact a lot of 3d people in the US who will work for a normal wage. I think you are right in their budget might be low, but they could still afford them. As I mentioned, I went to animation school in Japan. I am not doing animation work because they get paid about $1 a frame. I am slow as hell, and would only get about $10/day. To make it worse, people in Korea are now the major production houses for Japanese animations because they do it for less. Less than $1?! Yep. Garriot again should
  • All of the art, and 20% of the dev team, was dropped. Just thought I should clarify.

    Bruce

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