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GDC - Trials of Tabula Rasa 37

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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