The high cost of Tabula Rasa

Blue’s has posted two interesting opinion pieces from two different people that had been associated with the soon-to-be-shuttered MMORPG, Tabula Rasa. TB was the brainchild of Richard “Lord British” Garriott, the man best known for his pioneering work with the Ultima series of PC RPGs and there were high hopes in seeing some of that magic rub off with NCSoft’s newest online adventure. Unfortunately, the project was plagued with a few issues, one of which had gone so far as to reinvent the entire look of the game from glam-fantasy graphics into gritty, scorched battlefields.

This WAS going to be the world of Tabula Rasa, pretty rainbows to be patched in later...

This WAS going to be the world of Tabula Rasa, pretty rainbows to be patched in later until the art direction was extensively overhauled.

NCSoft designer Scott “Lum the Mad” Jennings underlines the fact that the project was too costly in his article on Broken Toys, a fact echoed by former NCSoft CTO for Europe, Adam Martin, in his piece for T=Machine. Some of the interesting points taken away from both of these articles were:

  • Adam Martin expresses surprise from hearing that it took six years to create a game that was “fun”. Fun, as in when it was released as a beta. He pretty much says that he thought the fun concept came first and the rest of the game was built around it, not the other way around. Given how long development had taken for it to get to that point, it’s also a disturbing view on possible issues deep within development that had to be overcome in order to get there. Refocusing the game’s look and feel was most certainly one of these factors.
  • Scott Jennings also notes that the state of the game had many voice their dissent on an early release when asked for their input, but their words ultimately fell on deaf ears.
  • Tabula Rasa’s development cost was reportedly a cool $100mil, making it a possible contender for one of the most expensive games ever made, placing it in the company of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV which also had a reported development cost of $100mil.
  • According to Adam Martin, with so many people involved in the development of TR, delaying it would cost ““hundreds of thousands of dollars” because it would prolong development. That’s about as much money as one would need to purchase more than one virtual space station.
  • Scott Jennings notes that the marketing beta, when people got to play it for free before the official release, didn’t drum up the kind of excitement that should have been expected. People would apparently play it and then move on to other things to which he says “…if you can’t get people to play the beta for free, you have serious, serious issues”. It was another warning sign, but I’d guess that at this point, NCSoft couldn’t really go back and say that they were just kidding when the beta was already out there…hinting that the full game was just around the corner.

So what is there to learn from these two? Apparently, games are serious business when you have several tens of millions of dollars at stake. Playing Devil’s Advocate here, I can see NCSoft’s point in pushing the project out of the door and then investing time and money in post-release support…fix as you go and all that made easier thanks to the necessity of needing a high speed connection to enjoy full featured and glitzy MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Tabula Rasa nowadays.

They needed the game to produce cash as soon as possible, to staunch the bleeding, and get it going. It’s more of the “we’ll fix it later” mentality that both publishers and developers are sometimes forced to play by when they have investors to answer to. But it looks like the project had several other issues that contributed to its early demise well before the first official beta, issues that should have been addressed before several more years were spent in ironing them out.

The sci-fi apocalypse stick hit the game with all of the fury of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but it wasn't enough to keep it going.

The sci-fi apocalypse stick hit the game with all of the fury of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but it wasn't enough to keep it going.

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