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Tabula Rasa Goes Back to the Drawing Board

Another non-fantasy MMO launch, another year, another funeral announcement from NCSoft – Tabula Rasa this time.

On February 28, 2009, Tabula Rasa will be shutting down its servers, and as of January 10, 2009, the game will be free to play.

Autopsy time.

Was it an ill-judged beta release (see Aion now, Auto Assault prior)? The non-FPS… FPS action? The non-MMO… MMO action? Not being a WoW rip-off? Cost overrun? Garriott being, uh, somehow… involved? Unhappy Meal Combo?

Who knows, and, from many former NCSoft fans, a big who cares.

The mules remember Auto Assault “died” in a remarkably similar fashion, with a threadbare party line refusal to admit AA was dying until the complete turnaround announcement breezily suggested “it’s already dead” and hit the newsstands.

But not all was lost.

The sweetener for the Auto Assault player[s] was… to get free time on the eagerly anticipated Tabula Rasa.

Which must make it bitterly amusing to some that TR’s death is being sweetened by, yes, free time enjoying a few other NCSoft MMO titles, along with beta access to Aion. Now that’s solid marketing!

Out of respect for the many fine people not yet canned at NCSoft, the mules hope Aion breaks the pattern of hype, big budgets, and disappointing MMO subscriber counts that never perk upwards after initial launch.

Hope is easy. Unfortunately Aion, and many other online games, needs more than hope.

The mules have a theory, untested and unproven: MMO audiences have evolved.

Yes, there is a gigantic pool of “my first MMO” subscribers out there. Note from them: they’re sticking to their first love, though they may dabble with infidelity on newer MMOs for a while here and there.

Thus to gain subscribers of a fragmented and fickle evolved market, there has to be something better than yet another “sweet graphics!” clone of the handful of games that predate the Tabula Rasa entries by many years. Speaking of fantasy, chasing the “who can make a better-looking explosion” is a unicorn. It runs like the wind, then disappears.

In most industries, disparate contests – ones involving numbers like horsepower, speed, energy – have seen a similar evolution long ago. The first airplane, automobile, live televised broadcast, radio show, talking or tinted movie – all those reached a saturation point and plateau the MMO can dissect.

The winners in most industries that get beyond the early adoption stage bring something (radically) new to the table, or else greatly reduced the costs to both provider and client for “the same thing” repackaged.

Some brought the equivalent of a new HUD, PhysX, a billion polygons. Some went the “brand” route early, and were the Blizzard of their time. Without huge risk and initial cost outlays, however, seldom did these kinds of bells and whistles prove a surefire hit once past the early-adopter phase.

Great ideas litter the MMO and other industries, obviously. But chasing great ideas (not clock speeds) is a good bet for success when the risks are very high for big-budget gambles. MMOs are founded on a history of rolling dice – so weight the next roll in favor of lower costs and innovation.

Wipe the slate clean. Not in the title. Really do it. Forge something new. Spend less, risk more.

Ignore the graphics and voiceover “spoken lines” war. If your backstory sucks, revise it. Get an editor or review board. Revise again. And again. Writing is cheap, and creativity there is a drop in the investment bucket. If it’s broken past patching, dump the idea and start something new.

Hire your hundreds of programmers and engineers once the story line and characters and “world” feel like a unique, rich, deep, expandable win. Anything can be condensed into a jacket summary. What fails hard and fast is a jacket summary that is little short of the whole story.

The media and online reviewers will indeed focus – briefly – on how awesome that slow-motion headshot looks, but more important to the year-long subscribing player is how real the story and world seem. Technical bugs are a deal-breaker; remove them.

But when the bug is your foundation story, you’ve spent 90% or more of your budget after you should have already predicted failure.

There is nothing so fleeting as the attention of a tween male. Ignore them. Make a game for their parents and older siblings. Those people have different needs and desires. Don’t forget females, or whatever is politically correct to call a massive game-interested section of the world that has helped make “casual gaming” a buzz word in recent times.

Does your MMO require any higher-brain activity? Can you play without killing a million “somethings” to gain recognition and a place in that MMO world? Can a player log in for 30 minutes or less and “do something” of value?

If not, the world will be hollow – and unrealistic – before it starts. It can be set on a satellite made of cheese, that’s not the “realism” problem. It’s when 100% of the population is a warrior class that, consciously or not, players realize continually they are playing a game, and not a very clever one. Make half of your content based on decisions and actions that do not require a weapon. Don’t pigeon-hole that player into being “just a farmer” or “just a healer” – can a doctor or craftsman not in theory run, jump, shoot, or cross “classes” in the real world?

Then why not in yours?

With such ideas, you won’t beat WoW. Don’t try. Spend within your predictions, and budget for worst-case from day one. Focus on “realism within the confines of the suspended disbelief” of the world. Plan for alternative revenue streams such as in-game advertising, and make it “work” without looking like a billboard in the middle of the skating rink.

The mules and others who are looking for something truly innovative will be there for your beta – and beyond.

Otherwise this will not be the last announcement of its kind: R.I.P. – Tabula Rasa.

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