Tabula Rasa: A tale of hubris and catastrophe

In the last days before the Great MMO Crash of 2008, Tabula Rasa had it all: a rich publisher, an original premise, an association with a famous developer from the past, and a fiercely loyal fanbase. So why couldn’t any of these save it?

Tabula Rasa: A tale of hubris and catastrophe

DEVELOPER Destination Games (really, NCSoft)
RELEASED November 2007 (shut down in February 2009)
PERSONALITY Richard Garriott 
NUTSHELL Despite taking seven years to develop, Tabula Rasa remained live for just 16 months. NCSoft left nothing but pain, penury and strife in the game’s wake, including a US$28 million payout to Richard Garriott.

Back in the mists of ancient time (2000), Richard Garriott was fuming. He knew he was onto something, with this MMORPG business. Ultima Online showed that MMOs (as we call them now) were the future of gaming... all they needed was publishers to believe in them.

Garriott had sold his company Origin Systems to EA back in 1992, because big visions need big money. But insanely, EA systematically cancelled all of Origin’s new projects, even Harry Potter Online. By 2000, it seemed infuriatingly obvious: nobody at EA except Garriott believed in MMOs anymore.

So Garriott resigned, and founded (yet another) company called Destination Games (Origin - Destination, geddit?). They started work on a vast and ambitious MMO called Tabula Rasa. Perhaps some in the industry wondered how a developer as small as Destination could possibly make and support an MMO...

All was revealed when Garriott’s non-compete clause with EA expired. Destination immediately announced a partnership with NCSoft, in many ways the world’s first successful MMO publisher. Based in South Korea, NCSoft had made big bucks with Lineage, and was keen to expand and crack that lucrative US market.

No doubt NCSoft felt confident that Garriott would deliver them something amazing, and quickly. After all, he’d done all those Ultima games, right? Sure, the last two singleplayer Ultimas weren’t that great, but Ultima Online had shown where the future was. Garriott knew MMOs, hell he even coined the term MMORPG!

Unfortunately for NCSoft, Tabula Rasa was not completed quickly. Little did they know in 2001, but the game was only just beginning a seven year saga of rewrites and resignations and hirings and firings and resets and redefinitions.

Part of the problem, it seems, was that for a long time - years in fact - if you asked a Tabula Rasa developer: “What IS Tabula Rasa?” they would reply “Uh...”

Not that subsequent events made it easy on the team. When Blizzard released World of Warcraft in 2004, the stakes weren’t so much raised as catapulted into the sun. Everyone was talking about World of Warcraft, and no one gave a crap about NCSoft games anymore. Except South Korea, of course.

Still, it gave the team a renewed sense of focus. Decisions, finally, had to be made.
For those who never played Tabula Rasa i.e. nearly everyone, the game was a sci-fi MMO set in “the future” on two planets. These worlds were a battlefield between the Allied Free Sentients and the Bane. (In case you can’t figure it out, the Bane were the bad guys.) There was a bunch of stuff about ancient aliens and whatnot, and this leads to Logos, the game’s sci-fi equivalent of magic.

Logos is a pictographic language, the understanding of which grants special powers (lightning attacks, poison, sprinting etc). As players travel the world they find more Logos symbols which they add to their Logos tablet. When you start a new character, this tablet appears as a blank slate... thus Tabula Rasa.

Convoluted? Sure. Ambitious? Beyond. There was a tree-based class system, dynamic missions that are so much more than “get me 20 space-wolf pelts”, semi-FPS combat with sticky targeting, a dynamic persistent battlefield, player bases, clan wars, a sophisticated PVP system and much more.

Garriott and his team tried to mash all this into the game, while chasing the increasingly successful and dominant competition. It took so long, by the time the game went live, the world was right in the middle of an MMO bubble... and that bubble was about to pop.

Sure, Tabula Rasa was released over the objections of its development team that it wasn’t even ready for Beta. Sure, even as players ranted and raved about the craptacular state of the game, the team continued to work through the night to implement all the stuff they’d promised us on the back of the box. And sure, by the time the Great MMO Crash of 2008 sent every publisher scurrying to cut its losses, Tabula Rasa was starting to look like a good, interesting, unusual MMO. But it was too late.

Because during this time, Richard Garriott got bored and distracted. How bored and distracted? Bored and distracted enough to go to actual space. He became all about going to space - or rather, he went back to being all about going to space. Garriott had actually purchased the first “space tourist” ticket with Space Adventures (he even helped found it in 1998), but following personal financial troubles in the dot-com crash, in 2001 he sold his seat to Dennis Tito - who now gets to be known as the first space tourist.

These days, Garriott admits he went back to game development not because of his burning desire to see MMOs become a thing, but rather to make enough money to go to space. 

He didn’t actually fly to the ISS until October 2008, but Space Adventures announced his booking in September 2007 - right when Tabula Rasa was being shoved unceremoniously out the door.

Garriott finally got his space trip in October 2008. He had a great time, but while still sitting in quarantine after landing, was surprised to discover - via open letter from NCSoft - that he had “resigned” from the company because his spaceflight had inspired him to “pursue other interests”.

Weeks later, NCSoft announced it would shut down Tabula Rasa, on the grounds that nobody was playing it - by NCSoft standards anyway. After seven years, followed by critical disdain and a lacklustre commercial response, NCSoft was over it all. The company had successfully proven that an American developer wasn’t good enough to make its kind of MMO.

Unfortunately, NCSoft had also forgotten that what Americans ARE very good at is litigation.

Garriott sued NCSoft for $24 million - an amount that was surely only co-incidentally close to the price of his spaceflight ticket - not on the grounds of breach of contract or failure to support, or anything actually defensible like that. No, the idiots had fraudulently reported Garriott’s resignation as a way of forcing him to dump his stock in NCSoft at a massive loss.

The Austin District Court awarded Garriott $US28 million. NCSoft appealed. The judgement was affirmed. 

NCSoft might have been pissed that Garriott was just using Tabula Rasa to get money to go to space, but the end result was brutally ironic: Not only did Garriott make enough money to go to space, and go to space, he also ended up with all the money.

It was as if Garriott had his cake, ate his cake, and then sold both cakes for a massive profit.

Meanwhile the vaguest hints of Tabula Rasa live on in Mass Effect and other sci-fi RPGs, but really... nobody cares. 

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