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Perspectives

“You’re leaving here… for NCsoft? You *know* Tabula Rasa is going to crash and burn, right?”

— heard from someone when I announced my plans to leave Mythic, a year and a half before Tabula Rasa shipped

Adam Martin, formerly CTO of NCsoft Europe, has posted his own …post-mortem isn’t a good word, more of a memoir of his peripheral experiences with Tabula Rasa’s launch. It’s a good read – and you should go read it now. As his posting title puts it, “We need to talk about Tabula Rasa; when will we talk about Tabula Rasa?”

Well, Adam’s a bit safer in that he’s on a whole other continent. Here in Austin game development, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t, at a maximum, one degree removed from someone who was involved, at one point or another, with TR. It was a massive project, it employed a great many people over its lifetime, and at least half of the resumes currently sitting in my email are from people involved, at one point or another, with TR. Combine that with Midway’s long-running explosion and you have most of the Austin game development community polishing resumes.

So what happened?

My take is pretty similar to Adam’s, actually. I was considerably closer geographically, but not that much closer from a development perspective. To mirror Adam’s “who is this guy and why is he pontificating, again?” bona fides, I…

  1. …was a designer on another, smaller project at NCsoft Austin’s office (hired as system designer, eventually promoted to lead designer)
  2. …wasn’t on the TR dev team
  3. …am not much for FPS games, am pretty sad at them, and usually die horribly in Team Fortress 2
  4. …used that as an excuse for staying as far away from TR discussions as possible
  5. …it was a pretty weak excuse, yeah.
  6. …was on the same mailing lists Adam was (save the cool management ones he was privy to, which was probably for the best) and heard much the same angst, cheerleading, and general “holy crap what now” gestalt.

Gathering Feedback, Putting It Into A Box, Never Speaking Of It Again

 

As TR moved closer to release, company wide, we were *ordered* to start particpating in weekly playtests. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really fond of shooters, and clung to that Get Out Of Jail Free card fiercely. I mean, being one of the most obnoxiously opinionated persons on internal email lists, along with the whole ranting on the web for a decade thing, having an excuse *not* to have an opinion on That Thing Looming Over All Of Us was pretty sweet.

But closer to release, we were told to play the game and give feedback. Which I did. I think my overall feedback was “it wasn’t THAT bad” (for those at Mythic who remember the blistering we-should-probably-fire-your-ass-right-now-for-that-very-unhelpful-email feedback I fired off about Imperator prior to its final E3, that may raise an eyebrow or three). It *wasn’t* that bad. The tutorial was kind of meh, then got kind of cool, then you wandered around and shot things. It wasn’t World of Warcraft, which I considered a plus. I didn’t really enjoy playing it, but it wasn’t for me.

(I’m sure my somewhat constant resentment over Tabula Rasa being the twelve thousand pound gorilla which had dozens of programmers and a floor full of artists while our project was flailing about wildly for just one concept artist and maybe a server programmer or two had nothing to do with it. But I digress. For now, We’ll get back to that somewhat constant resentment in a bit.)

The calendar moved forward inexorably, and TR went into marketing beta – you know, where anyone can play it so they get ALL excited and make guilds and get ready for release and… yeah, that didn’t happen. People downloaded the game, had varying degrees of the “it’s not THAT bad” reaction, and didn’t play it again.

This was noted. One of the mantras that went around production discussions after Auto Assault’s launch square into the pavement was that if you can’t get people to play the beta for free, you have serious, serious issues. Tabula Rasa had those issues. Not as bad as Auto Assault – there were people doggedly playing every night and presumably enjoying themselves, and metrics were duly assembled to measure every movement those testers took. But it was pretty clear, at least from my completely disassociated and busy with my own thing viewpoint, that there wasn’t a lot of excitement.

So, as Adam mentioned, a survey was sent out shortly before the game was scheduled to release, anonymously asking, among other things, if the game should be delayed. I put that it should, based on the Auto Assault beta-not-lit-on-fire thing and the general principle that if you have to ask if it should be delayed, it probably should be. But I didn’t feel very passionately about it one way or the other. (I’m told later that most of the team DID feel pretty passionately about it and made it known so.)

The survey’s results weren’t announced. Internal rumors swept pretty widely (I know, because if they got to my end of the building, they were pretty wide) that the results were almost unanimously for a delay.

There was no delay.

Whoops.

You’re The Next Contestant On The Game Is Wrong

All during this time, I was pretty busy. Our game was trying to move into full production. We were the next product scheduled for shipment after Tabula Rasa. We were scrambling to fill some pretty key hires, justify an ambitious/insane production schedule, and generally get our shit into gear.

Right about then, the following things happened:

  • We were faced with some pretty key technical issues (I can’t go into any further detail, just assume for the moment they made us look like complete blithering idiots and go from there)
  • Tabula Rasa shipped, promptly flopped, and everyone went “uh… What the hell?”
  • Everyone in management decided that was *not* going to happen again, and most had their own theories on how that would be prevented.
  • The poster child for making sure it was *not* going to happen again became… us.

There was a company meeting about then, which was designed to boost the company morale. Chris Chung had just taken over from Robert Garriott, people were scared about their future, and we were tasked, as a key part of our presentation, to show how kickass we were.

 

We failed.

We had no game systems to show, because we had no functioning game server beyond a prototype that we had migrated away from months prior. We showed a depressing landscape of twisted trees and rocks, and our lead designer, who normally is one of the most inspirational speakers I’ve heard in the industry, understandably wilted under the stress of YOU MUST SAVE OUR COMPANY NOW and gave a pretty depressed speech about the game’s fiction that didn’t match much of what was shown onscreen. The internal response was brutal to the point of sadism, and in a failing of management was made known to the leads along with who gave the comments. Most of whom were… on Tabula Rasa.

This was not helpful to morale, to put it mildly.

Things got worse. An executive from Korea came to check on our progress, and was surprised that we were working on an MMO. (I wish I was joking.) We were told that our jobs weren’t in danger, really. It’s FINE. You’re good for at least a few months or so.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

We soldiered on, moved inexorably towards our first playable demo. It was a really kick-assed zone, our artists (which we finally had) outdid themselves, our programmers (which we finally had) did awesome work, I had taken over lead design duties due to the former lead being promoted onward and upward at his own request (his vision of the game long before eviscerated by budget cuts) and we were gonna kick ass, it was gonna be great, everything was finally firing on all cylinders, we were going to show everyone at the company that we could follow through on our promises and our ninjitsu was superior and and and the first team playtest we did on the new server failed completely.

The team meeting following that was unpleasant. I imagine the same “it was your fault no it was your fault no you” conversation took place at Tabula Rasa more than once.

Shortly thereafter the project was cancelled. Not one of the highlights of my career, especially since I was one of the folks who had to man up and tell our superiors that no, we were not going to be able to deliver a playable demo on schedule and yes, we knew what that meant. Our team shrunk by 2/3rds as we swiftly moved to working on a new prototype to justify our continued existence.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

There was another company meeting, which was designed to boost company morale. We were told that we were eminently replacable in general (which I’m told later was a wildly, wildly misconstrued statement, but to put it mildly, did not boost company morale) and that our team in specific was a “distraction” from NCsoft’s core business model. Everyone, including me, immediately began looking for work.

When we were finally let go a month later, it wasn’t a surprise, and most of us already had offer letters in hand elsewhere. (I was given the option to transfer to another NCsoft studio, but declined, as we had put down roots here in Austin.)  At this point, my personal perspective came to an end, since I, well, didn’t work there any more.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

What Would Snarky Bloggers Do?

So, I don’t have any magic solutions for what should have been done differently. My personal view on Tabula Rasa is that it was a project in search of reasons – the original design was “let’s make a game both Korea and the US will go for”, and when that failed, it became “let’s make a game both shooter fans and MMO fans will go for”. Not being a full shooter and not being a full MMO, it didn’t do well at attracting either. But that’s from the outside looking in – any armchair designer could figure that out.

To quote Adam:

When the organization disempowers you, and nothing you do seems able to make a diference, but – in your opinion – the impending event is an “extinction-level” disaster, is resignation the only valid response? Surely not?

Our response was to keep our heads down and do the best that we could at our jobs. From what I gathered from hallway conversations with others, that was a fairly universal take. It’s what you CAN do.

 

Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, for our project, and ultimately, for Tabula Rasa as well. There’s nothing that you can point to and say “here was the big mistake”. There were a lot of tiny mistakes, and they built up.

Would delaying Tabula Rasa’s open beta have saved it? Probably not.

Would delaying Tabula Rasa’s release have saved it? Probably not.

In the end, some games – most games, actually – just fail. Tabula Rasa was one of those. There wasn’t anything obvious or magical to it. It just wasn’t a game that very many people got passionate about. The biggest failing, though, was that it was in development about twice as long and spent twice as much as it had any right to. And that’s what promotes it, in this snarky outside blogger’s view, from understandable failure to extinction-level company-slaying train wreck. That took precedence over any design failure or engineering failure or art vision or whatever your personal opinion on why it failed might be.

It just. took. too. much. money.