Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

What Happened to Tabula Rasa?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 19, 2009

Two interesting blog posts went up on Friday, both from the perspective of ex-NCSoft employees discussing the failure of Tabula Rasa. The first one is from Adam Martin, who was the CTO of NCSoft Europe, and says that NCSoft employees “let” Tabula Rasa fail. Scott Jennings (aka Lum the Mad) posted a response as well. If you’re curious about how the rest of NCSoft felt about Tabula Rasa, go give both of them a read. I’ll wait.

I never actually played Tabula Rasa (I knew enough about the development indirectly to not want to get anywhere near it), so I don’t have much useful to add about the specific merits of that project. What I’m interested is the set of organizational and psychological factors that allows various failed MMOs to be produced, when seemingly everyone KNOWS they’re going to fail. Adam claims that many people internally, including himself, loudly proclaimed that Tabula Rasa was not ready for Beta, and needed some small but fundamental design changes. So, why did it come out when it did?

Tabula Rasa took 7 years to develop. I’ve heard stories about the early prototypes that have NOTHING in common with the end result. It was also the flagship product of NCSoft Austin, and there was a lot of political pressure for that studio to justify it’s existence. Being peripherally involved (NCSoft was publishing CoH at this time) I can certainly confirm that Tabula Rasa was a huge focus of attention at NCSoft, and there was a lot of pressure on the team. Eventually their reached a point where the corporate masters had enough, and they basically wanted the team to put up or shut up, and just get something out of the door. Many individual employees disagreed with this decision, but they were not able to get it changed. The list of things NCSoft employees did is pretty universal, in my opinion:

  1. Ineffectually bash your head into the wall. This happens more often if you’ve lost your political clout by failing to pick your battles. If you’ve been complaining about the same thing for 2 years, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been right all along, no one is going to ever listen to you.
  2. Go into auto-pilot mode where you work just to keep your job, but don’t try to solve the problems of the project.
  3. Plan out how to personally triumph from a large scale failure. Set things up so everyone knows that if they did it YOUR way, it would have worked. Don’t put a lot of effort into actually encouraging people to do it your way.
  4. Work as hard as possible at making your own part of the game as good as possible, in the hopes that others will as well and it will somehow work out.

It ends up being an interesting game theoretical problem. If your project is going poorly, but you think it is both salvageable AND your teammates are motivated and competent, you want to go into heads down mode and push as hard as possible. If you think it is theoretically salvageable, but your teammates are incompetent or unmotivated, it makes some sense to try to and set yourself politically to come out ahead (well, assuming you’re an asshole). However, if it’s going to fail badly enough that the whole company goes down then you’re probably better off disengaging from the project and looking into other opportunities, because your internal political position won’t matter any more.

As my description makes clear, there are a lot of ways you can end up in a state where everyone on a team is working hard at various things (not necessarily the project), but no one is minding the health of the project as a whole. Also, breakdowns like this are encouraged by various interpersonal issues on a team, which Tabula Rasa certainly had plenty of over it’s 7-year history. Groups of creative people can only work together for so long before everything starts to explode (witness every rock band ever), and normal games development is pushing that time limit as it is, and TR went on for so long that there was even more time to self-destruct.

As Adam points out, NCSoft has never really acknowledged the failure of Tabula Rasa internally, instead using various codes. This makes a lot of sense, because it’s not really in the best interest of the stakeholders to point out that failure. Everyone who went heads down and crunched know that THEIR part of the game succeeded, and don’t really care about the project as a whole. The workers who disengaged are already working somewhere else. The political types who were already in charge want to hide the failure, and those working their way up the ladder want to be subtle about it. The serial complainers ARE saying that it failed, but no one is listening to them.

Do I think Tabula Rasa could have succeeded after 7 years in development? Not really. It’s amazing that a game named Clean Slate had so much baggage. I really think that after the project failed the first 2 times, it would have been a MUCH better idea to kill the entire project and team, and start over from scratch, with a new name and concept.  No game that has that much pressure on it’s shoulders is ever going to be great. Competent (which TR was eventually) is as good as it was ever going to get.

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2 Responses to “What Happened to Tabula Rasa?”

  1. Whaledawg said

    There is nothing worse for your work life then knowing that no matter what you do you can’t affect the system(game, project, whatever) for the better. It’s like having a cancer that’s too advanced to treat and you just have to lug it around until it kills you.

    If you don’t have faith in a company it really is better to just find a new job. For them and especially for you.

  2. Kyle said

    TABULA RASA WAS THE BEST MMO I’VE EVER PLAYED IN MY YEARS OF GAMING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    So many memories…

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