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Tabula Rasa dev journal: Sanctus Grotto

Eli Shayotovich
Tabula Rasa has received a lot of buzz over the last few weeks. Some have stated that it's an incomplete game, others have erroneously called it a financial disaster, while others (like myself) enjoy it for what it is. And all of this fallout (some of which reeks with the taint of hidden agendas - anyone who actively cheers for the demise of a game must be questioned) comes after only being live for four months (the game launched on November 1, 2007). NCsoft has reiterated that they are far from abandoning this sci-fi MMO. To prove that point they gave us their latest developer's journal to pass along to you. What follows is a retrospective written by Tom Potter, world builder for the new Sanctus Grotto instance.

Sanctus Grotto Retrospective
Tom Potter, World Builder

Sanctus Grotto was an instance that was in development for some time before I started working at Destination Games. I joined the Tabula Rasa team late in development, so my job was to take the initial vision to completion. The conceptual foundation was already complete so you'd think that there wouldn't be much left for me to do. But Sanctus Grotto is a perfect example of how even "final" designs are often in a state of flux, and how making a few small changes can quickly multiply into something much larger.

My personal design philosophy is to have a strong underlying theme to guide me, but at the same time remain flexible enough to change direction as ideas prove unworkable or if new, better ideas spring forth. In its current state, Sanctus Grotto was a large, winding system of caves and caverns culminating in a large underground Forean tomb. It had been some time since the instance had been evaluated, so the mission designer, Jason Ford, and I put our heads together to see if we could bring anything new and exciting to the table. After brainstorming for a bit it became clear that some of the things we wanted to implement would require some additional work. Actually a lot of extra work as it turned out.

The first change was to make the overall layout more linear to accommodate some of the mission requirements. That required me to essentially scrap the entire first third of the map and start over. What was once an open cavern system became a more claustrophobic underground pathway, which really altered and enhanced the mood of the instance. Of course, such a large change also meant there was now much more work ahead.

Another change we decided on was to make the instance end near the entrance – basically create a large circular flow. The original layout brought players farther and farther away from the start of the instance, so that when they finished they would have to turn around and run all the way back through empty regions. Placing a teleport at the end of the instance didn't seem to fit visually or fictionally, so the decision was made to change the flow of the map so that it was more circular. When players finished the instance they would be very close to where they began. This would require a total rework of the remaining two thirds of the map, which was a daunting task to say the least.

Once the decision was made to make such dramatic changes, it opened up numerous other possibilities. If I was going to basically rework the entire level, why not add more content? The theme of the level was that the Bane were searching for an Eloh relic in the area but had yet to find it. The AFS had little more to go on, but they knew it was imperative that they reached it before the Bane did. I knew ruins were going to have to figure into the overall design to support the idea of excavations, but I wanted to do something unique with them. I had plenty of inspiration to draw from because incidentally I had just finished working on another game which is all about ruins. After some consideration, it made sense to create a large outdoor area of Forean ruins and have Thrax roaming around excavating artifacts. This was a significant departure from the original design which was set entirely underground.

There were Warnets in the original design so I thought about ways of incorporating them into the map. One question that kept popping into my head was what prevented the Bane from finding the artifact? What challenges had they encountered? I liked the idea that the Bane had accidentally disturbed a large nest of Warnets during their excavations and that they were suddenly in an all out war with them. To support that idea I created a vast underground region of caverns to serve as a hive. To make the hive feel different, I made the entrance something that you would fall into, not walk into like traditional cave entrance.

I also wanted to inject some sort of jumping element into the map. After some thought, I finally came up with an idea that I liked. In one section of the map players must make a carefully timed jump in order to reach the entrance to a secret underground area. To heighten the drama I made the jump distance such that players just barely made it.

You can have the best design document in the world and still be blindsided by something you did not anticipate. The one factor that I did not take into account was that different classes can have vastly different jump distances based on armor type or how many pumps they have in the Sprint skill. So while my test character with motor assist armor would barely make the jump, a character with hazmat armor would fail horribly. This discovery meant some rework, but fortunately the area had a lot of wiggle room in the design. In the end, we came up with a workable design and I was very glad to see it make it into the final product.

Story changes also meant that the underground tomb at the end of the map would no longer be a tomb, but rather a temple to house the Eloh relic. While I had a solid idea of what that last room would be, we were not as clear about the region preceding it. We wanted to do something unique in the penultimate room, something that underscored the importance of logos as a language. Jason's idea was to create a logos puzzle that granted access to the final relic chamber when solved. Players would be spending some time in the room so I knew it had to be visually pleasing. I find water to be a soothing element to use in environments, so I made extensive use of water in this room. Waterfalls pour into the room from multiple sources, filling the large underground cavern with dark murky water. I wanted a slightly higher level of ambient light so players could see the puzzle clearly, so I added some lights breaking through the ceiling.

So you can see in the end Sanctus Grotto turned out to be vastly different than the original design. By keeping the design flexible, we were able to add new elements in the name of making a fun and exciting instance. Both Jason and I hope you enjoy our efforts!