Massively interviews: Starr Long of Tabula Rasa

Elizabeth Harper
E. Harper|11.05.07

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Two weeks before the launch of NCsoft's latest MMO, Tabula Rasa, Massively had a chance to sit down and chat with the game's producer, Starr Long, in their Austin offices. We discuss Tabula Rasa's past, present, and future -- including a first glimpse at the game's ambitious expansion plans. So what's there to look forward to in Tabula Rasa? Alien-human hybrid races, a major expansion a year (each featuring an entirely new planet), and major content patches every few months. Need to know more? Keep reading!

Massively: Are we correct in thinking that the development cycle for Tabula Rasa started in 2001?

Starr Long: 2001, that's right

2001... before there's a World of Warcraft... in the era of Ultima Online and EverQuest. What gave you the idea that MMOs were the way to go at this point in time?

I think we knew MMOs were the way to go back when we did Ultima Online. We had no idea that it was going to scale as quickly as it did, but I don't think that it was MMOs specifically: it was more, for us, about multiplayer games. That was really where our passion lay as far as being players ourselves. And then the massive part of it came from the idea of everyone sharing this other reality with each other. I think it was less focusing on it being the next big thing and more on it being the new frontier. It really was, "Only a few people have done this before." There were prior examples like Habitat, Air Warrior, and Neverwinter Nights... it's not like Meridian 59, it's not like we were the first, but it was still pretty uncharted territory. A few islands had been discovered, but no major continents yet.

And we felt that, given time, it was going to dominate as much of a section of the marketplace as any other platform. We saw massively multiplayer games as a platform. It's like Xbox 360 or PC or Wii -- it's just its own platform. Versus a genre or anything like that, because it's already diversifying within itself. There's RPGs, real time strategy, shooters, and blends between RPGs and shooters... I think you're seeing as much genre diversification, and that's why we think of it as more of a platform.

I think it was just about a new frontier, and having done single player games for ten, fifteen, twenty years prior to that... this was something new for us. We were also looking at what was happening in Asia. Back in '98 and '99 when Lineage really started taking off in Korea. We were like, "Whoa, what is going on?" This can't be real -- and we actually sent people over to Korea to find out that those numbers were real. You'd walk into a game room in Seoul and everyone would be playing StarCraft or Lineage. One of the two.

That was a long way to answer the question, but I hope it sort of answered the question.

Since the time you've started work on Tabula Rasa, of course, World of Warcraft has hit... how has the success of MMOs changed the development direction?

I think what's happened in the marketplace as a whole is that it's matured to the same level as the rest of it [the gaming market]. It used to be because we were doing something new we could get away with lower production values or maybe it didn't need to be quite as stable as other kinds of games. But now we're competing head to head. Once you get into the numbers of anything beyond the 200,000 subscriber range, you're now competing with all other kinds of games for people's dollars. You're no longer catering to a small, hard-core, niche community -- you're catering to gamers at large. And that means you have to compete on a certain level of production value (which means it has to look pretty) and you have to also compete on a level of performance and stability with every other kind of game out there.

There's much more of an awareness now in the marketplace for online games. If you asked someone 10 years ago [about MMOs] when we were launching UO, they would have said, "What, pay a subscription fee for a graphical online game? That doesn't make any sense!" And now WoW is mainstream culture, unbelievably -- it was featured in a South Park episode!

I think that's all good news. Yeah, WoW's this big giant -- yes, they are competition of course, any other game is competition -- but they really expanded the market in the west. The market was that big in Asia already. Korea and China were bigger than that before WoW came along. But western awareness in the market for online games was tiny -- a fraction of that. I think EverQuest was the best at 350,000 - 400,000 subscribers.

Which was just mind-blowing at the time.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That number is three times what we ever got with Ultima Online. So already that was huge. I don't know if it changed what we did... I think the market as a whole upped what we had to achieve. We had to be stable and fast and not just get away with being, "Well, it doesn't look quite as good because it's an online game." No, it really needs to look good too.

The class system in Tabula Rasa is very interesting, coming from a traditional RPG/MMORPG background... in World of Warcraft you go in and there are 9 classes you can select from in the beginning, in EverQuest II there are something like 24... But you log on to Tabula Rasa and there's nothing in the beginning. How did you come to the tiered class system?

I think a big deal for us has always been about lowering barriers to entry and also making sure that every time you make a decision in the game, you make it with the most information we can possibly provide you. And we also play a lot of console games. If you look at most console games, you don't do things like pick a class at the beginning. The whole point of a console game is to get into the game as quickly as possible and then make choices later. There's very little character creation or selection in a console game. It's just about getting inside the game. That was a lot of it, just wanting to get you inside the game as quickly as possible and then not force you to make any decisions until you sort of knew what was going on. While there are some archetypes that are in the standard consciousness, like a ranged attack versus a melee attack, so you kind of get it when you see an archer versus a warrior, there's still some people that that's not just standard knowledge to them.

For instance, Robert [Garriott], Richard's brother, is a nice sort of litmus test. We're the second game he's ever played. He played Dungeon Runners and then Tabula Rasa and he gets it. He's like, "I've been blowing up stuff and I want to keep blowing up stuff, so I'll go with the Soldier branch." Getting people in quickly and making sure that they never made a choice that they didn't have some experience to base it on: they'd been shooting stuff or they'd been healing stuff and so they get which branch to take.

Who do you envision as your average Tabula Rasa player? You have all these MMO elements and all these FPS elements, but who do you expect to be playing the game in the end?

Uh... Me? We were kind of our target audience. Yes, we play a lot of MMOs, but we also play a lot of console games and a lot of shooters. Most of the team plays multiplayer games and so I think we wanted something that gave us a little taste of everything. It's hard to say what our target customer is going to be. What we want is the shooter guy who says, "I never want to play an RPG! RPGs are too slow and plodding." To say, "Wow! This is an RPG I really want to play because it feels faster-paced and the tactical decisions I'm making are much more like what I'm used to in a shooter." But then I want an RPG fan who says, "I would never play a shooter... I don't like shooters!" to play this game and say, "It's got all of my RPG elements: the more powerful my armor and weapons are the more damage I do, my skills build up over time, I'm not going to get owned by some noob just because I don't have a better connection than him." Because it's not pixel-perfect and we do assisted targeting and things like that. We account for variable latency. So I hope that it's a cross over. I hope that we have RPG people who have never wanted to play a shooter play this and say, "This is the shooter I like." In fact, Robert [Garriott] is the litmus test for that, too, because he says, "I've never been able to play a shooter, but this is a shooter I can play." And I say, "Well, but it's not really a shooter..." So I think it's a little bit of both. I hope! That's the goal.

What about character customization? In World of Warcraft, for example, you reach the maximum level and everyone is collecting the same high-level armor sets.

Through a variety of means. Every type of armor has between five and seven variations and those variations aren't necessarily linked to what level they are. So the way our loot drops and crafting system work, you'll mix boots that are version 3 with pants that are version 4 with a jacket that's version 6 with a helmet that's version 1. Plus unlike WoW, you can dye any piece individually. And we'll release more colors through various means throughout the game. We'll probably release new versions of armor. Then you can vary your size and there's eye patches, sunglasses, and all that kind of stuff.

Some of our future include things like decals, so your clan can have a crest (one we pre-define, but you can mix-and-match). In another expansion there will be hybrids -- so you'll be able to be a hybrid between one of the various races and the humans. I can't give much detail about that: we just released that we were working on our hybrid system, so that's going to be another way players can differentiate themselves.

That kind of walked over our next question... which is why only humans? A lot of MMO-players seem to be logging into the Tabula Rasa beta and when met with no choices of race or class just don't know what to do.

Well, again, that's a very conscious decision. We really want you not to worry about all that and just do it in the game. So spending a lot of time modifying what you look like when you can change colors and swap it out later... well that's just a waste of time. Just get in the game and start playing! Again, modeling much more for a casual gamer.

For the playing different races... this goes back to Richard's history of making games. He's trying to tell a story of you going to these other places. It's really about us as humans having our planet destroyed. So playing an alien, at least at the beginning of the game, for us, doesn't resonate as much as a story for you. We want you to be motivated by the fact that these aliens came and took your planet from you -- and that's why you're there, is to fight them and hopefully someday get your planet back. If you're playing an alien, that doesn't resonate as much for you. That's not to say we don't ever want to tell a story from an alien viewpoint, but for launch, what our focus was: this is you, this is me, going somewhere else after our planet's destroyed. The idea is that this happens tomorrow. Aliens invade tomorrow. We're all wiped out and we're scattered. Not that I'm on planet Droxil and I'm a Lorg and... that's not the kind of story we're trying to tell.

On the surface it will appear that you have fewer choices. But we have as as many character classes as WoW and we have more customization options than WoW. We don't have as many races, but within humans with dye kits and variations of armor, we have way more customization.

What about choices characters make in game? How much do the decisions each player makes effect the character development and story later on?

For your character in particular, it will have impact on the kinds of missions you get, who you're getting those missions from, what their attitude is towards you, and what kinds of things you'll get from those missions are all dependent on those choices you make. Making branching mission trees like that is quite challenging, so it's not the whole game, but periodically throughout the game you encounter one of these branching missions. And if you make choice A you'll go off on branch A, and if you make choice B you'll go off on branch B. And some are shorter and some are longer: there's one at the very beginning which is very simple, it's like "Do you turn this guy in or not?" But some of them are more complex than that. We're trying not to give too many details away, because we're trying to let it unfold for the player. But some of them have little twists: you make a choice that you think is the right choice and then you're like, "Oh, wait a minute." So we try to make little plot twists in there too. It does have impact but there's no winning or losing. It's not that kind of choice.

We were kind of thinking about KotOR, where every choice you made had a significant impact on who you turned into.

That's a little different. It's more about just making you think about what you're doing versus changing who you are. It's more about presenting you with little ethical parables. It's making you think. For example, the drug-running one. There's a guy who tells you there are soldiers out on the battlefield who are fighting on the front line 24 hours a day -- they need some help and he has some stimulants that will help them. The stimulants are like indictable caffeine, they're not illegal drugs, it's just something he takes from the pharmacy. But he is stealing from the pharmacy and you're making money off of it. But you're helping out the soldiers on the front line and if you turn him in, the soldiers don't trust you anymore because you're a rat. So that's the kind of choice: immediate impact and making you think, "What do I do?" versus having a long-reaching, character-shaping event at the end.

That's kind of similar to what you did with control points. You have different bases throughout the game that can be controlled by you or by the Bane. This leads into a common complaint on game forums: either your game isn't dynamic enough (the world is dull) or your game is too dynamic (I can't turn in my quests!). Tabula Rasa obviously aims to be more dynamic, but how do you answer the concerns of players who just want to turn in their quests?

That's an incentive for you to go participate in taking that base back. There are some places where you aren't going to have immediate gratification and you aren't going to be able to turn that mission in as planned. But for us, taking those control points or defending those control points is part of the core game mechanic and what makes the game fun and different. You can spend a lot of time just going on your standard route of quests and enjoying those and checking those off your list. But the world feels more alive when you go back and the base has been overrun -- and you have to help take that base back. Then there are rewards inherent in that. So while you're taking that base back, you may gain a level. I think there are some people that will be different for and maybe a little challenge for them to adjust to -- that everything isn't always lined up in a neat little row for them.

But we do that even in our basic spawning in the game. While some things do spawn in relatively the same areas, they walk around, they do stuff, and they fight each other. So it isn't always going to be as neat as go to point X and kill creature Y. Because creature Y might not be there. Creature Y may have wandered off or been eaten by something else.

It's a careful balance. You don't want to make people angry and log off because they can't turn in their mission. If they couldn't turn in their mission for like a day, then sure, but the attacks happen on a regular interval within 15 to 30 minutes. [Attacks and counter-attacks.] So something is going to happen while you're standing there. You may not be able to turn it in in the first 30 seconds, but there are so many missions on most maps that there's other stuff you can do while you're waiting. If you don't want to participate in the control point, you can go off and do something else and come back. And you can look on your map and it will tell you when the base is taken over -- so you can just wait for it to flip.

Another balance issue is death penalties. We usually hear it used to determine how "hard-core" a game might be. Where do you think you've found the balance in Tabula Rasa? There's a temporary debuff that reduces your effectiveness...

And there's some degradation of your items.

Where do you find the balance between "death should matter" and "death shouldn't be a deterrent?"

It's all about risk versus reward. If there's no risk, the reward is much less valuable. So you do have to strike a delicate balance. You have to make death matter. You have to be afraid of it. Because otherwise you'll never have a feeling of risk and you'll just run in and kill all the things you want. Kill as many things as you can until you die. And then you just die, rinse, repeat. Which you can still do, but there's a cost to it. You'll eat through money getting resurrection trauma kits and repairing all your items. There's got to be something, but it shouldn't ever be so powerful that it makes you want to exit the game. It should be enough that there's a reason to want to stay alive and be careful and group with other people and heal and things like that. I think ours is a really good balance. And our travel times are pretty quick and we have waypoints scattered throughout all the maps [so it's fast to get back to where you were]... so I think it's a pretty good balance.

How did the Logos system develop? It seems to have a lot of depth. Was a type of magic system envisioned from the beginning to counter some of the soldier/FPS elements of the game?

It's interesting that it's called magic, because you can also think of it as super-powers. It's the same kind of idea that you're special. That you're more than just a normal everyday person. And as far as the powers aspect of it, that was the main impetus. We didn't just want to try to go head-to-head with a shooter -- we wanted to make it feel special and different. That's why jedi have force powers. And so I think that was, from a gameplay and powers perspective that was the thing. You really are a special person and you're making a difference and you're a hero and you're not just another soldier out there shooting a gun -- you're something different. The human NPCs in the game are not Logos receptives. So you're like the special forces in the game, you're the elite, you're the ones who know Logos.

But then from a story standpoint, Richard very much believes in the Tolkien-esque design philosophy where the universe that these games or books or movies happen in is much larger and much more detailed than the user will ever encounter. The Lord of the Rings books are a very thin slice of that world: J. R. R. Tolkien had thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of notes and outlines. Bibliographies, lists of characters, and things like that to flesh out the world beyond what anyone would ever experience as a reader. Richard believes in the same kind of thing. When we came up with the story that there were these aliens that went around sharing their knowledge with other people [the Eloh], it was like, "Well, how do you think they share their knowledge?" They had to have some sort of language. And Richard said, "We should make that language!" So that's what we did -- made the language. We researched hieroglyphics, the symbols they use for the Olympics that have to be internationally decipherable, and symbology books that determine things like how they came up with men & women signs on bathrooms, and road signs... There were all these different things to come up with this pictographic language. And not only does it give you powers, but it also does things like unlock certain areas of the game (you have to collect a certain number of symbols) or allows you to read more of the story that you wouldn't have access to.

So it does a little more than just be magic or super-powers system -- but it's fundamentally just making you feel special.

From a gameplay perspective, will you ever know all of the Logos symbols? Will you ever know all of the Logos powers?

Maybe. We're adding Logos symbols all the time -- and there's hundreds of them! So you could totally get to a point where you have every one we've made. But a few patches down the road there will be more. So it will be a constant collection game. It would be very challenging, but you would be able to get all of them. But that doesn't necessarily unlock all of the powers for that particular character. You would have to have a level 50 character of each class to collect all the Logos powers.

What about the game's user interface? Is it customizable?

You can change any of the keybindings you want and we've got two distinct modes -- an FPS-style mode and a more MMO-based mode. You can switch between those two. As far as making it fully customizable, that's not something we're supporting right now. It's gone through a lot of trials and tribulations, so I'm not ruling out something that we might support in the future. But there's some other kinds of customizable elements: like you can resize your chat window and you can configure what kinds of chat you want to see, and you can have overhead chat now. But moving around elements, not so much right now.

What about roleplaying in Tabula Rasa? Is this something you're planning to encourage or support?

I always find that to be a very interesting question, because, fundamentally, we're providing a service that's a game. And to me the quote "supporting roleplaying" is kind of an oxymoron. Because to me, roleplaying is something that happens when people are doing something they love. If they love the game, they're going to make things out of it like roleplaying. They're going to really get into their character and play that character and do things. So it depends on what you mean or define by "supporting roleplaying."

Well, some games have special roleplaying servers...

To me, that's like painting a big target on your head. As long as there's cool places to hang out and talk to people, as long as there's things you can do... We're shipping with 20-something emotes and we're probably going to add a hundred more within the first year and there's different ways to unlock them. We'll do them for different events. For our Halloween event we're giving out 9 different masks and a trick-or-treat emote. And for the holiday season we'll have fireworks. And there's different dances we'll release over time and unlock as you level up.

And I think supporting roleplaying is about providing a rich, believable universe which is a hallmark of Richard's products, is making these very deeply believable universes. And one of the other abilities we're giving you is the ability to conjure up Logos symbols. Right now when you use one of your Logos powers, the symbols for it appear in front of you in this sort of holographic display. We're also making emotes that will basically allow you talk in Logos in sign language. So I think there will be lots of opportunities for roleplaying.

What about community for Tabula Rasa? We've heard there aren't going to be any official forums -- so what are you going to be doing to communicate and deal with the community around the game?

That's always interesting, the official versus the other site supported forums. Our experience has been that our community folks end up spending most of their time on those [official forums] and not actually going out into the community. And not everyone's on the official forums -- some people like to hang out on Stratics, some people like to hang out on Massively. They [official forums] are a big time-drain and I'd rather us spend our time elsewhere. Poking around on other forums, being inside the game and running events. That's where I think we get a lot more bang for the buck than official forums.

We have two full-time community staff right now and we'll scale it up as we get more subscribers -- and, you know, Ultima Online was the first game in the industry to have a full-time community person. So we believe pretty strongly in it.

How did the subscription model come about? Is there a reason you chose to go subscription-based instead of a model like Guild Wars, for example?

For us it came down to the level of service we wanted to be able to provide and the size of the development that we wanted to be able to do. Our goal is that we want to do expansions every single year with major updates every few months. We want to throw a new planet at players every year. We want some major new feature every few months. The latest one we've been talking about is personal armor units that are going to be these big things you have to unlock at higher levels. Then there are pets, command opportunities, more features in our clan versus clan warfare -- and that requires a large staff. The revenue to support that is driven by subscriptions.

Is there any discussion on the NCsoft side about doing an all-games pass, similar to what SOE is doing now?

That's a brilliant idea. That's definitely something we're not prepared to talk about but will be something that is heavily discussed.

What's the future look like for Tabula Rasa?

Like I said, we want to do a major update every few months that includes a new feature or some stuff for the players and then once a year we want to do a big retail full-size expansion that includes a new planet and that higher level content and the story arc. Because each planet has its own story arc, when you go through all your missions, they're linked into an overall story for that planet. I talked about, without going into details, things like the hybrids.

I'm excited, because for me, this is just when the fun starts. Getting it out the door that was a big hard push and really challenging, but this is when we really get out in front of players and get to give them content and new shiny toys to play with and this is the best part.
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