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- Game That Destroyed Them: Tabula Rasa
- Studio Launch Date: April 2000
- Studio Closure Date: 28 February 2009
- Invested In By: NCsoft
- Estimated Money Blown: US$106m
- Cause of Death: Restarting the project, internal culture of fear and secrecy, costing too much, general game blandness, a management Dream Team that failed to deliver
Ahh, Tabula Rasa. It should be cautionary tale everyone knows, but in video game terms 3 years is somewhere in the Triassic era.
NCsoft initially backed Tabula Rasa (TR) as some kind of uber-MMO that would unite both east and west in a perfect game. Headed up by fresh-out-of-retirement Richard Garriott (Ultima series founder, computer RPG legend, then head of NCsoft North America), Jake Song (major force behind Lineage, cult figure in South Korea, now working on ArcheAge) and Starr Long (original Project Director on Ultima Online, Producer on Ultima Online 2, Origin Systems alumni) and with the full backing of NCsoft, it was announced in 2001. It was expected to be ready for launch around mid-2004.
But the attempt to create a game that met both Eastern and Western tastes obviously didn’t work, because development was restarted in 2004. Too many people were in charge and communication issues between US and Korean development teams were causing conflicts. Jake Song left the project, 75 percent of the code, 100 percent of the art, and 20 percent of the staff were cut and work began again.
Now Tabula Rasa was saddled with all those initial development costs, plus started to incur the new ones as well. It took resources away from other NCsoft titles (more on that in a bit) but NCsoft was going to make TR a success.
(I’ve seen blogs / forum posts that TR was actually restarted twice or even three times, but can’t see any online verification of that. It does appear that TR spent a lot of time and money on R&D and prototypes, which may have been misinterpreted as starting again when a prototype was abandoned.)
Closed beta – too early to be actually helpful, according to Adam Martin – started in 2007 and the game was launched later that same year. TR failed to live up to expectations. Internally a lot of finger-pointing occurred. Attempts were made to salvage the game, improve it, but the market had spoken – TR only earned US$5.3m for its launch quarter (Q4 2007) and was only projected to make US$16m over the course of 2008. At that rate – and even assuming modest operating costs – it would have taken around a decade to even break even with its development budget.
TR was shut down in February 2009, along with the major parts of Destination Games. Garriott had used a space trip to promote TR, but left the title entirely shortly before the cancellation was announced. NCsoft North America / Europe / West / Not-Korea went through some rapid management shuffling. Richard Garriott was improperly forced out of his NCsoft management role, which led to a law suit and damages being owed by NCsoft (which, as I believe and have indicated before, assisted in causing management change).
Not only did Tabula Rasa take down Destination Games, like a tangled anchor on a sinking ship it also wrapped around:
- Dungeon Runners – cancelled in 2009
- NCsoft US and Europe – lots of people fired in 2009
- City of Heroes / Villains – NCsoft made the call to reduce investment in the title in 2006
- Blighted Empire – starved of resources by TR and cancelled before launch (probably 2008)
- Blackstar – NCsoft cancelled their deal with SpaceTime Studios in 2008
I’m not saying that TR is the only factor in those decisions, but for many years it was a big, hungry, cash-and-resources fed beast. Feeding it had to come from somewhere.
Tabula Rasa is Latin for “blank slate”. Unfortunately there was no way to wipe those development costs clean and begin again, so this title is now a permanent stain on NCsoft West’s and Richard Garriott’s gaming resumes.