We need to talk about Tabula Rasa; when will we talk about Tabula Rasa?

In the online games industry, if we keep quiet about the causes, the hopes, the fears, the successes, and the failures of the best part of $100million burnt on a single project, then what hope is there for us to avoid making the same mistakes again?

Unlike Scott, I actually (superficially speaking) agree with this statement as to why Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Hellgate:London failed (TR, AoC, PotBS, and HL from now now…)

“No, these games failed because their developers let it happen.”

  • Funcom *should have* learned enough lessons with Anarchy Online not to make the mistakes they did with AoC; not the precise same mistakes, but the same “class” of mistakes were made, suggesting that they tried to fix only the symptoms and failed to understand the causes
  • Destination Games knew a long long time before TR went to beta that it wasn’t (going to be) ready even for beta, let alone launch. IMHO NCsoft collectively knew very well that TR wasn’t ready for launch, but went ahead and launched it anyway
  • Bill Roper went on record to say that no-one understood their sales/revenue model, from the start. As I’ve mentioned before, that pretty much guarantees failure, and it’s not rocket-science to understand why!
  • Pirates … I have no idea, actually. It’s the one that I have never played (although I really wanted to) nor even *seen* (which is unusual). I’m not going to talk about PotBS any more, since I really know nothing about it

NB: I don’t happen to agree with anything else in that post. I’ve got nothing against it, I just didn’t find anything interesting or new about the games themselves in the post, and IMHO the list of “why this happened” is too shallow and derivative to be worth saying in 2009 – the same has been said many times over the last ten years by many people, and ain’t particularly insightful in the first place. Sorry, dude.

How do you “let” an MMO fail, pre-launch?

Anyway, back to the interesting bit. This is why I find the statement particularly interesting: the choice of phrasing, that the developers “let it” fail.

The implication being that they didn’t do anything wrong, perhaps, but that they stood by and watched the train rolling slowly towards the brick wall and didn’t try (hard enough) to stop the collision.

TR was in development for 7 years (give or take a bit, and arguably just half that depending on whether you count the bit before there was an official “resetting” of the project (and re-shuffling of staff)).

When did they first ship a playable that people found fun?

Ah. Hmm. Um. Well. Now, *I* certainly wasn’t around during all this, so I can’t authoritatively answer that. However, I well remember the large number of people remarking that the beta – just before launch – was starting to be “actually a lot of fun to play”. 6+ years to get to the first fun version, eh? Hmm. Traditionally, you start with something fun, then you build a game around it, not the other way around.

Rating Tabula Rasa, in Alpha

While people are busily shooting me down in flames for such disloyalty :), I’m going to make a confession: I played TR in the alpha, and (to the great amusement – and in many cases total disbelief – of my colleagues) I actually enjoyed it. It certainly wasn’t a lot of fun to play, but there were nice elements that I could really see how they would develop (could be developed) into a great game, if we started development of the game at that point. I was accustomed at the time to making forward-looking evaluations of games, and reading between the lines and guess at how the final product would look.

i.e. it was a good pre-production prototype, and if I’d been asked “this studio wants us to fund them to turn this into a full game, should we do it?” I’d have said “well, modulo some small but fundamental changes that are needed, and the fact we need to explain to them a small number of basic mistakes they’re making with misunderstanding the MMO market, and they obviously will want a *lot* more money to build it up, flesh it out, and implement what they’ve barely sketched out in outline at this point … definitely YES. This will make a great game, probably”.

(IIRC … I was asked this question at the end of my second playsession and gave pretty much that answer. At which point he said something like “Yes. We’ve been telling them that for a while. They’re not going to do any of it”)

Which maybe sounds very negative? To me it wasn’t. At that time I was (one of many people) doing due-diligence reviews and milestone reviews for games being published by NCsoft. IMHO no game (and no studio) is perfect in pre-production. Every studio worth their salt pushes the boundaries, and – critically important – their own personal comfort zones. That guarantees that they’re not experts at producing the new game-type when they start. There are always warts; that’s partly why they make the prototype – to show to many other people, get second opinions, find out the flaws other people see, and then go “ah! yes! and actually … now you’ve said that, we’ve just thought of a much better way of doing this!”.

(incidentally, I found Valve’s post-mortem discussions of Team Fortress 2 fascinating, revealing that even for a studio with a perfect record of successes making new IPs they still screwed-up the pre-production work on TF2, and only late into the project did they really turn it around into the shining piece of awesomeness that they finally shipped. I can’t find a google link to the frank interviews Valve did on the subject, but here’s an interesting one on how much they still had left to do post launch – 53 updates (!) – even AFTER rescuing the project halfway through by fundamentally rethinking it)

Time-out: who are you, again?

I…:

  1. …was the European CTO at the time
  2. …was not on the TR dev team (wasn’t even in the same office)
  3. …started playing TR as soon as I joined the company, and played Alpha, Beta, and some of Live
  4. …unlike many outside the TR team (I suspect: “the vast majority”) I voluntarily played TR during my free time
  5. …got locked-out when the game launched, and it took many months for my official corporate free account to get allowed back in, thanks to some stupid bugs in NCsoft North America’s account management systems
  6. …was on a lot of the internal development mailing lists. Particularly interesting ones were the bugs list, the internal playsessions list (both for the dev teams and for other internal players), and the producers list (especially the scrum-masters list when the team eventually switched to Scrum).

I want to be clear about this: I had nothing to do with the development of TR. But, like many people who can say that, I was heavily exposed to it – both the project, and the game, and the politics. TR had a massive effect on the company at the time, everyone was touched by it. Anyone in development – anywhere – got affected a lot more than most; it affected budgets, management structures, technology investments, publishing strategy, investment strategy, etc. I’m not claiming to know what was going on in there for certain, but given my position I had the luxury of a lot of insights that other people wouldn’t have had.

So … although I know a lot about what happened, please view this post (it was going to be about the 4 games generally, but it appears to have warped into a TR-centric story) as an outsider’s view. And don’t read it as all true, I may accidentally report some rumours (and, you know, I don’t want to get sued if someone takes this as 100% literal truth) though I’ll try hard not to. TR team members may well find some big mistakes in what’s here – and I’d welcome their corrections and counter-arguments.

(I know my name appears in at least one set of the credits due to an NCsoft policy of “crediting all staff who were employed on the launch day of the product”, especially ironic since I think I’ve ended up being “officially” credited only on the game I did *not* work on :).)

Back to the topic:

The difficulty of …. Timing

It wasn’t ready for beta. I said so. Many others said so. How privately they said it, in many cases I don’t know. However, I am aware of plenty of people that said it pretty loudly internally at NCsoft (I saw the emails, or sat in the meetings).

NB: I said “wasn’t ready for beta“. We’re not even discussing “launch” yet.

But it was never going to be as easy as simply saying “hey, I’m not that busy for the next fortnight; howabout we launch TR next week? Or do you want to wait another year or two?”. On a project that had already burnt through tens of millions of dollars with almost nothing concrete to show for it (not necessarily a “fair” judgement; but if you were *literal* about it, which by that point many people were, then technically there was “nothing” to show), and had on the order of 100 people employed full time working on it every day, there was a lot of money at stake even just delaying launch by a single week.

(do the math; you’re already counting in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” each time you prolong development by a single week there)

And then there were the political issues, for instance the fact that NCsoft North America had never developed a game internally in their long years of existence (all the internal games were developed by studios that NCsoft acquired during development). That means that the core business for the USA wasn’t making any revenue *at all* (publishing and development are usually seen as different divisions). Again, I’m not defending this perspective, or claiming it’s fair – but it was technically true, and was mentioned a lot.

Such things tend to scare stakeholders, especially shareholders. Especially directors of a public company who are trying to keep shareholders happy. Especially directors in a foreign country who may or may not even speak the same language as you. (I’m not trying to make veiled accusations against individuals here, nor against the different national divisions within NCsoft – I’m simply pointing out basic facts of life when it comes to large multinational companies, and observing that there was *inevitable* pressure along those lines, independently of whether or not anyone deliberately applied it).

And there were other issues. With that many people working on one project? Some of them for more than 5 years? Well. There’s plenty of dirty laundry on a project that size. But I don’t feel that anyone except the people directly involved get to decide whether its fair and reasonable to air it (because, frankly, no-one else is going to have much insight into what really happened).

So. It was hard, surely, to make any decision on launch dates.

There are no easy decisions in such situations, no “obviously, the best solution is X” (although to many different people such obvious answers seem to exist, the “easy” answers tend to screw-over several other teams). Making any decision was hard, but the decisions that were taken were considered inarguably “wrong” by many people, immediately that they were made.

They may not have known what the “best” solution was, but they certainly recognized (or felt they did) one of the “worst” ones.

And they were vocal about it. A survey was taken, internally, asking what people thought. The results were never published – so no-one (apart from the survey takers) knows exactly what the results were, but we were told that the *company* knew.

TR: The stage is set

To summarise so far (I know, I know – this is a long post, sorry)

  1. TR went off the rails on some meandering journeys into research & development for many years burning through lots of cash (this is not necessarily something to castigate them for – many hit games did exactly the same; if you can afford the cash + the chance of failure (and NCsoft is a billion-dollar company, so let’s face it: they could), then it’s perfectly reasonable to decide on this course of action / allow it to continue)
  2. Very late, they eventually hit upon a good formula, a good core game
  3. Before they could actually make that game, a difficult decision was taken to push the team to the wall and force an early beta test
  4. …and then the even more difficult decision taken to push them even harder to do an insanely early live launch. Certain alignments of astrological constellations in the Marketing department (also known as “tenth anniversary of the launch date of the last MMO that the core members of this team shipped”) may or may not have had something to do with this
  5. The choice made was widely (if not universally) regarded as “very bad”
  6. The company was made aware of the volume of people holding opinions along those lines

…and as they say on the Quiz shows: What Happened Next?

And this is where we come back to the point that interests me: did we, collectively as an organization, “allow it to happen”?

Personally, I believe the answer is an unqualified: “Yes”. Because many people worked *really hard* from that point on to make the game a success; many who had been working very hard already pushed themselves to work harder. And yet, in parallel, while working their asses off to make sure the train was big and beautiful, no-one stopped the train-wreck from happening.

There are excellent mitigating excuses for why individuals allowed this, many of them related to “not wanting to lose my job”. Many others relate to “life is too short to kill myself (with stress) over continuing to bash my head against this particular brick wall” (many people had complained long and hard about TR in the months and years running up to that point). Some people had just given up hope, and decided it was less painful simply to stop caring. Others were relishing the impending catastrophe, and I can think of some individuals who I personally believe were deliberately planning to get maximum political advantage for themselves out of the death of TR.

Re-reading this as I go, I remember there was another big excuse that I never gave credence to: “I’ll bury my head in real work and make *my* parts as good as I possibly can, and hope if everyone else does the same, it will All Come Together In The End”. This one wasn’t voiced so much, but is simply what people did, in some cases.

Hope is not a strategy. Whenever your attempt to avoid disaster revolves around the H-word instead of a concrete averting action, you are doomed.

But since I’m not trying to blame anyone here, it doesn’t matter whether or not we had good reasons for allowing it. What I’m really interested in is “how to make games better”, so the important point is that – collectively – we did allow it.

What would Jesus do?

What should we have done, not as an organization, but as individuals? How often does anyone talk about this?

% of player forums posts that blame developers for launching early  
% of player forums posts that explain what an individual employee should do about it  

It’s very easy to “work harder” when doom is impending, but as I’ve mentioned above this achieves nothing.

There are plenty of cases in the games industry where disasters are forseen, and the people involved charge into them with gusto, screaming “YOU’RE ALL WRONG! DON’T BE A HATER!”, and deserve what they get. But in those situations where people know it’s wrong, what can they do?

One colleague attempted various things and ultimately ended up trying to deal with the “root” of the problems by bringing about wholesale organizational change. Not in terms of who was employed, who was in charge, etc, but in terms of the basic attitudes and beliefs of the people turning up to work each day. He tried to remove the cultures of secrecy and fear (*) and replace them with cultures of actively seeking constructive criticism and actively supporting naysayers, so long as they adhered to rules of “decency” when it came to how criticism was provided.

(*) – (tens of millions of dollars spent and the game doesnt work but is going to beta/live? Fear was ever-present. Maybe (I heard rumours, and saw some … strange … stuff, but I don’t know for sure) for other reasons too. c.f. my comments about dirty laundry above)

In the end, I suspect if he’d started his campaign a year earlier, it *might* have worked. It certainly seemed to be having some surprisingly impressive results towards the end.

Among other things, the team itself tried adopting Scrum, with some tremendous results IMHO. Incidentally, I’m hoping one of the talks at GDC this year will be someone from the TR team (perhaps Andy Bruncke or April Burba?) on their experiences adopting Scrum with a team of 50-100 people at the end of development of a > $50million failed AAA title.

(If that talk does happen, I’ll be the one at the back of the room during the Q&A session at the end sticking my hand up to ask: In your opinion, if the team had adopted Scrum 12 months earlier, might it have saved TR? I would be very interested to hear the team’s thoughts on that)

Of course, both of those paths – and some of the other things people tried – were probably too little too late. TR didn’t have the luxury of time – the (contested) decisions being made were by definition time-critical.

So … what should we have done? Both as individuals, and as members of an organization that we each believed in?

What would you do?

Not long after, for unrelated reasons, my manager resigned. And shortly after that, so did several other people, myself included. TR didn’t (I believe) cause any of us to leave – none of them were on the TR team itself – but some of the problems it exposed within the company did come up often in people’s informal (down the pub) complaints about leaving.

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?

Final Note

To my knowledge, NCsoft never admitted that TR was a failure, internally.

In June 2008, when I left the company, the CEO had gone, the lead designer had gone, and the rest of the directors were about to get axed in the pending re-shuffle (which hadn’t been announced even internally yet) – but still no admission in sight.

I used to gently point out that until we admitted the failure, we would fail to fully respond to it, and to fully adjust and improve – so that we were almost certainly doomed to repeat it. As far as I know, the painful admission has still never been made, even internally. The subject was danced around many times, but no-one would come out and say it publically (internally); it was always oblique references, and statements such as “Tabula Rasa is doing very well, although not as well as we hoped” – eliciting mirth, disbelief, looks of remembered pain, or simply blank looks of “wanting to forget it ever happened” etc among the various people in the company.

Personally, for each of the senior management at the company at the time, I shall never forget that you guys did not make that happen. To me, this one thing was symptomatic of, and encapsulates, the institutional failure to respond to the failings of the project.

Privately, reasons were cited to me varying from “it doesn’t matter any more, everyone knows its over” to “I don’t want to hurt anyone more than they’ve already been hurt” to “just basic tact” to “let’s not rock the boat” to “we should look on the bright side and get on with the other games we’re making as a company, and not get mired in history / water under the bridge”.

But as one of my friends said at the time: what’s it got to do with hurting people? we just want to use the experience to learn to make better games. And how the hell are we going to do that when you people won’t even admit we were wrong?

52 thoughts on “We need to talk about Tabula Rasa; when will we talk about Tabula Rasa?

  1. Joe Ludwig

    I *barely* played TR, so I’m going to talk about Pirates instead. :)

    Your last few paragraphs are exactly why I put together a postmortem for PotBS. Whether the game succeeds or fails is still up in the air, but either way there are plenty of lessons we can learn from the project. The process of interviewing key team members for the postmortem brought up all sorts of things (good and bad) that weren’t even on my radar.

    It has been a few days less than a year since the game came out, and there has been a significant team on it that entire time. They have been addressing concerns from the community, adding stuff that missed launch, and generally improving the game in not-quite-monthly patches throughout that time. The only other game I can think of that did that is EVE: Online, and it certainly worked out for them. PotBS is a test to see if “keep supporting your game” is actually a way to grow your subscriber base or if EVE was a fluke. Guess we have to wait and see if FLS ever releases subscriber numbers.

    BTW, if you want to check it out there are free trials available. I haven’t played since I left FLS in July, but I did patch the other day intending to play the completely replaced Avatar Combat system.

  2. Noz

    Hi, as TR is a game I played since closed beta until now (with a break of 2 months because I didn’t know what to do after hitting lvl 50 twice) I really enjoyed reading your statements of what happened up to and after launch. I’m even more interested in what you think about the game in it’s current state? For me it looks like the devs did an incredibly good job in not only listening to their customers and but also implementing them and polishing the game. I’d say at this point TR is in a state ready for a great launch, needing only some higher lvl content to keep players busy after doing all missions and getting nice gear. All the game mechanics, AI, UI, fighting, missions, arts, and animations are great now.
    If you log in today you’ll notice general chat is live once again and lots of new people playing the game for free during its last 2 months say sth like “I can’t believe they’re closing this game — it’s so refreshing, fun to play and looks really great!”. Could you elaborate the reasoning why NCSoft is rather willing to bury TR for good than just keep it running (maybe on one server only) provided the player base would be sufficient to pay for the running costs (and a little support team and critical bug fixes)? I can imagine some reasons but I’d be interested in your POV.

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  4. adam Post author

    @Noz:

    I honestly know nothing about NCsoft’s decision to shut it down, that was after my time.

    A couple of general things you should note, though:

    1. When a game is shutting down, it seems to coalesce the hardcore/niche of gamers that are a perfect fit for the game, and so you see wonderfully high usage amounts and exuberant joy from the people playing. But what you’re seeing there is a false indicator: at that moment you’ve probably got 99% of the people who would “love” the game playing, so although it appears to have a last chance at life and growth, in fact it’s actually just the final bursts of power spitting out of a dieing battery. It’s self-selection on a massive scale :).

    2. NCsoft North America has a lot of issues to deal with right now, especially given they’ve just had a massive re-organization, moved their head office halfway across the country, made the entire core studio redundant, etc. Even if everyone internally had promised to ignore TR and everythign about it, that wouldn’t happen – it would continue to distract people and provide extra stress at a time when the management need everyone focussing on getting things back on to an even keel.

    3. …that goes doubly for things like PR, CS, Sales, Billing, etc that you *cannot* stop doing if the game remains live. Staff would continue to worry about things, to read forums etc, to the detriment of the “real work they are supposed to be doing”.

    4. It would also be divisive, as plenty of staff would manage to ignore TR (as they were supposed to), but those who were failing to ignore it might well become bitter and/or be antagonised by the people they saw as “not pitching in”.

    5. Marketing departments who’ve only ever hired staff that know how to do “big bang marketing” typically have no idea how to keep a niche game ticking along. I don’t think the development side would have much problem with scaling down. Generally speaking, unless/until the bulk of the marketing department – from the Marketing Director down to the Marketing Assistants – is replaced, they would be pretty much lost at sea without a rudder.

    (NB: I know that in NCsoft’s specific case there are people in the marketing dept there at the moment who do have good experience of other forms of marketing; but the company policy has been big-bang marketing for so long that the majority who’ve been hired over the years probably do not (just a guess). This is not a criticism, it’s just saying that you cannot have your cake and eat it :)).

    There are other issues – I would guess that NCsoft North America is currently trying to save money wherever it can to show a good operating profit ASAP, and there’s lots of cash that could be saved from chopping TR into pieces right now. e.g. the server requirements for the game were extremely high (IMHO far too high relative to what they should have been, but that’s another story). The savings overall for all the salvaging put together may only amount to a few million dollars, or even less, but when you’re trying to get other, cheaper, projects to profitability, saving that much here and there soon adds up. BUT … I don’t personally think that’s why they would have shut it down.

    IMHO, the fan base and the critics focus too much on that last paragraph – the “simple” costs of “what’s the marginal cost of running the physical servers”. If that’s all that mattered, I think things would go differently. Instead I suspect the cultural and organizational cost, and the stress of being reminded every day of the failure, were what tipped the balance. And look at my thoughts on NCsoft’s inability to admit the failings even to itself – if they cannot do that, I don’t think they can bring themselves to keep the game alive.

    Finally, be aware that in all corporates, although this is a pretty terrible thing, it’s common for incoming directors to wipe out the projects of their predecessors – both good and bad – in order to more cleanly “distance” themselves and the new teams from the “contamination” of past mistakes. I’m not saying this is happening at NCsoft, but it is well known throughout mainstream industries. FYI it’s not even necessarily the directors’ fault – it’s often blamed on the capriciousness and ignorance of large bodies of shareholders who have nothing to do with running the company but who like to “see change”, and will punish directors who fail to make “obvious” changes (e.g. by firing them or denying them bonus packages).

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  6. Alan O'Dea

    Hey Adam another great post. I have during my time working on MMOs both from the developer and the publsher side talked a lot about regular post mortum checks during the the process of making long games and not just milestone checks. Developers have a habit of getting caught in the mire of just making the game and following the milestone tasks and not stepping back and taking stock of what’s going on outside of the trenches this effectivly means code, design, managment, service, support and marketing don’t really know what the other team are trying to do. Sure the game is getting made but sometimes people are not quite sure why that game is getting made the way it is or why some of the objective form other areas of the buiness are. MMO development is a unique activity and as has been pointed out is formed around building a service and a product business at the same time and that’s immensly hard to do. It is being proved through countless product and orgainsational failure including these four games and the many more that will come in the future that it is not a logical step for a buiness that is good at making traditional video games on consoles or pc to think they can be seccessful planning , creating, operation and succedding in running an MMO company.

  7. Alan O'Dea

    Great article Adam and very much shows that just because some individuals and companies have built and operated successful console and/or PC game studios in the past they can think that it is a natural extension to build a successful MMO company. MMO are as you say both a product and a service buiness and the skills needed to run and operate an MMO studio are no where near the same as appear in many video game developers.

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  9. Noz

    Adam, thanks for replying so quickly. The reasons you gave above sound plausible, I was thinking along the lines of your last two paragraphs, too.
    But I think I didn’t make myself clear at first: You said “[…] at that moment you’ve probably got 99% of the people who would “love” the game playing, […]”. That’s certainly true — who else but the hardcore fans would stay until the end.
    But I was talking about “lots of new people” who just got to know about the game since it’s now free to play until 2009-02-28 and recently there’s been a few articles on the known MMO news sites telling people to “try TR before it shuts down forever”. Most of those just starting to play actually like the game and are wondering why anyone would want to shut it down. Of course that doesn’t mean they would still like it after hitting the lvl cap but almost all the first impressions I read were quite positive.

  10. Bryant Durrell

    @Joe Ludwig —

    Asheron’s Call (and to a degree, AC2) got a lot of monthly love along those lines. I think it worked well for AC1.

  11. Flunky

    My view of the TR failure putting aside the business and tech issues.

    1. Tried to do too much – far too many things (crafting and various other things) made mud of the water – including the interface. ;P
    2. Lacked a hook to draw you into the story arc. Starting on Earth from the beginning as a tutorial would have eased you into the alien conflict and made you care about the plight. Being tossed into a war instantly has some pluses but the Bane in your face idea was just confusing and I didnt care about killing them because I had to hatred for them yet.
    3. If you are going to start on an alien environment – make it completely and utterly ALIEN. The wilderness was just half baked Earth with some aliens running around. No setting and no immersion.

    Those are the two reasons I didnt get hooked or care about what I was playing.

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  13. Kevin Gadd

    I’m really glad to see you sharing your insights here – they really ring true with me, and in some cases your perspective finally brings past events at NCsoft into focus for me. I’m extremely hopeful that they are able to come out of the restructuring as a leaner, more agile company that’s willing and able to respond to trouble as soon as it crops up – from my perspective at a subsidiary the unwillingness to directly face up to issues and address them was a common cause of anger, stress, and unnecessary overtime.

    I look forward to seeing Aion and GW2 and any other future NC titles release as excellent, well-polished, enjoyable games, and my heart goes out to anyone at NC who has to suffer through overtime and mismanagement in the process of finishing those titles, because everyone at NC seemed to have their heart in the right place and love building great games.

    If upper and middle management at NC can bring themselves to stare at the failings of Auto Assault, Dungeon Runners and Tabula Rasa, I think they’ll be in great shape.

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  15. Simon

    Since nobody else will come out and say it in public, I will: Tabula Rasa failed because it was an embezzlement operation by the Garriots so that one of them could get to space. That is all that needs to be said about it.

    The tragedy of it was that certain figures in upper management couldn’t see this and were led astray by the allure of having someone venerable to lead the project

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  17. Peter Freese

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Adam.

    It’s easy to find a slough of armchair critics blogging about the failures of MMOs in simplistic terms, i.e. “their developers let it happen” , but very few talking about the more complex reasons that actually come into play.

    If you’ll forgive the metaphor, I would postulate that making a successful MMO is like landing a spaceship on the moon. Course corrections early in the trajectory can have a huge impact later on, but it’s very difficult to know for certainty that you’re pushing in the right direction. Later on, when it’s very clear whether you’ve deviated from your target, you might not (probably won’t) have enough fuel to fix things. At some point, everyone knows that you’re going to crash or miss the moon altogether, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

    Being able to see when a project is off-course early is the most valuable skill a team can have.

    This requires humility and the ability to see the ugliness in your baby. Unfortunately, not very many organizations have a culture that supports this. I suspect it is extremely rare, particularly in companies with senior staff that have prior experience successful MMOs. There’s probably a lot more to say on this – it’s probably worth an essay or two.

    I thought your question: “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?” is particularly interesting. As you might recall, I left NCsoft in 2005, significantly before the launch of Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa, but having been involved heavily in the development of both titles. To add to your credit irony, I am not listed in the credits of either, despite contributing about 4 years of development to their respective codebases.

    At the time of my departure, I felt both projects were off course enough so as to be unfixable. Not that they had huge problems at the time, but that they were heading in directions that would lead to commercial failure, and NCsoft lacked the process to correct them. Of the two, I actually thought Auto Assault had a better chance of being successful, since NetDevil was more removed from the internal hurtles and the team was more capable of self-criticism. I think they were many on both teams who shared my views, but for a variety of reasons, continued to plug away, hoping that things would get better, or at least *their* parts didn’t suck. As you point out, hope is not a good strategy.

    These two teams both had a lot of smart and talented people whom I greatly respect. None of them chose to make unsuccessful games. The reasons for the failure of their games were complex and deep. Yet, I believe that they were headed for failure long before launch, and long before beta.

    No one loves an iconoclast. If pointing out a hole in the hull merely makes you unpopular instead of given the chance to repair the ship, your best bet is to find a liferaft early before they’re all gone.

    I would also love to see a conference talk from a member of the TR team giving a post-mortem on their development process, although for personal reasons I would prefer this to be at LOGIN instead of GDC (shameless plug – if you’re that potential presenter, talk to me).

  18. Pyrii

    I decided to sit down and play the game myself before it reached the trash can, I prefer to play different MMOs to see the ideas and form my own opinion and your post echoes one that screams in my head when I played TR: “Unfinished”

    This game has obviously been haemorrhaging cash and that’s why it gets pushed out the door too early like many titles I fear these days. When I met you a couple of years ago, I barely saw any sign of TR and it was Aion posters ahoy, so clearly NCSoft changed focus early on and I can only hope that they push out a more polished game this time, although given Aion’s current dev time and what you’ve said here, we may actually just have to wait and see.

    It’s a shame you’re no longer there, and will be keeping track of where you go next. I think it was either you or someone else in the design team there that told me that the games industry is not the place for a stable career. But I can’t help hoping for you guys =) Even if you don’t like people who hope very much

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  20. Mercury

    Adam,

    Awesome article. Thanks for sharing that much. Seeing how some of the gears mesh together (or don’t) is something many of us, in spite of any technical talents, will never see. But by the time I got to the conclusion of your post, I could almost feel the unguided pressure from management closing in on me. *shudder*

    Excellent work.

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  26. Sean Collins

    That was one hell of an excellent post.

    I had a tour of duty with Tabula Rasa and I, like many of my friends, were excited beyond belief when we looked through some of the features that the game would have to offer. After reading some of Richard Garriot’s ideas and posts on various magazines and websites, I decided I would take the plunge and give the game a shot. Ironically enough, I actually ended up with a collector’s edition somehow…

    The point is that the game had merit. I felt that, as a first person shooter fanatic, it created a tolerable hybrid of a traditional auto-attack MMO and a true real-time FPS. The gameplay mechanics were all there, in theory, and everything seemed to be working out well, all up until about level 30.

    After playing for a few weeks straight, I finally had hit that point where I had experience all that the game had to offer. The worlds were different enough from one another to provide a change in scenery, the classes were all different enough from one another to encourage trying new things in the game, and everything seemed diverse.. until you had done it over and over again.

    In the end, there were several interface issues (the map, dear GOD the map!), there was class balancing issues (Spy > Sniper… massively), and storyline issues (how many times can you kill the exact same creature over and over again, really?), but it got some good game time and it was a worthy shot. The problem was, it was just that: a worthy shot.

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  28. Dave

    >”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?”

    Well, sometimes it is. When you’ve tried changing the culture, when you’ve tried keeping your head down and just making your stuff as good as it can be, and when it’s really the case that there’s nothing you can do to fix it, the only honourable thing left to do is to quit. Your position is untenable; the company needs you to do something for it but you can’t do that (admittedly because the company has itself made it impossible for you to do so) so you should agree that you can’t fulfill the needs of the role and resign. If things go well, your resignation may serve to alert those who remain to the depth of the problems (but frankly that’s being optimistic in most cases), or who knows, maybe even your replacement will have some stroke of insight or genius idea and find a way that they can fix the problems. But even if not, resignation is sometimes the right thing for both the individual and the company; it’s taking responsibility, admitting that the buck stops here and you’ve done your best but been unable to succeed.

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  31. Agamemnon

    It’s always enjoyable to hear not just feedback from the people that we’d like to hear from, but the simple fact that some do speaks certain amounts of courage and gusto. And it’s not like this was just a simple mention either; this was an in-depth take and point-by-point analysis of “why it failed” (boy, have people taken out of context what I’ve wrote). Well, I mean, besides that you weren’t involved with the developmental process, but I suppose that is something we can overlook.

    Also, I try to make it a case and point to repeat the obvious things that seeps in the back of developer’s minds on what precautions they should take while developing a game where the feedback may eat you alive. I figure if so many have been ignoring common sense that if we, as gamers, throw it back at developers enough, it will eventually set and they’ll finally get it. And while I understand there can be other issues (monetary, legal, etc) as to why “a game fails,” I think you’ve also made it particularly clear that these four games obviously were not faulted for an outside mysterious force that the developers had no control over. It’s one thing to blame the economy and then it’s another to go on record and say you had no idea how to handle the transaction fees for subscriptions before the launch of your game, or other similar matters relating to that. Like gamers, developers seem quite at ease at placing the blame on someone else–someone who wasn’t even responsible for it at all.

    That was, at least, what I was trying to get at, though I don’t remember where exactly I said, “this article is new and revolutionary”…I could have sworn the idea of me writing my own thoughts out loud was…to write my own thoughts out loud. I can’t say at the time when I published the article I was thinking in the back of my mind, “Hmm, this will get a thousand Diggs” or “This will gain the attention of developers or people in the business.” I still obviously have a lot to learn about what goes on behind the curtains and that is a truth that I’m usually denied, so I thank you for at least letting me (and others) have a peek.

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  33. Baby Mutape

    I’ll talk about PotBS. PoTBS will fail because they drastically left their initial vision of a unique MMO, where combat was realistic, ships behaved as they should, countries could fight for territory and pirates did what pirates do best: plunder the weak and run from navies. Instead, they caved in to care bear after care bear, watered down combat to some generic form of hit points as opposed to tracking individual cannon balls as initially promised (with each hit doing specific damage to structure and crew) and threw in moronic spells and poitions. Yes, it became a watery, fantasy game — a poor clone of another MMOs — just with a Pirate skin. Captains now didn’t have to sail their ships like captains did, but had access to spells that instantly restored health to ships, sails, made them invulnerable, etc. And potions came along the way of repair kits, only to be used every X mins and gave a near instant “fix.” I’m not sure what sails the devs had actually had to repair, but I’ve never seen one be patched in a matter of heartbeats.

    When you lose focus and try to appeal to everyone, you lose what makes you special and what sets you apart. When that happens, new players won’t come and old ones drift away as they realize, “Hey, this is just like XYZ, only not as good.”

    It’s too bad too. PoTBS had one of the biggest potentials early on for breaking the mold, and all they did was show how easy it is to get sucked down into the same old, same old. History, it seems, repeats itself quite often.

  34. juengere

    I agree with Baby Mutape’s opinion of PotBS. I was involved in the closed beta and saw the demise firsthand. I remember in the early days all the people who were excited about a game with real potential…people who wanted a game that made them feel like a real naval hero or pirate from the age of sail.

    Fans of the “master and commander” series were numerous, and it was sad seeing them dissapear every time FLS would mention supernatural content. It forced me to stop playing the closed beta and give up on them.

    PotBS almost became an awesome game, but they went fishing for the WoW crowd and ended up catching a big toilet seat.

  35. EpicSquirt

    Checklist for TR:

    [x] No clear concept.
    [x] The not existing concept implemented badly.
    [x] No end game from level 40+ on.
    [x] Game focussed too much on PvE, no changes on the horizon.
    [x] Bugged quest/mission system.
    [x] Class/Skill system totally obsolete, it didn’t make any difference what skills and abilities have been used.

    On the other hand it had lovely graphics, music and audio effects and brought a good Starship Troopers like feeling.

    The cool thing about TR was the landing enemy NPC ships and Control Point attacking and defending.

    I played it with 2 friends for a few months from late beta into release and we always said we’re going to leave TR unless it gets some interesting PvP.

    How someone could have released a game so heavily focussed on PvE is beyond me.

    WoW is a singularity, one has to make either a niche game, but then a good one or attract all types of players (TR clearly didn’t!).

  36. Jeromai

    “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?”

    You’ve qualified it so that the final answer is, yes, it’s the only valid response.

    That’s not to say that an individual shouldn’t try their best to change things around, and even tackle inertia inherent in a dysfunctional system. I took heart in your story of an individual in NCsoft that tried to improve the situation, if a little too late. He or she was able to make some kind of difference, if too small or too late to help, which then invalidates resignation as the only option.

    But if senior management is continually, across the board, not listening, and not giving your opinions any shrift, if you’ve tried all you can and nothing makes even the smallest difference, they are the ones that ultimately make the final decisions after all, and your best bet is to get out of the boat before it sinks. (Unless you feel like politicking your way into the captain’s board room and becoming one of the decision-makers.)

    How soon you jump ship is up to the individual to decide. Some may just want a paycheck, others may feel like they’re wasting precious time and effort on something doomed to fail.

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  47. Xune

    Both my wife and I played TR from release to close. For us, the draw of the game was its unique story and its focus on PvE. We loved how everyone, regardless of class or race (post hybrids), were all on the same side fighting a common enemy. The unfolding backstory of the Neph (Bane) and Eloh only enriched the experience for us, and we were excited about seeing more. Yet we never enjoyed the PvP aspects of the game, and always voiced our concerns about the developers catering too much to the players who wanted to PvP-ize the game. PvP in TR made little sense contextually (beyond wargames) in the game, and I had contended that if I wanted an FPS PvP experience, I’d go play BF2142 instead. No MMO to date, not even WoW, has successfully balanced PvP and PvE.

    We felt that TR was by design a PvE game, and should have stayed that way despite it’s desire to attract a larger player base and more revenue. Design and development on end-game content versus PvP instances would have been more successful, in our opinion, in maintaining and attracting players. It’s similar in many respects to writing an essay about a particular point – if you try to include too many points in your discussion, you lose focus and dilute the potency of the argument. My wife and I therefore concluded that TR suffered primarily from an identity crisis trying to be too much to too many people.

    Overall, we felt TR was a good game with great potential, and were very disappointed to see it end. While there were certainly other contributing factors to this besides the identity crisis I outlined above (e.g. R. Garriott, corporate politics, etc.), maybe this humble perspective from a couple of loyal players might be remembered when design and development decisions are made in future MMOs.

    P.S. We thank everyone who worked on Tabula Rasa and allowed us to experience the journey with you, even if only briefly.

  48. Hatonastick

    I must be a freak. Out of the many, many MMO’s I’ve played/play Tabula Rasa still rates as my all-time favourite, and sometimes I miss it badly despite the fact that certain aspects of the game were either unfinished, buggy or broken. I had so much fun playing that game — running across battlefields taking out groups of Bane, taking down a tripod, or defending and retaking bases. Nothing I’ve played since has scratched that itch. Certainly no other MMO. :)

    Sturmjaeger of Orion.

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