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October 3, 2007
Tabula Rasa Interview with April Burba
 

By Jason Van Horn

Richard Garriott is often considered one of the fathers of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, so it's only natural for Garriott to be around when it seems that the genre is about to evolve, and Tabula Rasa is the game at the forefront of the revolution. How can a story about humanity's end really be the start of something new and grand for the MMO genre? We talked with April Burba to find out a little bit more about Tabula Rasa and what we can expect when the game ships shortly.

Jason: For those who haven't got into the beta yet, how much of the final build are players experiencing right now? Is the current beta going to be a good indicator of ultimately what the final product is going to be like? How much of the beta right now is tweaking final things that were already in play and planned, and how much tweaking is being done specifically in regards to comments you've seen from players?

April: We have about one more patch before ship – we are getting pretty close. We have some big crafting changes coming before then and of course some balance passes, but we are close. Lots of tweaking is being done based on QA and Player feedback on ‘fun factor’ and balance.

Jason: What trends are you seeing in the choices of the players and their reaction to what they are seeing so far? Are players flocking one way or another to certain features or roles in the game?

April: Reactions have been pretty good. Players seem to enjoy the fast paced combat style TR has and people are having a fun time. There seems to be a tendency towards the soldier side of the fence – that is the more ‘damage dealing’ path that also has the chaingun option that people seem to really like. It eats ammo like crazy, but man is it fun to fire.

Jason: Tabula Rasa is departing from the usual fighting mechanics, in that it isn't so much the auto combat of a World of Warcraft, and is instead much more action oriented and involving. Some players are taking to the new control scheme without issue, but others are having difficulties using the mouse in a more FPS reticule type way. Why, ultimately, was the more action system decided upon, and do you think that the gamers more weaned on traditional MMOs will be able to casually jump in and enjoy the game, having to conform tradition in a way to adopt a more FPS control scheme.

April: I think so – we actually added a more MMO-style control scheme as an option, however you have to aim and control your camera with your mouse with either control scheme and some people really don’t like that. It seems that people who play a ton of games, not just MMOs, get it much easier than people who mainly play MMOs. I think that is because if you play a wide variety of games you don’t come into TR with as much of an expectation of how the controls are ‘supposed’ to work than a heavy MMO player. Instead, you just learn the controls and the rules to the game and you go play. It’s about a 15 minute learning curve for some, but once you learn it suddenly you are much more immersed in the action than any other MMO I have ever played. My least favorite MMOs are the ones where you click on a target and then wait for the computer to finish the combat for you. TR is the opposite of that type of gaming.

Jason: Though the game has a lock-on feature in combat, it seems like more advanced players and those seeking the utmost control will favor the free-based mouse movement system for aiming. We've seen the game running on a low-end system and the game running on a high-end, and control in regards to aiming is difficult on the low-end side. A big reason for World of Warcraft's success has often come from the fact that the system requirements are fairly low to be able to play it. With that in mind, do you see the requirement specs for the game being perhaps a bit too high to get the more casual player, or going to be an issue in hampering the game or its success in anyway?

April: I think if we had released a year ago, yes. Now? I don’t know. We have done a ton of optimization to make the game playable at min-spec. There is always the argument that if you want a gazillion players, make the game playable on a 10 year old PC with an integrated video card. There is a huge casual market there, and make no mistake about it, NCsoft is going after that market with some of our upcoming products. Tabula Rasa is not that product. We put a ton of art effort in making TR look different than other MMOs, especially in the higher levels, and making the game be a visual feast for the senses. So no, it probably won’t run on your 5 year old laptop that's outside our min-spec, but for the segment of the gaming market that seeks out a less ‘cartoon-like’ gaming experience – TR is ready to play.

Jason: It's been said the title – Tabula Rasa – came from the team's desire to change up the MMO traditions, but yet many things still seem the same in some regards when looking at Tabula Rasa. When looking at traditions that perhaps needed to be done away with, what, if anything, did you realize was perfect the way it is, and thus it was included; or is it not so much that system in play was already perfect, but perhaps it was needed in some way so the game didn't break too far away from the norm people are used to when it comes to MMOs?

April: TR is different, to be sure, but it’s still an MMO. While we want to expand the market, it’s hard to get very far without exciting the core of that market. It’s not so much revolution as evolution.

Jason: At least on one occasion, we've seen people bring up the issue of both running out of bullets and not having the money to buy bullets to resupply. Typically, only the bow and arrow players have had to constantly worry about an issue like this, with regards to having arrows, but now everyone has to rely on bullets/projectiles. Are there any safeguards in play to try and minimize or keep this problem from not happening at all, and why did you choose not to focus on melee combat really for Tabula Rasa?

April: Actually – any player can melee. There is a trainable melee skill you get at Recruit and there are filament swords and staffs in some classes. We also encourage melee with our ‘finishing moves’ for critical hits. It’s just the melee focus is more based on “would you bring a stick to a gunfight’ type mentality. Spies use filament swords – they can get into melee and do damage because they are sneaky and thus do a killing blow from behind. Staffs are ranged + melee for the best of both worlds.As far as ammo goes – we are tweaking ammo drop rates/cost/credit earning to find a good balance of wise ammo use (no – you can’t just turn your chaingun on and walk around blasting everything in sight) and making sure troops never really get into a situation where they can’t get enough ammo to get the job done. Little hint – if you run out of cash and need ammo, check your footlocker. General British stored a little extra cash in there for you just in case.

Jason: The clone system is a very unique feature, which seems like it will be cloned itself for possible future MMOs down the line. Can you talk about why you went with the cloning option instead of the regular re-roll and subsequent grind? Also, though players seem to praise the cloning fundamentals, they aren't exactly thrilled all their characters are tied to the same last name. What was the reasoning behind making all your shared characters follow the same last name set?

April: I think you answered your own question by saying ‘the regular re-roll and grind’ with grind being the operative word here. Looking at game data we find that when people finish with one class and think about starting another that this is often an exit-point for them. If you want to start a new character, chances are decent that you would be just as interested in starting another character in a whole other game rather than playing content over again. Also, the longer you play in an MMO the more frustrating it is to start over. You get used to having cool, powerful powers/armor/weapons. This way you don’t have to start all the way over, just at your last clone point.

Thank you April for taking the time to answer these questions.

For every Lord of the Rings read there are others basking in the sci-fi adventures of a Ender's Game, but in the MMO genre sci-fi fans have had very little to occupy their mouse clicking fingers. For those MMO fans craving a new sci-fi endeavor, Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa looks to be a sure winner, and we hope the answers in this Q&A has excited you just as much as us. For more information on Tabula Rasa you can go to http://www.rgtr.com/index.html.

 
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