Tabula Rasa: Q&A With Lead Designer Tom Potter

Joe Blancato | 21 May 2008 16:00
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WarCry: How key a role has Richard Garriott played in the game's design post-release?

TP: As you may know Richard is preparing for his life-long dream of going to space. That requires an amazing amount of training, so he's been spending a lot of time overseas. Since he can't be involved in the critical day-to-day operations of running a live service he has taken on a more creative advisor role for the time being. That said, he has still been in regular contact with us. So he is still around, albeit from Russia at times!

WarCry: A recent re-review in Eurogamer gave the game a 7/10, but said the lower population numbers have really made the game less fun to play. How do you plan to bring players back to the game now that it's been patched a bit?

TP: As mentioned we have been working on a number of features in the game since launch and we think the game is better for it. We have a number of incentives planned in the short-term like re-enlistment weekends where players that canceled their accounts can jump back in the game for free to experience all the changes we've made to the game since launch. We'll also be doing more free trial weekends to get brand new players playing the game. We're finishing some other key items so this summer you'll see some new initiatives meant to bring out all of the additions and improvements that we have made since launch, with efforts to get the game into more hands. (Incidentally, we're working on our eighth "deployment" - our word for our free updates - now, and have many more coming through the end of the year!).

WarCry: Playing the game feels like a very fluid experience on the first go. Everywhere you go, it seems as though the world adapts to you, spawning enemies on the fly and such. However, once you visit an area more than once, you quickly realize a lot of what felt dynamic is in fact a static experience. Is there a way in MMOGs to actually make an open world feel as though it's tailor-made for each player?

TP: An MMO that is tailor-made for each player is actually a pretty complex design challenge. Letting players affect the state of the game is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that MMO game developers face. Ideally you want players to feel like they have an impact on the world, that their actions somehow affect the outcome of persistent events. However the idea of persistence makes this very difficult to design in a meaningful way. The more tailor-made you make something for an individual, the more you have to sacrifice group play to some extent.

Take this extreme example:

Roaming through the wilderness you encounter a bridge spanning an infinite void. The only way to access the area on the other side of the void is via this bridge. You just so happen to have a quest to destroy said bridge. After the dust settles all that remains are a few beams where the bridge once stood. Now no player in the world can use that bridge, thus no player can access that area until the bridge returns.

Does it respawn back in the world? If it does you really aren't having a meaningful impact since the world returns to the same state as if you took no action. If some player interaction, like bridge repair, is necessary, you have to build a system to support that. And that's no easy task. Start adding more and more of these elements to the game and your design becomes infinitely more difficult to manage. The quality assurance time alone would be staggering.

The actual concept of player actions having a real impact on the world is certainly possible, and is often done on a small scale. A lot of MMOs try to solve the problem through instancing out encounters, where the experience is specifically crafted for small groups and separated from the persistence of the world. Some games do things like allow player housing, or story NPCs can be affected by some player outcome. Some MMOs use planned dynamic events to this extent as well. But the more impact you want those choices to have, the more complex the design must become. Pretty quickly you run into a situation where the design and resources necessary to accomplish this becomes overwhelming to many game studios. It's definitely not impossible, but to make a game where players have real impact on the world, your team has to make certain compromises to make the design manageable. And in some cases those compromises alienate your audience.

In Tabula Rasa we have the concept of Control Points which are a dynamic experience as bases shift in ownership between AFS and Bane control. These bases are constantly being assaulted by Bane and AFS forces, but it is players' action (or inaction) that determine what faction claims ownership ultimately. If a base comes under attack and players choose to do nothing, then it will likely be taken over by the Bane. Players collectively will then lose access to things such as waypoints, vendors and in some cases mission arcs... until they gain control of the base again. We're also in the process of adding clan-ownership to some of the Control Points, so players will be even more invested in what happens in the game world. I'd love to add more elements like this to TR that give players the feeling that the world is not only dynamic, but also that it is responding to their actions.

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