An Online Game Pioneer's Blank Slate

Richard Garriott, creator of NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, talks about his efforts to redefine multiplayer online gaming

South Korea's NCsoft is a pioneer of the new gaming genre of MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Banking on the popularity of games such as Lineage, NCsoft is the No. 1 gaming company in Korea. The company is well-positioned to profit from a growing industry: Research firm DFC Intelligence expects the global online gaming market to grow from $4.5 billion in 2006 to $13.1 billion in 2012.

NCsoft has yet to make much of a mark in the West, though, since gamers used to Nintendo's Wii, Sony's (SNE) PlayStation, or Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox have been slower than their Korean counterparts to embrace playing games online. NCsoft is trying to change that. On Oct. 4, the company announced the acquisition of Carbine Studios, an Orange County (Calif.) group of experienced game designers who have worked on such popular online games as World of Warcraft.

On Nov. 2, NCsoft will face its biggest test yet when it launches its latest product, a 3D game called Tabula Rasa, in North America and Europe. Ahead of the crucial launch, BusinessWeek's Seoul bureau chief Moon Ihlwan spoke to the game's principal developer. Richard Garriott, 46, was the creator of Ultima Online, the first online game introduced in the U.S. Now NCsoft's executive producer, he is the brother of North American CEO Robert Garriott. He joined NCsoft in 2001 and has spent the past six years developing Tabula Rasa.

What inspired you to make Tabula Rasa? What's the principal idea driving the game?

Tabula Rasa was formed out of our surprise to see how little online gaming design has changed over the past 10 years. Since my game Ultima Online [released in 1997], the vast majority of massively multiplayer games have been built with very little variation in the principles that define game design. The name Tabula Rasa, which means "blank slate" in Latin, describes our game design philosophy. We wanted to start over from scratch and really reinvigorate the game design principles for massively multiplayer games. We felt that our team, who made the first big successful MMO [massively multiplayer online] game, was well-suited to take a lot more risks in attempting to do a lot more innovation.

What makes Tabula Rasa stand out from the rest of the pack?

Tactical combat, dynamic battlefields, and ethical parables are the main areas that set apart Tabula Rasa from all previous MMO games. First, Tabula Rasa has a very fast pace and a very tactical combat system compared to most MMOs, which are time-based inventory management games. In Tabula Rasa, the monsters and other creatures position themselves against players in three-dimensional environments. And the players will have to deal with this real-time change in the battlefield, which is very different from other MMOs.

The second is what we call dynamic battlefields. In most MMOs, monsters just respond and wait for you to come to them for experience points and treasure. In Tabula Rasa, the enemies that come into the game are working to take and hold strategic territories. So when players reenter games after a few hours or a few days, the battlefields would have changed dramatically and there will be outposts and the whole sections of the map that will have switched from the player's faction to the enemy's faction, giving the players a very dynamic world to play in.

The third is how we deal with stories. Tabula Rasa is the only MMO, I believe, that includes ethical parables. Players will be judged by how they complete the mission, not just if they complete the mission. So you'll be constantly tested to make sure you are constantly living up to the ideal.

What happens if players don't live up to the game's ethical requirements?

In some cases you might just offend some players who would no longer wish to help you in your journey. In some other cases, whole towns, whole factions, or whole groups of computer-generated characters will choose to work against you instead of working for you. It will change the nature of the game in the sense of whom you'll play with and whom you will play against.

I understand it took you six years to make Tabula Rasa. Why did it take such a long time?

It normally takes between three years and five years to make an MMO, and the majority of big successful MMOs, including games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and Ultima Online, took four to five years. Still, Tabula Rasa has taken an extra couple of years because we had a lot more going on for NCsoft to set up the U.S. branch during the early stage of the project. Plus, we made some tactical errors in the early years of Tabula Rasa. We ultimately decided our original art design would be unsuccessful, so after about a year and a half of development we had to start it over.

Tabula Rasa is targeting U.S. players. Are there big differences in tastes of players in different regions?

Games have grown in similarities, but there are some remaining differences. Twenty years ago, U.S. games and European games were very different. U.S. games did not look very good, but their game play was very strong. In contrast, European games were beautiful, but their design was incomplete and not compelling. But they have grown to be almost identical. Six years ago when I joined NCsoft, no one in the Asian company felt that 3D graphics could possibly be successful. Every single successful online game in Asia had a top-down view for a click on the ground and walk around manually. First-person shooting games were not popular in Asia either. But both have well been adopted in Asia.

However, some fundamental differences will linger for a considerably longer period of time. For example, a heroic avatar in the U.S. is very commonly a tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, muscle-bound tough guy like Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the other hand, in Asia this big, tough-looking character is almost universally a bad guy. Heroes are usually smaller and more frail-looking characters with inner strength. Another difference is that Asian players are much more player-vs.-player-oriented than U.S. players.

Will Tabula Rasa work in Asia?

The initial launch of the game will favor U.S. players from a fine-tuning standpoint. That's why we are not planning a simultaneous launch in Asia. We will wait until we get a chance to get feedback directly from Asian players so that we can tune the game more precisely for the market. We also produce characters catering to different standards so that players can choose avatars representing themselves. But I believe strongly that fundamentals of the games are universal.

You are known to value research for a new game. What research did you conduct for Tabula Rasa to make it unique?

I'm a devout believer that developing a game with your first instinct isn't likely to be very original, deep, or compelling. I try to make sure the world in which a game is played is rich, detailed, and consistent in fictional background. I'm a fan of the Tolkien series The Lord of the Rings. I believe that is one of best-researched fictional properties in existence, and I try to emulate my hero in world crafting, who is J.R.R. Tolkien.

In Tabula Rasa, I wanted to create a truly universal language that could be read in Korea as it would be in the U.S., Germany, or France. To that end, I did an extensive research into a variety of symbolic languages, including Egyptian typography, ancient Chinese calligraphy, and languages created to communicate with the handicapped, and spent three months to create a pictographic language that is easy to read across the globe.

How would Tabula Rasa evolve in the future?

One of the great features of the fundamental design of MMO games is that it constantly evolves to meet the desire and needs of players. When we create an online game, we are creating a city over a few years—we build every street, every power line, we put every object on every store shelf, we set every price and every taxation rate, and one day we invite everybody to move in. The day when everybody moves in, it is pretty much guaranteed that a lot of people will have a lot of opinions. It is the responsibility of game developers to embrace their desire for entertainment for the growth of the city.

Do you think you have a big-enough market for MMO games in North America?

Absolutely. Even though Asia has a higher total number of players and a higher penetration number, the revenue per customer is two to five times as high in North America and Europe as in Asia.

What innovation do you think NCsoft has brought to the gaming world?

The main innovation that NCsoft's Lineage brings to the table is player-vs.-player combat, particularly surrounding castle seizures, where a large number of players form political alliances for battles to control the castle. That's a phenomenally powerful feature. I'm quite disappointed that U.S. game developers have not mastered that player-vs.-player mechanic, which is gaining popularity in the U.S.

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