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Summary:

6 years ago, Richard “Lord British” Garriott sat in my San Francisco apartment telling me about Tabula Rasa, the new MMORPG he was planning to create as a follow-up to Ultima Online, released in 1997 and more or less establishing the genre as a commercially viable […]

tabula-rasa-box.jpg6 years ago, Richard “Lord British” Garriott sat in my San Francisco apartment telling me about Tabula Rasa, the new MMORPG he was planning to create as a follow-up to Ultima Online, released in 1997 and more or less establishing the genre as a commercially viable genre.

Tabula finally launched last week, and so much has changed since then, it’s a great microcosm of where the game industry is now, still struggling with the rise of teen-oriented social worlds and a growing audience for games outside the relatively small base of hardcore gamers. Most telling in that regard is how the new MMO is being sold– not as the kind of sprawling, time-consuming epics Garriott became famous for, but a fun and easy-to-play online game especially catering to casual gamers. That’s probably a reflection of Garriott’s brother Robert, CEO and President of the North American branch of NCsoft, the Korean game giant that’s publishing it. As Robert told Wired, “I’m not in the business because I like gaming… I got in the business because I like business.”

Appealing to casual gamers reflects the changes of the market; at the same time, it’s hard to see how the intergalactic war-themed Tabla Rasa is filling a desirable niche. Sci-fi MMOs have never succeeded in a big way; currently the largest is probably Eve Online, with around 200,000 active subscribers. (For that matter, Ultima Online peaked at 250,000.) In the late 90s, these qualified as impressively large user bases, but in today’s market, the top titles attract a half million or more. With numbers so huge, the importance of a name brand “game god” designer being associated with a new title is considerably attenuated, because he’s only going to be known by a fraction of potential players at most. Nonetheless, NCSoft is hoping to capitalize on Lord British: the game’s full title is actually “Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa.”

In the late 90s, the three biggest names in MMORPG development were probably Garriott, Everquest creator Brad McQuaid, and Garriott’s lead designer on Ultima Online, Raph Koster. McQuaid’s highly touted MMORPG Vanguard launched earlier this year with mixed results, changed hands from Microsoft (MSFT) to Sony (SOE) Online, and seems to be floundering. As for Raph Koster, he exited the old school MMORPG business entirely to create Metaplace, a user-created, web-based metaverse.


Image credit: rgtr.com.

  1. “As for Raph Koster, he exited the old school MMORPG business entirely to create Metaplace, a user-created, web-based metaverse.”

    He’s also MAKING a MMORPG, using the Metaplace framework.

    Simply put, this is what Metaplace is:

    A way for anyone to make a MMORPG in 5 mins.
    A way for people to collaborate on the same project easily, and make something as polished as Age of Conan or World of Warcraft.
    Metaplace is also the caring parent who hosts your MMORPG/game if you so wish, and allows you to easily make money from your player base by charging meta$ (like secondlife currency, think ‘micropayments’ or even regular $15 a month fees).

    Metaplace…what, there’s more?!
    YES.

    Metaplace also allows you to link your ‘world/mmorpg’ to any other.

    A network of mmorpg’s as linked up as websites are to one another.

    etc

    This swollows Second Life , WOW Age of conan, runescape etc WHOLE.
    They could all fit inside it’s gigantic belly.

    Go to metaplace, and enter the belly of the whole pinochio…
    and become a -real- game developer ;)

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  2. “still struggling with the rise of teen-oriented social worlds and a growing audience for games outside the relatively small base of hardcore gamers.”

    Come on James, this is a joke. How is anyone supposed to take your analysis seriously with statements like this one?

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  3. “the relatively small base of hardcore gamers”

    How many subscribers does WoW have again?

    But that’s less than Habbo Hotel or some other FREE chatroom junk, so of course MMORPG games are just a niche interest…

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  4. Yes, WoW is the big exception, but then, no other game studio has managed to replicate its success. And as an aggregate, players of old school hardcore fantasy MMORPGs are dwarfed by active membership of worlds that fall outside that rubric, especially online worlds for kids and teens.

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  5. Yes, because they are free. It’s a meaningless comparison. For your next trick, perhaps you could stand outside Nintendo’s offices with a sandwich board proclaiming the end is nigh, based on the popularity of free flash games on Newgrounds.

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  6. Whether it’s subscription only or free play with advertising/virtual item sale/etc., the fact remains that old school MMOs are losing out in terms of eyeballs and attention. And by extension, potential paying customers.

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  7. “the fact remains that old school MMOs are losing out in terms of eyeballs and attention. And by extension, potential paying customers.”

    They have less eyeballs, but it’s not about ‘who’s bigger or badder’…
    it’s about money.

    Will you make more money if you create yet another tired online casual world for the masses? more competition

    OldSchool MMO’s have a following, an ever expanding following.
    They make more money per person playing than the casual ones.

    Even if they make less money, we can’t all go around making the same thing…that’s the path to ruin.

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