Can Lord British Last in a Web 2.0 World?

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.

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