This week, Richard Garriott's Magnum Opus gets a little love.
Tabula rasa is a Latin term meaning "blank slate", and generally refers to the school of thought stating that humans are born with no inherent programming. For example, Richard Garriott is an utterly demented games designer who wears a crown and insists that people call him "Lord British"; but was he born with the galloping crazies, or was it a lack of appropriate social contact that caused him to descend permanently into an insane fantasy world?
Lord Garriott's previous games include - and by that I mean consist entirely of - the Ultima series, a bunch of needlessly obtuse fantasy RPGs in which his author-insertion fantasy persona sets another of his author-insertion fantasy personas on various divine quests to prove their awesomeness, while being assisted on all sides by two or three additional author-insertion fantasy personas. Of late, though, he's promoted his fantasy persona to the rank of General British and author-inserted himself into his new MMORPG, Tabula Rasa, the beta for which The Escapist parachuted me into for a week.
Things got off to a flying start on the character creation screen when I discovered that I could choose the colour of my starting armour. So I immediately kidded myself out with an ensemble of flourescent pink and a matching Ace Ventura hairdo. Then, mindful of the fact that the duty of a beta tester is to try and break the game, I decided to test out Tabula Rasa's obscenity filter by naming my creation "Gareth Gobulcoque".
Now, I usually avoid online RPGs, because I think they're all a bunch of pointless timesinks for socially maladjusted freaks with self-diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. But I'm happy to say that Tabula Rasa caused this policy of mine to completely stay exactly the same. A few good yonks ago, I played World of Warcraft for a while because I acquired three months of free play time. I'd never actually pay for this kind of crap, because even if I did somehow desperately need to lose money, I'd just throw it off a bridge. But anyway, I begrudgingly felt that World of Warcraft is about as good as MMOs are ever going to get - and I suspect that Richard Garriott feels the same way, because the Tabula Rasa user interface looks a hell of a lot like the one from World of Warcraft, just with a sci-fi theme added and the user-friendliness scaled back to minus 92.
My roommate tells me that Tabula Rasa is supposed to be a new kind of online RPG that has less of the repetitive grind that blights other MMOs. I suspect he was thinking of some other game, though, because Tabula Rasa is grind-tastic. No sooner had Gareth minced into the first world that he was given a series of quests to kill specific numbers of local wildlife X, Y, and Zed in return for new, slightly better guns and armour - which swiftly replaced all of my starting armour, destroying Gareth's individuality and raising the question of why they let me choose custom colours in the first place. And so began a typical MMO experience, i.e., doing the same thing a hundred times.
Tabula Rasa 's touted "innovation" comes from the fact that it attempts to blend elements of online shooters seamlessly with the standard RPG questing shenanigans. Enemy NPCs, you see, constantly warp in and attempt to seize friendly settlements, necessitating that they be defended or retaken before the settlement can be used for quests and shopping, creating a sort of territory control element. But the thing is, people who like MMORPGs and people who like online shooters don't overlap much. MMORPGs tend to be more intelligent - okay, I can't finish that sentence with a straight face. All right, so they're a lot slower-paced compared to your average Counter-Strike player's foamy-mouthed gibbering daily life - and in this game, the shooter enthusiast is going to be pissed off by all the roundabout leveling up tomfoolery, while the RPG enthusiast is going to be pissed off when they come back to base to finish a quest and find it is now an evil alien self-service restaurant. To me, it all smacks of a typical problem in the media, in that rather than focusing on pleasing a particular audience, designers try to please as many people as possible, and just end up giving a blankly mediocre experience for all.
So what exactly am I saying? Well, don't fix what isn't broke, I suppose. Taking a format that has proved a massive success and gluing on extra bits rarely causes the coveted lightning to strike twice. Talking about removing grind from MMOs is all very well until you think about it, because grind is the only thing that keeps people playing MMOs for so long, and removing it will be like removing the crazy from Richard Garriott. Besides, every MMO so far has grind right up the bum, it doesn't seem to stop people playing them; some people just like that sort of thing, I guess. Some people also find fat people sexy. I don't understand them myself, but then most people don't understand why I like putting lettuce around my cock and hiding it in other people's salad.
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw: Rhinestone cowboy
"It's The End of the World As We Know It" by R.E.M.
"Fantasy" by the Levellers
Fair Use Notice: COMPETITION TIME: If you can identify the gun being wielded by the bad guys as they capture the blue flag then you seriously need to get out more
FullyRamblomatic.com: You know how I usually end these things by saying 'ask me X Y or Z' or whatever? That doesn't mean you should actually do that