The prospect of Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott leading a well-funded MMO project for NCsoft was mouth watering. But Tabula Rasa lasted just 15 months before NCsoft pulled the plug and Garriott walked away.
"There's really two games that I have shipped that shipped as less than I could have hoped or, I believe, less than I could have done: Ultima 8 and Tabula Rasa," creator Richard Garriott shared with Eurogamer.
"In both of those games it was immediately after selling a company to a larger company who had very strong opinions about how and why I should do the games that I was working on in a particular way.
"When we first started [Tabula Rasa]," Garriott recalled, "we had just signed on with this Korean company that had by far the greatest MMO success in the world with Lineage. Lineage was 10-times more successful than any US product at that time. We thought if we're going to be great anywhere in the world, it would sure be great to be successful in Asia.
"We started the game by bringing on a lot of staff by our Asian partner, and we decided to create a game that we believed could be popular in Asia. And we spent the first couple of years trying to create a game that had Asian style and Asian influence to make sure that we could be popular in Asia. But we kept getting feedback - accurate feedback I believe - from our Korean counterparts that said, 'You know what, when you guys try to do Asian pagodas or Asian armour or weapons, it never feels domestic, it always feels like a foreigner making stuff for us.'
"The way it was phrased to us was, 'Look, imagine we were going to do a European castle: instead of making the stone walls nice and straight, we'd make them sort of like an inflatable castle, slightly curved, like a marshmallow castle. We might not notice that it doesn't look like a good castle, but you would immediately notice that it was cartoony versus strong and powerful.'
"After two years of trying we eventually abandoned the idea of trying to create a global intellectual property and decided to turn back on something we ourselves would make for ourselves.
"Whenever you start a game that is two years out of position, you're basically already up a creek, if you know what I mean."Richard Garriott, creator, Tabula Rasa
"But what it meant," he added, "was that we were then two years out of position. And whenever you start a game that is two years out of position, you're basically already up a creek, if you know what I mean. Because what the company is not going to do is forgive the two years and forgive the millions of dollars that have already been spent. You basically are two years late and what's taking you so long - let's get the game out.
"So Tabula Rasa started its two-year late restart under exceptionally unusual pressures and with understandable corporate discontent, which made it very difficult to finish."
Similarly, Ultima 8 fell foul of pressures from new owner EA, which had a release schedule to stick to.
"In the case of Ultima 8, that was the first game I did as part of Electronic Arts," Garriott said, "and Electronic Arts, their whole success formula is based upon yearly releases of sports franchises just before the beginning of the sports season. Since their whole success and sales and marketing comes from accurately timed seasonal launches, the pressure was very heavy to accurately time a seasonal launch for Ultima 8.
"We shipped Ultima 8 more or less on time, but the only way we got there was by really cutting out huge swathes of the game all the way to the point where the cloth map was completely unrelated to the map of the real game because we threw out so many bits and pieces of it. So Ultima 8 was, frankly, unfinished - I mean dramatically unfinished. And in hindsight I look at it and go, if we'd really just finished it properly - even the movement, the jumping that was in the game - had we done it less hacked and more accurately, we would have had a Diablo-style success a year or so before Diablo.
"Too bad, spilt milk," he rued, "I get the blame - I get the appropriate blame, I'm the top of the food chain. It was my decisions. But that's my excuse or rationalisation."
Eurogamer didn't exist in 1994 when Ultima 8 was released. But Eurogamer did exist in 2007 - you might even remember - when Tabula Rasa appeared. Eurogamer's Tabula Rasa launch review awarded 8/10. Eurogamer's re-review of Tabula Rasa six months later awarded 7/10. But even then, in April 2008, it was clear that Tabula Rasa was on the ropes.
"Too bad, spilt milk. I get the blame - I get the appropriate blame, I'm the top of the food chain. It was my decisions."Richard Garriott
Garriott went on to sue NCsoft for fraud and win damages of around $28 million. NCsoft was found guilty of lying about firing Garriott, telling the public he had left voluntarily, which left him less time to sell his valuable NCsoft shares.
Garriott is now in the process of making a spiritual successor to landmark MMO Ultima Online. He's doing it with Portalarium, a developer he co-founded, and a team of 25. His new game, Ultimate RPG, focuses on new-age platforms (Facebook, iOS, browsers) and new-age techniques such as iterative and open development, like Minecraft. It's a very different proposition to the heavily funded and heavily staffed project Tabula Rasa.
But as Garriott accepts, you're only as good as your last game - Tabula Rasa.
"Unquestionably, I have the dual benefit and curse of having been in the business long enough, and having some big enough successes, that my name Richard Garriott and or Lord British still have what is called name recognition value, and fond memories at least of some things in the past.
"On the other hand," he said, "since Ultima Online was a fair time back and Tabula Rasa had its troubles, it makes perfect sense that people would go, 'I'm cautious as to what my expectations are.'
"I recognise that, and I'm perfectly fine if people are cautious.
He added: "I clearly have great faith and confidence in the way that I approach game design, and how it can be done. It's very easy to take things that were not successful and lay blame in all kinds of areas. And of course every time something is extremely successful, plenty of people want to take credit.
Garriott's Ultimate RPG is under wraps. An Ultimate Collector game, which will test vital Ultimate RPG technology, is upcoming on Facebook. Expect Ultimate RPG either at the end of 2012, or in 2013.