'Tabula Rasa' Beta Test Event Friday: Lord British Goes Into Hiding

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It means "clean slate" in Latin, and it stands for so much in the life and work of one Richard Garriott. He is the creator of easily the most successful and pacesetting series in the history of computer games, Ultima, and is still known to his many loyal fans over the past quarter-century as Lord British. Now, after almost a decade of work, Garriott's team is ready to premiere Tabula Rasa, a networked role-playing adventure of tremendous proportions that promises to wipe the floor with World of Warcraft...or at least try.

Tomorrow from 9:00 - 11:00 pm Eastern Time, Garriott - in his newly-cast role of "General British" - will be hiding out someplace in NCsoft's expansive Tabula Rasa universe. Yes, it's hide-and-seek, but it should give beta testers incentive to explore pockets and crannies of this world they may never have seen otherwise.

The event is being held to celebrate the official start of pre-order boxes available from NCsoft as well as from retailers throughout North America and Europe. These early editions will come complete with access to the beta site, in-game pets for your characters (I should tease Richard next time I see him about creating a "Webkinz World Within a World"), and a three-day head start on the final live service prior to its full consumer launch.

Since before the advent of networked multiplayer games for PCs, when the Plato system was the only platform on which to stage worldwide dungeon wars, Garriott has longed to create a game that proved the principle of an individual's ability to change the course of history. Present-day games often echo that theme, though they don't typically demonstrate it; they give a player choices, and then lead that player down mazes of success or punishment based on the author's arbitrary decisions of whether those choices were "right" or "wrong."

With Tabula Rasa, the original goal was to open the gaming environment up to a plethora of resources, usable objects, and possibilities, the ultimate "answers" for which aren't determined in advance. Unlike Ultima, there's no "Lord British" waiting for you in a castle or a tavern to lay down the law, set forth your goals in front of you, or tell you how close to "right" you are. But there is a kind of "voluminous ether" in the game - a kind of astral-level force called "Logos," which players can learn to use to their advantage. Call it magic, call it intuition...it's the acumen which can give any player an advantage within the broader universe.

From the very last E3 Expo in Los Angeles, Richard "Lord British" Garriott talks with a fan, following an industry panel. That man standing behind him who looks like a government agent...is really a "minder," whose job really was to stop Garriott from saying too much about Tabula Rasa. It was a tough job. (Original photograph for TG Daily)

At the final E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles in May 2006, Garriott participated in a panel discussion that was ostensibly about how best to monetize the value of game franchises through porting them to other platforms. With him on board, the discussion managed to digress at times to the subject of where the value of a game as a work of art, truly lies.

"Having been in this industry for a very long time, I find it very interesting to watch how certain kinds of game play are cyclic in their popularity," Garriott told attendees. "The first-person shooter metaphor is one I'd like to use as a case study. If you watch over time, usually there are moments where technology makes a substantial step forward - whether it's 3D hardware, the CD drive where you can store lots of art, [etc.] And periodically, whenever there's enough technological advancement from what the games have done before, you see everybody dives into very simple game play, like a straight shooter with no other frills - it just showcases the technological advancement of the day."

"However, as time goes on, in order to compete with that game...it becomes more important to deepen the product in some way," he continued, "so it goes from just being a shooter, to a shooter with a lot of more variety of styles of interaction, then it gets out into more of these complex battlefields...with better A.I. or better storytelling. The depth of the product gets deeper and deeper, and you get more diverse offerings - more of the things I enjoy, more literary content...And then eventually as time goes by, to where no one's created a really great, straight-up shooter, and especially if there's been enough technological advancements at the time, suddenly, a new shooter emerges as the top game again, because it just looks to much better than the old-fashioned just-a-shooter that was around five or ten years ago."

There's virtues to this cycle, Garriott explained, but there are also pitfalls...like the settings of one of his own games. "As much as we all enjoy this rapid technological advancement in gaming, the fact that we continually reset back to that very simple shooter, because it's so much more beautiful, actually artistically sets us back from a game design standpoint quite profoundly, in my mind. I actually look forward to the time when you can start using tools you've developed, and the platforms actually begin to stabilize, and we begin to compete not just on the bells and whistles, but on the depth of the content."

In nearly every respect, the bar has been set high for Tabula Rasa, not only to meet the overwhelming expectations set by the tone of its creator's own remarks, but those of World of Warcraft players who aren't yet tired of the unexplored wonders of that game's universe.

From the final E3 Expo in Los Angeles in 2006, an NCsoft display offers the world the first hands-on look at Tabula Rasa, Richard Garriott's masterwork. (Original photograph for TG Daily)

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