Monday, June 23, 2008

Long Term Viability of Tabula Rasa

If you follow my blog then know that I enjoyed a stint playing Tabula Rasa earlier this year. It's a very different game from most other MMOs and I had a lot fun blowing up alien scum. Unfortunately, the elements of the game that weren't MMO oriented slowly started getting on my nerves. Eventually as I started getting into the mid game I noticed that the game borrowed more heavily from the FPS genre then I originally thought. There were also some unfinished systems like raiding and PvP which made the end-game seem like a ghost town.

Age of Conan has many of the same problems that Tabula Rasa had upon release and people have been quick to make comparisons . Even though the two games have very different settings and gameplay, they share similar problems with itemization and missing end-game content. This hasn't stopped Age of Conan from selling substantially more boxes then Tabula Rasa. If you look online for Tabula Rasa boxes then you'll notice they have substantially dropped the price to almost the cost of a month's subscription. Indeed you can even find the collector's edition for around 15$.

So why is there such a difference in success between the two games even though they are very similar in quality? Well one major point is that Age of Conan took advantage of WoW ennui. Back when Tabula Rasa launched there was still the Magister's Terrace content on the horizon. Fast forward five months later and the new content is mostly consumed and recent changes have reduced the popularity of WoW's arena system. Another major issue has to be the setting difference between the two games. Most MMO players find even Age of Conan's low fantasy setting more acceptable then sci-fi.

NCSoft's breakdown of its recent quarterly profit statement has drawn even more attention to Tabula Rasa. The company is well known for giving very detailed information on each of its properties. However, in the most recent statement they gave very little information on Tabula Rasa. This has sparked a lot of speculation about Tabula Rasa's profitability and its future. Auto Assault was NCSoft's last under performing MMO and it was eventually closed down. The game only ever had an estimated 10-15,000 subscribers though it managed to stay operational for about a year.

The problem is that MMO maintenance costs very little, but adding content requires a decent income stream. Thus a lot of poor quality MMOs are still around since they make enough money to keep their servers up, but not enough to actually improve the game. All development work is cut once a MMO has dropped too many subscribers and the game goes into standby mode. Auto Assault eventually reached this point and NCSoft decided that it would be bad advertising to let the game keep on going.

Tabula Rasa is much more vulnerable to going into standby mode since it cost magnitudes more to develop then Auto Assault. NCSoft already knows its not going to recoup the development cost on Tabula Rasa as you can tell by the price cut on all the boxes. Right now they are just trying to keep enough subscribers to make the game profitable and still pay developers to keep keep the game updated with content. I admire the development team but I'm not sure how long Tabula Rasa can keep it up.

In my opinion you can look at Vanguard which has around 50,000 subscribers to get an idea of the amount of players it takes to make a game profitable and worth updating. It's hard to get numbers for Tabula Rasa but with only four servers there is an effective limit to how many subscribers they can possibly have. In my opinion its probably hanging around 30-40k at the moment.

The game is starting to get some good press because of recent improvement patches but it might be too late. It will be almost impossible to attract new players once Warhammer and Wrath of the Lich King come out. They need to add some devoted subscribers within the next few months or else they are going into standby mode and probably getting shut down. Without the addition of an All-Access pass for NCSoft games I see this happening by the end of the year.