In my opinion for reasons not dissimilar to Auto Assault’s failure.
There was a general disinterest and lack of hype toward Tabula Rasa, mostly because the few infos and media coming out of it were forgettable and mediocre.
Exhibit: this last video.
I don’t know the effect it has on current subscribers, but to someone who never saw the game (me) it looks “meh”. And that video is supposed to hype some awesome features coming with the patch, I suppose. At some point you even see players sliding around without moving their feet.
Tabula Rasa’s kiss of death was a too long development cycle without a clear aim (so no focus and no time to get it right). Despite some interesting ideas here and there, the problem is that the underlying game isn’t good enough. Not the overall systems and more complex features, just the basic feel, visuals, controls.
The basic message the game sends at first glance is poor. Looks like a childish shooter with silly aliens and cartoonish mechs, with big blobs of colors as weapon effects. Honestly, it looks like a poor man Halo clone that has nothing of what made Halo popular (which is a modern “Space Invaders”, with waves of enemies to fight in various stages).
I say this overall effect is like Auto Assault reason of failure because what misses here is the basic visceral feel of a sci-fi shooter combat game. In the same way Auto Assault totally betrayed the expectations and dynamics of a car combat game. Both look and feel inconsistent, quirky, approximate. A bit of patchwork of classic MMO combat mechanics with slightly different skins.
It looks generic and awkward and this is made worse by the fact that the setting moves expectations toward a different kind of gameplay. Here we continue to theorize that sci-fi can’t be successful when the truth is that sci-fi isn’t successful when it is a skin on top of a classic fantasy game with minor changes.
We have sci-fi, we have fantasy, but it seems that when it comes to gameplay we just have one model that is applied to both uniformly.
Now again the exercise is to imagine a Tabula Rasa that is instead close to the expectations. So close your eyes, think of some epic battle scenes from Starship Troopers, or Terminator, or Aliens. And I’m sure you’ll figure out quickly what is in their “feel” that Tabula Rasa misses completely.
Sadly while marginal game design progress can usually lead to better games, it isn’t enough to deliver a good sci-fi game. To do something really different you need to reinvent the wheel and move as far as possible from marginal tweaks to current MMO combat.
Or at least use the Quake Wars or Gears of War or Call of Duty 4 as your basic model of gameplay, instead of WoW (or Star Wars Galaxies).