It’s fair to say that David Jones, the creative director and founder of Realtime Worlds, the co-founder of Rockstar North, and the man behind DMA Design and the fondly remembered 16bit shooters Blood Money and Menace, knows a thing or two about making successful games. At the recent Develop event in Brighton he took to the stage to declare that videogaming is the only industry for which online is a “really big positive,” and that today’s consoles and PCs are “where the big dollars are.” We decided to find out just how Realtime Worlds’ upcoming PC MMOG APB is going to bag itself those big dollars, and in the process discover some of the fundamental principles driving the project.
What stage are you at with APB right now?
We’re kind of in the final stages of production so our goal is to start looking at closed beta round about August. And then ramp up to open beta and an actual retail launch in the spring of 2010.
One problem you’ve talked about facing was testing a multiplayer game on such a large scale – how did you solve that?
If you’re going to use players as content, it’s not like a singleplayer game where you just go in and try it yourself. Until more people come into the game you can’t be sure how it’s coming together. And especially for the bigger stuff – we’d need to have 50, 60, 70 people in. That happened quite frequently during development. So it was kind of an eye-opener: “Woah, I didn’t expect that when there’s that many people in there.”
Why did you settle on 100 players per city?
It was kind of a stake we stuck in the sand. To have 100 players interacting online with very little latency – we’d achieve something nobody else has ever done. But, to be honest, 100 was tough. That’s a lot of processor power server-side.
You’ve given the impression that you’re going to see how the community plays the game before settling upon a revenue model.
We could go right up to launch before we announce it. Obviously we won’t because people will want to know, but the game’s been built very flexibly and so there’s multiple routes we can go. I want the first thing that players think to be: ‘I love that business model, it’s great value for money’. But that’s based upon assumptions about how often people are really going to be playing this at the evenings and weekends. We’ve removed the grindfest – but grindfests actually make you go on the server a lot more. So until I know how people are playing and what they’re doing and how much they’re spending in the action districts or the social districts – where players do all their customisation – the best thing is to wait, be safe, and not say anything.
Did you ever consider launching digital-only?
We considered everything. We considered whether we could give the game away. But, to be honest, we think it’s doing enough in terms of the game design to be something very, very different. Trying to change the whole way it gets to market as well? We just weren’t comfortable with that.
Some say that, by 2015, we won’t be dealing with boxed products – what’s your opinion?
It’s an ongoing discussion many people are having – can we switch to pure digital? A lot of the market will go that way. If we can make a success of APB, and we’re actually generating revenue from the game online – at that point we’d look at whether we could do without the box. Will the online revenue outstrip the boxed sale? Hopefully, but I don’t know.
Do you think the take-up of online, and digital delivery, has been quicker than expected?
No, I don’t think so. There’ve been a lot of games that haven’t worked, remember. I use the example of Hellgate: London, and there’s a few that have launched and had to take the number of servers down rather than growing. It’s actually surprised me that it hasn’t been a little bit quicker. I see it as a benefit to the player if there’s a lot of stuff that we can only deliver because we’re online and because we can collaborate with players. That’s a big step for the players – and I’m thinking of myself as a games player – I want more of that. I can’t find anything out there. There’s not a lot of that happening in the online space.
You’ve showed characters carjacking, being chased and ultimately being arrested, but that’s not the entire APB experience, is it?
No. We have many, many different things you can do. So that was a car chase. We have on-foot chases – a game’s not really done it well before. And it’s not just about trying to kill the other guy. We have arrest mechanics in there; we have witness mechanics in there so you can actually stay back and witness people doing wrong things. You can be quite stealthy in the game. There are loads of mechanics and when real people understand them, they’ll be able to concoct all these different scenarios and become very sneaky. You may think you’ve made sure there’s nobody around before you commit a crime, but you’d be surprised how sneaky people can be. It just introduces the kind of stuff AI could never do because people are damn smart.
And that’s what’s really emerging for me from the game – like setting roadblocks in advance. People get to know other people in this game and they go: “I know this guy’s routes. I know where he likes to drive.” And we’ve got voice-over-IP, so you’ve got one guy going: “I’ll go down the street – tell me when he’s coming and I’ll quickly nip out in front of him.” It’s stuff that, in terms of AI, you’d probably make a whole game out of that and it would be the big selling feature of the game, but it just pales into insignificance compared to real people doing all that stuff. So when we say players as content, we mean as the game content. As well as creating content, I mean that’s a big part of it, but it’s really about them being the core of the game.
You’ve said that APB could be played in singleplayer, but it’d still be an MMOG, yes?
Yeah. There’s no kind of singleplayer storyline. You can go in and say, “Well, I want to become the number one person – because celebrity’s a big thing about the game,” or, “I want to achieve the highest ever threat rating,” or, “I want the most kills ever on this server, and I’m just going to do it solo.” There are lots of what I call anti-social online gamers [laughs]. So it caters to everyone.
You’ve said that, when you formed Realtime, you built a relationship with Microsoft to get ‘next-gen console experience’ – aren’t you throwing that away by making APB for PC?
No. I mean, there’s a lot of next-gen stuff in terms of graphics, pipelines and technology. It’s just not next-gen console, it’s next-gen gaming. At some point I’d like it to be applicable to console. We’ve always said that. We haven’t made any decisions, but it would be great at some point. If APB’s a success, obviously that’s one of the first things. It’s the kind of game that would work well on console but we’re just not at that stage yet. First of all we’ve got to make it a success, and understand what people love about it, understand what things would change if we wanted to go console, if anything, and then take it from there.
This article originally appeared in E205. Like what you’ve read? Buy your copy of Edge now for £4.50 and get it delivered to your door (UK and Europe only) at www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/gamesradarshop.