E3: The APB Interview
On E3’s pre-show press event day, it was announced that EA Partners would be handling the retail distribution and publishing for Crackdown creator Realtime Worlds’ new action/shooting MMO, All Points Bulletin, or APB.
Dave Jones, creative director of Realtime Worlds and original GTA 1 and 2 creator, doesn’t typically do interviews, but was on-hand at EA’s press conference to answer a few of our questions.
We quizzed him, as well as CEO Gary Dale, on the newly-announced partnership, Realtime Worlds’ evolution as a company, and details about the game itself, from matchmaking, to instancing, to the choice of genre.
How did this deal come about?
Dave Jones: As you know, we’re about to release APB, it’s an online game, and we took the responsibility of things like the hosting, serving the game, customer service, and things like that. That’s something that we’re comfortable with, and that’s a goal of ours for developing the company. But of course, we still need at the end of the day, a tremendous distribution and marketing part.
And we talked to a few companies, but really you know, for the same reason it ticks the box with companies like Valve, and Harmonix in those days, it ticked the box for us as well. EA’s one of the best publishing and distribution partners out there. And they love the game, and I’ve never had a chance to work with EA as well, so it’s just for all those reasons.
Is that kind of why you previously tried to partner with Webzen, and then subsequently un-partnered with them?
DJ: (laughs) Yeah, so we partnered very early. The online space, when we partnered with Webzen was not something, that many companies over here in Europe or North America had any experience with.
We wanted to learn a bit, et cetera, and they had some plans to come into the west, so their plans kind of, you know, took a backward step in some respects, and we raised some money and said listen, we’ll just buy the rights back and publish it outselves.
Having internal customer support, it’s quite difficult to build up. How have you found that?
DJ: Well that’s part of the reason why Gary (Dale, CEO) came on as well.
Gary Dale: Yeah, the last three or four years that Dave’s been working on this, it’s been a very development-focused company. We’re now at the stage as we move toward the launch of APB that we transform from being a development company to also an online publisher, so that changes everything in terms of the retail distribution we’re going to need, in North America and in Europe.
We’re very happy with the deal we’ve got there, and we’ve built up our own internal operations team, and through that we’ve hired people who have some deep experience building these kinds of operations.
There are certain companies who are working with us, and we actually announced in the last few days one of the companies working with us. We have a deal with a company called Internap, which will be one of our partners helping to provide the backbone.
There will be other announcements in due course about other aspects of the infrastructure we’ve got in place in North America and Europe to support the game.
You’re right, it is a lot of work, but we think to be a next-generation online publisher, that is very much the kind of resource we need in house, and the kind of resource we need on the retail and distribution side is what we’ve got with EAP.
So Realtime Worlds is essentially self-publishing with marketing and distribution help?
GD: Well on the retail side, it’s a very deep publishing relationship we’ve got. I wouldn’t want to underestimate EA’s involvement.
Of course. Realtime Worlds is now how many people?
DJ: 225-230 or so.
I was just thinking one of the problems in the Scottish game industry previously was companies ballooning too large and then imploding. Are you looking at that?
GD: Well making great games always helps. (laughs) No, I mean I know what you mean. And Dave has a long history in this business and a really successful track record, so as Dave says, hit games support good companies. That’s not a major concern.
DJ: And that’s not just true for Scotland, that’s true for anywhere.
Well yeah, but Scotland being an easier-to-define region, one can be more specific about it.
DJ: Yeah, true. There’s a lot there.
As a kind of high-level question, for APB what was it you felt you wanted to fill within the online space? Obviously a lot of companies just feel they can chase WoW.
DJ: Yeah, just press the win button. Well really for us, a kind of action, you know, highly dynamic persistent online world. WoW’s great, and it’s attracting huge numbers, but let’s face it there’s probably still more players on GTA and Call of Duty in terms of online.
They love online games, they spend all their time there, but really, nobody’s trying to push the envelope in terms of personalization, customization, persistence, matchmaking, so many areas that are ripe for somebody to come in. It’s intimidating for those with less experience, or less time maybe, who want to dip in and dip out of the game.
When I look at it I don’t think of an MMO, I think more of like Counter-Strike missions or something like that.
DJ: We were just talking about that, and you’re absolutely right. I actually stated at GDC last year, the basis of this game is Counter-Strike. All the stuff around it.
Oh yeah, I was at that, so maybe that’s where I got that idea. Whoops!
DJ: But it is! And I just think the time’s right. And to be honest with you tough in terms of technology to bring 100 players into dynamic cities that people expect in things like Crackdown. So that’s one of the reasons why people haven’t done it yet.
Well I think having 100 people at a time, basically that solves all your instancing problems, you’ve got a persistent world that you can control a lot better.
But does that require more maintenance because other companies may have somewhat less fragmented of a playerbase.
DJ: We’ll it’s not been an issue for us. 100 is good, it means you can be kind of personal. How hard is it to be a winner out of 10-20,000, that’s kind of hard in some respects. Not everybody wants to lose, and it’s hard if you want to have a lot of winners as well. And people can pick and choose their 100 as well.
How is the matchmaking?
DJ: The matchmaking is actually pretty interesting, the matchmaking is all dynamic. It’s more about “I want to go there,” because there may be a clan there that you have some personal grudges with. And if you go into the 100 player city with them, there’s a very high chance that you’re going to get match-made with them.
One of the first things I thought is that there’s a high potential for someone to just join the law and order side and then screw it all up.
DJ: Well I don’t really think there’ll be much of that, it’d be hard for law enforcement to screw it up. In terms of if they don’t respond, the system handles that. If you’re having a coffee and a donut, and they put out an APB and you don’t respond, we very very quickly recognize that kind of stuff.
The game puts the APBs out to other enforcers, et cetera, and we start taking rep away from those players that don’t respond, so it actually works very very well, because I just think the setting, you know, law enforcement versus criminals, is so perfect for that.
Is it basically like the two groups, or do the criminals fight amongst themselves?
DJ: Absolutely. We never match enforcers against enforcers, but if there are criminals and you want to fight against other criminals, you’re right, absolutely you can.
I assume then that it’s much more like localized skirmishes and scenarios versus large-scale battles?
DJ: It is, but we have metagroups as well. So for example if there’s a group with 5 players from one of the best clans in the game, and they’ve been playing for an hour and having a really good run, then we’re quite happy to take 10-15 players to go after them.
So we take multiple groups and match them. And that’s a very neat mechanic because those five elite players, they love it. “They’ve got to send 15 at us.” For them it’s like “we’ve achieved something.” And for the 15, they think “hey, we’ve got a chance to beat these guys.” So it’s very unique.
Given that it’s kind of Counter-Strike scenario oriented, is there a more MMO-style environment? Is there a world that people feel a part of?
DJ: Yeah, there is. I mean basically when you join a typical kind of world server, MMO-style, we have about 10,000 players on those, basically broken down into leagues. There are leagues for everything.
So if your gang wants to be the number one in terms of car-stealing, grand theft auto, there’s a league for that. There’s multiple ways they can be number one, and multiple ways they can be renowned for doing a certain thing.
We’ve got players who, for some reason, decided to never use vehicles. They’re like an eco-gang. They only ever run around! And people start to recognize those people, saying like “that’s those nutters!” But they’re good players! It doesn’t happen that much, but it’s nice that they can find a way to be recognized in that world.