Realtime Worlds CEO David Jones wants developers to ditch pre-canned narratives and let players create their own experiences.
A veteran of open-world game development, Jones' philosophy of providing “simple building blocks, compound effects” was a key part of the design of the Psygnosis-published puzzler Lemmings.
"There was a lot of hidden complexity in Lemmings -- we modeled collision detection down to the pixel," Jones told a packed audience of developers at the Develop conference in Brighton. "Players only had to learn eight skills, though, so it was easy to pick up, yet our level design allowed millions of possibility from just those eight."
After a misstep with the N64’s Body Harvest -- the failure of which Jones attributed to its unusual setting requiring too much “training” of the player -- the original Grand Theft Auto was a further education on the potential of creating game spaces, with players immediately offered a wide variety of options of what do to.
As Jones left DMA before the development of GTAIII, it wasn’t until 2007’s Crackdown that he began to place his open world rules into a successful 3D city.
“We developed the city to function as a platform game, where anything you could see you could climb or jump to," he said. "It had other aspects, too, such as light RPG trappings, but we began to realize that our main innovation was our drop-in, drop-out multiplayer that managed to be successful in an open world.”
By using an example of a “random video selected from YouTube,” Jones showed the ways in which they found that Crackdown players were “experiencing the game in an entirely different way than they’d designed it.”
“We saw that it’s wonderful to create these amazing worlds, but they’re better used as spaces for players to interact and create their own experiences," he said, “so we intend to provide them the building blocks to allow them to do that.”
The result? The currently in-development APB. However, Jones admitted that the decision to go with an entirely online title wasn’t entirely a design decision.
“With Crackdown we sold about 1.5 million copies, but even at that we pretty much only managed to break even,” he said. “It was due to the amount of factors that were out of our control as the developer, influences such as GameStop’s amazing used-game sales; we know 1.5 million new copies were sold, but it’s likely there were 2.5, three million sold when you include used.”
But Jones was quick to discuss the ways in which an open world game can benefit from being run from a server. "Typically when you build a ‘living city’ they’re a facade; you turn a corner and the cars behind to stop existing," he said. "But APB is to feature a real persistent world, as on a server we can offer that. In the world, there’s a tremendous amount of life."
He noted that this world wasn’t to be used to "provide content for the player." Instead, it’s to be a "wonderful backdrop to the action."
Of course, the server provides its own problems. Describing APB’s lauded customization tools, he explained that it was just as much of a challenge to make the customization seamless for players.
"We have to send that information to the server and back out," he said. "Each time a player sees another it costs us money, so we had to make sure these customizations are as network friendly as possible."
But what of players who prefer a single-player experience? On that, Jones was confident that the decisions made for the title would transcend its multiplayer trappings. "You’ll be able to play APB as a single-player game," he promised, "but it’s the other players that will be the content."