Why APB must succeed
Posted at 01:55 on 30th July 2009 - permalink

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw, again

In the previous post, I complained about the Dead Space franchise, and the prevalence of “pot-boilers” in publisher’s catalogues – games that tick genre boxes but don’t set their sights on doing anything genuinely exciting and new. A few years ago, these games would have taken the form of direct imitations of successful titles, such as the glut of mediocre Doom, C&C and GTA clones. These days developers are more likely to cherry pick ideas from several different games, but the net result is the same.

With so much of the industry engaged in this kind of short-term thinking, is it possible to find a counter-example – a studio that is actually trying to challenge the status quo whose projects are part of a more sophisticated long-term plan than to just make incrementally improved sequels?

I think there are at least a few companies for whom a strong case could be pleaded. One of these is Dundee’s Real Time Worlds (RTW). They are currently working on an online action game for the PC called APB, due for release some time in 2010.

Sometimes described as a “massively multiplayer” action game, APB sits somewhere between Phantasy Star Online and Diablo and a true MMO virtual world. Each server hosts a city-sized, real-time urban arena (akin to the cities in GTA, or RTW’s previous game, Crackdown) which can support a maximum of 100 players at any one time. Player characters’ stats, property (weapons and vehicles), appearance and so forth are persistent.

Each player must decide whether to align themselves with law enforcement or criminal gangs, and will be encouraged to cooperate with other players to form clans and alliances. The game then uses information about the players’ skill levels to dynamically assign missions to groups of players (shades of Left4Dead or City of Heroes here). So, for example, a single highly-notorious criminal could have waves of low-level police players sent to intercept them, or vice versa.

RTW are putting a massive amount of work into the tools available to the player to customise their avatar, with the stated goal being to allow players to look sufficiently distinctive to be recognisable without a name tag floating over their heads. The value of this cannot be overstated, and I strongly suspect that other online games will quickly follow their lead.

My anticipation for APB is stronger than for any PC game of the last decade (with the possible exception of GTA III). There are several reasons for this. Most obviously, the game could be interpreted as being an attempt to make a massively multiplayer GTA, something which “hardcore” gamers have been wishing for for years. Even if the gameplay diverges radically from the GTA template, the subject matter (modern/near-future urban guerrilla warfare) and its attendant technical challenges are much more compelling than the usual PC game settings of medieval fantasy, science fiction or military simulation.

Looking at the long-term picture, APB could be seen as an evolutionary step (from Crackdown) towards an even more ambitious ultimate goal: a revolutionary MMORPG based on a real-time simulation model and set in a dense, realistic environment rather than a series of terrain maps with some scattered buildings, and where player characters are more than ambulatory mannequins for increasingly expensive equipment.

If this is really what they’re shooting for (and I’ve not just misread the signs through wishful thinking), it underlines the genius of Dave Jones (the mind responsible for Lemmings and GTA) and the RTW team. They rejected the rules of the existing MMO market, which dictated that funding and revenue were only available to games that slavishly followed World of Warcraft’s conventions. (Oddly, sticking to these rules hasn’t stopped Mythic’s Paul Barnett from being elevated to the status of a living god by the PC games media, but I digress.) Instead, they have set out to invent, in phases, the necessary technology to support a more game-like MMO, while at the same time slowly acclimatising online gamers to the idea that such a game would be desirable.

If they’d started out by trying to make the game-after-APB, it would probably have been rejected by gamers out of hand for not being like WoW, assuming it even reached the market in the first place (which the majority of MMOs still don’t). If they instead wait until gamers have been equipped with the necessary semiotics by Crackdown and APB, they’ll not only accept the third game but be champing at the bit for it. They’re trying to do to the MMO what the “movie brat” directors did to Hollywood in the 1970s.

(Another pet theory of mine: A good indicator of the level of latent demand for an urban/modern/real-time MMORPG is The Nameless Mod for Deus Ex. Lacking the technology to make a virtual world to house the Deus Ex forum community, they have instead built a vast single-player maquette populated with NPC versions of themselves.)

There are some parts of the APB master plan that I’m sceptical about. The city environment is intentionally quite spartan compared to the player and vehicle models, which could limit the game’s appeal to virtual tourists. RTW have also talked about basing their post-release development direction on player feedback. Hopefully they won’t put too much stock into player demands, which will largely consist of making the game easier and fixing imaginary balance issues (but I’m sure they’ve all read Better Than Life and don’t need to be told this). If the game is a success, it will inevitably be extended over time, giving RTW ample opportunities to enrich the game world and experiment with different gameplay directions.

I’m starting to suspect that World of Warcraft is becoming a tar pit for many people who used to care passionately about games. WoW addicts drift away from the mainstream, no longer keeping up to date with new developments, and not making their voices heard in the discourse. The ideas and values of the games they grew up with ten or fifteen years ago have no-one to champion them, and (with a few exceptions, like the recent Monkey Island revival) the trails have been left to go cold. As a result a lot of time is being wasted repeating mistakes and chasing distorted versions of what gamers want. I think that if the only MMORPG to successfully challenge WoW in the next five years is another Blizzard game, that would be a real tragedy. This is the final reason that I want APB to succeed – to liberate some of those bright, creative people from the WoW treadmill and get MMOs back on track.

Here are some links to recent coverage of APB:


Update 17/08/2010: Oh well.

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