What APB got right, and why it initially failed
The action-MMO first known as APB lives on as APB Reloaded. But if your memory serves, you'll recall that the urban, massively-multiplayer shooter had a quick death: APB shut down just months after launching at the end of June 2010, coinciding with the dissolution of developer Realtime Worlds.
The prolific Dave Jones (Grand Theft Auto, Lemmings, Crackdown) was creative director on APB, and while talking with him about his new project—ChronoBlade—I asked Jones to reflect on what he thought APB did well, and what went wrong with its MMOification of cars, cops, and robbers.
How would you summarize APB’s development and release?
Jones: Well, for me it’s one of those classic… If you try to do things differently, you have to break things to try to make things differently. I’ve always done that. Some work and some don’t work. But to be honest, if you don’t do it, you’ll never know. So for me it’s one of those classic ones… Yeah, we got some things right, but we got some things wrong as well with it. I still think a game like that will happen. I just think it was a really high spec in terms of the client, and the networking technology for doing dynamic open world games, the networking still makes it really hard to do that. That’s why I think MMOs and such tend to be still kind of turn-based behind the scenes. They’re not really great at fast, dynamic stuff. For me it was a great learning exercise. There was a lot of good stuff in there and I think a lot of games will benefit from that knowledge. Eventually, technology will let us build that truly dynamic interactive open world that supports many, many players. It was good.
"It was definitely too focused on PvP, which is really hard."
Some of the takeaways were… It was definitely too focused on PvP, which is really hard. I do love players as content. I think it gives you tremendous variety. But players definitely need a release where they can get away from other players and just do PvE stuff. Whereas APB initially was just really focused on PvP. That’s not for everybody. It is hard, when you’re always against other players, because it can be rage-inducing, fighting other players all the time. Unless you get your matchmaking absolutely perfect, when you’re on the receiving end of one of those streaks where you lose-lose-lose, you have nothing to do but say, “Okay, I’m going to go do some PvE for a while.” It’s a difficult set of systems to balance.
Would you say that the design was really interesting on paper, but the technology maybe wasn’t necessarily in place to support it?
Jones: Yeah. Certainly the backend. Like I say, on the frontend, the client specs were pretty high as well. It was pretty demanding to have 100 players all fully customized with vehicles. It was a big ask. But with all these big game projects, you’re trying to develop something that you know is going to come out in three or four years. You’re trying to guess where the market is going to be. That’s one of the down sides of PC, a little bit. You’re trying to be in the right place at the right time. We certainly got that wrong. But like I said, there were a lot of good systems and a lot of good learning that we went through with that. Some of the great things… I think the customization system is still one of the best ever. It’s still yet to be matched. I still think things like asymmetric matchmaking are interesting, where… Like I said, there were a lot of good things to learn. I’m still keen that at some point, a game like that will be technically feasible.
PlanetSide 2 is an interesting game in that category as well. They spent four or five years developing their own engine. It’s one of the only games in the last couple of years that’s changed my notion of what’s possible on a PC. But there’s still a lot of compromises.
Jones: There are. Take the players out and the world’s dead. That’s what we tried to achieve with APB. If you take the players out, you still want the world to be alive, so that if even one of you goes in, it still feels like there’s a game there. PlanetSide, once again, needs the players. It needs them to be playing properly.
EVE Online, too. There’s a lot of trust on the part of the developers that players will figure it out. They’re smart. They’ll cause their own problems and solve them. But yeah, like you said, if they go elsewhere, it’s not a game anymore.
Jones: That’s a problem. Where’s your content gone? [laughs] It’s still a great area for game design, I believe. There’s still a lot of work to be done in that area, players as content. As games get it right more, for me, it can really add depth and longevity, when it’s players as content and not designers having to churn out content. That’s a never-ending path. It gets very repetitive eventually as well. It’s one of the problems with MMOs, I think. It starts to feel a little samey after a few years.
"I love MMOs for all the reasons—community, playing together, longevity—but it does seem hard to innovate in that space."
What are your thoughts on the state of the MMO space? [Note: this interview took place before the reveal of EverQuest Next.]
Jones: For me, it’s kind of stale. But I understand why. It’s difficult technology. It’s expensive. It’s hard to innovate. I love MMOs for all the reasons—community, playing together, longevity—but it does seem hard to innovate in that space.
Steig Hedlund, former Diablo and Diablo II lead designer: Yeah. It seems like everyone’s focused on doing the same thing better. I’d agree. There’s not a lot of stuff that’s like, “Hey, this is new and different, it’s doing something no one has done before.” From a design perspective, it’s tricky. I think presenting an open world to explore is really cool and interesting, but at a certain point, just navigating across that world becomes a chore, right? So how do you solve that in a way that’s satisfying to players?
Jones: You see things come along like DayZ and permadeath. It’s like, “Oh!” I love being in that world. It’s completely different. Turns things on its head. When you hear about it, you think, “Aw, that can’t work. Permadeath? That’s crazy. You could never do a game like that.” But when you’re in there, just that feeling of, “This is a brand new experience. I’ve never felt this way in a game before.” It can happen. It’s just hard to come up with those kind of out of the box ideas and make them work.
Hedlund: Yeah, yeah. There’s the risk-averse nature of a game like that…
Jones: Yeah. Those are publisher things… [laughs]
Hedlund: It’s so expensive to make an MMO. How are you going to sell the way you’re going to make it differently? “No, let’s do it in a way that’s safe.”
Jones: It’ll be interesting to see what Elder Scrolls is like. I want to play that, but at the same time, I’m thinking it’s going to be the same. Are they really going to innovate?
Thanks for your time, Dave and Stieg.