"APB has been a fantastic journey, but unfortunately that journey has come to a premature end. Today we are sad to announce that despite everyone's best efforts to keep the service running, APB is coming to a close."
With those words, community officer Ben Bateman announced the death of the massively multiplayer shooter APB and the studio that created it, Realtime Worlds. The revelation, which came via the game's official website, marked the climax of one of the industry's most spectacular failures. Despite a team of hundreds, a development period of five years and tens of millions of investment dollars, APB stayed online for just 86 days.
Prior to release, all the indications were that APB would be a success. The Dundee-based studio behind it was headed up by Dave Jones, the creative force behind Lemmings and the Grand Theft Auto series. The core of the same development team had been responsible for the success of Crackdown.
In short, APB had a fantastic pedigree. And a self-published, independent MMO shooter offering unprecedented customisation options, capable of handling up to 10,000 concurrent players per city, had huge potential. So why, on 23rd September 2010, were the plugs pulled on APB? What was it that forced Realtime Worlds to close its doors for the last time?
In the weeks and months that followed, much rumour and anger seeped out from former employees and sources close to the studio. Tales of excess and arrogance, mistreatment and mismanagement abounded. But Ben Bateman tells a different story. The 26 year-old, who hails from Norfolk, paints a picture of an idyllic working environment.
On joining Realtime Worlds from SEGA in January 2009, Bateman took up the role of QA tester. It's an entry level job requiring the endless identification of development bugs. QA jobs are seen as a foot in the door for those eager to make a career for themselves in the games industry.
They're also known to be poorly paid. Testers are often badly treated, regularly employed on "zero hour" contracts that could mean unemployment at a moment's notice. Not so at RTW, according to Bateman.
"One of the brilliant things about working at Realtime Worlds was getting the opportunity to see how radically different everything was," he says. "I was at SEGA before and, this sounds stupid, but they locked up the fruit. It was that kind of environment, where it was like, 'Oh, it's the QA - only one piece of fruit a day!'
"But at Realtime it was like, 'Wow, they've got a pool table!' And the building itself was impressive. And they were really good to us. Even the QA positions were six month contracts. I was talking to family who warned me that it was still a little bit unstable, but it beat the zero hour contracts by a mile."
The studio's treatment of its staff also extended to generous relocation packages for those employees making the journey up to Scotland. They could either take a lump cash sum or accept temporary housing in one the studio's company flats. In addition, RTW offered overtime across the board - unremarkable elsewhere but a rare luxury in the world of videogame development.
Realtime Worlds' working conditions are a reflection of the once buoyant financial state of the company. The studio was a massively attractive prospect to investors. Indeed, Companies House records reveal that by May 2010, RTW had secured a huge $101 million in venture capital.
Though such financial matters were rarely discussed with the lower echelons of the development team, Bateman insists there was "a degree of openness" from the management. He says that from top to bottom, the culture was one of inclusion.
Every Friday the entire staff, including Dave Jones and executive producer Joshua Howard, would gather in the cafeteria for a company-wide meeting. The word cafeteria may suggest an austere room with plastic chairs lined up against fold-up Formica tables, but that wasn't Realtime Worlds style. Their cafeteria was resplendent with concept art-festooned banners, comfy sofas, plasma screens, consoles and a full Beatles Rock Band set-up.
In those weekly meetings, everybody was encouraged to speak up and air their concerns or thoughts. Bateman makes constant references to the company "family," a close-knit group of people with a real love of both the game and the studio. The sense was that everyone was in it together.
Bateman flourished in this environment. Just four months into his contract he was promoted to the role of community officer and tasked with engaging APB's burgeoning fanbase, beginning with the participants of the game's first closed beta.
It was at this stage the first rumblings of discontent began. The beta testers pointed to a number of issues. Poor car handling, unresponsive weapons, a lack of headshots - all were identified and lamented alongside persistent lag. But the mood at Realtime Worlds remained optimistic and Bateman assured the community that the problems would be addressed. It was a beta, after all; there was time to iterate and improve.
However many of the problems identified in the early betas survived until APB's eventual release, and despite the continual release of patches. As a QA tester Bateman had brought the issues to the attention of his superiors. As community officer he had relayed them directly from the beta testers. So wasn't he frustrated at being ignored?
"Not at all. At the end of the day, the feedback was there, it was recognised," says Bateman. "But whether it was due to management, time, money, whatever it was, they just didn't get implemented.
"People forget how ambitious and difficult an MMO is. You have to remember that Realtime Worlds went from being a medium-sized company that made Crackdown to trying to make an MMO, which entails becoming an online publisher, having customer support, supporting several different languages - people forget the scale of it.
"So where people have said we should have been fixing this problem about the game, maybe there was more time being spent on things like the online shop, or improving our customer support. There's so much involved."
Neglecting some of the game's core problems resulted in a mauling at the hands of reviewers. While the technology behind the game was roundly praised, the gameplay itself fell flat. Eurogamer's review identified APB as "a game about shooting and driving" in which the shooting was "weak" and the driving "a reasonable facsimile of attempting to sail a bathtub down a canal". It scored 6 out of 10.
The review was representative of the general consensus. APB received a Metacritic rating of 58 - damaging for a modest console title, but deadly for an online game in need of constant, costly support. Critically, APB was a flop.
At the company-wide meeting the following Friday, Realtime Worlds' management did their best to remain upbeat. "I don't want to say they spun it but... Obviously it's about keeping your team enthusiastic and focusing on the future," says Bateman.
"We had hit a major hurdle. We'd launched a title, an MMO, that was a big deal. It wasn't easy. So we concentrated on the positives."
But the writing was on the wall. Each of RTW's many offices boasted monitors streaming live player figures direct from the servers. At any time, the company's employees could glance up and see APB's failure written in cold, dispassionate numbers on a graph. It was a constant reminder that simply not enough people were buying and playing the game.
Still, within the bubble of Realtime Worlds, there was a belief that the studio could update and patch its way out of the problem. Life would go on.
But RTW was in trouble. The investment cash had gone and the company had begun running up debts.
The first public indication of this came when the company announced it would be laying off staff. The revelation was covered up by assertions that redundancies were inevitable as the game had launched and some staff were no longer needed. But the truth is that the lay-offs were far more widespread than expected.
Project MyWorld, Realtime World's innovative social media game, took the brunt of it. Announced early in a bid to pull in some much needed cash, the title failed to find a publisher. As a result the team's 60-strong staff were let go. Bateman says they never saw it coming; the studio was in shock.
It was the beginning of the end. Just days later, Realtime Worlds went into administration.
As they had been so many times before, the remaining staff were asked to gather in the plush cafeteria. But this time the meeting would be chaired by the administrators, Begbies Traynor. Though reports emerged at the time that "the staff were sacked over the PA system" the truth is a little more prosaic. A microphone was used simply so those at the back of the packed room could hear.
In total, 157 staff were to be made redundant. "They essentially said, 'Here are the 50 people that we want to keep on. Please go to room X,'" recalls Bateman. "It was tough."
One by one the names of the survivors were announced. Those that didn't make the cut were to leave. This would be their last day. But despite the horrific nature of what was unfolding, there was still good will.
"Like I said, because there was such a sense of friends and family within Realtime Worlds, there were a few people that you knew should stay on because they were excellent at their job. When their name was read out they got claps and whoops, people were congratulating them, there were cheers.
"There were moments of silence, of course, where everybody was just looking at the floor. It wasn't all nice obviously. But yeah, that sense of family survived."
It wasn't nice at all. The layoffs ripped a hole in both the town of Dundee and the lives of those affected. Over 60 per cent of RTW staff had relocated to Scotland. Suddenly cut adrift, families and individuals were left without work and had little hope of receiving either wages or redundancy pay. For them, it was catastrophic.
For Bateman and his friends the only answer was to drink. A lot. So that's exactly what they did, drowning their sorrows until the early hours. "It's what we all needed to do, to consolidate, recover. We got absolutely twatted."
The next week, as many of Bateman's friends and colleagues signed on or tried to find their way back home, the reality of life under the administrators revealed itself. According to the terms of the deal, RTW had just six weeks to find a buyer for APB. Failure to do so would spell the definitive end of both the studio and the game.
In the meantime, all the company's assets were to be painstakingly raked through in order to calculate their material worth. As Bateman and the rest of the 50 survivors ploughed on, the administrators counted fire extinguishers.
The next six weeks slipped by as a procession of publishers, businessmen and potential buyers padded through the RTW offices. Rumours circulated in the press. Epic Games was linked with a buyout, among others. But no buyer came forward. The six week stay of execution was up.
Dave Jones, the man that had created the studio in 2002, made his way around the building to deliver the bad news. Bateman recalls, "Dave came around and apologised to everybody individually, informing us that APB didn't have a buyer. He laid down the simple facts that he could, saying, 'At some point today, the servers will be shut down.' He was so emotionally invested, you could see that it hurt to say it. He was gutted.
"So I went and made a cup of tea and thought, 'F*** me, this is a bad day.'"
Some reacted badly, pointing the finger at Jones as the culprit. Emotions ran high as people looked for someone to blame. But it was wasted energy. Bateman drafted one final post for the website: "APB is coming to a close." It was over.
More on APB: Reloaded
After receiving the news, most of the former employees left for the pub straight away. But a core of the now jobless staff remained at the studio well into the night. Though the studio was finished and APB was effectively dead they didn't want to say goodbye, to each other or the game.
"We stayed on, even though we knew we were fired," say Bateman. "We were running the servers, trying to get contingency plans in place, so we could try to do stuff from home. It was like the Titanic was sinking but people were trying to patch it up just in case.
"Let's say if the login server went down, nobody would be able to login. So if we could secure and support just one login server, then as long as the districts were on another server then everything would be fine. We were trying to support the service, but no-one really had the resources."
In the space of 86 days APB had launched, almost immediately gone onto life support, then passed away quietly - taking an award-studded, multi-million dollar studio and hundreds of jobs with it. The scale and speed of the APB's failure is unparalleled in the history of the industry.
"I was a youngster at the company," says Bateman. "I was only there for 12 months, some people were there for five, six years. It was our heart and soul. In the year I was there I ran a closed beta, an open beta, launched an MMO and closed it. I experienced everything there was to experience, good and bad."
Rather than any resentment or anger towards the fate of the game and his employers, Bateman is filled only with regret. "There's no need for finger-pointing," he says. "It was a multitude of things that contributed to Realtime Worlds failing and APB failing.
"But we made such massive progress in that last year. If we had that kind of drive for maybe two years, then we would have had the most phenomenal game. We could of made the game that everybody wanted.
"Regardless of everything that happened, I still maintain that I had the best job in the world. I loved APB. Still do. I just wish that it could have gone on a little longer."