Let's start with the hardest question to answer. Is APB (All Points Bulletin), the new online game from the makers of Crackdown, an MMO?
Each copy of APB's San Paro - a contemporary, crime-ridden city, a violent playground for gangs of cops and robbers - will host 100 players. By the standards of an online shooter, that's a lot. By the standards of a thousands-strong World of Warcraft server, it's small. By the standards of EVE Online's single universe, it's minuscule. APB's claim on the "massive" part of "massively multiplayer" is looking rather slim, especially when the likes of Zipper's MAG, with its 256-player matches, aren't considered by most to qualify.
But massively multiplayer gaming isn't just about numbers. It's also about persistence, a sense of place, a sense of ownership, and of course, it's about other people. In a true MMO, the interaction between players - even if it's no more than the knowledge that you're sharing a world with them while you go about your own business - is equal to, greater than or synonymous with the game itself.
By that criteria, APB could well turn out to be one of the purest examples of the massively multiplayer online game since EVE.
The only characters you'll ever fight will be other players, and the clothes you wear and car you drive in the game will probably be designed by other players, if you didn't make them yourself. You'll steal from, sell to and shoot real people all the time, even if you never talk to them. APB is 100 per cent player-versus-player, with the game's missions substituting dynamic, real-time match-making for crafted encounters with hapless AI. This is what developer Realtime Worlds calls "players as content". It's quite scary. In a good way.
So if you ask me, APB is very much an MMO. It's the supposedly easier questions that are harder to answer. Questions such as: when's it out, what formats is it on, and why haven't we seen it properly yet? This preview is based on an E3 presentation that, while fascinating, wasn't much more than a few videos loaded into PowerPoint, and the game itself was notably absent.
APB was first heard of in 2005, a collaboration between Realtime Worlds and Webzen, due on PC in 2007 and Xbox 360 in 2008. Now the Korean publisher has been replaced by EA, the PC version is due in "early 2010" with closed beta testing starting in August, and "we have not announced a console strategy" (although 360 is certainly still on the cards). At least we can be pretty sure that it's not turning into GTA Online after all. As for why we haven't seen it yet, it's probably best to give the benefit of the doubt. Realtime very much kept its own counsel during the development of Crackdown, and that worked out quite nicely.
APB shares Crackdown's entirely open city setting, and its loose structure: there's no narrative as such, just a collection of Enforcement and Criminal factions offering dynamic objectives. If Crackdown was about physical freedom, then APB is about freedom of action and personal style. Going against the online grain, it actually has a lesser focus on character advancement than its offline predecessor.
Realtime wants gamers to earn their names in APB through their skill in combat, and creativity with its extensive and hugely powerful customisation tools, not the amount of time they invest. Celebrity is a core concept - one reason for the "quite personal" 100-player limit per city, although you'll be able to switch cities at will - but you'll earn it by being the coolest, the quickest or the most cunning, not the most powerful or most dedicated.
It's the combat side we currently know least about. APB is a third-person shooter and vehicular action game; car theft and territory wars will play a big part. Its RPG elements are apparently very limited. A sense of character advancement is a must, of course, but it's mostly achieved through unlocking cosmetic options, weapons, vehicles and usable items, and upgrading weapons and vehicles over time from a central pool of tokens. There will be ways to slightly increase your health, say, but Realtime is insistent that there will be "no arbitrary stats", and strict limits on weapon and item loadouts, to keep the game balanced for all players.
As for how conflict comes about, that will largely be up to the players. What you do, and how many of you there are, decides who you fight. You might, as one of the enforcers, take a mission from an NPC faction (like the Praetorians who defend the financial district) to take some territory off the criminals. As a criminal, you might steal a car to sell for profit, triggering its car alarm which will then summon player enforcement to respond and bring you to rights.
Your actions feed into APB's live, lobby-free match-making system which will pair up individual or group face-offs. In many cases this would be a straight one-on-one, two-on-two, four-on-four confrontation, but it doesn't have to be equal numbers. If the game judges that one skilful and/or well-equipped player is a match for three hapless noobs, it might set that up - or if a gang of criminals evades police capture for over an hour, say, they might end up with multiple groups of enforcers on their tail.
Communication in APB will mostly be through voice chat, Realtime assuming that there won't be time to type in most situations. It's partnered with Vivox on a 3D positional voice chat system that will place your barked commands in exclamations in the game's soundscape - Realtime played an impressively atmospheric and hectic-sounding clip of a gun battle from one of its internal tests - although there will of course be a private channel if you need it.
Players' ability to make their mark on the soundscape as well as the visual representation of the game is hugely important to Realtime, and it's gone to some extraordinary lengths to pursue it. A deal with last.fm allows you to project music from your car stereos into the game world; the software will select something suitable from the internet or your own collection according to specific or general settings such as "always project heavy rock". A full MIDI music creation suite is included, and you'll be able to set a "death tune" that vanquished players will hear every time you kill them.
That's just the start of Realtime's commitment to user-created content in APB. You can see some of the rest in this recording of a show-floor E3 presentation. The game's 30 or so vehicles can be customised with an editor that humbles Forza Motorsport's, spannig paint, decals, body parts, wheels, the interior and even the stereo system.
Even more impressive is the character creator, used by Realtime's own artists to create all the NPCs in the game. The models are extremely detailed, and as well as changing features and body type you can shape hair yourself, design tattoos and body paint; you can change the material, layering and texturing of clothing and customise its zips, buttons and collars. Everything save your features and physical attributes can be changed at will, although gradual physical change might be possible, as might plastic surgery (for a price).
"This is what we call our crafting," says the developer, and just like the action, it's based on skill and creativity rather than set challenges or time investment. Realtime expects some players will be content to become virtual fashion designers, selling their work to others - and given Microsoft's experience with the Forza car market, that's not a stretch at all. As far as MMOs are concerned, APB proposes an exciting new form of player-driven economy.
Exciting is an apt description for almost everything about APB. There's nothing else in development quite like it: perhaps the first true combination of the ethos of offline, open-world, sandbox games with an internet connection. Realtime's willingness to step back from the design and put technology in the hands of players is an extremely bold experiment in a conservative sector of a conservative industry. But it is just that - an experiment. It's hard for anyone to tell whether or not it will work, especially with the scant information we currently have on the game's brass-tacks mechanics. But it's going to be fascinating finding out.