APB, the action MMO from Dundee-based developer Realtime Worlds, launched in the UK on Friday. Great things were expected, not least because of the pedigree of the developer behind it. So Eurogamer's review, which criticised the game's combat, vehicle handling and matchmaking before dishing out a less-than-stellar 6/10 score, came as some surprise.
One man who wasn't surprised was creative director Dave Jones, who anticipated similar reactions "months ago". Here, in a wide-ranging interview with Eurogamer, the co-creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto defends APB from its critics, and discuses what's next for his studio and its new game.
Eurogamer: APB is finally out. How do you feel?
Dave Jones: Well obviously it's great. It was a big huge effort to get to where we are and not many people have launched a big persistent online game, so pretty happy. Launch went really well - extremely stable. No issues.
Eurogamer: You've put loads of effort over a number of years into this game. Now it's out, do you feel relief? Terror? What emotions are you going through?
Dave Jones: [Laughs] This is quite different. Typically on a single-player game by the time it comes in the shops you've probably been finished for about six weeks because of the time it takes to manufacture gold discs and send them out. So on a game like Crackdown, it's a quiet restful period, and you're happy and just waiting to see the reviews. On this game though, we're still working on it every day, changing it, gathering the feedback, working on the next set of changes and patches. This one's quite different. There's been no break, as such. We've just kept our heads down.
Eurogamer: From what you've seen, how are gamers responding to APB, and how do you feel about what they're saying?
Dave Jones: It's pretty much as we guessed. There are a lot of things we're doing different with APB, and some people can take to that and some people are having difficulty adjusting.
Eurogamer: What kind of things?
Dave Jones: We've come in to the action-based game and we've made this hybrid, so a lot of people are still thinking it's going to be more like an FPS combat system, and obviously they're straight from Counter-Strike or Modern Warfare, which are really just twitch-based games. They're about you can drop somebody sometimes even in one shot. It's about being stealthy and sneaky and doing that. Whereas we designed a third-person, more of a tactical combat squad-based game.
Obviously we've made some design decisions to support that. So there are a lot of people who aren't making that leap. They're just approaching the game maybe as you know, I just want to shoot this guy in the head and see him drop once, versus the good guys who have been in beta, who are more tactical based players, who play together as a good foursome.
Some people have adapted to the game better than others. But that was always the case. There are a lot of perceptions out there about exactly what this game would be, and some people have taken to it and some people are really struggling.
Eurogamer: Why do people have that perception? Was it difficult communicating exactly what APB is?
Dave Jones: Yes. And I think a lot of people came to a lot of preconceptions, what they wanted it to be. You're never going to fight that. That's why we had the Keys to the City event - it was like, come and try it out, if it's not for you then at least you've had a chance to try it and play it. But for people who like this style of game and want something different from a typical twitch-based FPS in terms of combat and persistent servers and customisation, then we've got a lot of people who have taken to it really well.
Eurogamer: APB has an interesting subscription model. Are you finding people are wrapping their heads around it? It is quite different, isn't it?
Dave Jones: It is. We wanted to be flexible and make sure people had options and it was seen as good value for money. We've not had any issues whatsoever on that. A lot of people looked at it and said well, for the more casual guys, 20 hours a month is quite a lot. So for them they like the fact they have this bunch of hours. And if they want to take a break form it because another game's come out and then come back to it, they don't feel they have to keep paying non-stop.
But the majority of people seem be going for the unlimited time. That'll just change as people come in and drift in and drift out.
Eurogamer: Is the number of people playing the game meeting your expectations?
Dave Jones: We launched with two worlds in the US and two worlds in Europe. They're about 60 per cent full just now. But we're seeing an uptake in that. If we could fill the two worlds which we built out then we'd be quite happy. That's what we're aiming to get to. It's not that far off where we wanted to be. We know it's the kind of game that, if people get in and are enjoying it, then they tend to bring their friends in, so it's a little bit viral.
Obviously it's a group-based game. We built it to be, come and play with your friends, have a lot of fun, and that's what's happening. We've got clans of 150, we've got clans of 50. More clans are coming and they tend to bring more of their friends and their clan mates. We're doing pretty well. We've got 10,000 plus each night just now playing together. Hopefully we'll see that grow.
Eurogamer: Is that enough for Realtime Worlds in terms of sustaining APB over a long-term period?
Dave Jones: Yeah. We always viewed this as a long-term thing. We've just launched the game. There was a lot of investment in the technology and the infrastructure. But it's not the sort of game we thought, we just launch it and we're done. It's something we want to grow. There's a lot more content we have planned: different kinds of districts. That's what we're absolutely focused on, is APB.
Eurogamer: Do you expect APB to turn you a profit in the long-term?
Dave Jones: In the long-term yes, absolutely. We always knew the first thing was to get this thing launched, get all the technology in place, get a fun game in place. Just like any game really, sometimes it takes the second, maybe even the third, like GTA, before you deliver on everything you want to do. It's just about making sure we have a good fan base to go along with us this as we do that.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned that APB is a three-year plan during which you hope to update it much like the first three GTA games progressed. How do you see it changing and evolving over that period? Will it change so significantly that it will be like you have three separate games in that time period?
Dave Jones: Yes, probably. We've often said that we have flexible city technology. Our worlds support 10-15,000 players, but as you've seen, they break down into these districts where we bring a hundred players at a time. It's at that level that we want to try and expand the game. We plan to bring out very different kinds of experiences that run alongside the game we have, as well as bolster the districts that we launched with.
Eurogamer: What kinds of different experiences?
Dave Jones: The next one is the Chaos one. A lot of people said, ‘Why can't you just go out and shoot anybody at any time?' There are lots of interesting comments about it only letting you shoot people who are opposed to you. We did a lot of testing on that and we've tested many configurations, and that's the one we felt initially was the best experience.
Once people understand the game a bit better and have some equipment then opening up a district where it is like that makes it a completely different game. People are in for a shock when they try that, just how much of a different game it is. But of course we've got to put the right mechanics in place to feel like it's got a game structure around it as well.
Eurogamer: When will Chaos be released?
Dave Jones: That'll be probably before the end of the year. We're working on that just now, and that's something we will announce, but it's not too far away.
Eurogamer: Any other different experiences you can talk about at this stage?
Dave Jones: No, not at this stage. A lot of it was we wanted to get the feedback as well from the launch, from the players; what systems they like, what they want to see more of, what kind of variety do they want to see? Until we have a big player base it's also hard for us to test things. We could test things internally, but we wanted the player base. We have something up and running now called the public test world, which is another world basically, which we've got live.
That's where we put things in to try. That's where we'll try some of this new stuff. We'll say to players, ‘Come and try out these new game modes and tell us what you think'. If we find things are resonating in that - some things will work, some things won't - we'll pull them back into a general release for everybody.
Eurogamer: How have you found working with EA as your publisher? How has EA impacted on the game?
Dave Jones: Well they haven't. We worked with EAP [EA Partners]. They came to the party late last year when we were pretty far along. We wanted a good marketing and distribution partner. It's not a publishing deal. They've been there to support us at retail.
Eurogamer: How do you feel about the support they've given you on a marketing level?
Dave Jones: I mean that's been fine. It's been a challenge because the game is [laughs] very different. I know it's always difficult trying to position something that's a new IP that's unique, a bit like Crackdown was as well. Until people actually got to play it, no matter what we said... People said, 'Ah, it's just going to be another urban-based GTA rip-off'.
APB suffers from that a bit. People weren't quite sure what it is. How do you tell people in words what it is? Until they get in there and try it, it was always going to be difficult. But they certainly helped us build the awareness for the game. Now anybody who knows about it and can come and give it a try.
Eurogamer: So you're happy with the support EA has given the game and Realtime Worlds?
Dave Jones: Yep.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about the reviews. We've seen some scores that are lower than some had anticipated. Are review scores important to APB?
Dave Jones: Not that important. I think I said months ago that I knew they'd be all over the place. Some people had too high expectations. The game years ago was initially tagged as GTA MMO, which we'd never said. Obviously people put two and two together - our history and the fact it was online - and said, 'Oh it's going to be like a GTA MMO'. I think that's set huge expectations. That's not what we were building, so I was expecting that.
Secondly, because it was so different I knew some people would take to it immediately, and some people just wouldn't. But I've never done a game that hasn't been like that, polarises opinion. I don't think that's a bad thing. When you do something different it's always a challenge. It's nothing more than I expected. Nothing more than I communicated internally to people. You'll read some people who love it one day and some people who hate it the next.
Eurogamer: I get the impression that you haven't let APB's review scores get to you too much. Some developers let them upset them quite a bit. But you come across as someone who's not going to let that happen to them.
Dave Jones: No. I remember on GTA 1, people laughed at it because it was a 2D game when Ridge Racer appeared. They laughed at the screenshots. They said, ‘These guys are crazy releasing a 2D top down game'. But once they played the game a fair bit they go, ‘Well actually it's kind of good fun'. And they saw past that. Crackdown was the same.
Every game - I think it's a bit of a curse of mine. We just try and make sure we do something different every time. This one's no different. I knew, as I say, it would be all over the place. But then again, I've got guys on accounts - we can check on how players are progressing - who have played it since October in beta, have 300 plus hours on their accounts.
I still play the game every night. It's just a great, fun, multiplayer game with a bunch of friends. It's different. It's got some marketing challenge, because it is multiplayer. You have to come with the frame of mind that it does take time to learn. It's very tactical. People assume they die a lot, it's just because the combat's not very good. They don't quite understand it. Therefore a little bit of frustration creeps in.
Eurogamer: You suggest people should stick with it and give it a bit more time?
Dave Jones: It's not for absolutely everybody. If some people are diehard FPS guys and Modern Warfare is their life, they're going to struggle to make the change. But Splinter Cell players, or guys who are in to more tactical combat, and they just love being online with their friends in a multi-player game, we're finding we're really resonating with those guys. There are a lot of misconceptions.
Funnily enough I'm just reading the Eurogamer one just now, and there are misconceptions about more powerful characters and more powerful guns. There are no more powerful characters and there are no more powerful guns in the game. But people die and they see a rating on a player. Rating has nothing to do with the kind of equipment they have. Our weapon system is exactly the same as Modern Warfare. We don't have more powerful weapons. We just have a different range of weapons.
Eurogamer: One of the criticisms of APB is regards the vehicle handling. Is that criticism fair? Can you tweak vehicle handling post-launch?
Dave Jones: No. I think this is a black and white thing as well. I don't think we need to tweak the vehicle handling. For every person who says,'‘Oh my God, I just don't get the vehicle handling in this game', I can find people who say it's quite realistic and it's skillful and you have to plan ahead a little bit. But it's not an arcade-style driving game. It was specifically meant to be fairly realistic and fairly challenging. However, a lot of players come to this game unfortunately with PCs that aren't quite up to spec. That's one of the reasons why we had the open beta as well.
This is a high-spec PC game. Handling is one of those things that, if you have a fairly poor internet connection, or if you're running the game at... I saw one review, the guy said he got 15 frames per second, and I thought, well, I can tell you right now you're not going to have a good experience with this game.
They're not going to have a good experience with any action game at 15 frames per second. You need a good spec PC. And you need a fairly good, stable connection. A lot of people have experiences from the beta, where the game wasn't finished, who haven't come back, and said, 'Oh I remember trying that game'. And then a lot of people are not used to what a beta is. MMO players are. They understand it's an unfinished game and there are a lot of things being tried out. But a lot of people who maybe have never tried an online game before had no idea what a beta was, and didn't really understand. They just felt they were getting to try out the finished game.
To be honest, in terms of the handling, no, we actually enjoy it. If you have a good connection, some of the car chases are some of the best moments in this game. But you have to be pretty good. You have to understand the use of the handbrake. You have to plan ahead. It's more realistic. It's not Burnout style driving. It takes skill to weave your way through the city and to keep on somebody's tail.
Eurogamer: Regarding the weapons, you mentioned it's a misconception that some weapons are more powerful than others and that gives an unfair advantage. You're saying that's not the case. Explain exactly what is the case.
Dave Jones: We have a broad range of weapons. When you start the game we give you an assault rifle, it's called a Star. And then we unlock weapons as you go through progression in order to build out your arsenal of weapons. However, the Star that you get right at the start is balanced in exactly the same way as a weapon you get at rating 200. Rating 200 unlocks things like rocket launchers, so it's different weapons. But there is no progression in the damage they do. It's exactly the same as Modern Warfare.
But when people die, they see he's using a weapon they don't have access to, and assume that's a more powerful weapon. What they don't realise is every weapon is situational. It's actually a very strategic game. If you get in too close range of somebody with a shotgun, you will die. If somebody takes you out from a hundred metres away with one of the long-range sniper rifles in the game, then that's just a situational awareness thing. But the very first gun you get, the Star for example, is a very powerful, good, medium-range weapon to use. Even some of the guys who have played 300 hours still use that weapon.
Eurogamer: Do you believe that people are playing the game wrong?
Dave Jones: I always feel that's a cheesy thing to say [laughs].
Eurogamer: Even if you believe it?
Dave Jones: No, I don't think it's that they're playing the game wrong. Like I say, it's just some misconceptions in some respects from the people who aren't quite getting it, that's all. It's very strategic. You have to flank people. You have to get the high ground. It's not just about running in there. If the guy's weapon that you're running into the situation has the longer-length range on it, then of course he's going to drop you. If you think, I keep trying running in and he keeps killing me from range and I can't kill him, it's probably because you may be running with an SMG and you don't have the range.
You can't just keep running in. You'll have to try and flank him. You'll have to get into the sweet spot for your weapon. That's strategic then. Know your weapon. Know your surroundings. Use the environment to your advantage. The good players are the ones that do that extremely well. To be honest, the difference in skill between somebody who's played the game can become quite different, because they understand the game well. It's nothing to do with the weapons.
Eurogamer: But there has been criticism of the matchmaking, which puts players who haven't played the game as much as others against those who have.
Dave Jones: Correct. So people look at it and say, 'Oh my God, I got ranked up against a rating 200 guy'. Rating 200 means he's played the game more. He could have lost every single mission, and if he'd played long enough he'd still have rating 200. That's how he has access to the equipment he has. But for example, you could have a guy coming quite new who is a very good action player, and he could get threat rating, which is what decides how good you are. It's how many missions you've consecutively won. It's a snapshot in time of how good you are. It's the threat that tells. And that's purely down to skill. If somebody has just won five, 10 missions in a row, he has a high threat rating.
We know and he knows he's a good player because he's just won five or 10 missions in a row. What we choose to do at that point is, if we get somebody who has a lower threat rating, because typically they lose a mission, they win a mission, they lose a mission, then they win a mission, we know he's not as good as that next guy, so we tend to pad out the numbers when we do the matchmaking.
But it's nothing to do with equipment. Equipment actually has very little impact on the game itself. It's more good players understanding the mechanics and have become very good. Especially when you get three or four of them working together as a very good group, they're a formidable match.
Eurogamer: Looking to the future, you've said many times that you want to make a console version of APB. Are we actually going to see a console version of APB? Is it something that's going to happen?
Dave Jones: That won't happen until we have a console publishing partner. That's the only thing that will trigger that.
Eurogamer: Is EA not interested, then?
Dave Jones: Well we haven't had that conversation with them, because we were EAP, and they tend to work with something that's fully funded, along the way, and just needs distribution. Maybe if we spoke to EA directly. But I think the main thing was to get this game live, look at it, see what the good points are that people like. I've often said, if we do a console one it would have to be quite different. It's a different market, different control mechanism.
Eurogamer: Will you start shopping APB around at some point in the future?
Dave Jones: I don't think it's something we'd say we'd shop around. We're going to stay heavily focused on building upon what we've got. We'll have conversations with people. If there's interest there, then of course we'd love to bring it to console. But I think, quite rightly, the console people are sitting there watching how the game does, how we build upon it, how good the service is, what would be the cost involved in running dedicated servers for console, for example, I don't think anybody's ever done that yet. There are still a lot of things they have to think about.
Eurogamer: We've heard about Microsoft being difficult when it comes to MMOs on Xbox Live. Is that putting you off?
Dave Jones: It's not putting us off. But if there's a publishing partner out there who says we'd love to do a game with dedicated servers and have a hundred players and actually have some life in the online world, then that I think... It's difficult for them to make that decision when they don't have full control over it. At least on PC we had full control. It's our servers in our data centre and there weren't any issues.
Eurogamer: So a console version isn't your immediate concern?
Dave Jones: No, not the immediate one. Our immediate concern is getting some new content out, updating the game and talking about what's coming next.
Eurogamer: Last year you went on record saying you will talk about your second MMO at some point this year. Is that still the case?
Dave Jones: Hopefully yes. Now we're still focused on APB.
Eurogamer: You have two teams though, right?
Dave Jones: We have two teams, that's right.
Eurogamer: Will we hear about your second MMO at one of the trade shows this year?
Dave Jones: We haven't even decided upon or put too much thought into that to be honest. It's effectively a project that's just quietly in development. We're just focused on APB just now.
Dave Jones is founder and CEO of Realtime Worlds. APB is out now for PC.