David Jones, boss of Dundee's Realtime Worlds, is hanging out on Epic's thronged, buzzing, walled-in stand on the Game Developers Conference show floor. He's been helping Mark Rein hawk the Unreal engine by running live demos of the Unreal-powered APB, direct from the online crime game's beta servers.
The compact Scot, still boyish in appearance but with an unassuming, confident manner that's very grown-up, worked on the likes of Lemmings for Psygnosis before co-founding DMA Design, later Rockstar North, and co-creating Grand Theft Auto. He founded Realtime Worlds in 2002, and the studio made its name with Crackdown, an exuberant open-world actioner for Microsoft.
It's now approaching the finish line on APB, an almost-massively multiplayer crime game that pitches 100 players, controlling criminals and Enforcers, into the seedy city of San Paro. Featuring a mission system that dynamically matches players against each other, deep customisation of your characters' look, vehicles and even theme tune, and more twitchy, thunderous driving and shooting than any MMO can boast, APB is an easy sell but still raises many questions. Not least, how Realtime is going to pay to run it, since it's not going to charge a subscription despite sky-high server costs.
We found a semi-quiet corner of the Epic stand and sat down for a lengthy chat with Jones, keen to get APB in sharper focus.
Eurogamer: Are you in a position where you can set your own release date?
David Jones: Yes, we are in a position to set our release dates. That's completely up to us. Obviously as soon as we're happy that we've had enough feedback from many thousands of players, that we're in a good enough position, then that's when we'll make the release date known.
Eurogamer: I think the last thing you said was first half of this year, is that still accurate?
David Jones: Yep. I would say that's still pretty achievable, yep.
Eurogamer: But you can't say for certain.
David Jones: Not a hundred per cent - not until effectively we've got completely zero-bug builds, that it's had all the testing and all the iteration that it needs. But I'd say we're really not far away from that now.
Eurogamer: You've worked on games with online features before, but this is the first one hundred per cent online game that you've developed. Has it been a different experience?
David Jones: Very different. It's amazing how small and subtle the differences are. But they're huge actually when you practically try to sit down and make one of these games. It is night and day.
One example I use is, you've got a bunch of programmers on a game, they write a bit of the game, they play it and try it out and implement it, and effectively they work by themselves. Every programmer on this is working on I call a hundred-player game because that's what it's optimised around per city. And so they write a feature for a game and think, "I need a hundred people to test this feature now." When you've got every single programmer saying the same thing... that's quite a challenge.
It's a whole different ball game, I have to say. It's key for us to be well funded, have the time, not be forced to release the game when it wasn't quite ready.
Eurogamer: You talked in the early stages about console versions, but currently the game is only confirmed for release on PC. What's the hold-up?
David Jones: I would say it's basically what we've just talked about. There's an awful lot of unknowns doing the first version, and in some respects, as we went on, we thought, you know what? We should really just focus on making one of them absolutely right.
Console is very different to PC in terms of online gaming. There's a lot of things outwith our control - Microsoft and Sony are platform holders, and have their take on running servers, billing... A lot of things we're doing are untried and untested. If we have done a great game, and it's a hit, and it's actually more like the kinds of games console owners want to play than other online games, then that's probably a better position to come from than, you know, "Hey, we've got this great idea."
Eurogamer: Presumably you're having to talk them out of the rules that they have, because you've got to have your own server technology.
David Jones: Absolutely. So it has to be something that everybody wants to do, where everybody's clear on what we can do and what we can't do. So there are a lot of issues like that where we said, let's just make one, make it great, get all the issues out of the way. It'll also need a fair bit of redesign as well I think.
Eurogamer: A lot of the things I've read and heard about APB are fun moment-to-moment systems: customisation, the notoriety system, the dynamic match-making that gives players missions to fight each other. But what's the long-term goal for your players? Even Call of Duty has experience and levelling now. Even an action game has to have that.
David Jones: And we do. Every player has a rating, and I've seen players with a rating of 200-plus. And that surprises me because that is one of those stats that shows how much of the game they've consumed. How many contacts they've successfully worked for, how many items they've unlocked in the game.
We have daily, weekly, monthly leagues for many, many things in the game. And you have the traditional things like kill-to-death ratios, the most cars stolen, for Enforcers how many people they've arrested. Arresting is an interesting mechanic for Enforcers because they can just kill people within a mission, but they can also arrest them. It's quite a bit harder to do, but for some very organised clans, as you can imagine, that's a very prestigious league to win. And the rewards scale based upon those leagues. It's very competitive.
Eurogamer: Are there goals for the more solo, casual player? You don't really have player-versus-environment content at all.
David Jones: We don't as such, we do a little bit for criminals because they can just ram-raid shops, steal stuff, steal cars, sell them, mug pedestrians. For example, a good solo one, if somebody plays the game a lot and they like solo, we have a league for the most damage done in the day. Being in a group's not a benefit for that one.
We even have fashion leagues, which is how many sales you've had on the trading house because you're very creative. And we reward that.
Eurogamer: You've said that you're not going to charge a subscription. But presumably, if you're successful, APB is going to be quite an expensive game to operate. How are you expecting to make money from it?
David Jones: We haven't announced a business model yet. It's not like we're going to say it's completely free for ever more. There is a business model there, but it's a very unique business model because it's a unique game.
I don't want to say anything just yet, because there's a few interesting things in there that we want to be very careful about the messaging on. But we've absolutely made sure it's extremely good value for the player. What we didn't want to do was for people to feel that they had to commit every month to a payment to play this game. That we've removed.
There is a charging mechanism, but it's very different, it's very flexible, and there's some interesting ways that potentially, for example, they may not have to pay. It's very unique and very well thought out, but we won't announce it until people understand exactly what the game is.
There's nothing out there that has our model. It is completely unique.
Eurogamer: What are the pitfalls of developing an online game?
David Jones: Underestimating how different it is to develop. Just the logistics of making a 100-player game, in terms of testing, feedback times.
I think the business model is one we spent a lot of time on as well. It's a difficult, controversial, emotive subject for many gamers. Players know they love online gaming, they want more and we're delivering more, but of course that also involves cost.
I think we have to be very, very careful explaining to them that they get something very unique, but to do that has incurred a cost... We've bought the highest-spec servers on the planet right now just to make sure 100 players have an amazing experience. Physics, thousands of civilians in the streets, cars, building that up and synchronising it to 100 players, that's a lot of expensive hardware in the data centres to do that.
Eurogamer: People have such differing values about this sort of thing; some refuse to ever pay a subscription, others regard micro-transactions with suspicion...
David Jones: Yeah, like I say it's very emotive. That's why we tried to come up with something that pleases everybody.
Eurogamer: Do you think you've managed that? It's surely impossible.
David Jones: I'd love to tell you what it is. I've spent years and years on it. I've yet to find anybody who we have presented it to, like EA, who hasn't said they really like that, it's very unique and I think players will get it. I'm really looking forward to announcing it, because it's very simple to explain and the normal reaction we get from people within 20 seconds is, "I don't see any problems with that."
I believe we've got something where I don't think we'll have any class of player who will say, "That doesn't work for me."
Eurogamer: There was a lot of talk a while ago about you selling APB to a publisher so that it could be rebranded - in particular, to Rockstar as GTA Online. Was that ever on the cards?
David Jones: No. I have no idea where that came from. I think that some people at some point thought hey, it's kind of like GTA, but actually it's not. Until you play the game, it's very hard to imagine what it will actually be like.
Eurogamer: Are you tracking the development of Crackdown 2?
David Jones: I basically see what everybody else sees, to be honest. Obviously I'm keen to see it, keen to get my hands on it.
Eurogamer: It must be quite strange though, to have something that you developed personally carry on elsewhere.
David Jones: [Shrugs] Well, GTA. That was the other thing. Not really, obviously it's great if these things have legs. But eventually I do get bored of things. I'm always looking for new ideas and new things to create.
Eurogamer: You're going to have 100 players per city, but if you were stuck in a particular instance, then you might potentially end up with only 10 people online. How does your instance structure work?
David Jones: Our game supports 100,000 per world. So the actual worlds are big. And then within the world we have, say we have 10,000 players on at any time, then we have those split over 100 cities.
The way we engineer the game is that when people come in, most of the time they say take me to where my friends are, or I want to join this kind of city. And behind the scenes we intelligently put them where is the best - there are 80 players here, that's the best experience for you. We only ever fire up new cities when we've picked out some other players. We quickly fill them.
But if players want to, they can go anywhere they want. If they want to go to a quiet city because they like that kind of small intimate atmosphere, then they have that option as well.
Eurogamer: Do you have any opportunities for a metagame - particularly for clans?
David Jones: For the clans, as I say, mostly to be honest now it's league-based. That's initially where the metagame is.
But APB is going to evolve. Day one for us is really about come into APB, make your clans, decide who you want to be, start progressing through the game. But we have a plan mapped out for the city of San Paro which includes some unique events down the line which really grow the metagame.
We have a three-year plan for it. For me it's like GTA to GTA III. It takes time, you can't do it all on day one. We have a plan, we'll actually build that into the storyline as well. There are some very unique long-term metagames coming that are much more in line with the style of game we are.
Eurogamer: It's a fairly unstructured PVP game, and often in those games players like to get involved in their own metagames - EVE Online for example. Can you see those player-led events happening in APB?
David Jones: Absolutely, we have one just now, on our forums in beta. If you've seen The Wire, or any TV show where they start to put up pictures of all the bosses - somebody's done that for all the criminals in the game, and we have a thread right now with screenshots of every player that's been arrested.
It's amazing, because there's a bunch of criminals now that no Enforcer in the game has yet managed to arrest. And they've created this metagame where they want a picture of every one of them. That's not something we did.
I absolutely believe there will be a lot of metagames like that, and that's what we want to support as well. It's very much not what we want to do, it's what the players decide.
Eurogamer: I think a lot of players would be interested to see that in an action game, because at the moment that style of play is mostly only accessible to hardcore RPG players.
David Jones: And I think our technology supports it, because we can basically do anything we want to per 100-player instance, so we can change the rule sets for every 100 players.
Longer term, what we really want to do, if you're talking about the metagame, well if you're a good clan and you're winning stuff, what we'll reward you with is the opportunity to decide. You get your own district, and you can decide the rules. Anybody else comes to that district, they play by your rules.
You see all this stuff about dedicated servers and the PC community up in arms about games removing them because what they really liked doing was changing the rules. What I want to do is give that power back to them, but in a very structured way, because we pay for those servers. Give them the right to earn the right to have their own servers.
Eurogamer: So you're talking about quite high-level community involvement in game features...
David Jones: Huge. Huge. Within a month this game could be very, very different because we tried out this rule-set in a district and people loved it to death - and as you know a small tweak to the rules can make a very different game - and that's what people gravitate towards. If that's what's popular, we'll just keep on firing up more of those kinds of servers.
Eurogamer: Do you envisage doing more content-heavy, expansion-type updates? As DLC perhaps? Or are we getting back into the business model discussion we can't have?
David Jones: All of the above. We have a three-year plan. We'll be doing the regular patches, some new content, some new weapons, vehicles... All I can say, I think the main thing is: here's a new city with new kinds of rules.
It'll be slightly different to what's out there. But we will have big expansions as well. When we talk about the metagame, it will be about these big things that happen to the city or these big new characters, new plotlines.
There's a lot of big things we have planned and likewise there's a lot of small, reactive things we want to do as well. We'll be very dynamic, down to a month-to-month level, with some big seismic events.