Develop talks to the firm that will bring RTWâ??s failed MMO out from the darkness and into free-to-play

APB: Free at last

Bjorn Book-Larsson, the new owner of Realtime Worlds’ final game APB, wants Develop to interview him again in one year’s time. In twelve months he wants us to ask how APB is faring commercially because, he says, his answer will prove a point.

Book-Larsson, the COO of GamersFirst, believes most MMOs will starve as a boxed retail product, yet the majority can thrive in the free-to-play market.

APB is his biggest bet yet on that paradigm. The game stands as one of the most destructive and unequivocal failures of the modern development industry. There was not a thread of silver lining in the final chapters of the APB saga; the game flew on a $100 million budget, made a spectacular nosedive upon release, and killed a studio.

If, after all this APB still succeeds as a free-to-play game, that alone could bring the inquest to the old-guard publishing industry, which is only now beginning to adopt new digital, social and online business models.

Book-Larsson appears determined to see that happen. Develop sits down with him to discuss future plans, and tie up loose ends.

There were a handful of staff in Dundee kept on to keep the project going through this transition. Do they still have a job?
No, what happened is, the staff count at RTW fluctuated a lot over time and by the time we got involved there was only six people left. Those that were still there had to make sure the source code was still around so it could be sold.

We would say that, if there’s former staff that are interested in talking to us, our door is open.

What is this? Outsourcing?
Well, not necessarily outsource work. Just that, anyone who has prior knowledge of the game, we’re open to have discussions with. Obviously, people who have knowledge of the game are a great interest to us.

How much is GamersFirst going to invest in APB to make it a success?
Well it’s a very important project for us personally. We’ve been engaged in game development for the past year or so.

I’m not ready to disclose how much we are paying for the development of the game, but I will say it is significant amounts of money. It’s far more than we paid for the game itself.

I was going to move onto that, because one news site put the acquisition price at £1.5 million, but I hear that’s greatly exaggerated. We have heard, from very reliable people, that the price was far less than £1 million.
I can’t comment on that.

The same sources tell me this project will launch in the early months of next year?
Yes we’re going to target the game for the first half of next year.

That’s because, in order for the game to be a success, we need to make several core design changes. With APB you had to pay for game-time, which is something we want to strip out in order to put in the free-to-play layer.

The game cost over $100 million to build. How does it feel to be buying the IP for less than one per cent of that?
Well, as I said, I can’t comment on the price.

Can you comment on how it feels?
At this point it’s a severely distressed asset, and I think we were very excited to buy it. This game has so many fantastic components – those alone are worth the price. We also feel that for us as a company this is a huge opportunity to implement many of the things we have learned in the last seven years into a well-known IP.

How are you looking to make money from an MMO that’s going to be converted to free-to-play?
Well we’ve been in the business of free-to-play for seven years now, and our model is built on giving the majority of players free content and offering additional items at a price.

We expect around 80-90 per cent of APB’s players won’t ever pay for anything, and 10-20 per cent of the user-base being more dedicated fans who will pay for additions.

So our audience tends to be much bigger with smaller conversion rates – it works for us so we’re hoping to extend that into APB.

How much of the game will be available for free?

Well there’s a lot of different monetisation models that we’re looking into. In some of our games we have guns you can lease for thirty days.

What happens is that everyone can still have fun, but the die-hards may be convinced to go that extra step further. The cheapest guns we sell in our other games are about $0.30, and the most extravagant is about $9. There’s also an option to get a lifetime lease on the best guns for as much as $100 or more.

There’s other models too, like the wear model – you buy a gun and when it wears down you have to rebuild it.

There’s also the insurance model – where you build cool stuff and buy protection on it in case it gets smashed up.

So there’s a lot of very economic models that we’re considering.

Free-to-play evangelists always return to the same philosophy; free games need to be good to survive. APB was widely reviewed as an average and flawed title. How much is GamersFirst betting on this title?
We’re very confident that the game will do well – the question is how much time will it take before the game does so?

The MMO world has games that have been around for ten years and still have over 50,000 dedicated users. We’re hoping to continually ramp up the game for six months after it’s released.

What other changes are you looking to implement?
We have to address all the balancing issues. One of the biggest problems with the game was that newcomers would be destroyed upon entering a game for the first time, and were being killed with weapons that you couldn’t get yourself until you played for another ten hours. We’re going to change all that.

There was also a lot of content in the game that was either never quite finished or not released, and so we’re looking at – in the first phase of development – bringing that into the game.

There was a patch for APB that was never released that improved the games driving and shooting elements – two areas the game was widely criticised on.
Yes it was called patch 142, and one of the first things we want to do is finish it and implement it.

APB was built on its user-generated content, is that one of the game’s main elements you want to bring to the free-to-play market?
Absolutely, because one of the many weaknesses of the free-to-play market is that it’s praised user-gen content for a while, but it’s been hard to implement.

So the purchase of APB, which has some of the most sophisticated user-generated content I’ve ever seen, is for us a massive competitive advantage.

We see APB as a platform on which we launch new types of gameplay mode. At the moment APB has only one type of play mode, but we see there’s room for a number of different ways to play in this expansive open world.

Such as?
Can’t say just yet.

A lot of people eventually lost faith in APB and gave up on it. What would you like to say to that market?
Well we really hope they will come back to the game and talk to us about what changes they want us to make. One of the key things we do is take feedback in two ways; direct communication and play analysis. We always incorporate that data back into the games.

Will you change the name on the box?
For the time-being we’re just calling it All Points Bulletin, though we might very well officially release the game as All Points Bulletin: Reloaded, hence Reloaded Productions.

What do you feel went wrong with Realtime Worlds’ project?
I think there was this Frankenstein way of reaching out to the users and customers, with an EA distribution model combined with an online MMO and a free-to-play element as well. It just didn’t work.

If someone ran out of game time and couldn’t pay for more, that in turn put their friends off buying more. It was a domino effect waiting to happen.

In the free-to-play world it’s all about building friendships, building clans, building communities. If they want to get competitive, then they’ll pay.

Also, APB was sold at retail. The packaged games model offers about 30 days for a title to sell, and then it goes off the radar. But with free-to-play your games are effectively ongoing, where you build a dedicated user-base and communicate with them.

I think Realtime Worlds were clearly a very talented team, but the expectations on the games were far too high and the studio spent accordingly. I actually think if the studio had more time it could have turned it around.

And as I said, in the retail release model you have thirty days to prove your worth – which APB tried and failed to do – whereas in the online world of free-to-play you have much more time to prove yourself. That’s what Realtime Worlds needed, but obviously it was working on a cruel model.

We expect to build a large fan base for the game over a long period of time. Look at Eve Online – it started out a small title and grew into what it is today.

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