Thereâ??s disruptive pay models and then thereâ??s divisive ones. The APB studio explores the difference

Realtime Worlds: Serving time

After the rollercoaster ride that has been the five-year development of All Points Bulletin (APB), Dundee studio Realtime Worlds is finally reaching light at the end of the tunnel.

But there’s a catch. The studio’s recently-announced online payment model for APB has, somewhat unexpectedly, triggered a pugnacious reaction from forumites and comment posters. APB, they say, uses a convoluted and unreasonable pay system.

For a studio that’s often enjoyed a intimate relationship with its audience (it once gave a fan-run APB website £1000 to buy new servers) such hostility from certain corners of the market could be a fly in the ointment.

Develop sits down with APB design lead EJ Moreland – now the director of business planning – to discuss the game’s development, its future, and what the studio will do with the money it brings in. Part one below.

What was the mood in the studio when it was decided that APB wasn’t going to be developed for the Xbox 360 and PS3?
Well there never was a definitive decision made in regards to the home consoles. Development started as PC-oriented and, at a point where we had enough resources to compile our own console team, we decided to dedicate our talent on the PC game to make it that much better.

Honestly from my experience, as someone who plays PC and console games, I had strong concerns that the game we were making for PC wasn’t going to be viable on console. We would want to do some things to make the game much more console-centric.

Console and PC development teams usually have different philosophies on approaching a project, and so they should. Usually when you play a console-to-PC port, or vice-versa, it’s usual that the game won’t work as well as it did on its original platform.

So for us, what we see for APB on consoles – and we’ve had discussions about this – is to make a different game that fits better for the system. Not radically different, it will still have the basic core principals of content creation, online celebrity and deep match-making, but this will be an experience specifically for consoles and console players.

I don’t know when that console edition is going to be out, and I don’t know when we’re going to start working on it, so I can’t say much more about it right now. But it’s clear that Realtime Worlds wants a console version of APB. The studio believes in consoles as much as it does in PCs.

And you still have plans for the PC version following its release. How will APB shape and evolve over time?
One of the things that I’ve learnt working for an online-focused developer is that everyone says they’re going to listen to the fan-base and give them what they want. What really happens is that some things get listened to, but there are already plans in place at the developer, and there’s already things the company wants to do.

APB is different in that, for us, it’s a playground. We really want to tailor this to what people want. That’s how we’ve built our subscription system – it will fund further development of the game, as it becomes clearer to us what people want to see added in the game.

There is a bit of confusion about that subscription system. After we announced it a few people said it was unfair.

We hope people take a long hard look at the subscription plan we’ve set up, because if people do, we’re confident they’ll be thinking ‘you know what, these guys are clearly thinking about the gamers before anything else here.’

And that’s not from a PR point of view, that’s from a company philosophy point of view. Our aim was to make something that’s fair.

It’s quite apparent that the online payment model was the result of rigorous research. How did Realtime Worlds reach a decision on it?
Yeah it has been a bit of an adventure arriving to these decisions. We started developing APB about four and a half years ago, and we really focused on what we wanted the game to be.

We really didn’t put that much an emphasis on the business model at first. But as part of the last two and a half years, it’s been part of my direct mandate to architect a business model together.

We actually arrived at the pricing quite recently, and yes we spent a lot of time thinking about the underlying structure and how it was going to work. We looked at several different options for what was best for the game, and we actually opened discussion on pricing with the view to be very competitive.

We know that APB is more an action-oriented game than anything else, it’s not a classic MMORPG – y’know, some of this is uncharted territory for us – and so we had to think abut where we were going to hit our marks with this. Our key commitments were always value, no commitment, and flexibility.

You have received a bit of backlash for the charges, but that’s surprising considering the first 50 hours of the game is free.

Fifty hours is clearly more time than people spend on many, if not most, AAA games – from Resident Evil 5 to Mario Galaxy. Your plan seems to be finding the most dedicated fans – as in, those still wanting to play after 50 hours – and monetising from that specific market.
That’s very similar to the discussions we had about when to start charging. We started looking at a lot of data we got from our partners, and other third parties.

We looked at retention figures for online action games. So, for example, with Team Fortress 2 people will play a certain amount of hours in the first month, and another amount after six months.

We also looked at statistics for the more classic MMORPGs, and tried to find a middle-ground between that and the stats for other online action games.

The thing is, you’re not going to play an action game in twelve hour sessions. You’re not going to play the game for thirty hours a week. APB’s a very fast-paced, high-intensity action game, and I think the average player is only going to be playing it probably twice a week.

It’s a system that can be very lucrative.
To be clear – we’re arranging payments for the primary purpose if funding the evolution of the game, and for what we’re trying to provide with this high-tech hosted environment.

I mean, if we had the same kind of technical needs as a free-to-play MMORPG, our costs would be much lower. We’re actually really high tech.

So this is a lot more about being a sustainable service than it is about trying to get every penny out of the player.

I’m not suggesting there’s Machiavellian opportunism going on here. I’m merely saying that the subscription model has proven it can generate vast profits. Blizzard must be the most sought-after studio in the world because it routinely brings in measured and recurring pay packets.
Yeah totally, the last time I did the numbers that very business gave Activision 30 or 40 percent of its revenues. This is huge amounts of money from a hugely popular game.

The bulk of Blizzard’s money comes from its 5 million western subscribers, which is incredible amounts of money.

But we have no expectation that APB is going to be like World Of Warcraft. We don’t think that we’ll have millions of paying customers out of the gate. With our game, it’s going to take us a while to see what the audience likes about it and adapt to that.

The ongoing fees are for now a way for us to adapt to the players’ tastes. That’s what it will fund. Of course we’re a business and want to make money and be successful, and use the money to fund other projects, but really our business model isn’t just about making as much money as we can because we think we can get away with it.

We had the chance to put our prices closer to what typical MMORPGs are charging, but we specifically chose not to because we want the player to see the value in our product. This is new to us too, and we want to cover the costs of building on the game and making it cool for the fans in the future.

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