In an entertaining keynote rounding out the fourth day of the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Real Time Worlds' Dave Jones finally took the wraps of his studio Realtime Worlds' long-in-the-works MMO called APB, revealing a title packed with user-generated content features.
According to Realtime Worlds' official description of the game (which can be found here), the title is "a city based community game where players choose between playing the criminals or those out to catch the criminals; carry out or thwart opposed crimes and build up areas of the city you control, all with unprecedented levels of character and vehicle customisation".
But the key thing for Jones, who created GTA and Crackdown, was explaining to GDC attendees what that means as a game designer.
He began by outlining the audience his love of multiplayer games, calling connected games - be they Halo or Populous - "the nirvana of gaming". But MMORPGs have a social stigma as geeky, he said, despite the fact they are filled with innovations such as persistent worlds, community, social interaction and longevity.
Jones explained that he took the cues from that to ask himself what his preferred type of game to design - "freeform sandbox titles - games that don't constrain" - would be like in a server-based world, coming up with All Points Bulletin as the answer. He said the one truly great advantage games had over other mediums was the ability to "create a world filled with toys" and he wanted to exploit that in an online setting.
And key to making his vision work is letting the players themselves stamp their claim on the game. "The true beauty of our medium lies in the imaginations of players, not designers," he said.
So the MMO has a real world setting, not the sci-fi or fantasy staples of current online games as that just limited sales, he argued. Instead, real weapons and phrases would populate his online title (so AK47s instead of a Braggartt's Bow, and Clans instead of Guilds), as they are "something people can relate to" and understand the relative meaning and hierarchy of.
Players will have access to an advanced toolset that lets them actively design and morph their human character how they see fit, changing their appearance and and layering clothes and adding decals. The same is true with the vehicles in the game world.
Jones demonstrated the player customisation tool's depth to much applause and laughter by showing an in-game 'Geek Squad' of likeness-accurate avatars based on some of game development's most prominent designers: Warren Spector, Richard Garriot, Peter Molyneux and Shigeru Miyamoto.
Although APB is perhaps easily billable as a 'GTA MMO', players will be left to populate much of the game world, he explained. "We will not create any of the characters in this game, the players will," Jones said, and on the subject of authorship of in-game story versus user-made content added: "I like to leave the story to books and movies."
Players will also be allowed to feed their own music into the game and further express their personality via a unique partnership with last.fm, the UK-based social and 'radio-style' music sharing site - with tracks audible to other players.
However giving players total free range would lead to "total anarchy" explained Jones, who explained his key design choice to add a rule to the gameworld - introducing sides of criminal gangs versus law enforcers.
Jones also said his game aimed to eliminate level progression 'grinding' by doing just that - eliminating character leveling. "I did not want any grind in this game. It's a broken hook, a blunt instrument to drive gameplay."
He recounted his own experiences playing World of WarCraft (which he was keen to talk up despite its central grinding mechanic), saying that the repetitive mechanics of the game make players "play like a programmer", working out the quickest route to loot using third-party mods which bypassed much of the content creator Blizzard had designed.
Instead, visual progression was key, with better and more experienced players gaining access to more clothes and items as they progress and play.
Pitting players against each other, he said, was a surprisingly "easy" way to make a game without grind, citing CounterStrike as a prime example. "If you make the mechanic fun it doesn't feel like grind," he commented, demoing a sequence where once group of players robbed a bank van, while then pursued by law enforcement - which other players witness happening simultaneously in the dynamic gameworld online as they are playing as well.
This all, he said, summed up to his ultimate ethos for APB: "Players as content".
Giving freedom to players, rather than a set of missions and quests that could well end up getting ignored, "makes repeatable missions fun and dynamic" Jones explained, adding that players actions and choices built their reputation and morale, while also scaling well.
He closed by telling fellow designers to support this kind of emergent behaviour, pointing out that the QA team has helped exploit the game's Unreal Engine 3-powered world to make their own movies, something which will also be in the featureset of the final game.
For those designers that follow this path, he said, the true fun comes not when the game is done and shipped, but after that point when it is being played online: "The most exciting thing for me is what you can do after launch," he explained.
APB is currently expected to arrive by the end of the year.