Keeping up with Jones â?? Part 1

Earlier this week Scottish games developer Realtime Worlds confirmed it has received $50m investment to help support its ambitious plans for online games. We spoke to the studioâ??s CEO Dave Jones to find out more about his new title APB and the changing attitudes of investors towards games developmentâ?¦
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You’ve just announced a new round of investment funding. $50m is a lot of money – what’s it going to be spent on?

We’re spending a fair bit of time on APB. It’s our first online game and we have another online game in the works that is in its early stages. But online-focused games are expensive to make, they are a step above traditional games. So we want to make sure the company is positioned well and ready for the online space.

Realtime was really set up to get more and more into the online world. With Crackdown and its online mode, it was only two player but we really wanted to push to make something that hadn’t been done before in a big, free form open world. And that was just a building block for functionality – APB takes the next step from that with many more players, a persistent world, and server based.

In the MMO space there has been some speculation that it’s not worth trying to compete with Blizzard and World of Warcraft. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I think it’s going to be tough to go into the RPG space and compete with Blizzard, absolutely. But with APB we are saying there are many other genres out there that developers can go into. And remember, online is still pretty new – there’s not a lot in that space outside of RPGs, let’s face it. There are still tremendous possibilities with the right product to open up new markets.

There has certainly been, in the raft of new MMOs and MMO studios that were announced in the past 18 to 24 months, a certainly sameyness…

Although you can understand why. It’s an expensive category, and no one wants to be the first to innovate, so you tend to play safe.

But emember, the market really is just in its early stages. Even for Blizzard’s WoW figures, that 10 million; half of it is in China, with 2.5m in the US and 2.5m in Europe, which is really just on par with a good console game. So I think there are lots of players out there still to take to online gaming that will enjoy it. The potential market is pretty big.

You mentioned involving other partners when it comes to releasing APB – is that non-traditional, non-games firms?

One of our investors this time around was WPP, the advertising company, so one of the things we can do with that partnership is more advanced things when it come to ads in our games. Same goes for infrasutrure- the big companies like AT&T, and hardware firms like HP and Intel will be key for us to work with and we’re talking to many people like that to get further assistance.

How has the transition from Crackdown to APB gone? When you’re building a game for teams to enjoy, rather than being missions for just one or two players, how does that impact the way you think abut design the game?

We try and design the game more around the player. We think more about how everyone will have a different experience to everyone else. That’s an important thing – in GTA and Crackdown, people can go in and they have their own story to tell because the open nature means many aspects are not linear. We’re trying to bring that to the online space – I play a lot of online RPGs, but they’re still quite linear as well. It’s you versus the system and it’s PvE. And let’s face it, the AI in these games isn’t that sophisticated either – so you end up doing the same thing over and over and things become mundane. It’s the grind.

What I wanted to do with APB was use the players against the players – but in a unique way, as I called it, 'Players as content'. It’s not just PvP where you’re trying to kill each other; it’s trying to think of ways to pit people against each other, but create more of a mission structure around it. That’s exciting because that way you can play a mission over and over again, but depending on who you are playing against it will be different – it means personality becomes involved, and introduces real human element into missions. It’s proving to be a lot of fun here when making it.

Does thinking in the ‘players as content’ mindset mean you have to be focused on smaller elements, or even less gameplay, and supply less content to players, in order to give players room to fill in the blanks?

Yes, and giving them less is good, because what we’re finding is that you can give a set of players a simple set of building blocks and what they’ll do with it eventually will amaze you. And that’s why when it comes to players as content, we spent a lot of time on the character customisation as well. It’s a system where we don’t actually give them a lot, but the stuff we do give them – well, it’s like Forza where they’re able to create amazing effects using the livery editor. We’re trying to apply that to everything in the game, where you give them simple rules in the gameplay and they seize that and surprise you, and have lots of scope to have fun.

On the customisation point, those elements in games require a great UI as well as great gameplay – how are you balancing that? Is it like the way you’d create the interface normally for a game or is there something extra involved?

Something extra, because we had to work out how much we give players. Because although we want players to have control and create things, but if you give them too much flexibility in the toolset players can just make rubbish. So we had to avoid the path of Second Life, and not give them scripting languages and full control – and let’s face it, most people aren’t great artistically.

So we’ve actually had to work hard to make sure that people weren’t really able to make crap looking stuff. And that was a challenge in terms of UI design and technology. We’ve had to create something that means that whoever you are you can make something good, and that required a lot of work in the background technology to deliver that. Sometimes that's not so easy to do when you let people provide lots of user-generated content material.

When you’re giving so much control to players, do you expect APB to evolve quite quickly and change heavily based on what they do?

The launch for this kind of game is just the start. It’s exciting for me because normally as a developer you put faith in your design, you launch it and cross your fingers – but there’s nothing you can fix after that point. We think that we’ll have a great experience from the off, but within the first few months I want to take all the feedback we get and find out what else people want, and listen to any new ideas they provide.

In part two, published tomorrow, we further discuss APB’s customisation elements and how Realtime Worlds is building its business to prepare for the online space – and what Jones thinks of Rockstar’s work on GTA, the series he created.

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