Any but the most casual gamer eye is probably at least dimly aware of the story of APB: All Points Bulletin, but I'll recap just in case. APB was a hybrid MMO/shooter/sandbox developed by Realtime Worlds, possibly better known for the first Crackdown game. The game was basically an MMO take on GTA – an open city in which you took missions, drove around running people over, and shooting people. Another way to look at it would be as a highly sophisticated take on the old Cops and Robbers formula, dressed up as an MMO. I'll get more in-depth about the game-play shortly.
Anyway, despite the premise being something of a Holy Grail for a lot of gamers, the game crashed and burned when RTW went bankrupt only a few short months after release. Recently, the game has been picked up by GamersFirst, who are planning to re-release the game under a free to play plus micro-transaction model, as they have done with their other games, which are, I understand, Asian MMO's localised for a Western market. It seems like APB is in the clear, but I'm not convinced that this is actually a good direction for the game. More on that later.
First I'd like to talk a bit about what made APB really special, and why I loved the game to bits, as well as the undeniably serious flaws that held the game back from the mainstream success that I firmly believe it was destined for.
To sum up why I liked APB in two words, I liked it for its ambition and for its originality. RTW tried something extremely bold by entering into a highly saturated MMO market with a new style of game and a new system of ongoing payment. The game itself was extremely ambitious from a technical standpoint, requiring servers to run very large, very complex environments with a lot of people and a lot of AI actors, all while maintaining playability as a shooter-type game with MMO level pings – that is, pings up to 300 or so. Largely, they succeeded, with the biggest problem being some lacklustre performance, but nothing game-breaking.
The game-play itself provided a very refreshing change of pace from most shooters currently on the market, for a few reasons. Firstly, the open world meant that you had a very wide variety of options in terms of approaching and getting to objectives. Secondly, the use of vehicles, and their specific implementation – that is, basically only as transportation, not for combat as in Battlefield and similar titles, and finally the focus on group tactics and positioning in winning fights, rather than on individual skill mixed (sometimes) with broad-stroke team strategies as you see in most shooters.
There's a lot I could say about the game-play, but rather than getting too bogged down in trying to get people to understand what playing the game was like without actually playing it (this isn't a review, after all), I'm going to skip on to why it failed.
I think the game itself has very little to do with why RTW went bankrupt, just so we're clear, and the failure of the game (to be a success critically or within its own community) is a different matter from RTW's financial failure. The biggest cross-over is probably in the advertising department. APB was supposed to be a AAA title, and it was supposed to be RTW's masterpiece. Despite that, even in countries where the game saw a retail release (Australia was not one of these) most people weren't aware of the game's existence. This resulted in very low retail sales, which had the effect of hastening RTW's decline into bankruptcy, and also the effect of low server populations. And low server populations discourage people from playing, creating a snowball effect.
Why else was the game a critical failure, and a failure in the eyes of a lot of its players? I think some of it is that a lot of people misunderstood what the game was supposed to be. People who wanted to play an MMORPG were disappointed by things like 'repetitive quests' and a 'lack of story,' when fundamentally the game was supposed to be enjoyed as a shooter with some progression elements and some awesome player-customisation tools. The 'quests' were only supposed to be loose justifications for players to fight each other, or a set of objectives. Let me put it this way – Counter-Strike only has two 'quests' for each side, because it only has two game-types. But nobody really complains about that, because it's clearly not important – what's important is the enjoyment that comes out of competing with other players. APB was much the same.
The people who understood that it was a shooter, broadly, wanted it to be another Call of Duty clone. They were annoyed by the lack of locational damage, and the fact that it took a long time to kill people, and the fact that upgraded equipment offered a significant advantage over other players. The problem here is two-fold – firstly, APB isn't supposed to be played like CoD, which is very fast-paced and has a heavy focus on twitch gaming. APB was much more about deliberate, planned, and co-ordinated attacks if you wanted to be even remotely successful. When that's the focus of a game, things like locational damage become unimportant, and the ability to get extremely fast kills is actually counter productive, as it encourages twitch-based playing. Secondly, regarding the problem of upgraded equipment, APB had MORE to do with progression than CoD did. It was a little irritating when you had to go up against someone with much better gear than you, but that's the price you pay for the additional depth that character progression adds to the game.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not going to pretend APB was flawless. At release, it was buggy, and there were a whole lot of poor design decisions that shouldn't have made it out of beta. Gun-play and driving felt okay, and that was the best you could say about them. A lot of the missions were horribly one-sided. There were a number of exploits that were simply brutal to experience. I maintain that its release was fairly smooth – most MMO's are troubled at launch, and APB was by no means the worst.
There was also a persistent problem with an unusually high percentage of players hacking. Although it wasn't as ridiculous as some players would claim, with some people citing bogus numbers as high as 70% - in reality, probably about 1% of the population hacked, which is still very high.
All of these issue improved very rapidly, and the game actually played very well indeed by the time it went down, although it still had issues. The community was generally unable to forgive though, and broadly people seemed to think that fixes took much too long to arrive, a result of, I think, a misunderstanding that permeates gaming culture fairly heavily, about how long it actually takes to make changes in a game, even seemingly minor ones.
At the end of the day, APB was killed BECAUSE it was ambitious and original. Ambition lead to a product that didn't feel polished to the end user. Originality lead to it being generally misunderstood by its target audience. It's a sorry state of an industry where attempts at innovation are met with scorn.
But maybe there's hope. The game's been bought and is coming back with a new payment model. The payment model was another thing that people perceived as a problem with the game. Probably the worst thing that I could say about it is that it was maybe too complex, leading to it being misunderstood by a decent amount of players. Again, RTW attempted something novel here. Some people would argue that it never should've been pay to play because of the type of game it was, in which case we'll more or less have to agree to disagree, and it's not a debate I want to look at too deeply here.
I see some problems with the buyout though. The company that bought it does not, to put it bluntly, produce good quality games, especially not of the calibre APB seemed destined for. The game still needs a lot of development to realise its potential (something I would sorely like to have seen happen) and I'm really not convinced that the new owners can do what would need to be done to make it great, or even that they would if they could. I can think of some pretty horrifying possibilities for where the game might get taken, and if that happens it probably would've been better to let it die.
I'm not without hope, and I'm eagerly awaiting the re-launch (and I'll probably be reporting on it quite promptly after it happens), but I'm definitely concerned about where we go from here with a title that deserved to be the next big thing, but never quite made it.
I'm pretty sure there are a couple of people reading this who got a chance to play the game, and I'm interested to hear thoughts from anyone who did get a chance to play it before it went down, so please, leave a comment. Maybe I've got the whole situation pegged completely wrong.