GDC '08: APB out on Dave Jones

GTA and Crackdown creator runs down his contemporary-themed PC, 360 MMOG, says that player personalization, high visual fidelity, and removing "the grind" are a top priority.

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SAN FRANCISCO--"WTF is an MMO anyway?"

That was the question that kicked off Realtime Worlds CEO Dave Jones' session at this year's Game Developers Conference titled "My First MMO." Jones--who is credited as the creator of Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto, the original Lemmings, and 2007's Crackdown--set out to answer this question first when preparing for his company's debut massively multiplayer game APB, which is currently slated to arrive on the PC and Xbox 360 later this year.

For Jones, the industry is facing an identity crisis over the term "MMOG," primarily due to its association with role-playing fantasy games such as Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft. "If you say MMO, immediately you think you're going up against WOW." However, he believes the RPG route isn't the way to go anymore. He also believes that the term "massively" is a bit of a misnomer, since 90 percent of the time in MMOGs these days only 5 to 25 players are playing together due to the prevalence of instancing. To get back to basics, Jones says that his game from now on will simply be called a MOG--"Multiplayer Online Game."

Online play is what Jones calls the "nirvana" of the industry, citing examples of Halo, Command & Conquer, Doom, Call of Duty, or Gears of War as really taking on new life when played with others. These games, Jones continued, don't have the social stigma associated with traditional MMORPGs such as WOW. Eliciting many a concurring response from the crowd, Jones said that people get a far different response soliciting a friend to blast people away in Call of Duty online than inviting someone to go raiding in WOW.

However, MMORPGs aren't without virtue for Jones. The game designer specifically calls out a number of hallmark features of traditional MMOGs, including persistent worlds, passionate communities, social interaction, long-term aspirations, and longevity. For Jones, though, the most exciting part of MMOGs is the dedicated servers, and it is these that really define the MOG genre, even though they present a variety of technological challenges. Concluding his query of the nature of MMOs, Jones says the question changes from "If you as a designer or team were given a blank sheet of paper and tasked with designing an MMO, what would it look like?" to "If you could have dedicated servers behind your game, how would you embrace them?"

Cue APB. "APB takes the style of games I like to make and embraces them," Jones says, before running down a list of features that he feels will make the game stand out among the glut of MMOGs soon to be hitting the market. "The true beauty of the medium lies in the player's imagination, not in the designers," Jones says, so it is important for the world in which the game takes place to constrain players as little as possible. Jones also emphasized the need to get the MMOG genre out of the now-generic fantasy/sci-fi settings, replacing "geek with chic" by bringing the genre a contemporary update.

Jones then presented the comparison chart below, matching off Stalker's Boots, Telescopic eye goggles, Braggart's Bow, YKL-37R Nova Courier, Mithril Spurs, and the term "guild" on the "geek" side against Air Jordans, Raybans, AK-47, '68 Mustang, Nitrous, and the term "clan" on the "chic" side. Geek terms frighten modern crowds, Jones says, and they add to the stigma surrounding MMOGs because they aren't relatable.

After talking up the importance of free-form personalization, Jones then gave the audience a look at the character creation system in APB. Letting players create a unique, identifiable personality within the game was of paramount importance to Realtime Studios, and the developer poured a significant amount of effort into creating a character creation environment that lets players tailor their characters to exacting specifications. "We wanted to make it completely free-form and very high quality, as well as easy to use," said Jones while flipping through photorealistic base models. The customizer allowed for a range of options, ranging from musculature to facial definition to hair length and style to how pronounced a character's veins were, all by simply moving the mouse around the screen.

Adding further customizability, Jones showed off APB's insignia and tattoo creators. Using an impressive array of precreated assets, he was able to create a layered and detailed emblem, which could then be applied to the character's skin as a tattoo or clothing. Clothing styles feature an equally ranging level of customization, with players being able to select details all the way down to whether they wear a shirt inside or outside their jeans. Emblems could also be applied as a decal to a player's vehicle, which itself is a highly involved process of customization.

Jones noted that Realtime Studios is partnering with social-networking Internet radio service Last.fm to let players be able to take a song from their own libraries and play it in their vehicles, and if anyone else riding in the car has that song, it will be played. If their compatriot in arms doesn't have the song, the game will look for music from the same artist or a similar genre.

The character customization demonstration was capped by what Jones called the GDC gang. Comprising the gang were spitting-image recreations of Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, and Shigeru Miyamoto, who was garbed in a corduroy jacket, a white T-shirt with an old-school Mario imprint, and boxer shorts plastered with mushrooms. The quartet then posed in front of the gang's "Geek Squad" hatchback, with Molyneux brandishing a sledgehammer and Miyamoto rocking a rocket launcher.

Character creation complete, Jones then unleashed his design on the city. In addition to the expected large, open cities, Jones said that APB will seek to have hundreds of completely unique characters per city, showing 60 characters--the GDC crew included--onscreen at once. He noted that regardless of how difficult it is to get all of the information synched up with, it all needs to have a very high-quality look and aesthetic.

In this city, which was reminiscent of downtown Tokyo, Jones then turned his attention to what players will do. "With hundreds of players, guns, physics, vehicles, and a living city, it pretty much broke down into anarchy within 20 minutes," Jones noted, saying that Realtime Studios needed to add some limitations. Players needed to first choose which side they'd be on--namely enforcement or gang--and each side has limited by control and order. For gangsters, this means players must first get missions from crime bosses before shooting up the city. The enforcement side is naturally limited by the precepts of order, and will have a focus on hunting down the bad guys. He also noted that enforcement and gangsters don't inherently mean good versus evil.

Jones then addressed the bane of all MMOGs--the task of assembly-line monster slaying known as "the grind"--calling it a "broken hook to drive hours of play." The first way to combat the grind, Jones says, is to completely get rid of leveling. Instead, players will be motivated by the appearance of their characters. He then showed a new player decked out in jeans and a T-shirt alongside a player who had been playing for six months, completely decked out in big chains, flashy clothing, and shiny weapons. In this way, it is personalization that will drive characters, not an increase in performance stats.

Jones also took issue with the "kill 10 of these" style quests that dominate the MMOG scene, calling up several examples from WOW. After breaking down the math of how many monsters it takes to reach max level in WOW, Jones pondered how does a game fill that time without introducing a grind. His answer was simple: "Make the core game so much fun, it doesn't feel like a grind." For inspiration, Jones said his team turned to Counter-Strike, which he considers to be the best online game ever. This concept formed the basis for using players as content, not "artificial incompetence."

To illustrate this point, Jones then demoed a typical mission. It began with a group of four gangsters hijacking an armored van heavily laden with cash. After securing the vehicle, the gangsters' goal is to get back to their base of operations. However, through a process of dynamic matchmaking, the game issues a call to enforcement, who then swoop in to try to thwart the gang first in a car chase and then in a shootout. Jones says adding the competitive player element makes repeatable missions fun and dynamic. He also noted that players will begin building reputations, so highly skilled players will soon gain notoriety with players on the opposing side, and vice versa.

He also noted that this player interaction scales well, noting that the notion of even matches is silly. Jones then gave the example of four rookie gang members knocking over a convenience store. An APB then goes out to a higher-level character that is solo. The four rookies, who are only packing pistols, thus feel they have a chance since it is four-on-one, while the experienced player, who is equipped with an Uzi and rocket launcher, is able to gain the upper hand through sheer firepower and game knowledge.

Jones closed out his presentation by saying that it is important to embrace emergent behavior in games. As an example, Jones said that players are able to use a camera in the game, which can be used to tape their exploits and then post online. He said that his QA team took this to the extreme, putting on a full film production by reenacting a Final Fantasy combat sequence, right down to a Buster sword-wielding Cloud. Jones closed by saying that it's important to give people great tools and then let them go wild.

Discussion

160 comments
ichiban30
ichiban30

what an interesting concept.. a great change for the MMO genre..

MOB712
MOB712

@ZJM9 Its basically a GTA MMO straight from the original creator himself

ZJM9
ZJM9

So seriously... What is this game anyway? Is it Kane and Lynch with cars? Is it freeroam? GS says it's Modern Role-Playing but Jones says it's just an MMO... What is it?

jrmyecomp
jrmyecomp

LMAO watched the vid, while the cops players are chassing the robbers in a big car chase shoot out a noob player steals the t.v if this game has some MORE cool momentS like this I cant wait

i_is_j_smith
i_is_j_smith

You can check out a gameplay video at http://ds.joystiq.com/category/mmo/ look about halfway down the page. Looks ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE!!!! I love the rookie player just stealing a TV while this massive heist unfolds. This looks really great...

ringwraith58854
ringwraith58854

@Gamer_152 As hard as you might try to motivate people with customisable options I hardly think someone's going to be happy after one year of gaming, staring at their greatest in-game achievement, being able to dress themselves. Hey it took me years to learn how to dress myself in the real world, so doing it in a year would be an accomplishment. sounds like this game might be worth putting out the money for. hope its as good as it sounds.

Rajtastic
Rajtastic

yeah but you have a stupid name

Gwarpup
Gwarpup

The only other MMO type game that talks about taking the genre is very new directions like Dave is talking here is the people at TCOS.com or The Chronicles of Spellborn. They are near finished developement and the systems they are implementing there are extremely knew and unique. A real time combat engine, I really love there ideas. But since they are a foreign developer without an American Publisher (yet) then gamespot won't cover their game. It could end popping up and stealing all the steam from all other MMOs released this year.

Teebown24
Teebown24

sounds like an interesting concept. ill have to watch this game.

MiltoxBeyond
MiltoxBeyond

I agree with Jmore. I love RPGs, because there is eventually the happy ending. Without that feeling of conclusion, there really is no sense of satisfaction. Expansions in most MMOG just add to the game making you be that much farther away from the end, an ending that is often like a mirage, never really quite there though it seems like its just out of reach.

jazilla
jazilla

He has some great ideas about PvP. Make the PvE actually PvP by letting the players be on both sides. Bloody brilliant.

jazilla
jazilla

He has some great ideas about PvP. Make the PvE actually PvP by letting the players be on both sides. Bloody brilliant.

JmorebideGarc
JmorebideGarc

MMO has always meant a never ending quest into nothing for me. Why kill all these monster? Why care about leveling up? Why care about social networking, when one can do it outside? Really, I'd rather play something that eventually ends.

SrTVBR
SrTVBR

This game has everything to be great. Go Go Go Dave Jones!

itsnivlem
itsnivlem

talk about more transfer of violence from virtual to actual reality. i mean people kill each other over fantasy stuff imagine if these type of people are given a fictional reputation of being an actual criminal. scary.

Warghost2k
Warghost2k

This guy has some great points, and I hope devs take note. We're tired of long grinds in MMO's, and there needs to be a better leveling structure that mimics the real world better. I have played GTA:San Andreas multiplayer (Multi Theft Auto), and even though the networking code in that game is horrible, it's still somewhat fun to play. If more games could be set up like that, more people would play, which would mean more money to developers/publishers. I really hope APB turns out to be all this and a bag of chips, but I'll hold off judgement until I see it in action. Is there even console hardware available that will handle a game like this (huge city, next-gen graphics, etc)??

Nomad0404
Nomad0404

Sounds like this could be a great way to get product endorsment in the game - nike trainers, rayban sun glasses, dodge viper car etc etc. Phil

Gwarpup
Gwarpup

This sounds like the ultimate in true PVP combined with open world real time FPS gameplay. Awesome combo. And with it sounds like some totally new concepts to change ideas of MMOs completely. Im very excited to hear about this. Dynamic Gameplay keeps you constantly comming back, like replaying maps in Counterstrike. You can do it 1000x and have new experiences because of dynamic events and variables constantly coliding in different ways. This will be amazing to see if its even possible. I still dont think it is with network/lag being the way it is. Getting it all synced will be damn near impossible, and while Dave can dream it is possible and try for it, we won't know for awhile.

Ludovic
Ludovic

There's a little bit of wishful thinking in the whole idea for sure, and you can criticize WOW all you want but it is still attracting ten times more people than any other game out there, but overall I'm pretty enthusiastic for that game. Jones' pedigree is good enough for me, and basically taking the best part of a GTA game and making it multiplayer sounds good too. I'm probably gonna get it, I owe it to myself to at least try it, unless the reviews are damn bad or something.

denim01
denim01

APB has been up there for a yaer now i dont think it will come out i want it but im not going to whit tell like 2009 when it dose come out im just saying 2009 cause im bored but yea if some 1 nos when it is than yea i will whit but im here that gta is comein online only and i here its allmost done to

Bebot
Bebot

i like the premise of this video game. cant wait till they show some gameplay movies!!!

andersoneuan84
andersoneuan84

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

andersoneuan84
andersoneuan84

Dave Jones is a Genius,he is the man behind GTA.This game will be amazing!!!!!

MOB712
MOB712

@ arc_salvo I think people are misinterpreting what he was saying He didnt mean the that getting more clothes would be the selling point He meant your character customization; wha he used to be and what he is now Which besides clothes, includes getting more money, more cars, more turf, more notoriety for you gang or squad because of how good they are, more members for you gang or squad I think thats what he meant

sampleking
sampleking

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

I hope they finish Huxley soon. Anyhow this game seems alright, but my beef with it is that unlocking appearance options only seems like too limited a hook for keeping people playing. I don't know if they should let people grow in power a lot by playing, but you should be able to unlock or gain some stuff besides clothes.

Ravi_1900
Ravi_1900

It seems APB and Huxley are shaping up to be better than expectation.

MOB712
MOB712

Because every MMO follows the same old and tried path of dwarves, elves and orcs as if they can't be different and come up with something new in the MMO genre Everything he said about the way MMOs are and the path they take was basically true And im happy that he's stepping out of the niche most developers go to when they make MMOs

DredWulf
DredWulf

I loved how he termed most people who play WoW and MMO's as geeks and basically nothing but trash talk MMO's...

chechak7
chechak7

I can't wait for it to come out woow

Sacred-Snow
Sacred-Snow

apb looks pretty sweet, not sure about it yet, need to know more, love his other games though

Am3r1knu
Am3r1knu

This would be awesome. I can't wait for it to come out... I'll buy it for sure.

JayPee89
JayPee89

I've been waiting for this game since the first trailer before 360 launched. Hope it makes it out this year.

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

WOW, IF THIS REALLY HAPPENS THEN.................. (i'm lost for words)

potshot11
potshot11

sounds like it will be sick, supposing it isnt one of those games that has humongous hype and then totally sucks, ie kane and lynch

MOB712
MOB712

@ Gamer_152 I think you need to read it again; he didnt get rid of the grind, he got rid of the stigma on grinds in all MMO's ( go kill 10 of these, collect 20 of these) You cant seriously tell me you actually liked doing that; no one likes doing it, they just liked what they got from doing it He feels in his game, the grind will be so fun it wont feel like a grind and the quest that are already placed in MMOs doesnt apply to this game; because all of your quest depends on the actions of the people playing the game so you have no idea whats "quest" you will get And taking leveling out is genius; you wont get owned by some guy because he spend his entire life in the game; if your just good at games and you can catch on fast then you be on his level even though you just started And its not just customization that will be the acheivement You really dont think you'll be satisfied knowing you went from nobody to somebody??? Going from owning no turf to owning half the city??? Knowing that everything you own, you own the best of it??? Cmon man

jaycromer12
jaycromer12

My friends and I have been discussing the possibility of this kind of MMO game design for years, glad to see its finally happening. Looks like a MMO for the gamer who doesn't like WOW. I'll be picking this one up for sure

juddstudd
juddstudd

interesting... cant wait to see how this turns out.

Gamer_152
Gamer_152

Jones makes some good points and APB sound like an interesting game but I have issues specifically with two of the things Jones said. Firstly it's all very well setting video games in the modern day but that doesn't mean that video games set in the past and future are going out the window. MMOs are almost always set about 500 years away from the current date because people live the present, every day of their life, the past and future offer whole different worlds for the player to explore. The second and slightly more worrying of Jones statements is that he believes that levelling needs to be removed from games to make them less boring. Borowing a bit of gaming philosophy from Jarett Cale, MMOs aren't like any other type of game, they are like a hobby where you work hard to build up your character level by level. This "grind" is what makes MMOs both so addictive and gives them their sense of satisfaction. As hard as you might try to motivate people with customisable options I hardly think someone's going to be happy after one year of gaming, staring at their greatest in-game achievement, being able to dress themselves.

greater_bird
greater_bird

The player matching to eliminate kill quests sounds great. Becoming well-known to opposition players would easily be as satisfying as being on a leader board. But how are they going to allow for players who register as gangsters or law enforcement, but then effectively fight on the opposite side? I'm sure people will do this (anti-heroes and corrupt police abound in stories) but it looks like it would unbalance the game badly...