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.

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