278: The Rise and Fall of Realtime Worlds

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The Rise and Fall of Realtime Worlds

The rise and fall of APB developer Realtime Worlds reads like a Greek tragedy, filled with shining heroes, heavenly fortune, and hubris.

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Sad, really. APB is probably the first MMO that I wanted to play.

Hopefully everyone learned their lesson here. And for those who wanted to start a new game development company, they should read on this article beforehand.

So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

You get an A+ for mentioning Aristophanes. Greatest playwright of all time.

And it's a pity how ruthless business can be on people.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

And Naughty Dog. They're getting big, but still maintaining the "small company" feel. Because its better for everyone overall.

I did always enjoy a good Greek play, and tragedies are some of the best.

Irridium:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

And Naughty Dog. They're getting big, but still maintaining the "small company" feel. Because its better for everyone overall.

I dunno aboot them. Only one of their games I've played is Uncharted 2, and I found it to be shallow and pedantic.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:

Irridium:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

And Naughty Dog. They're getting big, but still maintaining the "small company" feel. Because its better for everyone overall.

I dunno aboot them. Only one of their games I've played is Uncharted 2, and I found it to be shallow and pedantic.

Perhaps, but their Crash Bandicoot games on the PS1, and Jak and Daxter games on the PS2 are absolute joys to play. And I enjoy the Uncharted games as well.

Ah well, different people have different tastes.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

No, he said they failed because they got caught up in unwarranted bureaucracy. Gotta love reading comprehension, right?

As an English literature studant who studied tradgedys this artical pleased me, also as a long time beta tester for APB this help explain why a game that seem like it had so much potential came crashing down

Irridium:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:

Irridium:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

And Naughty Dog. They're getting big, but still maintaining the "small company" feel. Because its better for everyone overall.

I dunno aboot them. Only one of their games I've played is Uncharted 2, and I found it to be shallow and pedantic.

Perhaps, but their Crash Bandicoot games on the PS1, and Jak and Daxter games on the PS2 are absolute joys to play. And I enjoy the Uncharted games as well.

Ah well, different people have different tastes.

Point. I have what I and a good number of my friends consider to be odd tastes in media. That and I never had a PS1 or PS2, only a PS3 Slim, so most of the games they have made, I have missed. I may go back and check some of 'em out though.

Angerwing:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

No, he said they failed because they got caught up in unwarranted bureaucracy. Gotta love reading comprehension, right?

Er, is there much of a difference? Excuse my lack of brainpower, it's almost 6 AM here. >.<

I fail to see how an irrelevant company who made an irrelevant game still has enough relevance to warrant a 4 page swan song.

This, to me, sounds like two big problems. #1 a designer whose vision was focused so far on the horizon, he couldn't see what was happening right under his feet, and #2 a staff who thought they had to make a company in a certain way to be a successful company. In a way, it reminds me of those child stars who realized great fame as kids, and then got sucked into booze and drugs on their way to transitioning to adults when they were no longer those cute kids.

Some child stars can do it, many others can't. Like the Olsen twins, who seem to have forsaken stardom for making a 'tween corporate empire and who now look like heavy substance abusers.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:

Angerwing:

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

No, he said they failed because they got caught up in unwarranted bureaucracy. Gotta love reading comprehension, right?

Er, is there much of a difference? Excuse my lack of brainpower, it's almost 6 AM here. >.<

Because Bungie only JUST became independent. Microsoft owned them but didn't hinder them with their own deadlines or pointless meetings. I'm sure there was some corporate interference, but it wasn't enough to divert Bungies attention from making the best game they could.

Being an independent game studio no longer means what it once did. Especially since the industry at large is finally "getting it" and major publishers are allowing studios it acquires to maintain independence, even keep some Ip's they create for themselves.

For example, Super Meat Boy or Minecraft. Each game was made by just one or two people. Each game is proving successful because more time was spent making the best game possible and virtually none was spent making powerpoints about who their target demographics were and how to expand it.

PS: Naughty Dog isn't Indie either...

The idea that you can run a company with 170 employees and $50 million of other peoples money the same way that you can run a start up with 12 people and drunk dog (it was in Dundee) is farcical. To make an MMO with requires more staff and with more staff comes more legal responsibilities. A company with more than 15 employees is required, in the UK, to offer a pension scheme (this is going to drop to 5 people next year), you also have to have public liability insurance, ensure disabled access to your work place, have a policy regarding maternity and paternity leave. I could go for half a page of all things that you are legally required to have when you are business. All these things require management, hence an accounts department, HR and so on. With human nature being what it is your going to get empire building and clashes over priorities. Now good CEO will have balance off the requirements of each bit of the company to get it running smoothly. You can see from results that didn't happen. The fault with Realtime doesn't lie with a building a corporate structure but there being a vacuum at the top. You cant be the project manager of one part of your business and not manage the rest. Dave Jones should have either stepped back and and kept the company as whole on a even keel or hired someone who could.

Nice article, always good to see how the industry works, or not as the case may be.

Annoying niggle here though,

Setting up offices in the small Scottish town of Dundee

Dundee is a city and one of the largest centre's of population in the UK, it's fortieth on the official list and will probably be in the top 25 next time the list is done as it's population is now well over 200,000.

albino boo:
The idea that you can run a company with 170 employees and $50 million of other peoples money the same way that you can run a start up with 12 people and drunk dog (it was in Dundee) is farcical. To make an MMO with requires more staff and with more staff comes more legal responsibilities.

Yes there are a lot of responsibilities when you run a company and this company failed to have appropriate management structures for those. But why were they taking on a project that required such a scale up in the first place? Most successful companies bite off what they can chew, grow appropriately and look towards reasonable expansion including bulking up management and adding necessary bureaucracy. By the time they take on enormous projects the management systems are either in place or need small adjustments.

These guys went from a small successful company and attempted to go to major league developer status with no middle growth.

frago roc:
I fail to see how an irrelevant company who made an irrelevant game still has enough relevance to warrant a 4 page swan song.

Because APB was one of the most expensive games ever produced, and examining just how catastrophic a failure it really was - and the causes behind that - are far from irrelevant?

Id call it poetic if i wasnt one of the few people who accually enjoyed the game.

Excellent article.

I generally find Venture Capital a strange concept. If you don't have to scrape and earn your money, how can you use it responsibly?

i gotta feeling perpetuum online is gonna fail hard as well(but it's actually a small project compared to this load of commerce)

John Funk:

frago roc:
I fail to see how an irrelevant company who made an irrelevant game still has enough relevance to warrant a 4 page swan song.

Because APB was one of the most expensive games ever produced, and examining just how catastrophic a failure it really was - and the causes behind that - are far from irrelevant?

The implosion of Realtime Worlds, after taking over $100m from venture capitalists, is also likely to have a major impact on the willingness of investors to put money into unproven IP in the future, and as such is likely to hurt other developers - especially startups. It's going to have a big impact on the whole industry, albeit not one that ground-level gamers are going to notice much.

I loved APB, for all its flaws and inadequacy in many areas, you could really see where there was a labour of love and the foundations of a fascinating game beneath the drudgery. It wouldn't be a tragedy if Realtime Worlds didn't have redeemable qualities- underneath all of the highlighted bureaucracy was an ambitious and inventive, if a little naive, company who wanted to make a bloody good game.

It's a darn shame.

I never played APB (for which I should apparently be grateful). I did see a demo of the character/vehicle customization engine online, and that looked awesome. I almost wish they had just licensed that out to someone else; it looks like something that could have made a profit.

I don't play any MMOs right now, and I have to confess that even without the mediocre-to-poor reviews, I tend to feel that the last thing the hyper-aggressive, smack-talking FPS culture needs in a game is more players. (Yes, I know APB was mostly third-person, but you take my point.) So for someone like me, the concept was kind of doomed from the start.

It is sad to hear of a promising developer self-destructing under its own weight. From the story, it seems fairly clear that whatever organizational problems might have presented themselves, no one in the behemoth had the foresight to recognize that a crucial factor for the success of any MMO game is the time to fix the inevitable player-discovered inadequacies.

The irony of this story is that it sounds remarkably similar to the fate of Duke Nukem and 3D Realms.

Those who do not honor their history are likely to repeat it.

This is a interesting article. As a Classics student at University I approve of your use of Greek tragedy, albeit there is a lot more to Greek tragedy than that.

What might be interesting to compare is that, in a Greek tragedy, the death of a tragic hero (such as Oedipus) was definitely beneficial for society, whether a scapegoat, or a victim of divine plot. So just as Greek society learns from the rise and fall of a deeply flawed individual (who threatens the established rituals of society) perhaps the games industry will also learn from the failures of APB and rejoice at its demise as a good thing by learning from it.

John Funk:

frago roc:
I fail to see how an irrelevant company who made an irrelevant game still has enough relevance to warrant a 4 page swan song.

Because APB was one of the most expensive games ever produced, and examining just how catastrophic a failure it really was - and the causes behind that - are far from irrelevant?

They pretty much did the exact same thing as Ion Storm. Sought to over-develop themselves as an entity and failed at the actual 'game' thing. These guys released 1 game before taking on the task of building an Mmo, which is by definition expensive and very technical. My complaint is that the article reads as if its a tragedy for the entire industry, but the reality of the situation is that it's just a nameless company hemorrhaging money over a failed venture. Sure, the numbers are big, $50 million is a lot, but more money and less money has gone into making better games.

albino boo:
The fault with Realtime doesn't lie with a building a corporate structure but there being a vacuum at the top. You cant be the project manager of one part of your business and not manage the rest. Dave Jones should have either stepped back and and kept the company as whole on a even keel or hired someone who could.

This.

This issue sounds systemic and starts at the top. Period. Jones could run a small company but he could not run a large company. It's a tale as old as capitalism.

This is a rather trite and simplistic analysis. I don't think I've ever seen so many labored analogies in a single article before. It was like a Greek tragedy, it was like a Greek comedy, it was like the Peloponnesian War...

Bravo, excellent article. Rarely do we get this kind of insightful analysis about something that happened so recently. For a subculture so obsessed with the latest review actual journalism work surely tends to bide its damn time.

What a story. That's a The Social Network right there. Though I will say right now, they were building their house on shaky foundation. Crackdown was an OK game, (I'm still impressed with the draw distance, I never saw a single car disappear even after I went for a stroll around the island) but it sold a lot more than it should because of the Halo thing it had that I forget what it was and felt a lot better because it was one of the first games of what was then a new console generation. Without having played APB, I think it has some of the same problems of Crackdown: it focuses on a very loose idea and executes them well without ever bothering to fix the more narrow aspects of gameplay. A game in Crackdown's situations is pretty much the only case in which it would have worked.

Now I want to play it. I probably won't since I don't even have time to play Kingdom of Loathing any more, but it's at least gotten me curious.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
So what you're saying is they fell because they adopted a more corporate style and the best way to go is to stay indie regardless of how big or rich you get. Makes sense to me, and it explains how Bungie keeps pumping out good stuff (IMHO).

Not quite so. There comes a point where you get so big the 'indie' mentality starts to fail. You can't just act based on the idea that everyone in the company knows each other and completely accepts the company culture when you have over a thousand employees. The trick is to know when to make the switch, otherwise you'll end up putting needless distance between the high-ups and the people actually doing the project as well as burdening the company with having to teach new hires and come up with work for them to do - as in the case we just read - or you'll end causing your company to collapse onto itself when each of its sides grows too big to communicate properly and they lose the daring edge that being inde grants you without trading it for the business foresight being a large heartless corporation grants you.

Also the two biggest examples of companies that get big but remain indiesh are Bungie and Valve and between the two companies the only game I really liked was Portal. So there.

An interesting read about a classic mistake, I do feel sad about the collapse of real time worlds through. Being a Scot myself I like to see local success stories.

[nationalpride]

Unrulyhandbag:
Annoying niggle here though,

Setting up offices in the small Scottish town of Dundee

Dundee is a city and one of the largest centre's of population in the UK, it's fortieth on the official list and will probably be in the top 25 next time the list is done as it's population is now well over 200,000.

Yea that bugged me a bit as well, I am aware that Scotland (and for that matter Britain) is not nearly as populated as the states and just looking at population size you could get the wrong idea. But that doesn't excuse failing to recognise a city as a city.

We might be a small country but we tend to cause a substantial impact. You do get some points for not calling them English though, that would have seriously irritated me.
[/nationalpride]

Another thought: Scotland does tragedy arguably better than anyone, the greeks quantified the expression but we seem to insist on living it.

There were a number of things the company did wrong in actually administering their game and dealing with their playerbase as well.

- They ignored a large number of problems that had been pointed out to them during their beta period. The "go AFK at a kiosk and rack up cash" bug, terrain glitches, issues with their matchmaking system, weapon imbalances, easy-to-defend rooftops with one entrance which made whoever "owned" them almost impossible to dislodge... all of this had been pointed out to them during the beta and "keys to the city" event, and yet the game went live with almost none of them addressed.

- They didn't crack down on cheating. Their decision to use the Unreal engine was a double-edged sword- it's a great engine, yes, but it's also possibly the most hacked engine around as well. Cheating was widespread almost right out of release, and RTW's decision to use Punkbuster- an anticheat program which pretty much any cheat program worth anything is coded to avoid- compounded with having to withdraw PB from the servers for more than a month because of insane amounts of lag, resulted in cheaters running rampant and blatantly showing off their downloaded "skills". Honest gamers were left to their own devices when dealing with cheaters, and any effort to "name and shame" with gameplay footage of cheating on their North American forums was met with deleted forum threads and even suspended posting privleges. Repeated claims by the developers of being proactive in dealing with reported cheaters were deflated by form-letter responses to Emailed complaints (sometimes weeks after the incident, and not even mentioning the reason for the complaint) and blatant cheaters carrying on unpunished despite numerous complaints.

- They ignored half of their playerbase. The North American half, specifically. Granted, we can't expect a Scotland-based company to be able to provide full and complete attention to a group of players who are four to seven hours behind their clocks, but during my entire time in playing APB, the NA forums never had more than ONE moderator handling issues and responding to questions, and more often than not the NA forums were practically abandoned by RTW while the UK forums saw repeated discussions with several company reps. I for one got the feeling that RTW tolerated its American audience more than welcomed them.

If none of these problems had arisen, would All Points Bulletin and Realtime Worlds still be around? I can't say; my crystal ball is in the shop. But those issues were definitely more pebbles in the eventual landslide that buried an otherwise good company and promising game.

Small nitpick, the chorus could and sometimes did alter the course of events in a tragedy, Euripides' Ion being a prime example. Although, I am having trouble thinking of an example from Aeschylus or Sophocles at the moment so those plays might work for your premise. Sorry, another Classics major and I'm currently translating that play so it stood out.

ὕβρις is the root of so many failures, I guess this was no different. APB had a lot of interesting concepts in it too, shame to see it and the company crash so hard.

Ephraim J. Witchwood:
Er, is there much of a difference? Excuse my lack of brainpower, it's almost 6 AM here. >.<

Yes, yes there is. There is a huge difference between bureaucracy adopted out of neccessity because large organizations are difficult to manage and bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.

It's like covering your car in advertisements because that's what you've seen NASCAR do and thinking it will make it run faster.

Frankly, this article sucks. Just tell me the facts; not repeat a million times how much of a classic tragedy it is. Could have been two pages without all the pretentious exposition interrupting every other paragraph.

I really don't understand how the company could turn into that much of a fuck-up, but then again problems were already indicative by their previous angst over Crackdown's marginal success. You'd think they'd grow a brain once they found out high production costs put you at a severe disadvantage from the start.

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