In the past week, Realtime Worlds (RTW) has announced that it secured $50 million in financing and reacquired all rights to All Points Bulletin (APB), their upcoming cops-and-robbers MMO. The brainchild of CEO David Jones – best known as the creator of Grand Theft Auto – this game promises to bring open-world, urban mayhem to a massive scale, but since its announcement in 2005, RTW has been extremely tight lipped. WarCry had the chance to speak to Senior Vice President of Business Development Walter Kong about Realtime Worlds and their upcoming flagship title, APB.
“We’re at a really good position with the company; we have what a lot of independent developers don’t have, which is a really good set of investors,” explained Kong of their recent round of financing. “[This] allows us to explore business opportunities that don’t usually exist in publisher relationships.”
Originally, APB was under the label of Korean MMO publisher Webzen, but RTW wanted to have the utmost freedom to develop and market their game as they saw fit, something their round of financing granted them. It just made sense to go at it alone, for now.
“The original deal with Webzen was signed in 2005 and at the time there were not too many companies as focused as Webzen on the online space,” explained Kong. He credited Webzen’s global – both Western and Asian – focus as the main thing that brought them together. However, when it became clear that they had the resources to fully control their own destiny, they did not want to pass up the opportunity.
“I think that philosophy behind our recent fund-raising is to really have a bit more creative freedom with the product,” he explained. “As projects get bigger and bigger, the risk goes up quite significantly for both the developer and publisher.”
In that regard, APB is definitely one of the most ambitious MMO titles out there, and the price tag to do it properly is high. As that happens, publishers are less willing to take bets on fresh IP and unique gameplay, Kong explained. For a developer, the overhead is risky as development time between releases gets longer. Many MMO companies have buckled under the sheer weight of years of development. Now armed with the coin to support APB, they wanted to do it exactly as they envisioned, and to do that, they needed their independence.
“There was no nasty breakup or negativity around [the re-acquisition of the rights from Webzen]; it was just the best thing for both companies,” said Kong.
The decision to re-acquire those rights does not necessarily mean RTW is about to become a publisher, though. Kong told us that the move is purely to preserve their options, creative freedom and maximize the value of their product. “It doesn’t preclude from working with the right partners,” he noted.
They certainly have a history of it. Like most well financed start-ups, RTW has many veteran developers, but they took the unique path of developing a single-player console title to get their feet wet as a team. That game, Crackdown, was released for the Xbox 360 in February of last year.
Crackdown sold well, in no small part due to the Halo 3 Beta tied to it, but also received a fair amount of critical praise.
“Part of the drive behind Crackdown was really to get a strong title under the RTW brand,” said Kong. It also allowed them to develop the systems required to undertake a game on the scale of All Points Bulletin. Kong pointed out that Crackdown and APB both use large city spaces, and that technology, developed for Crackdown, is extremely important to APB.
Very few companies have tried this approach, but it cannot have anything other than a positive effect on development. MMOs are easily the most complex games to develop, and while each individual in a new studio may have experience, development is a team effort. Now the core team of APB has the experience of a AAA game under their belt as a group. This kind of experience is invaluable. There is a reason a company like Blizzard was able to produce such a polished title: They’d done it before. One Xbox 360 game doesn’t equal that kind of experience, but it beats the approach of most MMO start-ups.
While All Points Bulletins should be familiar to fans of the Grand Theft Auto series, it definitely has its own unique twist. Players can play as either criminals or law enforcement in a fully 3-D, fictional city. The details of the game are still sparse, but Kong did give some insights.
“I think another area where the team is really pushing the envelope is the concept of using players as content.” He explained that most games are either player vs. environment (PvE) or some kind of eternal player vs. player (PvP) battle. In APB, they bring these two concepts together.
“What we’re trying to achieve is really to take the PvP experience and craft missions around it,” he said. In this way, players have missions and goals – which is to say a directed experience – but their enemies are real human players, not just AI enemies. In effect, players can create content for each other, and it all naturally fits within the context of the criminal vs. law enforcement premise of the game.
“I think that’s going to bring a new experience,” he said, “and while it’s broadly in a similar setting to a game like GTA, I think the dynamics are going to change quite a bit and what will come out of there are unique gameplay experience.”
Nonetheless, when David Jones is the CEO and the game is an urban, sandbox-type crime game, comparisons to Grand Theft Auto are inevitable. Kong doesn’t believe, though, that people will get confused.
“Grand Theft Auto IV is a product that I as a consumer have been looking forward to for some time, and am especially eager to try out the online modes of that game,” he said. “If the online play resonates with gamers, that’s obviously good for us.”
He believes that the themes of APB are distinct and feels there is plenty of room in this genre for more than one big player. And perhaps he has a point; it’s not like the Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises cannot co-exist in the shooter arena, despite similar themes and styles.
For some time, RTW has been quiet about their game. There is virtually no art out there, only a handful of approved images and a trailer Webzen put together for E3 2005. However, that quiet shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of progress.
“[APB is] in a fairly late stage where we’ve solved the majority of the development challenges, we think that we have some good core gameplay in place and we’re aiming to really be able to bring this product to closed beta sometime in the second half of this year,” Kong told us.
The focus is purely on a PC launch, which should be good news for shooter purists who will see GTAIV come out, initially at least, as a console exclusive. They have not announced any console plans – despite their obvious relationship with Microsoft through Crackdown – but did not rule it out, either. “Any console versions would be subsequent to the PC version,” Kong noted.
Now armed with full control over their own destiny, expect to hear more from Realtime Worlds and All Points Bulletin in the coming months as they move closer to Beta and launch.
“Depending on the period necessary to refine the product, get it really right, we hope to launch the game commercially some time in 2009,” said Kong.