While at the Game Developers Conference, I attended a seminar titled “My First MMO.” I assumed the focus of the seminar was going to be on tips and tricks for those ambitious souls who want to take on the challenge of creating the fickle creature known as the MMO game. The seminar turned out to be more of a showcase for the graphics and game concepts for APB. If you haven’t heard of APB, or All Points Bulletin, it’s essentially cops and robbers online. Another way to look at it would be to think of it as GTA’s half sibling because the guy up on the podium is none other than Dave Jones, the creator of the original GTA and currently the CEO of Real Time Worlds.
The question of what exactly defines an MMO took up the first portion of the talk. The MMO world is currently dominated by RPGs, and the definition of MMO in the popular consciousness is blurred with that of the MMORPG. In my mind, the bare minimum you need to call you game an MMO would be a number of players, numbering in at least the thousands, playing together in a persistent game environment with unique characters. Of these minimum qualities the only one that I would put in the category of both MMO and RPG would be having unique characters.
And APB has some unique characters. By that I mean, what we saw of the character creation was incredibly detailed. The graphics were of a much higher quality than any MMO I’ve seen on the market and the sheer number of options with sliders, clothing choices, tattoos and the like make for a near infinite number of distinctly different characters. The tattoo system deserves a little special attention because instead of putting your body markings in various locations that have been predetermined by the developers, you can place tattoos anywhere and in any orientation around you character’s body. To demo the character creation, and to have a little fun, we were shown some sample characters, in the form of several famous game developers including Shigeru Miyamoto, Richard Garriott, and Peter Molyneux. We may have had a few laughs at their expense, but it was all in good fun.
The game itself involves a lot of driving around town, so it’s fitting that your car is as customizable as your character. We were treated to a gameplay video that included a lengthy car chase, and showed how the game’s mission system works. Essentially, we had a team of cops cruising around town in their pimped patrol car, and then we see the robbers on a mission to hijack an armored car. As soon as the criminals break the law, an APB goes out and the cops now have a mission to apprehend the crooks. That’s how APB’s matching system works. Players playing criminals commit a crime and the system calls a group of players on the side of the law to go after them. We were initially shown a four on four match, but the system is not rigged to force even teams. We were also treated to a sequence where four novice criminals on a smash and grab get taken down by one lone super cop. At this point Jones rhetorically asked why so many other PvP matching systems forced even numbered teams, when there is a wealth of other viable options.
When Jones laid out the design philosophies behind his games, he often asked why we currently do things the way we do. We’ve built up these conventions and definitions of gameplay styles, universally applying rules that aren’t universal. This takes us back to the definition of an RPG. In its broadest sense, a role playing game is simply a game where you play a character that isn’t you. You don’t make the kind of decisions for your character that you would make in real life. Very few people in their right mind would don armor and a magic sword, then waltz into a cave full of dragons to find some gold and a better magic sword. And that brings me to my point. Going into the cave is an act of role-playing, killing monsters and gaining treasure and EXP is not. The latter are conventions of a role-playing game, not intrinsic qualities of one, yet they have become tied up in the definition of the MMORPG genre.
Jones seems to hold a philosophy of not forcing this style of gameplay on a player and opting for an environment that encourages a more emergent style of play. Players are given many tools and options, and it is left up to them to discover how they can best have fun. It’s less about giving players what designers think they want, and more about providing an open space with numerous options for players to find their own fun.
My job in this article is to play the role of the pessimist. I spent most of this article talking about what I liked about what I saw. The graphics looked amazing, I loved the high degree of customization of both vehicles and humans, core game mechanics seem solid, and Jones seems to have an excellent understanding of gaming philosophy. Where’s the cynic you ask?
The cynic is right here. I liked what I saw, but it all seems too good to be true. The play sequences were heavily edited, so it’s hard to say how smooth the gameplay actually is. Graphics can be easily tweaked and edited to put on a nice show when everything is prerecorded. High minded game concepts and ideals always sound good when presented in an overview format. For example, the matching system sounds great, if it actually works in game the way it was described. I’ve played too many games that talked big about their cool features only to find that they failed in the execution or missed important nuances. Everything we looked at was with a zoomed out lens; none of the nitty-gritty details were made visible to us. I’m not saying I suspect shenanigans, I’m just wary. Just like you shouldn’t count your chickens until they hatch, I say one shouldn’t get overly excited about flashy screenshots and trailers. I’m going to reserve excitement and judgment on APB until I’ve seen more gameplay and played an actual demo.
Check out Part Two: Optimist, here.