I was going to make one of my long, drawn out, boring posts about the how and why of APB’s failure (ironically, given the most recent prior post on this blog), but this ex-RTW employee has kindly done it for me. I find it kind of sad that I predicted a lot of this in beta and that they never managed to get it changed (the business model, mostly). How is that companies manage to make such great content and games and then fail at execution so horribly as to sink the entire project? I don’t understand why the MMO genre still has this plague hanging over it’s head. Hasn’t anyone learned anything?
As noted prior, I still think APB is a really great game, and the developers pulled off some awesome things. Heck, I even forgot to mention some of the stuff, like the fact the game has a built in music sequencer. They basically made damned-near standalone ready apps for the game itself. Maybe this was part of the reason it blew a huge budget and failed, who knows. The core gameplay was solid though, and it’s a damned shame that the future of the game is probably bleak or nonexistent.
In other unrelated news, Consoul is one of the most incredible indie shorts I’ve seen in a while (make sure to turn annotations off when watching from that link). Ever since watching it last night, and subsequently staying up until about 2:30am, staring blankly at the ceiling; I’ve been basically just stuck in thought about life and random shit. Listening to Pogo at work isn’t helping to settle the wandering mind. I have to wonder if we’re in a second renaissance as far as art goes, I have never really sat back and appreciated how large a wealth of art and culture the internet is – but wow, are we ever lucky to have this stuff at our fingertips.
Anyway, here’s the anonymous ex-RTW employee’s post, re-posted here to preserve its existence … (Read More)
What a fucking mess. I’m ex-RTW.
An outcome like this wasn’t desired by anyone at RTW, but game development is a weird business. A game can play poorly right up until only a few months before release, for a variety of reasons – Crackdown was awful right up until a month or two before it came out (some would say awful afterwards, too, but I’m trying to make a point). Knowing this, it can blind you to a game’s imperfections – or lead you to think it’s going to come right by release. You end up in this situation where you’re heads down working your ass off, not well able to critically assess your own product. APB itself only really came together technically relatively late in its development cycle (and it still obviously has problems), leaving too little time for content production and polish, and lacking any real quality in some of its core mechanics (shooting / driving). It’s not that the team was unaware of these huge issues, but a million little things conspire to prevent you from being able to do anything about them. It can seem difficult to comprehend, it certainly was for me before entering the industry – ‘How did those idiots get X wrong in game Y?’. No team sets out to ship something anything less than perfection, but projects can evolve in ways that no one seems to be in total control of. All that said, it was pretty clear to me that the game was going to get a kicking at review – the gap between expectation and the reality was huge. I wasn’t on the APB team, so I played it infrequently, during internal test days etc. I was genuinely shocked when I played the release candidate – I couldn’t believe Dave J would be willing to release this. All the issues that had driven me nuts about it were still there – the driving was poor (server-authoritative with no apparent client prediction, ergo horrendously lag intolerant), combat impact-less, and I found the performance of the game sub-par on what was a high-spec dev machine.
But the real killer, IMO, is the business model. This was out of the team’s hands. The game has issues, but I think if you separate the business model from the game itself, it holds up at least a little better. A large scale team based shooter, in big urban environments, with unprecedented customisation and some really cool, original features. The problem was that management looked at the revenue they wanted to generate and priced accordingly, failing to realise (or care) that there are literally a dozen top quality, subscription free team based shooters. Many of which, now, have progression and persistence of some sort – for free. The game would have been immeasurably better received it had simply been a boxed product, with paid-for in-game items, IMO. This may not have been possible, given what was spent on the game and the running costs, but the market is tough. You can’t simply charge what you feel like earning and hope the paying public will agree with your judgement of value. Many of us within RTW were extremely nervous at APB’s prospects long before launch, and with good reason, as it turns out.
They also failed spectacularly to manage expectations. When Dave J spoke out saying there would ‘not be a standard subscription model’, he unwittingly set expectations at ‘free to play’. When it’s announced that we’re essentially pay-per-hour, we get absolutely killed in the press, somewhat understandably. The game also announced far too early (though it kept being delayed), and had little to show but customisation for what seemed like years, largely because internally we (correctly) judged it to be the stand out part of the game. But we should have kept our powder dry. Our PR felt tired and dragged on and on, rather than building a short, sharp crescendo of excitement pre-release. We also went to beta far too early, wiser heads were ignored when it was pointed out that any kind of beta, even very early beta, might as well be public as far as generating word of mouth. The real purpose of beta is publicity, not bug fixing. We never took that lesson on board. We also made the error of not releasing fixes externally to many of the issues early beta testers were picking up, keeping the fixes on internal builds, I presume to lessen the load on QA. This simply meant that to early beta testers, it looked as though we were never bothering to fix the issues they found, when in fact, they were being fixed, simply being deployed back into beta very infrequently. This lesson was eventually learnt, but only after we’d pissed off a large number of early-adopters.
The sheer time spent and money it took to make APB is really a product of fairly directionless creative leadership. Certainly Dave J has great, strong, ambitious ideas for his games. But he’s a big believer in letting the details emerge along the way, rather than being planned out beyond even a rudimentary form. For most of the lifetime of APB, he was also CEO of the whole company, as well as Creative Director. His full attention was not there until it late in the day. This has ramifications for how long his projects run – many years, on average – and the associated cost. This, in turn, means that the business model options were constrained, conspiring to place APB in a really difficult position, commercially. Ultimately, it’s this pairing of a subscription model cost with free to play game play that really did for the game. And many of us saw it coming a mile off. I must admit I’m dismayed about the scale of the failure, however. Many of us thought APB might do OK at retail and sell a few hundred thousand, though struggle on ongoing revenue, and gradually carve a niche. But it absolutely tanked at retail I believe (though I’m not privvy to figures) I think due to the critical mauling it received. It never made the top 20 of the all format UK chart. It’s scraping along the bottom of the PC-only chart, a situation I’m assuming is replicated in its major markets. And being at the bottom of the PC-only chart is not where you want to be as a AAA budget game. God knows what the budget was, but when you account for the 150-odd staff and all the launch hardware and support, it was in the tens of millions of dollars.
MyWorld is an innocent bystander caught up in the demise of APB. Which is a real shame, because it is genuinely ground breaking, though not aimed at the traditional gamer audience. It was going great guns over the last year or so, coming on leaps and bounds, impressing everyone who saw it. MyWorld might as well have been a different company – there was very little staff overlap on the two projects, they worked under entirely different production methodologies, and because we were not the next in line for release we received very little attention from the execs (which was a good thing, to be honest). We knew that time was limited, and tried to encourage management to go the ‘google-style beta route – release a limited, but polished core feature set early, and iterate. What happens to it from here on out is not clear, but without the people who wrote it, the code isn’t worth a damn, so I can’t see the project being picked up. Management tried to get a publisher onboard to fund continued development, but the time scales involved meant that was always unlikely, despite some considerable interest from potential partners. God knows what will happen to it now the team are gone. Probably nothing. Years of my life were poured into that project, but it was a blast to make, and at least it was made public so I can point and say, “I helped make that”.
RTW tried something bold, and fucked it up. It tried to make what amounted to two MMOs at once, as well as self-publish. I have to hand it to Dave J. He’s ballsy. But in the end, we couldn’t do it, and I think the whole company will go under sooner rather than later. It’s a shame, too, as Dundee can’t absorb the level of game dev redundancies that are about to hit, which means the Dundee scene gets that little bit smaller. But that’s the price of failure, and we certainly failed. No excuses, really. We were well funded, hired some great engineers, designers and artists, and great QA guys. Ultimately, the senior management team must take responsibility. I think they had far too much focus on the company’s ‘strategic direction’ and not enough on day-to-day execution, which was where it really matters. And I think a huge part of the blame lies with Dave J, though I can’t emphasize enough how nice a man he is personally; ultimately APB has torpedoed the company, and it failed largely under his creative leadership. It has other issues (technical, for instance), but the design and the business plan are largely down to him and the board, and they are what have failed so irrevocably for the rest of us.