GDC08: Realtime Worlds shows off All Points Bulletin

What word is perhaps most synonymous with the current MMO playing field? Grind. Realtime Worlds' Dave Jones (no relation?) is setting out to change that with the studio's first massively multiplayer title All Points Bulletin we caught wind of back in September. He's hoping the formula Crackdown + MMO = crack will be proven true with variables like infinite, professional-looking character and vehicle customization, contemporary setting, integration with and dynamic, variable team-sized missions hidden in the equation.

In today's innocuously-titled "My first MMO" panel at GDC, Jones revealed a number of details about those variables and showed off some gameplay and character customization demos that left a packed house audibly oohing and ahhing. Read on for a breakdown of the session and details on the game.

Jones began the session talking about how the terminology behind MMOs is really loaded; having emerged from a context in which all MMOs were RPGs has colored our perception of what massively multiplayer games are and can be. All Points Bulletin is being designed from the ground up to get away from the assumptions embedded in that terminology. Jones gave credit to multiplayer online games as being the real nexus where the majority of people spend the majority of their game time despite the social stigma attached to MMOs.

Looking at what MMOs do well: persistence, community, social interaction, aspiration and longevity. But the thing that really ties them together isn't terminology -- it's just dedicated servers. Despite the technology challenges, there is endless creative potential when you have dedicated servers behind your game. So if we rephrase the question to "if you could have dedicated servers behind your game, how would you embrace them?" we may be able to finally get away from the term MMO and the assumptions behind it.

APB takes a sandbox type of game and makes it multiplayer. Games like GTA and Crackdown don't constrain people, which is the beauty of the video game medium. There are definitely great single-player games with amazing stories (Half-Life 2, e.g.), but "creating a beautiful world full of toys is like being a little kid again, where imaginations run wild. I want to play in a sandbox."

The other unique aspect of APB is its contemporary setting -- it's not Yet Another Fantasy or Sci-Fi MMO. Jones talked about how those settings can diminish your audience because "we don't want to have to learn things over and over -- it lowers the barrier to people when it's urban and it's cool. Replace geek with chic." WoW tends to portray everyone as geeks and there's a stigma attached to that. If you make it something people understand and relate to they may be willing to try it for the first time, whereas in general a lot of people tend to be scared of or intimidated by MMOs.

At this point in the session Jones starts showing off aspects of the game. We're seeing some of the tools for character customization and are told that all characters will be completely user-generated: "let players make their own action figure. When I log in I'll have no idea who I'm going to see." The level of detail available in character customization is extensive -- we see the usual sliders you'd expect in a single-player RPG for cheek bone structure, brow depth, hair style, etc. as well as unique features like scars and tattoos. A vector-based primitives system allows rapid customization of assets that look professional even with little knowledge of graphic design.

The same decal system applies to your clothing, where you'll be able to decorate any part of your outfit with customized graphics and logos very easily. Details as fine as the seams on your jeans and whether you prefer to wear your shirt tucked in or out will all be available customization options.

All of the same customization functionality will be available to your vehicles, where you can quickly add spoilers, rims, decals and logos, change colors and so forth. One of the very cool features will be integration of the social music site in to the audio selections available in your car; you'll be able to bring your real world music collection with you into the game.

He's showing off some of the fun things you can do with character customization -- they've created in-game versions of Miyamoto, Richard Garriott and others. They're all hanging out in-world as a badass geek gang. We gotta say, Miyamoto with a rocket launcher is pretty priceless.

You'll have a major choice to make upon starting the game: whose side are you on? APB's version of cops and robbers (or Alliance and Horde...) is Enforcement or Gang. You'll either be stealing the TVs or trying to apprehend the players stealing the TVs.

Here's the big money reveal: there will be no PVE grind in the game -- absolutely no character levelling. Character progression will be driven by character customization, not by stats. When you first start the game you'll be a noob in a white t-shirt without a lot of individuality; you'll be able to tell the more experienced and advanced players because they'll look totally badass, tricked out with extensive customization.

More about the grind mechanic: it's been used in the past because it's such an easy way to guarantee hundreds of hours of gameplay. But look at what happens: in WoW, most players automatically enable the "instant quest text" option. Players go immediately to Wowhead to find out where to go to find the particular mobs they need to collect 10 fangs from, and we have AddOns that show our location on a 2D map so we can just go straight there without needing to explore. This is extremely procedural gameplay grind and nobody enjoys it -- "we have to find a way to break that."

The goal for All Points Bulletin is to make the core game so much fun that it doesn't feel at all like a grind. Jones cites Counter-strike as a definitive role model ("maybe the best game ever"). This leads into a video demo of an actual gameplay mission: some Gang members have hijacked a car (very much Crackdown-style down to the animations used) and need to get the goods it contains to a safe point. An APB is put out on the criminals and cops begin pursuit. You'll have your best driver in the group piloting the vehicle while your best FPSers are shooting out the back and sides of the car while trying to out-maneuver the police.

Something notable about this mission and all of the missions in the game: the group size is variable. Jones talks about how you always have 5 or 10 or 25 people in a group in MMOs: "why people keep doing that I have no idea." Having dynamically sized missions also allows for some balance between pre-mades and PuGs, and helps solve the problem of balancing the new with the more experienced players. To illustrate this, we see a mission where four relatively new players are stealing TV sets from a store. A veteran player answers the APB call to apprehend them and is able to solo all four of them because of the items and skills he has available, whereas a more inexperienced player might have to group up to achieve the same goal. You're not going to be limited a priori by required group size in order to take on various missions in the game.

Another cool feature built into APB is an in-game camera. It wasn't included at the beginning but the QA team kept asking for one, so the developers built video capture into the game. This led to scenarios where you could run into "film crews" inside the came, all tricked out with crazy character appearances for the sake of the film project and enacting various scenes. The folks who were into it figured out that other players could crash their parties by driving vehicles through the sets, so they started blocking off the roads adjacent to their "studio" so as not to be interrupted. We're looking forward to seeing some of the stuff that makes it onto YouTube from APB.

Jones leaves us with the mantra that "the launch is only the beginning." Realtime Worlds is looking forward to seeing what players come up with under the "players as content" model, and you bet your user-customizable bippy that we are too.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.