Interview: EJ Moreland, lead designer of APB

APB was probably one of the most impressive games we didn't actually see played at E3 -- while Realtime Worlds didn't have any actual gameplay to show off, they did have a nice demo session (in a booth guarded by these two tattooed ladies -- don't worry, EJ's wife, we asked him to pose for this one) where they talked about how their persistent MMO shooter will combine emergent cops-and-robbers gameplay with an extremely impressive level of customization.

After the demo session, lead designer EJ Moreland sat down with us, and cleared up most of the wanted bounties we still had on the game: what's advancement like? How is the game using And just how will they balance out the ad-hoc gameplay of criminals committing crimes and enforcers catching them with the usual MMO process of character advancement? Read on for more.


During the demo, we got two see two new things: an audio editor that you can use to make little "death tunes" playable to players that you've just finished off while they wait for respawn, and the extremely in-depth character customization system, which lets you make almost any kind of "enforcer" or "criminal" that you want. We also saw some very in-depth car customization features (and players can form "squads" that Realtime Worlds wants to create an identity of their own in the game), and we heard that a built-in video recording feature is going in also.

Joystiq: When you were starting to create the characters – is there a base age that they're kind of stuck at?

EJ Moreland: We do actually let you apply aging to them. So really it's probably late teens, very early 20's. You can get quite advanced in age, probably in the 50's to 60's. It really depends on what you want to do there. And you can also add with the Simple Editor; it doubles as a way to do physical additions as well.

You can do scars?

Yeah, you can do scars, you can do black eyes, sweat stains – whatever you want to do. It's really creepy sometimes.

And what's the mechanic like at endgame? Once you've created a character, are they kind of then released into the world? Or can you go into a tattoo shop and mod yourself, or how does that work?

Basically when you start the game you do an initial custom characterization, which is base. It's going to get your base attributes, you can add your scar at the beginning. We really don't let you place tattoos right at the beginning.

So you go into the world, you wear basic clothing, you go through a tutorial that guides you through the basic part of the game. As soon as you're out of that, you can go to a simple editor and start customizing to your heart's content.

We don't let you change the physical structure of your character without it being a special reward. We do have plastic surgery tokens to change different aspects. You can't change gender though, just to point that out.

You should make that a really expensive thing. You have to go to Sweden.

Unfortunately our clothing aspects are gender-based. It would be a significant change.

Is it similar with the cars? Because we got to see some of that.

Basically everytime you create something and customize, you can always take it back in to re-customize. Clothing, cars, - whatever. The original creator is the only person that can edit it though. We do preserve that kind of "I created this; I don't want somebody to put more on it and call it their own." So you always have to go back to the original creator for that.

So if I buy something on the auction house, I'm not going to be able to modify that design?

Not directly. It does always have the original creator's ID attached to it so you can always contact them through the in-game mail.

You mentioned the abstract possibility of having a base or a home or something and that may come down the line. You guys have mentioned a couple times that there is no huge overreaching story. The conflicts are fairly straight-forward.

It's really player-driven, yeah.

But it seems like you're almost positioning yourself to add that later. Like, we may add a huge storyline or we could add big events that could happen now and then.

We certainly want to do things like that. What we're looking at is the start of the game being the sandbox, not just the open sandbox in the game but it's truly a sandbox for the consumer. We're actually going to set up ways for them to give us ideas, to be able to push for things and to be able to help us figure out how to do things. We're really not about expansions, where we just reproduce content on a higher level.

It's all about our world on the horizontal expansion. Different game types, completely different things like racetrack modes, being able to have movie sets – because we do have movie capture in the game. This is the start; the action game we have is the start. From there the sky's the limit. It's what people want to spend time with and what they want to really put their heart into.

Can you explain the concept?

Basically it is, we're going to ship the game with a set number of tracks. Fairly small compared to some of the big player offerings or the big budget publisher titles. They're really meant to just be, and then if you don't have a song in this genre in your own library, that's what we'll use to match.

The idea is when I'm playing a song – say I'm playing a Beastie Boys song. It sends that across as just an ID, what song it is, the artist and where you have the track. Everyone around you it gets broadcasted and they can hear it if they have that exact same track in their library, it keys it up and plays from that point.

If they don't have that track, it plays something similar on I don't know if you're familiar with the underlying part of Last FM with all the crazy tricks. It goes, OK, the Beastie Boys aren't in your library, so it plays this.

So it gives you a sense. You might not get the exact same experience as the person who is playing, but it gives you something. We also translate what that is so you can see, hey, I'm not actually hearing what they're really playing. That might be interesting to me because this is a genre I like. So it's a way for them to socialize as well.

How long have you guys been working on this?

APB has been on since definitely early 2005 if not early, but we've been kind of full force production since about 2007. Its really kicked into high gear after the GDC stepped in.

What inspired it?

Dave [Jones, creator of the original GTA series and founder of Realtime Worlds]. Basically its part of the vision he's always had. He always wanted GTA to be this when he made it orginally. This is just kind of an expression on that. He's not really into the whole controversy for controversy's sake, but he likes the contemporary type of game. And this just to us the natural evolution of these types of games, which is way we don't try to pigeonhole ourselves as a this or that, its just an online action game.

When you were mentioning that you have different cities that people can go to, are those like your servers basically, like WoW has different named regions?

Basically the idea is we have kind of a logical world just like World of Warcraft, shards, as they call them. And those hold up to about 10,000 concurrent players and about 100,000 after the count. These are rough numbers so don't quote me too much on that. The idea is that for each one of those there are tons and tons of these little districts that are 100 people for the action districts and upwards of 300 for the social districts. Those are what he's talking about when he says cities. Those are based off of different areas of a kind of mythical setting; of the city itself.

Okay. Do they all look the same?

We have some variety in those. We have one specific social area and then 2 smaller areas we use for different aspects and we have 2 major city areas right now that are reproduced, the waterfront and the downtown. We'll definitely be adding more as we go along. The idea is that we'll want to add some investment into adding more than usual kind of game time as core APB, but alot of those disticts will also use different game times, like the Turf War may use a different kind of city that has a smaller number of players but a much higher level of fidelity.

Is it frustrating when you working on a title like this because there is an end game -- there is a bigger game -- but it almost seems like you would release Tattoo Shop: The Game because the tattoo stuff looked really well done.

Well honestly, I wish we had five more years in some ways. But honestly, at some point you want get something out there that the players want and its what you want out there. But we have guys that have spent hours on creating ideas. We want to put the signal out there that is just something you can use as a Flash application or an iPhone application. There are tons of applications for all this and we definitely want to take advantage of it, but there is just only so much you can do in the time you have.

You said you can go to the social district and start customizing, but I am assuming the customization is based on money and money is based on jobs or how ever many jobs you do?

Yes. Basically the endgame effort or earned currency that you have you get from doing missions and from doing open-war activities. So when you start you can actually go ahead and customize a little bit and define some aspects of your unique identity. But to really get the cool stuff and really dig in you have to have spent some time in the game.

Did you say effort is the currency?

Well the currency is just called cash.

So the more you do, the more you put in, the more cash you will get?

Usually what we try to do just as a kind of technical term, there is effort currency and there are other types of currency. But effort just means you have put effort into the game.

How is currency awarded? I mean for criminals, is it killing?

We track everything you do. If its part of an activity you're doing, for example, say you're a criminal, you've gotten matched and you're fighting. Every kill gives some amount of reward. Whether that's a bit of cash, a better standing with the organization or criminal/contact you are working for, then when you've spent enough time working for those organizations and you've accrued enough of a reputation, it unlocks new things you can buy. Anything you do in the game that's a positive kind of activity for what you're trying to do. For example, anyone running over a civilian really isn't the kind of thing we're going to reward you for, because they're just kind of innocent bystanders. But as a criminal if you raid a shop and rip off a few things and drop them off somewhere, you're going to get a lot of money for that. If you kill an opposing player you're going to get money for that. Same thing for the enforcers.

And the enforcers, they kill the criminals?


For enforcers, whats the ultimate goal if an APB goes out? Is it that they kill the other side completely? Or whats the ultimate goal there? Whats the endgame for them?

It really depends on the different types of activities. The enforcer can approach the APB by either being a violent enforcer and just killing them, or they can arrest them. You get more reward for arresting them. Basically the idea is that each type of that kind of APB has some sort of objective to it, whether it is preventing the criminals from reaching an objective, killing them a certain number of times, or arresting them counts as a kill as well. Or it could be stopping them or catching what they have and taking it back to your impound yard. So it really depends. Each one of those is a mini mission in and of itself. I don't want to say it randomly chooses what it is but it's kind of in context with what's going on. For example, if your'e a really powerful criminal and you've gotten this really high notoriety, there is what we call a bounty, which works similar to APBs but we send people after you and if you continue to kill them, you continue to gain lots of money, but as soon as you're dead whoever killed you gets lots of money because they fulfilled your bounty.

Is a bounty triggered by something?


How would you enter the match making system for something like a bounty?

You've been really successful

Okay, so there's a number on your head... good luck... and then how is the person with the bounty on their head rewarded for that, other than that they have people chasing after them?

For one thing for every person they killed with a bounty on their head they gain even more so its a modifier as well. Think of it like the mechanic in GTA where you have the stars. As you commit crimes and even enforcers as they arrest criminals, we are keeping track of that and as they continue to increase and increase without dying, it gets them higher in that matchmaking pool. Eventually if you peg that, as I said before, you have the whole district coming after you.

Which means that you can't drop out and go back to being social. You can't drop out of the matchmaking system.

Well, you basically can because the whole idea is as you build that up, you're encouraged to continue to go because you're getting more and more reward. If you want to walk away from it, that's fine. When you come back, you're back to being a nobody, sort of.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.