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E3 2009: APB lead designer EJ Moreland on player customization and creativity

Tracey John

Ever since it was shown at GDC last year, All Points Bulletin has been one game that both MMO and shooter players alike have been following closely. During E3 this past week, Realtime Worlds, the Scotland-based studio headed by Grand Theft Auto creator Dave Jones, announced that the massively multiplayer crime-themed game will be published by Electronic Arts.

After getting a close look at APB's detailed customization options during a demonstration at E3, I spoke with lead designer EJ Moreland, whose past work includes EverQuest II, Star Wars: Galaxies and Ultima Online. During the interview, Moreland talked about the importance of having players feel unique, being compared to Spore and the possibilities in APB's future.

Gallery: E3 2009: APB | 7 Photos

The customization in your game is very expansive. Can you tell me about the technology behind that?

Our base core engine is Unreal 3, and we're quite happy with that. It's a great thing, but just like any pre-made engine, it's off-the-shelf. You have to take it and personalize it and make it your own. So what we've done is we've taken their amazing technology, expanded upon it ourselves and made it something special just for us. And that's where it comes from. It's all proprietary. All the tools you see -- how the customization works, the interfaces, the different editors -- that's all in-house work.

Is that technology something you'd ever consider licensing out at some point?

I don't think we'd ever license it out to other companies. To us, APB is the start of a technology. It's the start of a platform and a way of thinking. So right now it's a very core action game that is contemporary, very violent, conflict-oriented. Where I could easily see us making an application for, that ties the same characters in, is something like street racing. Or you could do a fashion show or anything in between. Or some sort of reality TV-type game. We think it has a broad range of applications. We just need to find a specific purpose to start with and that's where the action game came from.

Obviously you can customize items to change your look, but if want to change your face or body in the game, can you get plastic surgery?

Absolutely. It's very easy to do small, incremental changes. But big large-scale changes to your structure are special rewards that are very rare. You have to either earn them or get them randomly, and you can sell them in the marketplace. The ideas is that, yes, you can get reconstructive surgery, but it's not something we want to be common. When you establish an identity, you don't want players just instantly changing that.

"To have any comparison to [Spore] is a great thing, but I think that's the 10,000- feet description of the game. I don't think it does it justice."

With all the customization, some people have said this is like the adult version of Spore. What do you think about that?

I can see the comparison, and I certainly appreciate it. That's an amazing little piece of work and it has great technology. Will Wright is just an amazing, creative person. So to have any comparison to that is a great thing, but I think that's the 10,000-feet description of the game. I don't think it does it justice.

Plus, I'm assuming you hope that people do more than just the character customization and actually play the game.

I think the action game is going to appeal a certain type of person and the customization is going to appeal to some aspect of those people, as well as a bunch of other people. So what we want to do is once the game is out there: find ways to pull more people in there to enjoy the customization.

Can you talk about your partnership with Do you have plans to partner with more social networking types like Twitter and Facebook? Everyone seems to be on that wagon.

I think the sky's the limit there. The thing we announced at GDC last year. And it was important because it was a very specific application we needed and they fit the mold perfectly. The social stuff -- we want to explore that and we want to embrace what's out there and what's actually interesting and what's working for people: the Facebooks, the Twitters, everything in between. But we're not just going to go out and do it because everyone else is doing it.

We're going to look and see how it affects our game, how important it is and where we can integrate it to make sense. We certainly realize that those platforms are important not only for marketing reasons and promoting the game, but also because those people participate in those things as well as our game. So I expect to see some sort of integration with those types of things as we go along. But does that happen on release? Who knows? Really, right now we are focused on the execution and the polish of what we already have.

Do you plan on having a robust community website where you can see all of your stats and stuff like that?

We certainly have plans for that. I really can't do into detail because we are still figuring out exactly what we want to do and how we want to adapt that.

In the presentation, you mentioned that theme music can be created and played when you kill other players. Can you have your theme play in other moments in the game as well?

That was the first obvious application for that. Past that you can make longer versions, and you can trade music the same way we let you trade your MP3 library; we let you broadcast to other players. I'm sure there will be other uses for themes as well, but we're still trying to figure out exactly how we want that to work, where we want to go with that and beyond.

One thing we don't want to do -- it's great to hear it when you get killed, but we don't want you hear that same theme also when the player does this or that. Then it becomes so common that it doesn't have the punch or the impact of, "Oh crap, that guy killed me. Now I have to listen to his Mario theme all day."

"We're certainly not trying to do the traditional subscription model... We don't see [APB] being a cash opportunity."

Also in the presentation, you said players could have different outfits for different situations. Is that going to be a necessary part of missions?

No, it's based on player mood. There will certainly be players that will [change clothes] to try and blend in and look like the pedestrians or look like cops when they are criminals. But it's not mandatory; it's purely what you want to do. There's no real strong mechanics behind it at this point. But it doesn't mean there won't be in the future, just not at this point.

Will there be unlockable items as you progress through the game?

That's one of our key parts of our functional progression and achievement. Not only do you unlock weapons, vehicles and more power for the customization tools, you'll unlock those functional tokens, items such as med-kits and more powerful versions of things.

So we have a broad range of things that you actually achieve. Even though we are not a level-based game, and we don't have the arbitrary statistics or abilities you unlock as you progress in the game, there's actually quite a ton of things that you unlock.

And not everyone wants to be an artistic creator, and they may not want to buy from other players. So part of what you can unlock as well is what we call "pre-sets." They are examples of what can be done with the customization, and they're themed to the contacts that you work for. So if you work for a certain NPC you'll likely get his T-shirt. Or maybe you get his belt buckle or something like that. It's already pre-made so you can wear it and show it off because you may not want to have to do it yourself.

"We don't just want to show boobs. That's not the point of the 'M' rating."

With all the in-game items, are you thinking of micro-transactions? Is that a business model you guys are looking at?

The only thing we really want anyone to take away from this visit at E3 is that we're certainly not trying to do the traditional subscription model. Past that, we are still exploring exactly what we're going to do. We have some strong ideas, but we're not quite ready to discuss that with anybody yet.

What I will say is we don't see [APB] being a cash opportunity. We want players to sell to each other, we want players to interact with each other -- not that we have a bunch of stuff that we sell. So whether that's transactions of just in-game APB-earned currency or whatever it is, we want players to drive that, not us.

When you started making APB, did you know it would have a "mature" rating all along?

We knew it was an "M" rating all along because the amount of player creativity. You just can't police that well enough for things not to slip though. So we want to make sure people understand that this is definitely a mature environment.

We're hoping that as people see the game and approach it with an open mind they understand that we don't just want to show boobs. That's not the point of the "M" rating. The point of an "M" rating is to make sure that players have the freedom to express themselves without being too constrained.

Now, we don't have nudity in the game. You can't go topless, you can't walk around bare naked. We do have revealing clothing, but that's part of the fashion. We're not trying to use the "M" rating as a marketing tool. It's just to protect us and to make sure the parents don't buy the game for their kids thinking it's just another whatever and it turns out to be a little more mature than they expected.

Massively is on the ground in Los Angeles this week and covering all the latest E3 MMO news coming from the convention. Check out our breaking coverage (or all the Joystiq network E3 reporting) and keep your eye on Massively's front page for the latest developments.

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