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E3 2009: APB lead designer EJ Moreland on the term 'MMO' and competing with WoW

Tracey John

Just from what we saw at E3, we know that Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin isn't your typical MMO. After I checked out the crime game's expansive character customization and grilled lead designer EJ Moreland about it, he also talked about a variety of topics, like how the terms "MMO" and "PvP" don't apply to APB, the MMO elements the game has, how some Crackdown fans might be disappointed and, of course, competing with the "800-pound gorilla" that is World of Warcraft.

Gallery: E3 2009: APB | 7 Photos

Do you eschew the term "MMO"? Do you prefer not to use that term for APB?

I've seen a few online games that are out there really trying to drastically distance themselves from it. And that's not what we're trying to do. All we're really saying is that we're a new breed of online action game. If people call it an "MMO" and have that expectation, that's probably not going to be actually what they experience, but we're not going to try and just continually correct them. So to us it's just an "online action game"... with persistence! That's what's important to us.

I think "MMO" is an archaic term, to be honest. I think people need to realize that online games are really going to be an extremely important part of the entertainment industry coming up. That term was coined in '95 or '96 by Raph Koster and it was great for the time, but I think the industry has grown since then. I think even stuff he's working on wouldn't be classified as an MMO anymore. People need to understand that MMOs should be considered one type of category, not the genre itself.

Do you think Crackdown players might be turned off by the term "MMO"?

When we distance ourselves from the 'MMO" term, it's not to try and attract a different market. It's to really try to define what [APB] is so people understand it. We're hoping they understand that the game is there, it's fun and it allows them to dip in and dip out. It's a kind of play-style they're used to and we're not going to place the same kind of "gym membership" subscriptions on them that the MMOs do. We think it's a very broad audience, and we feel like we are going to attract plenty of people.

"If people call it an 'MMO' and have that expectation, that's probably not going to be actually what they experience."

Did you incorporate or take anything from Crackdown?

It was a different team but it is the same company, so I think of a lot of innovation and trying to really look at what the players enjoy is what we took from it. The theory [of Crackdown] is maybe the best way to put it. But specifically mechanics, no not really. They're really distinctly different games.

I think [Realtime Worlds creative director] Dave [Jones] really likes to concentrate on and look at the sandbox style of game. So he may have taken some things out of Crackdown when you start looking at APB.

A lot of the mechanics in Crackdown -- the fact that you're a superhero, you have super strength, you can scale abilities -- we do want to introduce that at some point, but maybe a different type of horizontal expansion of APB. But it won't be in the core. So there will be some disappointed Crackdown fans.

The entire game is player versus player. But do you call that PvP?

No, because it's just like another label. It's just like the "MMO" label. [The labels] have a purpose, but we're trying to do something completely new. It's so interwoven to our game, it's so core to our game -- that it's player-driven. It's about being in conflict with each other, but we don't want to just call it "PvP."

For one thing, whenever I hear "PvP," I think of open-world chaos, or I think of battlegrounds and World of Warcraft, where it's 12-on-12 or 24-on-24. But we're not symmetrical like that. Say, when you go out into the world in WoW and you do a quest to collect six bat wings. When you go out and kill the bats, the bats are NPCs. In our game, that sort of activity is going to be players. So it's all about just weaving that together. PvP is a good way to simplify it as an easy way to reference it, but it's really not what we're about. It's about the concept of players as content.

But there are NPCs in the game that you can interact with. They are the personalities such as contacts; you do work for them and these NPC organizations as well. Each individual district of the city is populated with over 1,000 civilians. But they are sheep; they don't fight back, they are there to be preyed upon by criminals and protected by law officers.

During the presentation you talked about how APB has "artificial incompetence." Can you explain that?

I have to say, it's sort of an inside joke. AI, artificial intelligence -- if you think about it, AIs in general -- computer-controlled opponents -- are almost always predictable. It's either a scripted event or they have a basic set of behaviors that you know. With our game, since it's against other players, you never know what's going to happen. Even playing the same person, they may try to do something different because they're going to adapt to what you do and you're going to adapt to what they do. The "artificial incompetence" is just a way to really emphasize that the game is unpredictable. We feel like that's what players want. They want a challenge. They want something that's fun. They're not going to be able to just categorize it and go, "Okay, I know how this works."

I know you said you don't prefer to call APB an MMO, but what MMO elements have you incorporated from other games? I mean, besides the "massively multiplayer" aspect, of course.

[laughs] Well, we started off and we thought, "Okay, we want to make an online game that has this sort of achievement, that has this progression." And the first place you think about is all the other games that are out there: the EverQuests, the Star Wars, the PlanetSides, the World of Warcrafts, the Lord of the Rings. All of those have sometimes similar, but different ways they want to progress. So what we tried to do is look at what they were doing for their game. And when we approached our game, we realized it was something really different. We follow the theory of what's important behind achievement. What drives players?

Honestly, I come from an MMO background. I released Everquest II and Ultima Online, so we certainly have a lot of experience in those areas. But we knew we'd have to approach this completely different. We started off trying to approach it very similarly, and we realized very quickly that wasn't going to work.

"To us, crafting is about artistic skill and player skill -- not about arbitrary stats or recipes where everyone produces the same thing."

Is there crafting in the game?

No, but when you buy and customize weapons, it's very similar to crafting. You can place and make them a little more interesting and varied based on your playstyle or what you want to sell. But our crafting is our item customization and visual creativity. To us, crafting is about artistic skill and player skill -- not about arbitrary stats or recipes where everyone produces the same thing. We want players to feel very unique so we don't want to have those types of things where I'm producing the same thing you're producing.

Are there going to be things like skill points and trees?

No, we don't have any arbitrary statistics. The only statistics we have in the game are the ones we actually track as player-metrics: death-to-kill ratios, mission success, how many times you've been run over. Everything you could imagine that has to do with what the player can do in the world we track, but we don't just assign arbitrary numbers to that or say you have strength or you have to pick skill points. Pretty much all of our abilities are equipment- or weapon-based.

I didn't see any user interface in the videos. Is that something you are talking about yet?

We do have a HUD in the UI. We don't show it generally at these kinds of events because it gets in the way. But we definitely want the UI to be very minimal. We want the player to see the world. We want it to feel cinematic. We want it to feel very alive and vibrant. So we try to make it as unobtrusive as possible, especially during the action. In the editors, there is certainly UI and when you want to do social things -- chat or any of the typical online social activities, we will have a UI to control that.

Should we expect to see hot-key bars, health bars, a mini-map...?

No, actually you probably shouldn't expect, in this release, to see all of that. I want to avoid the details because I want to save some surprises! I will say you we'll certainly have the ability to have some sort of mini-map type. But don't expect it to be your traditional one.

As far as the rest of it -- I'd like to touch on the hot key bars thing because that's important to us. We do have functional progression just like every online game out there, but what's important to think about for us is that we are an action game about player skills.

"If we wanted to do a fantasy game, we would have done a fantasy game... For us, APB felt good."

So how do we get that to work? What we came up is called "functional upgrades." There are little tokens you can place on your character in your weapons, in your vehicles to give them situational advantages or minor functional advantages. We do have some form of hot bar, but it only has a very limited number of spots. You have to pick between what you have across all the things you're actually taking into the world and determine which of those you will actually be using at any given time. It's much more about trade-offs. It's about resource management and you have to think about what you want to use -- and not just having 20 hot bars of stuff. We really want to make it very simple for players.

Can you talk about your partnership with Electronic Arts?

Obviously, as a developer, I'm not quite as involved in those types of situations. What I do know is that EA Partners are a great distribution giant. They can get boxes on the shelves all over the world, so we're really happy to be with them. But for us, we want to run the service. We want to own that service and be an online provider. So certainly it's a great partnership with that kind of separation for us.

Do you think that MMO-shooters are the new trend?

You can wonder if someone has an idea and everyone else just picks up on it or if it just happens emergently for a bunch of people. PlanetSide has been around forever, World War Online has been around forever. So it's not a new concept. I just think that everyone realizes the 800-pound gorilla in fantasy market. And to be honest even with that there, if we wanted to do a fantasy game, we would have done a fantasy game. But we would have done it differently just like we've done with the shooter genre. For us, APB felt good.

I have to ask, what are your thoughts on [competing crime-based MMO] CrimeCraft?

I think they're taking a completely different approach than us, and I respect them for that. I'm not sure it would be the game I would want to play, but that doesn't mean there might not be a big audience out there that wants to play that. I think we have similar messages, but we have completely different games. Just to be clear, I have to utmost respect for anyone into that.

"We certainly want a lot of users... But we're not basing our business model on the fact that we expect to have WoW numbers."

How do you view the MMO industry in general right now? Is it a good time or a bad time to be making an MMO?

I think the MMO industry is like other parts of the game industry that have started to grow up and started to mature and started to realize that there's a business behind it. As with anything else, patterns form. The certain formulas seem to always work just like the movie industry although the me, the game and movie industries are not very similar. I think it's going to broaden.

But how do you measure the success of an MMO now? People look at subscriber numbers at launch, and continue to compare them to post-launch numbers...

Right. I think the companies that make these games need to look at the investment they make, realize that they're getting a return on that investment and that not everyone should shoot for being WoW. It's just like anything else; there are plenty of people out there that don't want WoW. That doesn't mean it's two million people; it could be 50,000. But if you make a game that has a budget that supports 50,000 concurrent users, make it.

For us, we certainly want to be a fairly big success and we certainly want a lot of users, but we want the users because we think the game is important and they think it's cool and different. But we're not basing our business model on the fact that we expect to have WoW numbers. If we don't have WoW numbers... I don't expect that that's a likely event for any game being created no matter how clever the people are. We'll certainly be happy if it's as successful as WoW. I mean, that'll be a happy day for all of us. We'll drive around in our Ferraris and drink champagne. [laughs]

APB is slated for Q1 2010 release on the PC.

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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