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Interview: APB Producer Jesse Knapp

Between the recent "Keys to the City" open beta promotion and the impending launch of its online cops-and-robbers sim APB, Scottish developer Realtime Worlds is having one heck of a month. We got a chance to address a handful of our burning, pre-launch questions to the game's producer, Jesse Knapp, after trying our hand at the Criminal side of the game. Shortly after the interview, we stole Knapp's wallet, watch and car keys, because, well, we were in the mood.

Gallery: APB | 22 Photos

Joystiq: You guys recently started a huge beta push for the Keys to the City beta promotion. What's the response been like for this recent beta phase?

Jesse Knapp: So, we're actually in closed beta since October last year, building a strong community and working with them to get things in shape -- we're really happy with where it is right now. We found that people already did stuff we never expected, which is exciting, and what we're looking forward to at release. The Key to the City, I've been here for most of it, but from what I've seen it's going really well.

Have you had a pretty big turnout for Key to the City?

We've gotten quite a few people in.

"We're really happy with where it is right now."

What's the breakdown like between people who choose to play as Criminals and people who play as Enforcers?

That's a funny story, actually. Early in the design process, we expected that there would be more Criminals than Enforcers, because open-world games, people tend to play more of those as criminals. The successful ones have been more criminal-oriented than Enforcer, or police, or what have you.

So we created the game in such a way that if there are more Criminals than Enforcers at any given time, the game's completely fine with that. Just like in real life, the Criminals can fight as well. So if there's no Enforcers available, the Criminals will match up against each other. However, what we've found in beta, both in closed and Key to the City as well, that the population distribution has been fairly even, and pretty close to 50/50.

I was surprised when I first saw APB last year at E3, when I saw the heavy focus on PvP combat the game is built around. Have you had any problem with people not playing by the rules, or people having a hard time finding people to play against?

So, early on we had a few difficulties with people getting on and getting started. We've added a tutorial that players go through which teaches them them the basics of the control scheme -- how to shoot, how to drive, how to interact with the world, how to buy new weapons, interact with contacts, upgrade their equipment. That gives players the basics they need before they move on to the Action District, where they play against other players.

We also found that newer players weren't finding groups easily enough, and were suffering in their experience for that, so we added a mechanic that auto-groups people wanting to get into automatic groups. So, players can choose to participate in that, it makes their group open, and it tries to fill those groups up, to get them to four players because that's what we've balanced the game around, four vs. four squad tactics. Although the battles can get a lot bigger than that, they can escalate up to 20 vs. 20, but the core center of it is that four-player group, and it just kind of grows from there.

So, we've made quite a few strides that have helped a lot, and it allows new players fresh to the game to hop in, play with some other people, and have a great time.

As far as the online multiplayer-only nature of the game, that's what we set out to do from the very beginning. APB is an online action game, and, we won't claim any other title than that. That's really what APB is. We looked at other online action games, and we saw things we felt could be better. Only 12 to 32 players in a match, bad connection due to peer-to-peer, dead cities, way too much time in lobbies, things like that.

So what we set out to do was to make a game that has that online, Player vs. Player action game experience in a large city with other players around, no lobbies, dynamic matchmaking, dedicated servers, great experience, and that's been one of the driving factors of APB from the very beginning. We want to give players a good experience all the time.

What we found in the beta is that the team-based tactics and strategy of the game has come, especially in the top-tier players. You can play fast and loose for a while, and be pretty successful, but when you get to the upper crust of the game, four guys with assault rifles just aren't going to cut it. You need to have defined roles, and tactics and strategy in order to be successful. Not only in what weapons you use, but where you put your vehicle, what vehicle you have deployed, what upgrades you have.

We've got an example we're showing in a video in the EA stage show, where we've got heavy, large task items -- safes and TVs, that slow you to a walk while you're carrying them, and you can't use any weapons, so it takes a while to get them anywhere. So they pull up a truck, right up to the hallway where they've got the task item, so it's a short walk, and blocks them from oncoming fire. The other side counters that tactic by ramming their truck with a van, so then the driver has to get out of the truck and move the van, before the truck can get away, and in so doing, he gets snuck up on by Criminal on the other side, and killed with a stray grenade.

It's those sort of team tactics, and using the environment, and all the tools available -- vehicles, and height, and occlusion through peeking around corners, things like that that really allow APB to come into its own and shine.

"We've created the tools, and a set of toys, and we're going to see what players do with it, and we're really excited to see what they build."

I know you guys have shied away from the MMO designation, because it's not technically an MMO, but it does have elements that would appeal to that audience, like character progression and a large player base -- like the Social Hub, which has 250 people in it at time. Do you not think that you'll be able to reach out to that audience that does enjoy action games, but also plays the occasional WoW or EQ2?

Those were definitely players we were thinking about when we were making the game, we've been thinking about a large spectrum of players who will be playing APB, and we kind of try to create the game for a pretty wide audience. The reason we shy away from MMO is because usually, when you say MMO to someone, they don't hear MMO -- they hear MMORPG. And while APB has a lot in common with MMOs, it's definitely not an RPG.

There's no character stats, there's no levels, there's no skills -- the closest thing we have to that is the respect you gain from contacts and organizations for working for them, which allows you to access the better equipment they sell, and some of the functional upgrades that are available in the game. That's all your characters loadout, it's his gear, it's not intrinsic to him leveling up.

That gear, it's important, and it can provide the tipping point when you've got two equally skilled teams, but it's not the decider. Unlike a level 10 and a level 50 character battling it out, you know who's gonna win, you'll win that bet every time. In APB, even with the most advanced character and the least advanced character, it's the players playing them that's going to matter. If you place someone who's not good at shooters and place them behind the most advanced character, they're going to lose to somebody who's decent at shooters on a new character.

One of the first things you guys showed off was the clothing editor and the skin editor for cars. How have people in the beta adopted and used these features?

They've blown our minds. We imagined as much as we could that they were going to create, and they've already exceeded our expectations. And that's just with the beta population. We can only dream about what's going to happen when we go live. That's one of the most exciting things about the project is, not only the customization, but also the actual game, seeing what emerges, what the players do.

We've created the tools, and a set of toys, and we're going to see what they do with it, and we're really excited to see what they build. So yes, people have taken the customization beyond our wildest dreams.

The hourly subscription plan is pretty unorthodox for online games. Why did you decide to go with that, and what's the response been like so far?

When we were looking at what our business model was going to be like for APB, our first and foremost concern was we wanted to deliver maximum value to our customers, and as much as we could afford. What we found was, not only did we feel that a slightly lower price point than other MMOs out there was appropriate for people who do want to pay monthly, but we wanted to provide an option for people that don't have a lot of time to commit to APB.

If you want to play a lot, you have that monthly option. But if you want to play a little bit, we don't want your lack of time to be able to spend in APB every month to detract from that. So, it's $10 a month to play unlimited, or $7 for 20 hours, or thereabouts, which are only deducted when you're in the Action Districts. Any time you spend customizing, trading, just hanging out and socializing in the Social Districts, does not detract from that time.

So for the social gamer, or the gamer who's playing APB as a second or third game, or one of many, and doesn't have a lot of time to dedicate to it, they might buy 20 hours and have that last for three or four months, and that's okay. We want people of all sorts of time commitment levels and all sorts of gaming backgrounds to be able to experience what we created.

"We felt like, for our customers, for this game, we didn't really want to be selling them items for real money."

Did you ever consider microtransactions for your business model? That appears to be the trend among games that don't want to charge a big monthly fee, but still make money for what they're doing.

We did explore that option, and we felt like, for our customers, for this game, we didn't really want to be selling them items for real money. We do have the ability for players to do so from each other. Hours are purchased using Realtime Worlds points, which people purchase for real money. And these Realtime Worlds points can not only be spent on monthly unlimited access pass, or on hours, but can also be used between players to trade on the marketplace.

So the marketplace has two currency versions: ABP Cash, which is what you earn while playing the game, and Realtime Worlds points, which you use to purchase your hours. So if I create some cool customized stuff, and I think it's cool enough that people will pay me for it, I can actually sell that for real points, and then those points can be used to subsidize or even pay for all of my game time.

We didn't want to get involved in that, we wanted to leave that between the players and decide what's appropriate and what's not.

So you're not considering putting out other things people can purchase with their Realtime Worlds points on, other than just game time?

We're definitely open to providing more services to our players, but there's nothing at the moment.

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