How Reloaded productions is rebuilding Realtime Worlds' MMO
In August last year, Realtime Worlds, developer of Crackdown and APB, went into administration.
In many ways, the story defined a sea change in the industry, strangely prescient of tough times ahead: a big studio running an expensive, traditional model project collapses; small studios arise from the ashes and the project is given fresh hope in a switch to free-to-play mechanics.
This timeline of events has been echoed in various forms many times in the 14 months since. The UK's industry fractured as large teams fold and give rise to smaller units interested in agile development and emerging platforms. Smaller budgets, shorter deadlines, less risk.
But the ultimate fate of APB remains unique. Developed as a big-budget online game with a traditional boxed-product, subscription economy, the game is now being transformed by free-to-play specialist GamersFirst, employing an Edinburgh-based team of 23 ex-RTW staff.
When we showed up there were six guys left in the company, who were just being paid by the bankruptcy administrators to maintain something to sell
Bjorn Book Larsson, CTO/COO, GamersFirst
It is, many of the studio's members tell me on a recent visit, the chance to make APB the game it could, and should, have been.
When the game first launched, on July 2, 2010, it was met with poor reviews and a barrage of negative feedback from players. Poor driving and shooting models were contrasted with incredible levels of customisation and graphical fidelity. Server-side lag and accusations of player cheating sealed its fate.
When GamersFirst stepped in and acquired the rights there was a lot of work to be done, but it recognised the potential for a profitable game.
"What happened from our side was that I followed a blog by a guy called Luke Halliwell, who was an employee at Realtime Worlds," GamersFirst CTO/COO Bjorn Book Larsson tells me.
"He was talking about everything going wrong in major game development. In large, 300 person teams. Through that we actually realised that the company had gone out of business. It was through his blog. We followed it because we thought it was a really great idea. Who doesn't love GTA Online? That'd be awesome.
"So we flew out to Dundee, brought tech guys from the US, and tried to figure out what was left. When we showed up there were six guys left in the company, who were just being paid by the bankruptcy administrators to maintain something to sell."
Admistrators Begbie Traynor were somewhat unprepared for the attention the collapse of the company attracted, particularly from the specialist press. Fielding journalists' calls about the current stage of the process was a daily task, and the emerging information became muddied and uncertain.
As Larsson suggests, Begbie Traynor were also not particularly experienced in the finer points of maintaining networks of servers holding various branches of iterated development trees.
"The administrators may not have been the most diligent when it comes to software and what it depends on and the components. So from purely a technical side, the takeover was a much bigger headache and nightmare than we had previously anticipated. We thought we'd show up and get the source code and be done, but it wasn't as easy as that. It required quite a bit of reconstruction, finding stuff all over the place."
Essential to the process, he says, was securing key personnel who knew the ins and outs of the game's history.
"We were quite fortunate because we found a few key guys who were former RTW people, like Mike Boniface, who was the former director of IT, and some guys below him, as well as some of the key developer guys. We were able to persuade them to come and work with us, initially as contractors, and then convert to full time and buy in to the whole process.
"At that stage there was also the financial side, which turned out to be pretty complex because there were dependencies on Epic Games and some others for some of the licensing. It was a pretty big, crazy deal. There were press in the UK who reported how much we'd bought the game for [estimated as £1.26 million], but the reality was that it wasn't quite accurate because the deal that we had offered required the administrators to also pay for some licenses, so we ended up paying more than was reported in the past. The real figure was maybe higher by 20-30 per cent.
"Then of course we had to carry the cost of the legal transition and everything else to make it happen. So it ended up not being a cheap deal for us, but obviously a lot cheaper than the initial development. We were very lucky to find Mike and the core development team."
Boniface now heads up the Edinburgh studio, a hive of friendly passion and energy, littered with the playful detritus accumulated by most development environments and decorated with swathes of APB's striking artwork.
"When I first had a chat with GamersFirst it was with Bjorn last December," Boniface tells me at his desk in the open-plan office. "They'd just picked up the title. They'd secured some of the key developers. They approached me to ask about how to do things. I think there was a general feeling we'd keep it in the UK, but not necessarily Scotland.
"One of my first tasks when I came to the company was to do some analysis on whether we'd stay in Dundee or go to Dublin or Cambridge or somewhere else. Essentially what it came down to was that we feel there's a really good talent pool in Scotland. The ability to attract more talent was something we thought would be best kept here."
Finding staff who wanted to return to the project wasn't difficult, despite the game's disappointing reception on release.
"People left other companies to come back," the relaxed Scotsman explains. "I think what that shows is that the people who are working on the game now and many others who didn't rejoin but requested to do so, they showed a real passion for the game.
"One of the things that was really nice was that people were saying - 'I really want to to see this through, to get it out there and make it successful. Finish what we started and get the game where we wanted it to be. The enthusiasm for the product really drives it."
For me it's my first proper title so it means a lot to me. It's the same for a lot of the guys here. No one wants to see it stay the way it was in 2010
Scott Stevenson, production designer, Reloaded Productions
So why move south? Edinburgh is a fine city, but relocation always throws up problems. For Boniface, the matter was a simple as a fresh start.
"The reason behind moving to Edinburgh was that, although we felt that Dundee had a lot going for it, we could have even stayed in the same building, we wanted to make a clean break.
"We wanted to change our corporate identity; we're not RealTimeWorlds any more. It was a nice clean break to come down. Plus, being in the centre of Edinburgh, the transport links back and forth to the US are so much better.
"When Bjorn first came here in December, the snow had just hit. He got as far as Edinburgh and couldn't get any further!"
Paring a team of over 200 down by nearly 90 per cent is no easy task, however. Larsson is keen to highlight the importance of taking the right people, and of fitting them into the right roles.
"We were fortunate to find people from the original RTW crew who may have been frustrated under the old setup, and we then promoted them," says the CTO.
"Our production designer used to be the lead QA person. He'd spent years taking notes on how things should have been different. Essentially, when I met him the first time he rattled off a huge list of what he thought should have been different. Just an insane amount. We just said, maybe we should just hire you as a designer.
"It turned out to be a really good move because not only did he have extremely intimate knowledge of the product, he also had a lot of ideas that we were willing to try out. Things like weapon balancing, changing how cars drive and behave in the world. Visual effects around things like running and recoil."
That lead QA was Zak Littwin, now APB Reloaded's lead designer and eager evangelist. He plays a key role in fine-tuning the game's balance, defining the line between encouraging customers to spend money and making sure that players understand that the game is in no way 'pay to win', a mantra I hear repeated in almost every conversation I have at the studio. Across from Zak sits Scott Stevenson, production designer. He also rose through the ranks at Reloaded Productions, joining as a QA member and being promoted at Reloaded from the production role he held at Realtime.
He's pleased with the new arrangement, and makes it clear that the critics and the public weren't the only ones disappointed in the game's first launch.
"We're a much smaller team, the big benefit for us has been agility," he tells me. "We can just go, we don't like that, we're going to change it. For me it's my first proper title so it means a lot to me. It's the same for a lot of the guys here. They put a lot of years of effort into it. No one wants to see it stay the way it was in 2010."
"We felt that a lot of people just didn't get it. That's a bit of a cop-out, to say 'you're playing it wrong' - it was just as much our fault as anyone else's. We know our tutorial stuff wasn't the strongest, but it's so hard to do tutorials for a game like this. Games like Team Fortress 2 are only just adding tutorial sections, and that's just to tell you how to switch weapons and fire. There's so much more in APB."
Tutorials are certainly welcome. APB is a difficult and complicated game with a highly skilled core audience. Poor matchmaking and a lack of signposting blighted the 2010 release, partly a result of time running out as the release date approached.
"We were still finishing off pretty much core features right until the end," Stevenson recollects of Realtime. "Finishing rather than polishing, which is maybe partly why things went wrong. Now, we know the core game works; now it's about asking the community what they want."
Listening to players has been a vital part of the process of resurrecting the game. I ask Michael Boniface how much of the work on APB Reloaded has been a result of player feedback.
"Probably about 70 per cent. Really high. We were very focused on the community, right from the outset.
"Before we even looked at the revenue models within the game, the important thing was to get from the product we had to the product we wanted. Essentially, with a F2P game, if it's not fun you don't make any money, no matter how your charging structure works."
Ultimately, as soon as you give people the option to just wear pants and paint their body red and run around, that's exactly what they're going to do
Jack Oakman, art director, Reloaded Productions
"I think it's funny, you get a certain amount of...aggressive feedback, shall we say, on certain elements of the game. What we've found is that the most aggressive ones - the ones who are coming in and saying, 'I can't believe you think you can charge this for that, I'll never play your game again' - when you investigate and find out who they are, they've been premium since day one. They've bought everything in the marketplace. They play the game all the time.
"I think that because it's free to play, people feel in control of their purchases. That's the point."
Art director Jack Oakman agrees, adding that proper engagement with customers has done more than just fix bugs, it's also changed the fundamental way that the company looks at the game, loosening some of the authorial intent to allow players more freedom and ownership.
"We're a lot more focused on what the players are telling us and what they want," he says of the "reloading" process.
"Since we got here we've been trying to find those meaningful assets that take you from a character that's a customisation, to something that's a character in its own right. So, the beret, the cigar hanging out of the mouth, the eye patches and so on. Letting the character be someone you want to be.
"We're coming to realise, as APB moves on, that you can dress it up as a gritty crime thriller all you like - ultimately as soon as you give people the option to just wear pants and paint their body red and run around, that's exactly what they're going to do. So that illusion can only be sustained to a certain degree. It's kind of an interesting experiment as we develop, in trying to sort of embrace all of the beauty of what customisation means to a player, but also at the same time create a context which at the same time seems viable, credible.
"There can't really be a defined experience if you give people that much control over how they present themselves. Gone is the running street battle in Heat. I mean, you can have it, but there are going to be people dressed as penguins."
Again, Oakman sees the passion and engagement of the team at Reloaded Productions as the key to the game's future. APB's original incarnation was a job half done, he says, but refinement had always been part of the gameplan.
"We're definitely more focused, more agile now. We have to be. With big companies, when there's so many chains of communication, it's not really surprising that the message can get slowed down a lot. I think anyone who's worked anywhere can appreciate that. So certainly we are much more autonomous in this role. In our ability to drive what we're doing.
"But of course that has to come from understanding your game. We've got the right team to do it. There's not one person in this office who doesn't understand what we're about, who doesn't have love for this project, to make it what it was always supposed to be. APB was always supposed to be iterated upon. This stuff was always supposed to happen. When it didn't, that came as a huge surprise, because that's what we'd been working towards."
Some things have changed, however, and some things would never have been the way they are now without everything that happened at Realtime Worlds. Having all of the benefits of a boxed-product mentality during initial development meant that more money was available - a simple fact of the relative pay off times of subscription and free-to-play games.
"Free-to-play games can hit their peak revenues 1000 days from launch," Bjorn Book Larsson explained. "Which puts us at the beginning of year four. That's stunning when you work for a traditional publisher. This model is built on creating long-term sustaining gameplay, which is not an easy task.
"Training people, even internal teams, to understand how that works can be a long process, because folks have been conditioned to think in the traditional day one launch pattern."
Because of those budgetary differences, the development process of a free-to-play title is very different from a boxed product. Mike Boniface explains that it's made APB a unique prospect.
"The development process for APB was quite extensive - five years, end-to-end. One of the things about free-to-play is that you have to take 100 per cent of your funding and spend 50 per cent on development and still have 50 per cent in the bank...because your revenues don't peak until up to four years in. So you've got to have that money.
"So raising capital for that, to go out and say, 'it's going to be at least four or five years before you get any return on your investment,' that's going to be difficult. You wouldn't embark in the same way.
We really rely on the experience of GamersFirst. They've had ten years making free to play games. There's not many others you can point to and say that.
Mike Boniface, general manager, Reloaded Productions
"I think if you start off with the idea of going free to play, you would adjust your life cycle accordingly. That's not to say that you wouldn't end up with the same quality of game, it'd just be a different approach."
The approach seems to be paying off, at least for Reloaded and GamersFirst. Bjorn gives me some figures that show nearly five times as many players in the open beta for APB Reloaded than had ever registered for the boxed game.
Of course, those players all paid $50 for that box, but monetising free to play is exactly what GamersFirst specialises in, running several other successful games in the space, including Fallen Earth and War Rock.
The bulk of APB's money is expected to come from people buying premium accounts, which give bonuses to in-game experience, cash and loot drops, and 'peacocks' - the customisation equivalent of social gaming's whales.
Boniface is confident that the monetisation side of the business is in good hands at GamersFirst, and cedes to the company's experience willingly.
"I think we have a really tight relationship," he says of the US firm. "We have video calls most days. We rely on them heavily because we're the development arm. We still need them for everything else: operations, productions etc. Bjorn is very involved in the company and the game.
"We really rely on the experience of GamersFirst, they've had ten years making free to play games. There's not many others you can point to and say that. There are a lot things where we'll say, 'oh, we should try this.' And they'll say, 'no, we tried that ten years ago, it didn't work.'"
With server-side lag eliminated, cheaters shut out and the almost ubiquitous online gremlin of aimbotting well on the way to extinction, APB Reloaded could well become a glorious comeback story. Combine that with a hugely motivated, skilled and engaged team and there seems little that could go wrong.
So if it's all running so smoothly now, what happened at Realtime Worlds? When I ask him the question, Boniface is frank.
"I think there were a lot of issues at Realtime Worlds. Everyone who was part of the management team has to share the responsibility. There are so many theories, between the managers and the staff, that you can't put your finger on it. No one thing is going to collapse a company like that. I think we all share responsibility on the management side."
Now, things are run a little differently.
"Everyone at the company has a valid opinion," he says, smiling. "Everybody who works there feels they can pipe up with an idea. That gives people a sense of ownership."
Managers, take note.
APB Reloaded is currently in open beta.