Project My World would live, but APB would die. That seemed to be the final legacy of Realtime World's sad, sudden collapse this summer. Then, last week, unexpected news broke that K2 Network, the company behind free-to-play service GamersFirst, had picked up the MMO's technology and intellectual property.
The company has traditionally specialised in converting Korean MMOs for the Western market, but with APB the challenge is transitioning a retail and subscription-based game into the free to play model - as well as assuaging public doubts about the game following a critical mauling. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to GamersFirst CCO and CTO Bjorn Book-Larsson about plans for the game, the obstacles yet to be faced, and the possibility of working with former Real Time Worlds staff.
Q: What's the response been like since the news came out?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: I think the biggest response has been our inboxes have been crashed... Overwhelmingly though it's been positive. There's been a lot of people, including my own friends in various companies, who have reached out and said 'woo hoo' and 'good luck.' They're all behaving, I think, like we're sitting on top of a rollercoaster and that's a very exciting but at the same time kinda of scary ride. Obviously this was a very large and complicated title, and to modify it is itself a large task. It's a big job. On the other hand, we do have about seven years of free to play publishing experience, we have all the data on how users behave in these games. We think the modifications we are initially proposing are relatively low complexity, and they will be in line with things that we've seen in other games that we publish.
So as our whole business is driven by looking at the user feedback and modifying the games accordingly, this isn't actually that far from what we do anyway.
Q: Do you have a sense of the man hours this will take, given you've got both the engine and the free to play infrastructure to hand already?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: It's still a long job. And that's on top of the users - we have about 30 million registered users, so half of them roughly have been registering for shooter-type games. So we have an audience too. It's still a complex job, partly because the game and the engine are complex enough that the risk is that we break something far deeper into the original code when we make some of these modifications. So it's more of an issue with trying to figure out how to not do that - it will get quite a bit of time to get the point where we can freely modify something, where we essentially know all the dependencies.
So realistically we hope to release the game in the first half of 2011, leaving it sort of open-ended, and then after we first release it we then anticipate that we'll have a 6 - 12 month ramp up time when the game is out to the public. We will of course continue to work on it extensively during that period. And even the sales cycle will work in similar ways. During this ramp-up period we expect that we will make initially no sales, but then they will increase over the following 12 months.
If you look at the other games we have, they tend to live almost forever. War Rock has been around since 2006 in Korea and 2007 in the West, and we have games like Knight Online which has really been around for about 10 years, at least in Korea, and we have modified and published it since about 2005. And it still gets 50,000 simultaneous players very often. It's an interesting business, where in free to play we tend to build something that's more of a solid platform for games, then you tweak and add game modes and modify the game - essentially forever, as long as you have that initial user base.
Q: How confident are you on that happening for APB: Reloaded? How much do you think of it as a foregone conclusion based on prior experiences?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, every game venture has an element of risk. It's like trying to manufacture a hit movie - some people are better at it than others, but I don't think any of us claim to be Steven Spielberg. I think it's a risky business - we as a company have probably tried to de-risk it as much as possible, for not just this title but all the titles we work from. Even as a company we're very low-cost structured - we have about half the staff in the US and half the staff in Bangalore, India. We also have offices in Turkey and other parts of the world. As a general philosophy, we're trying to be the most efficient company we can be.
Q: So you're not banking the entire company on APB, as Realtime Worlds did?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, our biggest investor is Intel Capital, so if at some point we needed to add more capital I'm sure they could consider it, though obviously I can't speak for them. But in general... somebody told me once that every game company is by its nature fly-by-night, because the industry is somewhat similar to the movie industry, so I don't ever want to say that there's no risk to the company. But I do think, fundamentally, we should have more longevity than the predecessor company. And in fact we have, we've been around for seven years.
I want to be super-cautious when we're talking about risk and games. This requires far beyond that actual purchase of this title: it requires a huge amount of commitment and investment for the next year, and we have been willing to make it. It's a gamble that, based on that amount of effort, we count on it paying out but there's no way we guarantee it.
Q: Have you any concern that the game has something of a negative reputation now?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: I think the initial game had a lot of great elements, but a lot of things like the monetisation strategies and the way the progression and balancing worked felt out of context. So I think that once we address some of those items and also look at some of the more subtle things people actually do in the game... Again, we don't really care about the 30 day sales cycle, which is very much a retail-driven thing. We expect to present this game to a whole new audience who have never even seen it. The initial round was people who were really excited and hardcore players, and I think this round will be a much wider audience. We'll figure it out if our presumptions are right and the modifications we are proposing will actually address some of the core concerns from first time around.
Q: You're getting out the unfinished patch, right?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Yes, patch 142. They had an add-on patch that addressed some of the balance issues, but beyond that we intend to modify several of the key components of the game. So I think it's gonna be a very interesting experience. [Laughs].
Q: You've mentioned you want to broaden the target audience - do you mean within the game's existing territories, like the US and UK, or other markets?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: We publish games strictly for North America, South America, Europe and the Middle East - our biggest audience tends to be in Western and Eastern Europe. The US and UK certainly have a large portion of the audience but as a percentage it's relatively smaller because you have such a penetration of game consoles in North America in particular. The US audience is not the traditional audience for PC gaming.
But in general consoles are very expensive in other parts of the world. If you go to a place like Turkey, a PS3 is $1000. And other markets tend to buy PCs first, because it's generally thought of as an educational tool. So we think this game will map just like our other games do, which is that we have a large audience, for instance, for War Rock in Germany and Italy. It does have a strong following in the US, but on a percentage basis it's lower than console titles like Medal of Honor or Call of Duty. For us, we think this title will fit the same pattern - it might have more success in the US because some of the enthusiast gamers there will be more interested in this title than some of the last-generation titles that we currently have in the US.
Q: Speaking of which, this will involve dropping a much more hi-tech title into the free to play market. Will that audiences' PCs be up to the job?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: That's true. In its current form, the game's not gonna work for our entire audience - it will for a portion of the audience, and we're okay with that. We also have to keep in mind that, if we think of this as a more long-term project, by the time we get the game back out again and as hardware of the general public improves year by year, at some point the game specs are not going to be that daunting.
As well as that, one of the plans we have in the mid to long term is to have a lower end version of the game and a higher end version of the game.
Q: So two distinct clients, almost?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Yes, we can have a client that's almost a starter edition, and then we can have what we could call an enthusiast edition for those who are willing to endure much longer downloads and a lot more effort.
Q: Would you look at moving that starter version to other platforms such as social networks or netbooks, or will it be too high-end even for that?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, we're always open to creating almost complementary titles which would connect with the game itself. I think this particular codebase is very, very demanding - it's very high-end and very complicated, so I think it would be hard to do direct ports to other platforms. It's a technical possibility in the future for sure - I don't think it's in the initial year at least.
Q: How much of the appeal of APB for you was about the tech that's in it, the character customisation and the streaming? Would you look at using it in other titles?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well you could, but the challenge is that that code is very tightly integrated into the current engine. It might be harder to take that out and put it into other games than it is almost to take other game modes and put them into the game. One of the things that we're definitely looking at doing is expanding the modes, so right now you have the sort of open, big city, shooting and driving mode, but there are other ones that we have considered, including a collaborative mode and sort of session-based or clan based modes. So you can have other kinds of maps and modes as part of the same game.
Q: So a sort of Counter-Strike mode?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, we're not sure about that. It might really depend on what gamer feedback comes into play. We might experiment with various things that... there's some various stubs for things in the game already that we might expand on and see if people go there or don't. We're not ruling anything out, but we're certainly open to trying them out.
Q: Are these stubs features that the original devs started to build, or do you mean more in terms of conceptual potential?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, there's various modes in War Rock, for instance, that we've considered porting over. There's various game modes that the original developers had considered and put in some thoughts around. There are also at least a couple of districts which were in the original game but were never released. They weren't quite finished but we went and explored them - that's why the next couple of months are going to be quite intense, as we prioritise all of those 200 possibilities that we have ahead of us.
Q: I know you've said previously that you're not currently working with any of the original staff, but have you had much contact with the game's former owners, Dave Jones and Ian Hetherington? And has there been a response from the old team since the announcement was made?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: I actually met with Dave a couple of times earlier, but that was more of a social visit. Basically, one of the things that happened was we were contacted by everyone on the planet ever involved. We also are contracting - or are planning to - some of the original staff as well. So, at the moment, our goal is to create the right size team for the effort itself. And while we have a good core team, we are open to talking to everyone who was associated with the original game because so many of the people scattered - they're working for CCP and Jagex and all sorts of other places. This recruiting storm appeared and tried to grab every key person.
So, we'll see. We're not too concerned because obviously LA has a huge concentration of Unreal 3 developers, but I think it's one of those where, depending on how successful the game becomes, it's ultimately going to drive the size of the staff. So we're going to do this as methodically as we can, and in the meantime we're open to contracting or consulting with people who were part of the original team.
Q: If things went well enough, would you consider putting together a dedicated UK studio, whether back in Dundee or elsewhere?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: Absolutely. I'm not sure if anyone picked this up, but I told somebody this... Basically, the one thing we don't have at the moment is a European office, which is something we've been looking at. We have looked at Hamburg in Germany, but what we're looking at now potentially is.... Scotland would certainly be a fine place to have a permanent office. We'd consider that for sure.
Q: Would potential government incentives affect your decision, or is it only about where the talent is?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: It would be more about being a strategic location for us than anything else. Which is why Germany could also be a good one... I'm not sure that we're aware of what the various incentives are, so we haven't considered those.
Q: While I know you're not talking numbers, was there a sense of being involved in a bidding war for APB, or was it more or less yours for the taking?
Bjorn Book-Larsson: There were several interested parties for sure. We happened to run into some of them too... So we know who they were. It wasn't really a bidding war, I wouldn't say, but it was pretty clear that in order to be competitive you probably had to consider this as something you were going to invest quite a lot of effort into. And I think some people are probably more opportunistic in wanting to only pick up a piece or two.
I think the answer is there were certainly many interested parties for sure.
Bjorn Book-Larsson is CTO and COO of GamersFirst. Interview by Alec Meer.