Interview

Realtime Worlds' Colin MacDonald

APB looms ever nearer

Realtime Worlds has been exceptionally busy getting their new MMO All Points Bulletin ready for its release at the beginning of July. Luckily enough we managed to grab some face-time with studio manager Colin MacDonald to talk about APB, Crackdown 2 and what the future holds for the studio.

It's been quite a long road since the release of Crackdown. What were the challenges that you faced coming out of Crackdown and moving on to something new?

Obviously, looking to go online is a huge prospect in itself. Looking to create a game that then copes with all the eventualities from a player doing what he wants in an open-world sandbox game but a player doing what he wants in an open-world sandbox game along with hundreds of other player doing what they want and the number of combined possibilities means that its virtually an infinite number of things that you have to allow for, think about and test for.

I think from a development point of view that was huge, in terms of the scale and complexity of what we've taken on has been exponential compared to what we've done before.

What has been big for us as a company was going through a couple of rounds of financing both to fund APB's development ourselves and to take on all of the publishing duties ourselves - building up the data centres to host the servers, thinking about power and cooling and all this kind of stuff, thinking about customer service and billing and the, testing (traditionally developers don't do a great deal of testing; that's more the publisher's side whereas we have 80 full-time testers).

I think those two things; one from the development side and one from the new publishing side of things have been the main challenges for us.

Given the sheer scale of what you've been trying to do with APB how do you think you've handled it?

I think that we've done pretty well. It hasn't been without its problems on either side but that's just part of the course and I think we've gotten through it pretty well and we're situated pretty well for a good launch at the moment.

Was it a logical step, from your DMA heritage with GTA and then Crackdown, obviously, to try and do something with the sandbox style of gameplay in a massively multiplayer environment?

There is a logical progression that you can see in some ways. You know, Dave Jones essentially created the sandbox genre and he's just continuing to evolve that and take it in new directions.

At the same time as a company we're not wedded to that kind of game and our next product is not necessarily going to be everything that was in GTA, Crackdown, APB plus some more. We think there's still a lot of mileage in this area, particularly with APB. That's something we'll be supporting for many years to come. Hopefully that will give us a lot of scope to play around with some of Dave's funky ideas.

But, it's not the only thing we'll do. Dave's go a lot of ideas in other stations as well. Some of it will progress logically, some of it Dave will want to take us off on a tangent and just work with something completely different. It will all depend on how everything goes and how the market as a whole develops. It's been turned on its head these last few years between the iPhone, Facebook, the recession and digital distribution. We're dealing with a very different industry from what we had five years ago and we'll try and keep on to of that and try and produce the very best games to fit in with that.

Will we see you taking a break from the sandbox genre with your next project then?

It depends. We've got another project that isn't in the same vein as the sort of APB/Crackdown/GTA vein.

For the next year or so our main focus will be on what more we can do with APB. At launch APB is an amazing game but there's an infinite number of directions we can go both vertically and horizontally. Some things we will want to keep drilling deeper on and refining and adding to and there's a whole wealth of possibilities to take that horizontally and just branch out into new areas and give players new experiences in the APB game and the APB world and APB characters.

That'll be a huge focus for us in the next few years but, yes, you're right that we will be looking at other things.

It's coming close to launch time. How excited are you to see the game released?

It's always a tense time coming up to launch. Today (which is a Saturday) we have the whole team in working on the last final push. It's one of those things where technically you can ship a game at any point but it's a question of 'what quality are you happy with?' We're not a company that thinks: what's the minimum that we can get away with'. We all want to make sure that from Dave Jones all the way throughout the entire team we're all happy and proud of what's going to be the player's experience. Right up until the last day we'll keep pushing to keep fixing little things and they'll get increasingly small and pedantic.

It's a frantic time. It's a frustrating time because you now need to be very careful with the code base as we approach the launch. What's great about online is that, unlike a lot of the games we've done in the past where once it's shipped that's it, you can change things. We obviously had a bit of scope to do that with Crackdown where we got the opportunity to patch and there was a package of downloadable content. The beauty of APB and everything else online these days is that you can just continue to evolve it and continue to react to player feedback.

Not everything that Dave wanted is in APB just yet. Most of it is, and lots more besides that Dave came up with in the intervening years. Some of it isn't but he knows that we'll get to it.

How close is it to going 'gold' just now?

Extremely close. When we're going through a retail launch, getting it out to retailers, going through distribution, getting boxes made up, getting DVD duplicated that all takes time. Although right now, as we sit here we're six or seven weeks away from launch there's still a lot of things to be done.

We're in the final throes of what we can do before we come up against a hard deadline.

There was a lot made in the press of the Crackdown franchise passing to Ruffian. How much of what we hard was actually true?

Most of the guys individually at Ruffian are still friends. There is tension between the companies dealing with the triangle between us Microsoft and Ruffian because, at the end of the day, Crackdown was our baby. We slogged for five years to make Crackdown when many other people didn't believe in it and it was Dave Jones' long-term vision and belief and persistence that made it happen and made it great. We were desperate to work on the sequel but Microsoft weren't and it wasn't until four or five months in that they decided that they wanted a sequel. Unfortunately, by that point we had moved on.

We can understand that from a certain perspective that Microsoft wanted to wait and see how the product does but it's annoying that they somehow didn't realise that we needed to stay in business. If they weren't willing to commit to us we needed to commit to something else.

It's just unfortunate. It's all in the past now. Both Crackdown 2 and APB are coming out soon and we hope that they're both a big success because Crackdown 2 being a big success is testament to all the work that we put in for the five years it too to make the original. It's really a double whammy for us.

To what extent did the trials you went through after the release of Crackdown influence your decision to become and online only developer?

We'd basically already decided what we wanted to do. It certainly reinforced that it was the right decision for us. Too often you hear about high quality developers going under because of someone else's fault potentially. We wanted to make sure that we weren't in that position. If, God forbid, we fail then it will be our own fault rather than because someone else had a change of heart but equally our success remains our success and no-one else takes the glory and steals future success and the lions share of the rewards for that.

We had already committed to [online gaming]. We saw the flaws in the current development model and the opportunity with digital distribution and online gaming. We'd seen that, throughout 2004/2005 etc and we were able to clearly see what was happening with Lineage and everything. We were able to tie up with Webzen for a while and the period with Crackdown 2 and Microsoft just confirmed that we were on the right path going down the self-publishing route.

Would Crackdown 2 have become an online title had you had the chance to develop it?

We already had plans for Crackdown 2 in the same way that we got the end of the first one and had plans for the second one. I don't suppose there's much point in going into the details of those. I don't think it would have turned into an online game overnight but undoubtedly we would've gone a different direction to where it's gone with Ruffian. Maybe it's something one day that we might revisit.

Is there anything in what you've seen of Crackdown 2 that you might have done differently?

No. I think it's one of those things that there's a lot of talented guys there and they've done things that they thought would suit the game best. There's nothing there that we look at and say think it's terrible. They've just picked one route and we would've gone another.

There's a lot of talk that boxed retail is on its way out. Do you believe that the standard single-player boxed retail game will still be around for a significant amount of time?

I think so yeah. It's one of those things now. For at least a decade people now have been predicting the end of retail and there is a trend away from retail products to digital. I know personally that I still buy CDs because they cost the same online as they do in stores and I want the physical CD, I want to look through the booklet and I want to be able to take it in the car and I think that's going to exist for quite a while yet.

There is a trend towards it and more things will go online. I think that there's always going to be the single player story-drive game because there's just a huge market for that. A lot of the time I will just want not to do battle with mates, I'll just want to be entertained by a fantastic story and not be dependant or reliant or have it changed or adjusted and have it just as the storyteller, as the designer intended. So that's always going to be a huge market.

How you buy that is going to change. More and more you are going to be buying that digitally but I still see us buying boxed products in ten years time. Not as many as we're buying today but I think it'll take a long long time before we start seeing the end of retail - if that happens at all.

How much does Dave Jones' philosophy affect the studio as a whole?

Hugely, it's very much a Dave Jones company. Although he brought in Gary Gale as our CEO last year Gary himself wants it to remain very much a Dave Jones studio because we are where we are today because of Dave's belief, because of his approach, because of his desire to innovate and you see that trickling down through out the whole organisation. So, we've got a bunch of people in the company who want to innovate and strive for perfection and I thing if that was ever to change it may not be for the better.

We know working with Dave, we may not churn out a game every year which would be good from one perspective, good for the CV or whatever, but when we do produce games they're amazing AAA games that we are going to be proud of for the rest of our lives and most of us are pretty happy with that.

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