RPS At E3: APB – The Most Important Game At E3

By John Walker on June 8th, 2009 at 10:00 am.

A gang, in a street, yesterday.

Of everything I saw at E3, APB stood out as the project with the greatest concentration of inspiration. Ignore the surprisingly crappy images that have been released so far – this one deserves your attention. During the presentation a colleague sat next to me leant in and said, “Bloody hell.” A minute or so later I replied, “This is the first original idea I’ve seen all week.” It’s very easy to think of APB as an online GTA. It certainly is a game focused around either committing or preventing crimes in an open city. But what makes APB stand out is just how damned smart it is.

Let’s begin with the trailer.

Many games boast of being “fully customisable”, by which they mean you can choose whether your avatar is male or female, and maybe what colour hat you wear. APB is something quite different. And it only begins with character customisation. A lot of the games shown at the conference boasted of their character designing tools. Each and every one of them needed to take a trip to Realtime Worlds’ private room in order to learn quite how far behind they really are. You may remember last year’s teaser for this that showed some of the options, with the gag reveals of various game developers created spookily accurately in the tool – it’s here. This year we were shown this in far more detail, of which a truncated version was shown on the EA stage, presented by Paul Barnett, and dodgily videoed:

Unfortunately not revealed on that occasion was the final punchline in the extended video we were shown – a character designed to look so uncannily like President Obama that it could well have been a stylised photograph. What you also can’t see above is quite how ludicrously complex the tool really is. When you change a detail, like someone’s weight, it’s also changing the skeletal structure underneath. By having the device follow anatomical rules, you’re not able to create faces that end up looking un-human. Instead the bones underneath will adapt to keep things looking natural. But shape isn’t all you can adjust. How about the volume of body hair? The skin pigmentation (rather than the more common choice of five or six race archetypes, here the skin pigments are accurate recreated, creating skin colours that look natural and extraordinarily varied). Or how about the protrusion of veins? Even that detail is available for tweaking, in case you want to have your Angelina Jolie be as precise as possible. Then there’s make up, contact lens colours… As Barnett comments in the video above, it seems possible to never get around to playing the game itself.

Further delaying your start, as the video above shows, the customisation goes beyond being able to create characters so distinct and recognisable that they’re not going to bother with names floating above players’ heads – you’ll know someone when you see them. It also extends to tattoos, decals, clothes and vehicles. Creating designs in another in-game tool is so elaborate it looks like it should be its own £400 art software. Then with your created work, you can apply it as a skin tattoo, which will automatically absorb the pigmentation of the skin to which it’s applied, and adjust accordingly. It will naturally wrap itself around the part of the body to which it’s applied. Or perhaps you’d rather add it to clothing, where once again it is manipulated to look natural on the material to which it’s applied. Maybe you want it on your car – this time it will take on the sheen or shine of the vehicle, again appropriately wrapping itself to where you stick it, intelligently cutting itself off so it doesn’t obscure windows, windscreens, etc. You can then customise your vehicle, switch out body parts, wheels, even the in-car stereo.

This is beginning to sound like one of those late night infomercials where they presenter cries out, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!” It doesn’t stop there. As Realtime Worlds’ founder Dave Jones explained, as they develop the game they keep thinking of other things that the player would prefer to be in control of. Which includes the music. So there’s a complete music creation tool in there. We were shown a couple of copyright infringing tunes that they’d made using the software (which will be an interesting thing to follow when the game comes out – it’s hard to see how the money-grabbing horrors in the various music industries won’t try and stamp their fat, stupid boots all over this) that demonstrated its capabilities. You can go so far as to create your own gloat tune, that will be heard by any player you kill.

There’s a reason for all this, beyond just being incredibly cool. One of the key elements of APB is to be celebrity. The idea is that everyone playing can become famous for something. It might be that you’re the best at head shots. Or it might be that you get killed the most often. And with the auction house that will let you sell designs, decals, tattoos, etc for in-game money, you might become the most famous leather jacket designer. You may become known as the best at creating tattoos. This fame serves to further distinguish you, further create a notorious character.

The game? The game itself? This is where the truly astonishingly clever ideas appear. You’ll either play as a Criminal or an Enforcer. Each has a distinct style of play, and neither will ever have to sit in a lobby waiting for a game to play. With an intended 100 players on each server, the enormous city is also populated by NPCs who will play critical roles. Firstly they will serve as the city’s initial gangs, and give missions to players. Secondly, and far more interestingly, they also provide the means by which the game’s natural action flows. So let’s say you’re playing as a Criminal. You log into the city and want something to do right away. Why not steal a car? You may well get away with it. Take it out and go for a joyride, look for some trouble. Or you may not – you may get spotted by an NPC who will report the APB. Report it to other players playing as Enforcers. Who then come chasing after you.

Or perhaps you’re an Enforcer and you hear word of a bank that’s moving some money. They need security, so you show up to where it’s happening. But Criminals may get wind of this and attempt to steal that money during its journey. The result of this is the game naturally creating PvP missions for players without ever having to throw up a quest screen, or have you sit around waiting for a match. It’s just so smart. It means they’ve replaced AI players from the game with real world players.

These matches are asymmetrical. If you’re especially good, especially well equipped and known by the game to be part of an especially dangerous gang, it’s not going to send a couple of newbs after you. It’s going to report your crime to players who will present a challenge to you. This might mean it matches up two gangs of equal strengths. But it might just as easily send in a larger number of poorer players. And this will escalate. Say your gang of three manages to take out the three players it sent after you, it might then send five to get you. Then it might alert two gangs, then three. Keep winning and it will keep raising the challenge. The notion behind this is it rewards both sides. The players seeing the game send a dozen opponents after them will recognise the respect the game is showing them. The group of twelve sent after the gang of three will love the fact they’re so seemingly outnumbering their opponents.

Recognition will also be rewarded in terms of material goods. Do especially well in a city and you may be able to buy real estate. These buildings will be as customisable as everything else in the game, letting you apply your decals and colours to the walls, so everyone knows whose gang they belong to. You might even receive statues. When I asked Jones how this would work with only limited space on a server, and the likelihood of having to play in a different city when one was full, he suggested that this was mostly tough luck, although there would be some rewards so great that they would “ripple” onto multiple servers.

Balance of such a game is clearly crucial, and this is something they’re still working on. The current ideas are to make it impossible to shoot players who aren’t involved in the mission, but to still let anyone run anyone else over with a vehicle. The logic behind this is to ensure the matchmaking isn’t defeated by griefing or drivebys, but Realtime acknowledge some will disagree. In response to this, they plan to have “chaos servers”, where all such rules shall be removed, including the inability to carjack another player’s car. It seemed that the main reason they intended to do this was to prove to anyone who was complaining what a bad idea it would be, and give them somewhere to find out.

Blimey, there’s so many more details to report. Let’s do music in the game. Jones said how most open city games tend to come with about 100 licensed tracks, but that they realised that most players would far rather listen to their own mp3 collection. But this is an online game. So they’ve done a deal with Last.FM to use their technology in such a brilliantly imaginative way. If you’re listening to a favourite track in your car, and drive past some other players, should they have the same track on their hard drive the game will find it, and they’ll hear it from your car as you go by. Should they not have it, the game will find a track that’s similar and play that instead.

The same logic applies to the in-game VOIP. If you’re chatting with your gang via headsets and another player walks by, they’ll hear what you’re saying. Using 3D positioning, these voices will appear realistically far away, getting louder as you approach.

This barrage of ideas, the attempt to put everything in the hands of the player, only falls short in one area: mission design. At launch all the prescribed missions will come from NPCs. But again, this is not intended to last. Realtime have desires to allow the most successful gangs, those that gain the most notoriety, to eventually become those who design and distribute missions to other players.

If there’s a criticism to be levelled at the game at this stage it’s the sparse nature of the backgrounds. While the characters and cars look remarkable, most of the scenery we saw was bland and grey. Hopefully more interesting locations will be revealed as time goes on. But beyond this, APB looks just jaw-dropping in everything from its design intricacy to its revolutionary approach to matchmaking in an MMO world. It makes PvP seem appealing to someone as single-player minded as me, and that’s a hefty achievement from within my head. It’s such a wealth of ideas in one game, that we can’t wait to get our hands on.

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128 Comments »

  1. Npa says:

    I damn well hope there’s a traditional bobby suit for the Enforcers.

  2. Shoe says:

    i’m hugely impressed by the video,

    but the big problem such designers seem to have is being too intimidating for people who just want to play

    I love tweaking my character, but usually not when I first get a game. Any game with a complicated character-maker I usually just mash Random on.

  3. fishmitten says:

    I was reading this with my usual ‘my PC won’t be able to run this… I hope they bring it to the 360′ face on, but then I remembered my new PC will be arriving next week!

    This game looks really promising. As long as they retain at least some of the daft fun from Crackdown, they can’t really go wrong.

  4. Ian says:

    And all of a sudden I’m interested.

  5. Brian says:

    This looks awesome. I can’t wait to give it a try.

  6. Baltech says:

    Well, if that doesn’t sound promising, I don’t know what does. The only thing that irks me is the 100 player limit per server. So, as I understand it, its not really a perstant world but you’re always playing on an other server whenever you log in?

  7. Jockie says:

    It kind of reminds me of a GTA mod I once tried, whereupon logging into the server you were asked to choose a role, be it as a policeman, a gunrunner, a thief etc.

    Once you’d decided, you were supposed to go around the world interacting with other players in your specific role, so a gun runner would get word that a player wanted to buy weapons and they would go find them and sell them some guns, perhaps that other player was a hitman off to perform a killing, on successful completion the police would be alerted etc.

    Decent idea but it was horribly executed with a terrible interface and a poor sense of humour (one of the character classes was a ‘rapist’).

    This sounds like it could be great though.

  8. Ian says:

    This has the potential to make me a very happy bunny indeed.

  9. CMaster says:

    I’m also in the “I don’t like really involved character creators” camp. When I play a game, I want to play a game. If I can’t make a decent character in 1-5 minutes, I normally just mash something in and go with it. More sliders/options = harder time to make a non-stupid looking character in my experience.

    That said, the game looks interesting at the very least and I recognize some people (eg most CoX players) will happily spend hours tweaking character appearances.

  10. Jayteh says:

    This sound verrry interesting, can’t wait to see some more

  11. Ginger Yellow says:

    It’s great to see APB getting some love. I’ve been excited about this game ever since the original announcement, and my anticipation has only grown with each new piece of information. I’m so pleased that someone is finally trying something different with the MMO concept (see also MAG, though obviously it’s not for PC), and I’m doubly pleased that it’s Realtime Worlds.

  12. Arca says:

    Good lord. This might actually be new, fresh and interesting!

    My curiousity is piqued, to say the least.

  13. jimmy says:

    What’s the music in the trailer?

  14. MrBejeebus says:

    Baltech I think what they’re saying is if you get bored of a server you can change onto another 1, but your character and car and whatever will go with you.

    You wont be put on a different server each time you log on though i’m thinking..

  15. Dominic White says:

    I just recently got (on the 360, as the PC port is naff) the ridiculously over-the-top comedy GTA clone Saints Row 2. It also has a fantastic character editor.

    The first thing I did? I made my character Saxton Hale from the TF2 Jarate comic:

    http://www.teamfortress.com/sniper_vs_spy/day07_english.htm

    Yep, hat and bushy mustache and jean-shorts and everything. This is made even better in SR2 because there’s a British character voice that is just twangy enough to pass for almost-Australian. It also helps that the game lets you pick up and throw people with a single button-press. This strikes me as exactly the sort of thing Saxton Hale would do.

    This is going to be my character in APB as well, because Saxton Hale sells products (like drugs) and gets into fights (ALL THE TIME).

  16. Stromko says:

    I’m curious how the servers are going to work, how are they going to enforce the arbritary ‘about 100 players’ population? The more people on a server, the more people that want to be on that server (because they have friends there, or herding instinct, or whatever), and the less people around, the less there is to do and the less reason there is to log in to a server. A lot of MMO clans are also bigger than 100 players, so how do they not fill up an entire server?

    Really comparing it to an MMO would be wrong, because 100 players does not an MMO make. That’s a ‘rather big’ multiplayer game, but massive? No.

    The closest thing that I could compare what APB looks like, would be the Sahrani Life modification for ArmA. In that, there really wasn’t day-to-day persistence for player actions, if your favorite server was full, too laggy, or empty you’d just try another server (if one was available). They didn’t have to worry about gang buildings, persistant squads. The population would vary between 3 and 20, and depending on how active those players were it was either chaos and constant firefights or tedious building up of funds.

    APB looks really amazing, I just hope they’re smart enough to figure out a good solution. A persistant world is wonderful, building up your reputation and that of your gang in a small community where you’re more than just an anonymous ‘toon’ in Barrens chat is a great idea, but I’m not sure how that’s going to look in practice.

    It sounds like what they mean is that the 100 players is the server limit, it’s an MMOFPS in that there’ll be bunches of servers with thousands of players spread among them, but you’re only interacting with 99 others at a time. I could see some familiarity forming based on people having their ‘favorite’ servers that they frequent, thus the ‘reputation’ hype could pay off, but tough luck if that server where they have a sweet statue of their character and an office building with custom-graffiti, is already full when they want to login.

  17. NuZZ says:

    Unreal engine 3.0

    Anybody else worried ? Huxley sucks very bad; however, it’s an asian MMO and doesn’t count. Unreal Engine 3.0 + MMO has always ended up in the shitter. Fury, for example. Plus the many other games which have tried.

  18. Dozer says:

    I work for one of the UK’s large bus companies. The idea of doing drive-bys and indiscriminately running over pedestrians in a van dressed up to look like one of our buses is very appealing!

  19. White Noise says:

    Does the game allow you to have corrupt enforcers (secretly working for the criminals), and moles (criminals working for the enforcers)? That’d bring about a whole extra level of intrigue, I reckon – massive witch hunts within the enforcer gangs allowing for complete criminal take-overs, or vice versa.

  20. teo says:

    Make your own bikini fotoshoots! Just what the internet needs

    The tech seems neat but the trailer didn’t look that great. Ideas don’t make good games so it’s not worth getting excited about them.

  21. Optimaximal says:

    Maybe I missed it, but has there been any confirmation of what this game is actually setting out too do? Is it just one persistent online battle ala. Planetside or is it a mission-based grind like every other MMO.

    Also, have they announced how charging will work – is it going to be a monthly-payment MMO (in which case I’m not interested, and neither will many who already have WoW addictions swallowing £15 a month) or are they going to be bold and try the Guild Wars model?

  22. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    This has done nothing to spare me the agony of waiting for this to come out. Thanks a lot, RPS.

    (No but really, thankyou).

  23. Po0py says:

    Jesus Christ I really wanted to punch that commentator guy in the customizing video. Right in the face. Three times. And then kick him in the nuts. Tie him to a car and drag him behind me round a roundabout. And then punch him in the face again.

  24. Carra says:

    Enforcers stopping criminals from stealing a van? Tss. I’d expect other gangs to go and steal it from those thugs.

  25. Lukasz says:

    It sounds interesting. Hopefully they will not screw up.

  26. Tony Mc says:

    The music in the trailer is ‘Johnny Got a Boom Boom’ by the rather lovely Imelda May.

  27. Hmm.-Hmm. says:

    I’m not into all that GTA-type gangster stuff, but.. well.. that’s very impressive. Looking forward to hearing more about this.

  28. Nimic says:

    I’ll have to join in with those skeptical of the 100-players limit and different servers. The rest of the game sounds fantastic, but if you’ll end up playing on different servers every time it could somewhat ruin the brilliance of the rest of it.

  29. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    @Stromko

    Keep in mind they’ve always referred to it as an “MOG” not an “MMO”.

    They’ve never implied the ‘massive’.

  30. anonymous says:

    I plan to make hideous racial caricatures of increasingly more obscure ethnic groups until I find one that won’t get me banned.

  31. Dominic White says:

    Yeah, it sounds like while your character is persistent and can travel freely between the city-instances, the city itself is just a perpetual sandbox of crime and justice. Neither side can ‘win’, as the city itself will just keep generating new potential missions.

    It sounds very much like GTA, really, but with procedurally generated missions that may involve up to a hundred human players. This is a very good thing.

    If they get it right, this will be the rarest of things: A persistent online game that people play because it’s FUN, rather than because there’s the promise of future fun if you grind fifty hours for a shinier hat.

    From the sounds of it, Regular and Chaos modes sound like the difference between, say, GTA4 (which is rather restrained compared to its cousins) and Saint’s Row 2/Crackdown, which are retarded and hilarious.

  32. Kieron Gillen says:

    White: “A persistent online game that people play because it’s FUN, rather than because there’s the promise of future fun if you grind fifty hours for a shinier hat.”

    As far as I can work out, it’s their idea. They’ve talked about CS before in glowing admiration as a game which has secured an audience who’ll play because *it’s fun*.

    (And, please, don’t let anyone go for the “CS is shit” card. It’s irrelevant.)

    KG

  33. gulag says:

    Wow, I can see some great gang ‘style bibles’ being created for this. That character creation vid is a real game-changer.

  34. Dominic White says:

    Well, inspiration from CS is all well and good, but one thing I do hope they do is make characters are least tough enough to drag out firefights a bit.

    Ideally (for me, at least), headshots should only be instantly lethal from bigger guns, wheras a light pistol or SMG will require 2-3 hits at least, as you’re going to be spraying a lot more lead around.

    I’ve found that gunfights in games tend to be a lot more dramatic if you can die fairly fast, but can still take a couple of lucky hits before going down.

    I’d like to think that Realtime Worlds undestand this though, as they did give us Crackdown. They understood that the player wants to feel like a badass there. If they can manage to keep at least part of that feeling of being a nigh-invulnerable supercop, without making the player too ‘big’ for the city around them, that’ll suit me down to the ground.

  35. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    Man. I want get a bunch of mates together and form a Kung-fu hustle style Axe Gang. mmmmmmm.

  36. Surgeon says:

    The more I hear about this, the better it sounds.
    I really hope it all comes together and ends up as special as all the features suggest.

    Anyone know whether it will be first or third person?

  37. James T says:

    Sounds like the server thing’s gonna clash with the “leave your mark” thing, but that’s alright…. if your custom car comes with you. This is the first multiplayer game I’ve given a shit about; hope it’s good.

  38. Barts says:

    @The Fanciest of Pants
    I’m in!

    (or, as the Kotaku folks would have it: You have my axe!)

  39. Orange says:

    The design of the mission match making sounds genius. This game is right at the top of my list, won’t be able to resist playing a copper and administering justice to all those young punks breaking the law :P

  40. Ian says:

    Dominic White: But sometimes that next hat is REALLY shiny!

  41. cyrenic says:

    I’m wondering if keeping players motivated to do missions will be a problem. If only a few people are notified about a particular crime, how can the game ensure those people will respond to it? Also, even with the rules they have, griefing still sound pretty easy to do (blocking people with cars, etc.).

    Those things aside, this is the MMO I’m most looking forward to (this and Love, anyway :D). The 100 player servers sound like a great idea to me. Seeing the same people on regularly should foster a great sense of community. And if those people suck you can just move to another server.

  42. Dominic White says:

    @Cyrenic: I’d imagine that money/reputation/etc are persistent stats, and that doing missions is the best way to raise them. Still, if you have fun just screwing around and not really getting involved in the big picture, that’s great. I love the idea of a single psycho just randomly taking potshots at anyone driving under a particular overpass, which couuld interfere hilariously with an organized escort op or heist.

    I just hope friendly fire is enabled in Chaos mode, because you KNOW that would mean that a lot of heists will end up a massive mexican standoff, deciding who gets the loot.

  43. Gurrah says:

    It all sounds rather great, but I’m not the least bit interested in it because I can’t stand those overly hip and cool gangster wannabe games. It’s a realy shame, because the whole customisation business sounds fantastic.

  44. the affront says:

    Eh, 100 players… doesn’t sound good. Enough arguments against it already to be found in earlier comments. Should have gone for a real MMO with this instead, I hate instancing with a passion.
    Also, the character creation is nice and all.. but I can’t say that I know even one guy for whom such a feature would make or break a game, me included. It’s a nice gimmick, but that’s it, really.

    Same thing with the VOIP – it’s hard enough to make an ingame system that’s good enough to be widely used by players – now they’re making one that broadcasts what you’re saying to everyone nearby? Sounds like a surefire ticket to make anyone who’s even slightly competitive NOT use it and stick to vent/TS (not like most wouldn’t have done so anyway, just look at LOTRO or similar). I can only see this working as intended on consoles.

  45. panik says:

    hope the character customization includes age.
    i want to be a little old lady with a cake hat

  46. Zyrusticae says:

    Note from the FAQ:
    “How big is the game world? And how many people fit on one server?

    Approximately 10,000 players per world consisting of 100 player district maps. A hundred customized players driving unique cars, doing crimes, shooting or busting each other is well worth checking out.”

    “Also, the character creation is nice and all.. but I can’t say that I know even one guy for whom such a feature would make or break a game[...]”
    It does for me. ALL THE TIME.

    It’s the primary reason I don’t play WoW, and a contributing factor to me refusing to try FFXI.

  47. Skye Nathaniel says:

    I really hope that they implement bandages. Bandages are an excellent fashion accessory.

    More seriously, I am skeptical about the mission structure. It sounds like you couldn’t even be a criminal preying on other criminals. I’d hope that it would be more like Eve where you can do what you want and carve out your own enterprise.

    Regardless, I’ll be playing this.

    I’m actually very interested in the possibility for player-created fashion trends in an MMO.

  48. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Eh, 100 players… doesn’t sound good. Enough arguments against it already to be found in earlier comments. Should have gone for a real MMO with this instead, I hate instancing with a passion.”

    I really don’t understand this attitude. How many people do you actually play with in a “real” MMO. For which read MMORPG. Eh, 100 players… doesn’t sound good. Enough arguments against it already to be found in earlier comments. Should have gone for a real MMO with this instead, I hate instancing with a passion. Why can’t we have MMOs that aren’t MMORPGs? And what’s wrong with having ca. 100 players in a persistent environment? It’s not going to be the same as a MMORPG, but that’s a good thing. Heaven forfend developers try something different.

  49. Dave says:

    That mission thing sounds like something my company came up with for a license that we sadly wound up not getting. But I’d love to see it in action, even in a gangster game.

    At any rate, I will get this just for the character creator.

  50. Surgeon says:

    the affront says:

    Eh, 100 players… doesn’t sound good. Enough arguments against it already to be found in earlier comments. Should have gone for a real MMO with this instead, I hate instancing with a passion.
    Also, the character creation is nice and all.. but I can’t say that I know even one guy for whom such a feature would make or break a game, me included. It’s a nice gimmick, but that’s it, really.

    I reckon 100 player servers sound about spot on for this.
    And the combination of the 100 player servers and the unique character creation will really help you to build your own identity.

    the affront says:

    Same thing with the VOIP – it’s hard enough to make an ingame system that’s good enough to be widely used by players – now they’re making one that broadcasts what you’re saying to everyone nearby? Sounds like a surefire ticket to make anyone who’s even slightly competitive NOT use it and stick to vent/TS (not like most wouldn’t have done so anyway, just look at LOTRO or similar). I can only see this working as intended on consoles.

    I think you’re missing a trick here.
    The VOIP features sound quality man.
    Now you can be an Enforcer, nick a robber and then spit the immortal words :
    “You’re nicked you slag!”

    Plus it opens the possibilities for a good bit of banter between the two sides during firefights.

    The more games that start implementing specific game related features into VOIP the better.
    Then we can finally get away from having to use TS and Vent.

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