Kotaku had a good day yesterday with me. But while I'm actually still trying to get to the new bits in the Rose & Camellia sequel, their news that Real-Time World's incredibly exciting MMO-GTA APB is what got my thoughts really racing. Not that they'll be a Beta - which is lovely, clearly - but specifically a snippet of footage in the comments thread from Dave Jones' GDC demonstration which I hadn't watched yet. Somehow, despite being obsessed by other snippets from the same speech.
It's of the APB character generator, and is probably the best example of the sort I've ever seen. And I'm going to rant about why that's ace beneath the cut. At length. Yes.
Okay, first of all, here's the video.
Okay - highlights if you want to skip around:
00:14 - Just absolutely basic facial modeling. When I say "basic", I mean "enormously naturalistic and flexible".
00:35 - They start playing around the hair.
01:00 - A minute in, and they've got a really interesting dude in a East-Asian Gangster sort of way.
01:02 - Man in his pants!
01:17 - They're starting to play around with Tattoos, showing that you can scale and colour the designs.
01:20 - Now we drop it on the body. Which is nifty. But immediately, it becomes much niftier than just a design - they show that they can move it to different places on the body.
01:25 - At which point you realise it's not just on some set places. It's able to moved anywhere on your body, wrapping itself onto the point appropriately. Then they drop another tattoo on there, just to show that you can do it.
02:00 - And then we move onto clothes, which seems fairly standard, if more fashionable and genre-appropriate than most games you'll face.
02:30 - Amusing face-gear, which always works for me. Oh - and I notice there's a colour palette on the left to completely customise everything.
03:20 - We move onto cars, which shows that a similar process to the tattoo application can move designs all over the body of your vehicles, including making it smaller or larger.
03:22 - Okay. Now I'm completely convinced we've got the freedom to make pretty much any cool character we choose. Except Jones' demonstration takes a left turn sharply, and shows us an impressively accurate Peter Molyneux, complete with with Lionhead symbol on his jacket and a I HEART FABLE badge. This is followed by Warren Spector, Richard Garriott and Shigeru Miyamoto. In his pants.
04:32 - And the Geek Squad, in game, posturing amusingly with machineguns. Awesome!
Now, in every thread I've seen of APB, there's been some curious responses - some entirely justifiable, and some which make me scratch my head a little. Over in the Kotaku thread, thanks to the new art, there's a bit of an OMFG! EMO! response. When we first posted about it, there were a few people - presumably inspired by John's choice of character art - which immediately went for a response which I'll unfairly characterise as a "But I don't want to be black!".
(Don't bother following that link through - the most obnoxious ones have been deleted by one of the RPS peeps at some point or another)
In some ways, the character creator actually makes things tricky for the development team. If you can be anyone, what do you show? Take a browse through the artwork section of the site. Sure, you've got examples of every major urban youth subgroup from the last decade or so, rendered in an over-the-top style... but you've also got relatively charismatic cops, riot police and more credible options. It's just a mass of interesting looking, if a little self-conciously cool, people.
Except as the video shows, that's not the whole thing either. No matter what it's reputation, GTA - Real Time Worlds are DMA/Rockstar North veterans - is pretty fucking goofy. The stupidity is at least part of its charm - the broad comedy, the hyperbrutal slapstick.
(Hell, if there's one thing the fourth incarnation perhaps has stepped back from, it's that. It's certainly the one thing its hordes of charmless clones miss almost entirely)
What the video shows is that the world of APB is going to be exactly like GTA at its best, magnified by a mass of human mind's imagination. Sure, there's going to hyperdefined poseurs - but, put in the context of people dressed only in their awesome underwear, the universe is going to feel surprising every time you turn a corner. Anyone trying to be cool is entirely undermined, which - of course - probably makes the game even cooler, y'know?
I'm a big fan of completely meaningless customisation in games. Sure, proper feedback from your decisions is a great thing too - but completely surface level changes can be deeply compelling, especially in a world where you get to show off these meaningless decisions.
When I played a lot of City of Heroes, simply moving to any other shared world was a depressing experience. Especially a traditional fantasy MMO, where inevitably players move through garments as if they were a gig-bought band T-shirt which dissolves after a single wash, there was no character to anyone. Anyone displaying their actual personality was doing so in a way which made them be playing the game - at best - less effectively, and most likely, not playing it at all. Sure, I enjoyed watching Tim Edwards strip to his underwear in World of Warcraft and silently stalk people... but that's not the game. That's an entertaining perversion of a game, like talking your partner into dressing up as your favourite teacher and assigning you homework. And oral.
But, in City of Heroes, you walk into any meeting point, and you're suddenly and immediately aware that these are people playing this game. Not just in the abstract way you are in most games. In most situations, a bot program could be controlling them all as some sinister ruse and you'll never now. But, in City of Heroes, even if they're bot controlled now, the sign that a human was involved in their creation is as clear as the spandex on their skin. In a real way, that by the decisions of how they wanted to present themselves to the world shows their personality. We never talk, but my life is better by having seen them, and it makes me happier to share a world with them.
And, perhaps there's some irony that the game that seems most following in City of Heroes footsteps is the one with abstractly the most realistic setting. But I applaud it, and add it to the list of reasons why APB is the MMO I'm most looking forward to.
Hell, perhaps ever.