APB to Roll Out Open Beta on May 23

As reported by Massively, All Points Bulletin: Reloaded is going ahead with its open beta starting May 23rd. You can register for that HERE.

I was in the “key to the city” semi-open beta for the original launch, and liked it at the time, even if there were balance problems that were starting to become apparent even that early. Hopefully new studio Gamersfirst, who picked up the $100 million development effort for a song, has a handle on that. APB’s new incarnation will be free at least to get into, and hopefully the money model won’t be as dumb as it was last time around. Balance and controls issues aside, APB is a pretty pretty nice game with some features that are nothing short of remarkable, and I’m glad it’s getting a second shot.

As Cloudy As You Think

Is it too late to start year-in-review talk? I’d think so, but then again, everything but Cataclysm is already out, so all the cards are pretty much on the table or about to fall. The year lacked impact MMO releases, but as Syp points out, this may be remembered as the year the major paradigm shift began, from subscription models to low-entry-barrier minipay games. It really began at least a year ago in the western market, with the conversion of DDO to minipay, and one can point to earlier examples.

Few would dispute this. But there’s an inevitable consequence that I haven’t seen much talk about. If the era of retail boxes and entry price points goes away, so too does the big-bugdet MMO in the vein of SWTOR, Tabula Rasa and APB. This may be a good thing, since innovation tends to come from smaller projects that give creative folks more room to stretch, rather than corporate affairs run by committees with dollar signs in their eyes. The big-ticket MMOs are all canned WoW clones, and this is why – investors want to see that there money is going into something proven to be profitable. Some investors aren’t averse to risk, but most are; so the indie project can probably scrape together the $2-3 million it needs, but in order to assemble $100 million in development capital you need to be able to point at existing successes and say “this is what we’re going to do.”

We think of subscription revenue as being where the real money is, which is true… in the long run. But those entry fees (or “cover charges,” as Winged Nazgul cleverly put it,) are where you want to make your development investment back. You don’t want to have to tell your investors “well, we’ll have the costs paid back in 13 months, and then all will be profit,” because to get those many millions you promised them returns at or shortly after release. Eliminating the cover charge also eliminates this method of settling the score. The megabudget titles will get rarer and rarer as the greatest existing success continues to wane.

So the average project budget for the hobby is likely going down, by a lot, over the next two or three years. This like most things has an upside and a downside. As fewer megabudget projects arise smaller affairs will rise to take their place – the gaming media has to cover something. Some will start to refocus on multiplayer games in general (as Beckett MOG has done,) while others will stay focused on virtual world-type products. And we should see an increase in innovation, from which the next overnight sensation could arise (just ask the Minecraft guy.) But we should also see a decrease in polish and in the development of heavily refined systems, possibly including scripted content.

We in the west are used to what we glibly call “polish.” We expect it, and go bananas when we don’t get it (witness the furor over FFXIV.) In the era of fewer WoWs and more Darkfalls, you can kiss it goodbye. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the old buggy days of EverQuest; now there are a ton of platforms and engines that small developers can use to build games, some of them open-source and therefore free. we needn’t sacrifice gameplay, but we’ll likely have to give up hand-crafted content.

At this point the word you’re looking for is “overdeveloped.” Lack of polish didn’t kill Warhammer, no matter what the navel-gazers among us may think. What killed Warhammer were fundamental flaws in the game from top to bottom. Every bit of scripted content in that game was a wasted development dollar. A real working virtual world and systems to interact with it could have been done with a fraction of the budget.

Does this mean I’m predicting the long-awaited return of the sandbox? Well, I’m not predicting anything – I’m speculating. But that could possibly happen.

APB to Rise Again?

Via Massively. Evidently, fans of the massive GTA clone should hold off on abandoning all hope just yet.

Here’s hoping it happens. APB had some pretty big problems, but there was a lot there to like as well, and with some tweaks to the vehicle controls and matchmaking it could have a nice life. Hell, the character editor alone is worth salvaging the game for.

As an aside, APB is a great example of what I was talking about in an earlier post: an MMO (well, an MMO-like, in this case,) that cost way too much money to produce (word is around $80 million,) and so stood almost no chance of earning that money back, let alone being profitable. I can see why some people might have thought that a massive GTA game might be a huge moneymaker, but that level of investment, paired with flawed gameplay and an opaque money model doomed it to failure. Let’s hope that someone (Epic continues to be the leader in the rumor mill,) picks it up on the cheap and can turn it into something at least modestly profitable.

Hope for APB?

Both the BBC and Kotaku are reporting that there may be hope for APB. The name being tossed around is Epic, but that doesn’t sound very likely to me, from the tone of the original story.

Still, let’s hope. APB, problems or not, is a game that deserves a fighting chance. I think it would need quite a bit of work to get it to where it could draw actual paying players, but there’s a very nice core there.

Death and New Life… Maybe

The news broke today that All Points Bulletin is shutting down. Nobody should be surprised by this, since Realtime Worlds had financially imploded and the game wasn’t doing very well, by all accounts.

In situations like this, I always feel bad for the people who liked it. Besides, even though it suffered from a lack of things to do in-game and from a fairly silly money model, APB wasn’t all that bad a game – the play itself was kind of fun. I for one will kind of miss it. One hopes there’s a chance it’ll get bought and resurface.

But mitigating the doom & gloom news, Pirates of the Burning Sea is going free-to-play. This is also not at all surprising. What will be interesting is to see how their model develops; will Flying Labs go with something similar to the way EQ2 is handling free play? Or with the (superior) Turbine approach? Or with something else altogether?

PotBS appears to have been doing very poorly for a good long while now. I personally tried it and gave up very quickly for a couple of reasons, but I’ll admit that it had potential. Hopefully this will turn out to be a positive move, in the end. I’m not much motivated to check it out again when it goes free… but you never know.

APB First Impressions

I am a wee bit over-WoWed at the moment – meaning that I’ve only played for an hour or so in the last few days. Thankfully, I had DDO last night and All Points Bulletin for the last two days to occupy my time. Here’s some thoughts:

  • This game is fun.
  • I suck at it.
  • The client is slow-loading but performance is quite good (on max settings) after it does load. It looks pretty good as well – not the best-looking graphics I’ve ever seen, but very good for an MMO.
  • The feel of the place reminded me of City of Heroes, except that you can shoot the pedestrians.
  • The client is also not entirely stable. It’s crashed on me three times. But I’ve gotten a fair bit of gameplay in between the crashes. Vanguard this is not.
  • Gameplay is right out of GTA down to beating up people on the street, with one big multiplayer twist: the opposing faction can be called to oppose your mission.
  • The customization is top-notch. Not only in the charcter creator, which is the most felxible I’ve seen as far as allowing for different human body types and looks (i. e. not superheroes,) but in the symbol editor, which lets you assemble custom symbols that you can the use as tattoos, but on your car, the back of your jacket, and so on. It’s neat, and one could easily fiddle with it for hours.
  • The music editor is an utterly unique feature in an MMO, and it’s fun to play with as well. I liked it so much I ran down a similar music editor for Windows just to play with.
  • Content seems to be there, insofar as going after unlocks (gear, clothes, cars, weapons, etc.) goes. The missions are a bit samey, but opposing players helped keep things fresh. Did I mention I suck at it?
  • I’m not terribly clear on how the pricing model is going to work, but you’ll either pay a flat monthly fee of around $10 for unlimited play, or buy a block of hours. Not sure if there’ll be a retail box or an initial buy-in.
  • APB is worth checking out if you like GTA-style crime games.

Legitimate Inertia

In Syncaine‘s post today, we find:

My comment yesterday about Warhammer 40k looking like WoW in the future was only partly based off the fact that, well, it looks like WoW in the future.

He may turn out to be correct, given the unwillingness of the people in charge of the last round (Warhammer, AoC, Allods, etc.) of MMO development to do much at variance with the WoW paradigm except cut away the parts that make it fun. But the current crop (Fallen Earth, APB, etc.) seems somewhat more willing to do so, given the middling-and-under success of those 2007-2008 titles.

Besides, I watched the Warhammer 40K trailer, and it reveals exactly what you’d expect it would about gameplay, which is to say, nothing at all. As such, it’s likely a little premature to start accusing the thing of being a WoW clone when that’s not at all clear yet.

His next point, essentially that following the WoW model is not the only way to make an MMO, is quite correct and well-put, even if it’s a point that has been overtalked over the last few years. Other paradigms already exist among modern MMOs, and at least one of them (EVE Online) has to be regarded as very successful, even if it’s still ‘niche’ when compared to WoW’s audience.

WoW has done its part here by not only lowering the bar to subterranean levels in terms of the challenge/reward ratio, but also by conditioning so many in terms of how quickly and effortlessly they should expect to progress.

Christ, not this again.

I will maintain that anyone who feels that WoW is utterly without challenge has either not played to lot of it or is being willfully disingenuous about it. The challenges in WoW are certainly very different than one finds in a primarily PvP-oriented game, starting with being approached cooperatively rather than competitively. That doesn’t mean there’s no challenge at all, even if some folks feel that without a PvP element no challenge exists. (WoW has PvP, of course, but I wouldn’t say that its challenges come from that part of the gameplay.)

The thing about WoW’s challenges is that they tend to scale, which is a virtue rather than a flaw, and one of the reasons for WoW’s vast success. The inept can find challenges appropriate to their level of ability and still make progress, while the smart, skilled player will breeze through those and push into stuff that is challenging, which mostly means a set of specific endgame dungeons and raids (which ones depends on when we’re talking.) This breaks down only at the very, very high end, when the most elite guilds put, say, ICC into farm status mere weeks after its release.

You have an entire subset of the MMO gaming population that believes the WoW pace of advancement is ‘just right’, and so anything that takes longer than a weekend to max out in is a ‘huge grind’, and if anything kills you more than once the game is impossible and not worth playing. Launch today without SOMETHING dinging every 10 minutes? You lack ‘content’.

Saying that WoW lacks grind is like saying that Alaska lacks oil – true only in the sense that there is more to be found elsewhere. But it’s a point worth touching on, as regards the unlettered masses who play only WoW; they have no outside reference point to compare it to, so of course the elements of WoW seem right to them – it’s what they’re accustomed to. This does not mean that the fun they are having in WoW is somehow invalid, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no ghrind in WoW – it only means that for some reason WoW players find the grind in the game acceptable.

At the same time, a lot of people are indeed complaining about the sameness of WoW play even as expansions continue to come out. This number, while small in terms of WoW’s total pool of players, is probably considerably higher than the total MMO player base across all games in the glory days which some remember with misty-eyed nostalgia. There is considerable dissatisfaction with various elements of WoW, and considerable and oft-stated desire to see something fresh.

But a developer can’t count on that, because many who keep saying they want something new and different shrug uncomfortably when it comes out and go back to the same old WoW with which they are familiar. I’ve touched on this before, and I suspect it’s what Syncaine is really trying to say – people say they want a new approach, but then find reasons to stay away from it when it shows up. For the average WoW player this is probably a vague feeling of boredom at the prospect of more of the same quests and incrementally-improving rewards. But people like Syncaine or myself do not have this excuse – if we want open-ended play there are games which offer it, which we can’t say we’ve never heard of.

The factor that Syncaine always seems to disregard in these posts is inertia, the tendency for players well-established in a particular MMO to stay there even after they’ve dabbled with other games. He dismisses this as ‘WoW Tourism’ but it’s really not a negative thing at all, although it’s an annoyance to players of unpopular games like Darkfall – it is, in fact, one of the defining elements of MMO play and the great strength of MMOs in the marketplace. Even as someone who plays a lot of different MMOs (as most readers of this post probably are,) can’t you see how somebody would be reluctant to leave their established characters with their long-worked-at progression for a new game in which they’d start from nothing? Not even entirely unwilling, necessarily, but isn’t this an obvious hurdle that new games trying to recruit from the existing MMO audience (i. e. mostly WoW players) will need to overcome?

I strongly suspect that if we were to compare hypothetical ‘ideal’ MMOs, Syncaine and myself would find that we have very similar tastes in most respects, the major exception being my distaste for the kind of cutthroat, non-consensual PvP that something like Darkfall offers So the issue here is not so much that our tastes simply differ, so much as that he doesn’t seem to accept the tastes of the mainstream as legitimate.

I think his (apparent) goal – of evangelizing for less mainstream games – is a good one and worth doing. I just don’t think he’s getting much traction by basically telling people they’re currently playing a game completely without any sort of challenge – something that’s obviously untrue, and apt to cause the reader to disregard the worthwhile overall message.