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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on August 28, 2010

Realtime Worlds (RTW) now holds the dubious honor of being the world’s most spectacular MMOFPS failure. Baby eating was the cause.

Counting Noses

Sunday afternoon is normally a busy time for MMOs, especially in early August when school is out and summer vacation time is available for adults. APB had launched a month earlier (July 2, 2010). Its two English-language servers, Zombie and LaRocha, had a total of 1,970 players online, over 80% “paying” players (i.e., in pay-for-play regions). Six hours later, Sunday evening, the population was 2,334. Depending on play times and cycles, population in new games at busy times is 20% to 40% of total customers. This means APB probably had 5,000 to 10,000 English-speaking customers. APB supports French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish as well. Generously speaking, the game had 10,000 to 20,000 paying customers.

This customer base translates $1.2 to $2.4 million income per year (APB charges $10/month); but only if the game maintains its users. Checking two weeks later, population on Sunday afternoon on the same two servers was 1,221. APB had lost over 1/3rd of its active players! During that time RTW’s bankruptcy was announced. Gamers don’t abandon ship purely due to news from the financial pages. In fact, within the game a frequent sentiment was “Great! Maybe someone else will start fixing this!”

Experienced game industry veterans can read these tea leaves. APB was an abject failure – a success requires at least 50k to 100k customers. A game that took $80+ million to make at a studio that burns through $20 million a year needs over 200k customers to keep going and please the investors.

A 64-bit Technical Success

By technical standards, APB is impressive. If your PC is a 64-bit multi-core monster and your 1+ Mbps broadband doesn’t drop or reroute packets like hot potatoes, the game performs impressively. You run, jump and hurdle fences in a large city district with 79 other players and hundreds of NPC civilians. Far more impressively, up to one driver and three passengers can travel together in a fast car that spins, slides, bounces and rams into other vehicles, including airborne vehicles that can launch themselves from ramps, roofs and overpasses. All three vehicle passengers can shoot, be shot at, hit moving targets while in motion.

Some people complained about the server-authoritative cars, but with a decidedly mediocre internet connection I found APB cars reasonably drivable. Like Gran Turismo or GTA vehicles, or landing a plane in a flight sim, they require a gentle touch.

A 32-bit Windows XP box can run this game, but not well. What is an impressive game on a $3,000+ Win7 PC (2.8 GHz i7 930 quad-core with 12 GB RAM and an NVidia 480 GTX) becomes sluggish, with odd pauses, on a 4-year-old $2,000+ WinXP PC (3.2 GHz Core Duo with 2 GB RAM and an NVidia 9800 GT). I suspect this is the source of many complaints directed at APB.

Given the huge success of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, hard-core gamers with bleeding edge hardware “should” enthusiastically embrace such a technical tour-de-force. Unfortunately this didn’t occur. Steep technical requirements are just the tip of the iceberg. APB hit something far larger, well below the waterline.

A Design Disaster

In APB “Rating” level (R-value) is a key measure of progress. Win or lose, a character gains rating level in the game. In fact, losing a big fight with multiple players gives ten or twenty times more “rating” than winning an unopposed solo mission. The tutorial gets you to R20. After that a player gains about 2-4 rating points per hour to R100, then 1-2 pts/hr to R200, and less than 1 pt/hr to R300, etc. After six weeks only a handful of players were beyond R300. A $50 initial purchase gives you 50 hours of gameplay, enough to reach somewhere between R100 and R200 unless you use cheats and hacks for faster advancement. Grinding through enough gun battles for R-level is one of four disparate and confusing advancement tracks. It is as if the APB’s designers took the worst parts of Warhammer Online’s advancement system and made them even more confusing, something even the most cynical designer might have thought impossible.

Ultimately, all these advancement systems provide a character with personal improvements that add hit points, reduce incoming damage and increase the healing rate. Overall an R200+ character “with benefit” is about 30% more survivable than an under-R100 novice. Those same veterans also get guns with upgrades that increase damage, accuracy and rate of fire for about 30% more firepower. Combine both (1.3 * 1.3) and veterans are 1.69 times stronger than newbies. The practical effect is that in a face-to-face gun battle, veterans can’t lose unless they fall asleep. In fact, even if the newbie surprises them with a blast into their back at close range, the veteran can turn around and return fire so effectively that the newbie still dies first.

In addition, with 75 to 150 hours of playtime, R200+ veterans have experienced most missions multiple times. In the process they learned the best places to hide, the fastest routes to rooftops, the layout of multi-level shopping malls, and how to use this terrain to best advantage. There is little chance a newbie can find any position of advantage against a veteran. There is every chance the veteran will find a superior position and take the first shot.

Next factor in the various hacks developed by enterprising entrepreneurs during beta. These went on sale (through the black market) the day the game launched. Aimbot hacks let players automatically zero-in instantly on a target. Wallhacks allow players to see and shoot through walls. Most recently gunhacks give every weapon the longest possible range. Realtime Worlds never developed good software solutions for these. Instead, they relied on players making video recordings of hackers, which Realtime Worlds CSRs (customer service representatives) would presumably view and judge who as cheating. Needless to say, this is the slowest and most costly way to fight game-wrecking hackers.

All these problems pale against a truly vast design flaw. APB allows players of ALL levels and hours of playtime into the same instance. Guess what? Players at R200+, with all their advantages, constantly slaughter low rating players. Those lower players don’t just lose a match or two. They lose miserably, outmaneuvered and outgunned, hour after hour, day after day. At 2-4 hours per day it would take over a month to reach R200+ and be “almost” competitive.

The typical gameplay arc PC and console games, “try, lose, learn, win,” takes ten minutes to an hour or two. The gameplay arc of APB is “lose every match miserably for a month, and then win occasionally.”

I witnessed the effect of this is an APB guild during the first month. They began as an enthusiastic group of role-players. Then they lost miserably against seemingly “unkillable” enemies who regularly outmaneuvered them and insulted them. They moaned about hackers and developed a “celebrate each kill” mentality. They tried to ignore mission defeats. But it’s hard to lose most of the time. Within the month I saw groups tending to hang out, chat and goof around. They spent less and less time taking missions and shooting weapons. More and more members drifted away. Last time I looked participation at my regular gaming times had dropped to half, with one or two more vowing to quit that week.

Baby Eating

A game design is a “baby eater” if high-level players constantly defeat low-level players. APB is a classic example of this. Incoming “baby” players experience nothing but defeat as veterans tear them apart. Despite claiming that a special “threat” system would create “fair” matches, the actual system completely failed. Vastly unequal matches were commonplace in APB. This resulted in no positive word-of-mouth encouraging games to try APB. Instead, discouraged novices spread “bad vibes,” in the form of complaints about everything from real culprits (such as the matchmaking system) to irrelevant issues (a lack of “realistic” gun recoil).

In the final weeks before bankruptcy, Realtime Worlds desperately patched and “fixed” APB. Unfortunately these were minor tweaks to weaponry, outfitting and matchmaking adjustments that did nothing to prevent “baby eating.” Perhaps the senior RTW designers were so in love with the original concept that they couldn’t see the horrible reality. Perhaps there wasn’t the time and resources to make wholesale post-launch changes that fast. The inability of those designers to see the problem during beta was fatal. After launch they were reduced to rearranging deck chairs and conducting one last tune from the sinking fantail of the Titanic.

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, What Would You Do?

About 18 to 30 months ago, the proper decision would have been launching a preliminary version of the game with core gameplay. A small, simple game would have been appropriate: allow characters with guns fight on foot in one reduced-size city district. The subscription business model with very modest fees ($3-4/month, instead of $10 or $15) would encourage realistic user behavior. Such a game would quickly demonstrate whether players were coming back or more, or leaving in droves. If they were leaving, developers could experiment with everything from gameplay to matchmaking to business model until something worked. Until gameplay builds a proven audience, no amount of AAA “chrome,” from vehicular travel to character and vehicle customization, to UI polish, will make an MMO loser into a winner.

Unfortunately, outside the field of social network (“Facebook”) games, few MMO developers and publishers have the courage to perform real-world billable betas with “incremental” development. Management usually lives in the fading mindset of “big launch” boxed products. I’ve encountered innumerable game marketing managers and VPs claiming that sufficient budget can make any MMO a success. Similarly, I’ve met countless game designers convinced that his or her grandiose design vision will be a smash hit, if only they are given the time and resources to “do it right.”

Even if game studios and publishers avoid these traps, outside financial backers and venture capitalists may insist on it. The “money men” are not game industry experts. They rely on the advice of others. This source of this advice ranges from the teenage gamer next door to “industry experts” who “graduated” years ago from studios and publishing companies into the ranks of paid consultants. Sadly, too many of these experts remain in a time warp, believing that modern online games must be sold like “big launch” PC and console games of the 1990s.

Another pernicious influence on game development is selling investors using a “cult of personality” gambit. In this enthusiastic pitch-men (or women) puff the reputation and trot out well-spoken, well-known industry figures to give the company or game sufficient “gravitas” to land another $10 or $20 million in investment. Examples of this include John Romero at Ion Storm (Daikatana), Will Wright at EA/Maxis (Sims Online), Brad McQuaid at Sigil (Vanguard), Richard Garriott at NCsoft USA (Tabula Rasa) or Dave Jones at Realtime Worlds (APB). In reality, as some of these people quickly point out, it takes a dedicated, skilled and experienced team of 50+ to make a great MMO. A “front man” who spends most of his time with investors has little opportunity for more than a token influence.

The best road to industry success is to start with an honestly led, well-run, experienced development team. Release early and iterate toward success on a five year or more arc. If your business model relies on recurring revenue, like most MMOs, bet on gamer word-of-mouth and a slow marketing drumbeat over “big launch” events.

If faced with rescuing APB today, a different strategy is needed. My first move would be splitting development into two teams: ‘live’ and ‘relaunch.’ The live team would be tiny, concentrating on dealing with hackers and making tweaks to “maintain the faith” of those still playing. The great majority would go to the relaunch team. Their prime goal: find and execute the fastest possible solution to “baby eating” gameplay.

One possible path is an instance system that absolutely prevents higher-powered players from fighting lower-powered players. How? Segregate players into low, middle and high level instances. Absolutely prohibit higher level players from entering lower instances. Lower level players can “play up” into higher levels whenever they wish. As lower players advance, they are gradually “pushed upward” into higher level instances. Of course, this requires a good way to measure player ability, which never easy in a team-based FPS.

Another, easier path is overhauling the advancement and equipment system. Give novice players the absolute best single weapon at the start, as well as top-level character enhancements for the best survivability. As a player advances, give them access to alternate enhancements and alternate weapon options. Allow high-level players to explore different options. This is not a new idea. It was used with success by Planetside, one of the first MMOFPS games.

In either case, the new “baby savior” system would need a new server to test and ultimately house the new gameplay. A solid relaunch effort would require new “content,” such as a new region of the city, new character clothing options, new vehicles, and new weapons, to help interest previous players and hold onto existing players. Combating hackers and “baby savior” gameplay will not make APB an overnight success. The right fixes simply allow a profitable game to emerge from the current wreckage. Over time wise stewardship and a careful attention to gameplay and features could breed success, just as CCP grew EVE Online from 50k to 500k subscribers in seven years.

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15 Responses to “Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure”

  1. Glad to see you posting again, Arnold!

    The one snag here is what gets invested. I’ve actually tried to pitch a game project that “only” required a few million and was fairly modest, a stepping stone to a larger project. The times I’ve tried to pitch this to publishers or VCs, I’ve gotten no interest. One VC even told me that he wouldn’t invest in an MMO, but if I were pitching a social game…

    This is where the big promises and the big name come in. It gets the investors excited about the project so that they will write the checks. A little thing like the game not being feasible shouldn’t stop that! :)

    One of the advantages “social games” have had is that the initial cost is lower, so they could be launched much easier. I think this is why we’re seeing an explosion of them right now: they hit the sweet spot of being big enough for the investors to care about, but much smaller than MMOs so there is a lot less risk of APB-scale failure.

    My thoughts.

  2. Stabs said

    “By technical standards, APB is impressive.”

    Statements like this just confuse me. In MMOs in general cheating has been got under control. More or less. There are grey areas, there are gold farmers but the mass duping and hacks of Diablo and other 90s games is not a feature of the modern MMO experience.

    The minimum technical standard therefore of any modern MMO is that your malicious players can’t screw the game up for everyone else.

    What’s more there is nothing technically impressive about designing a game that performs well on a state of the art brand new machine. It’s technically impressive to launch a game that, like WoW and Eve, runs on a toaster. I downloaded EQ2E this afternoon – I was playing in 15 minutes. That’s technically impressive.

    Arnold, everything you say after the statement about technical standards disproves your assertion. If this game is good by anyone’s technical standards then they’re using the wrong standards. It really doesn’t matter that the game copes with vehicle passengers.

  3. Arnold Hendrick said

    Brian, you’re quite right about money-men going gaga over big names. It’s silly, it’s sad and it’s true. Hilariously enough, as I imagine you’ll agree, investing in social games right now is like investing in the stock market as a bubble peaks. However, there is a “herd mentality” among investors. It is easier to defend an investment to the managing partners when you point out how many competitors are investing in the same field. Contrarian investments invariably receive much closer scrutiny. Close scrutiny equals greater career risk in the VC world.

    As for the impressive technology issue, what’s impressive is the communications layer underneath that makes things happen quickly, with near flawless synchronization. That’s a function of client-server communications coding, not the client PC hardware. I suspect some very fancy UDP packet coding was involved. I admit the article doesn’t transition well from that point to the issue of what sort of PC makes the game shine. The point I was trying to make is that the heavy criticism of APB failing for technical reasons might be because of undisclosed steep client hardware requirements, rather than basic client-server technology.

  4. Stabs said

    Sure I understood your point and I respect your salvaging something out of this train wreck to point to as a positive.

  5. […] y otros dicen que el mencionado ganking mató a APB, y sincaine dice que no se puede atribuir a un solo […]

  6. […] designed a game you may have heard of if you’re of a certain age) has a long piece up on why APB failed. (Well, aside from the no one buying it thing.) A game design is a “baby eater” if high-level […]

  7. Good post, Arnold. Good to see this here. You’re right about the various glaring flaws of this game, and about the pernicious environment that led to its launch.

    The best road to industry success is to start with an honestly led, well-run, experienced development team. Release early and iterate toward success on a five year or more arc. If your business model relies on recurring revenue, like most MMOs, bet on gamer word-of-mouth and a slow marketing drumbeat over “big launch” events.

    Like Brian and you, among many others, I have pitched many games to investors on just this basis. It doesn’t work. They want the “big launch” and of course they want the project to release in 24-36 months and to flip the company in less than five years for a significant multiple. Otherwise, the thinking goes, there are better investments out there. They want the $20M project, not the $2M one ($2M being too low for VCs and too high for most angels is another problem). And of course, they say they don’t want to “pick content winners,” preferring to bet on the big names and big egos, with exactly the failings you outlined.

    For better or worse though, I believe the “social” games market is driving the industry to change. Games like APB or even SW:TOR are a dying breed. Why spend $20M or $50M on a single bet when you can do tens of games with faster, predictable revenue for the same money? I imagine there will still be a few big-event MMOs — our industry’s equivalent of the expensive action extravaganza film — but far fewer than we’ve seen in the past. Failures like APB (among others — remember the huge investments Red Five received?) hasten this process along.

  8. UnSubject said

    “Baby eating” is a fantastic term and a reason why pretty much all ‘open’ PvP MMO games are doomed to niche status. Players won’t stick around if they can’t find a way / location to play the game that lets them succeed and learn the rules. Online FPS titles let players choose different servers that means they can find one that best suits them; APB (and other PvP MMOs) typically fix all PvPers in one place and then crush the new players into a fine paste (i.e. eat those babies). It’s not a way to build a playerbase.

    I don’t think APB’s failure will end big budget MMO failures – Tabula Rasa should have done that – but again it will mean that investors keep looking for safer and safer AAA MMOs, which means more IP licenses and sticking with the familiar.

  9. […] Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure Filed under: Design blogs Leave a comment Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) ( subscribe to comments on this post ) […]

  10. “Baby eating” – nice! Really, it sounds like this game was designed to encourage people to play a lot and spend a lot of money to do so. They kissed balance goodbye in hopes that people would play a lot to become the big fish in the pond?

    Very happy no one bit.

    Social gaming will become saturated soon enough and people will start to realize they’re not really getting anything out of those types of games and move on to the next big thing.

  11. Neofit said

    Nice article, but it explains why the game failed a month after launch, not why it started failing at launch too. And from the sales estimates that I am reading here and there, the game was a failure at launch too, when the sheep/babies weren’t even supposed know their fate.

    IMHO this was due to RTW being too confident, and distributing tens of thousands of keys to the end of beta “Keys to the City” event. One had to have been away on vacation not to have gotten a key. I myself got three from RPS, for me and two colleagues. We saw cars as agile as torpedoes. We saw a totally unfathomable shooting system: did I hit, did I damage, for how much, what is happening, where is the feedback? We saw a rather confusing progression and unlock system. And as the article says, we were constantly slaughtered, we shoot, we don’t know what is happening, we see them shooting and we go down in 1-3 hits. After that none of us bought the box.

    So, unless you are really really sure that your game is the best ever, don’t give the Keys to your City to each and every one of your potential customers. Had I not been in this demo, I wouldn’t have given much credit to people complaining on the Internet, someone is always complaining about something. Being an irredeemable sucker, I would have said, for the n-th time, “no way, how bad can it be?” and would have bought the box. I would love to see stats about the number of keys used during the KttC event vs the number of retail keys used.

    But apparently the devs, or at least the decision-makers, were confident that they had solid gameplay there. I hope these people will work in another industry from now on.

  12. […] Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure A 64-bit Technical Success […]

  13. Lichbane said

    Sadly, nothing will save APB. Servers are closing. It’s dead Jim.

  14. […] But I kept an eye out on reports which could shine some lights on that question. And I found this interesting analysis at MMO Tidbits which basically says that ganking killed […]

  15. […] and be again killed. Again and again.  That’s griefing. What one commentator calls “Baby Killing.” It’s destroying the game. It didn’t matter that their characters got guard […]

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