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GDC: Dave Jones Talks APB, Emergent Behavior

Realtime Worlds CEO and original GTA creator Dave Jones wanted to throw out the rulebook for his first MMO, APB, and discusses ways to buck the traditional MMORPG trend, encourage emergent player behavior, and do away with the grind - he exp

February 22, 2008

5 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Leigh Alexander

Realtime Worlds CEO and original GTA creator Dave Jones opened his talk at the 2008 Game Developers Conference with a question: “If you were given a clean sheet of paper, and offered the chance to design an MMO, what would you put in there?” The first question might better be, what is an MMO, anyway? “That’s a problem for the industry,” said Jones. “MMOs were originally RPGs.” Therefore, he says, there’s a misconception of MMOs within the industry – the implication that they all are, or should be, RPGs. “The whole terminology’s getting a bit confusing in many respects,” he continued, noting the disparity between multiplayer online games and MMOs, which often tend to be very different animals. For many players, multiplayer games are what Jones called “the Nirvana of gaming” -- they spend the majority of their online playtime on games like Halo, Command & Conquer, Doom, Call of Duty, Forza and others – none of which are RPGs. “Unfortunately, MMORPGS have a bit of a social stigma as well,” Jones added, pointing out that WoW raids somehow don’t seem as “cool” as other forms of group play online. On the other hand, there’s plenty that MMORPGs get right, Jones says: persistent worlds, thriving communities, social interaction and longevity. Continued Jones, “For me as a game designer, I like to think about infrastructure. Dedicated servers. That’s pretty damn exciting.” While there may be technology challenges, Jones says the overall benefit is a tremendous asset. With the server as the key trait, then, Jones says the question might be better changed from “what kind of MMO would you design,” to, “how do you design a game with a dedicated server behind it?” “I like to leave story to books and movies,” continued Jones, a proponent of freeform, sandbox-style gaming as seen in Lemmings, Body Harvest, GTA, and Crackdown. “For me, the only thing our medium can do is create a world… and play to the users’ hearts and imagination,” he added. The advantage of contemporary game over a fantasy setting, Jones said, is that modern settings don’t force the player to learn all of the elaborate lore and rules of a brand-new world. “Having to learn about a whole new world is tough when it’s hard to get people to pay attention for five minutes.” Free-form personalization is another strong concept, added Jones – let the players create the character. The player’s identity should be unique to them, characters should be distinct from one another, and clans should be able to share identifying traits among one another to create truly unique player groups with their own audio, animation, vehicles, weapons and morals. Regarding APB, the MMO he is developing, Jones said he was aiming for that same kind of freedom and ease of use. He demonstrated the content creation tools, layering building blocks to let the players add custom emblems, decals and tattoos. But even this level of personalization has its rules, said Jones: “What we don’t want is really strange, weird looking characters… There are some driving games that allow customization like this, but those games are really a subset of what APB is going to be.” Currently, said Jones, Realtime Worlds is working with last.FM to allow players to choose what music is playing in their vehicles. If someone else has the track in their machine, they’ll play that song on their machine too. If they have something else by the same artist, or a similar genre, it’ll play that. “We’re building one of the most fun environments in which to play I think, and that’s large open dynamic cities,” Jones continued. He envisions hundreds of players per city – so what will they do? “If you give 100 players guns, physics, vehicles, and a living city, there’ll be anarchy within minutes,” he says. So rules are necessary, mandating that players pick a side or a role in the action. Both sides have control and order; Jones likened it to organized crime, calling it “consensual violence.” One MMO concept Jones also eschews is the traditional level grind. “How will people be playing this in six months? What’s going to keep them playing again and again and again?” He asks. “How long will I have to get all the cool stuff and level 99? …I think that’s wrong, it’s broken.” So Jones eliminated the concept of character levels for APB. “I didn’t want any grinding. It’s a very broken instrument to drive gameplay. It’s customization that’ll drive players.” But without the grind, how to provide players with hundreds of hours to gameplay? For Jones, the solution is simple: play the game like a programmer. Counter Strike for example, has “hundreds of hours” of playability without requiring grind. So Realtime Worlds’ core goal was to “make the core core game so much fun that it doesn’t feel like a grind.” He stressed regarding players as content, not artificial incompetence. He demonstrated a scene from the game where robbers steal something: the best driver takes the wheel, while the best shooters man the van. This puts out an all-points bulletin – and enforcers are summoned via the matchmaking system to combat them. “You have no idea who we’ll match you to, but you’ll learn who’s good, what the good games are, how they fight,” said Jones. This, he added, is the way to make a repeatable mission fun and dynamic. In another scenario, newbies trying to rob the same place match up against just one experienced player. That player feels cool, and the four antagonists feel like they have a chance. In the demonstration, the experienced player took out the robbers with a rocket launcher. Jones’ conclusion: “Emergent behavior – support it!”

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