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Dave Jones APB: massive success or an epic fail

By on June 23, 2009

APB from Real Time Worlds is about to become either the games industry’s Titanic or its Heaven’s Gate.

I’m at the GameHorizon Conference in Gateshead and Dave Jones has just been talking about APB. It’s an incredibly ambitious game and RTW has raised $80 million to make it happen. But is it going to work?

APB screenshot

Dave talked through what he did to get RealTime Worlds off the ground, and what he is trying to achieve. I disagree with much of what he says but I can’t fault his ambition or his plans

1. The #1 thing investors want to hear is honesty

Dave argued that he got funding because he went out and told investors that the world was changing, RTW could be disruptive and Dave told them honestly that he needed $50 million to make a good online game.

My view: Dave is wrong about the honesty. He raised the money because he raised it before the credit crunch, he raised it before the failure of Tabula Rasa and Age of Conan and Auto Assault and above all, he raised it as the original creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto. For other developers following in his footsteps, you need that kind of track record to attract that kind of investment.

2. Don’t decide on the business model before you finish the game

Real Time Worlds has not announced its business model. In his keynote, Dave suggested that this was because they have not decided what they want it to be. He sees this as a good thing, because it allows flexibility in pricing. In Dave’s words “if a game is built around a business model, that’s a recipe for failure.”

My view: different business models require different gameplay. A subscription business needs a very different set of hooks to a microtransaction business or an advertising-funded business. Trying to shoe-horn a business model onto a game not designed for it is very very hard and is likely to cause huge difficulties in the future.

3. What gamers want is to play head-to-head against other humans

Dave cited Counterstrike as one of his primary influences, as a game that with no AI that absorbed his gaming time. APB is aimed to be PVP in an AI-filled world, allowing players to join opposing forces and fight.

My view: there is a market for this, but only 25% of gamers are “competitive”, according to Some Research. Others like co-operation, exploration, construction, learning… the list goes on. That does not mean that Dave is wrong. Simply that what SOME gamers want is aggressive, tactical PvP, but it is a limited market. Many online games have been ruined by out of control PvP, meaning that RTW will have to work hard to balance this. It’s not that this market does not exist. Just that it is not as big as it used to be and it’s a very competitive area: the growth in the market is coming from offering new experiences to whole new audiences, and APB is not aiming in this direction.

Finally, Dave said that with 100,000 to 200,000 players, the game will do OK financially. I find that very hard to believe. I can imagine it might be no longer loss-making at an operational level. But to recoup the $50 million investment, each of those 100,000 players would have to spend $500. That’s a big ask.

The game is ambitious, huge in scope and the people I know who have seen it are very impressed. But it’s got a mountain to climb to make a good return for its investors.

My overall view is that Dave Jones might make it work. But very few other developers would be able to even get started on this, and the route that RealTime Worlds has followed is unlikely to work for many other developers. I hope that the developers in the audience did not walk out of the auditorium with delusions of grandeur.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com