Caveat Emptor and the (un)timely demise of APB

One of the big gaming news stories this week was the closure of the servers for APB (all points bulletin), the MMO that had been compared to Grand Theft Auto.

Owners Realtime Worlds set a record here for the fastest shut down of an MMO after launch, weighing in at about 80 days. Naturally boxes are still on shop shelves as lumbering retail chains pass the message down the management chain at glacial speed. Which means that it’s entirely possible right now for an unsuspecting punter to pay full price for a box which is perfectly useless – an online-only game with no active servers.

Comments around the gaming blogs come in two varieties: why did the game fail, and is it even moral to launch an MMO knowing that your company is on the verge of bankruptcy unless it sells an unfeasibly high number of boxes?

APB: Doomed from the drawing board

The concept behind this game was never, never in a million years going to work as an MMO. The idea is that you have a social area where people can have their avatars wander around and chat/ casually insult each other/ show off their costumes, and an instanced PvP area where they can face off in the mean streets of a large 100vs100 battleground.

Neither of those are bad things. Trying to sell it as an MMO based on that, however, was never going to fly.

It isn’t that a GTA type of MMO could never work. It just could never work without the virtual world side of the game in place. Players would have to want to become playas, to own some of those bars or nightclubs, to run their own gangs or advance in the ranks of law enforcement. They’d want some kind of a working economy. They’d want to be invested enough to have something to fight for. In particular, you can’t run a gang war without turf rights. Done right, it could have the depth of The Godfather or The Untouchables. And it could still foster the fast paced running combat.

It isn’t even that hard to put together a ruleset for a turf/ black market based gangster game, I’ve played PBeM games (play by email turn based game) that did it. Add that to a decent shootout implementation, and maybe, just maybe you’ve got something. APB however never did.

The smart thing to have done would have been to start with a single player/ small group game (a la Torchlight)  to test the concept and then maybe look towards expanding, taking feedback from players, and building an MMO from there.

They didn’t do the smart thing. They built a neat looking customisable character demo though.

Obviously it’s sad when a company goes bust and people lose their jobs but this time it isn’t down to the current state of the economy. I worked for a company during the boom that put out products that no one wanted and we went bust too. That’s life. As an engineer, when you see this is happening (and everyone who is paying attention in a company like that will have half a clue), you get as much training and experience on new and trendy techniques and tools as possible before the shit goes down– at least you’ll get some transferable skills for your CV out of the whole shebang.

Keen has written his thoughts on why APB failed, and as usual he’s pretty much on the ball when analysing why he doesn’t like something.

The morality of running MMOs

So assume you are running an MMO, and selling it to players as a service. And then for whatever reason, the service ends. Have you done something immoral? How much notice should players get? Should you even launch at all if you can’t guarantee to keep the servers going for … well … that’s the question? What if you know at the launch that your company is teetering on the financial brink?

From one point of view, as the CEO of a company in trouble, it’s pretty much immoral to not attempt to maximise profit. If you have a product and could sell it to recoup some investment, clearly you should go ahead and do it. On the other hand, if you are selling a service then you need to factor in the costs of running that service. If you can’t afford it then maybe you need to think about other options – maybe selling IP rights or code instead of launching.

But is an MMO a product or service?

We know that in most recent MMOs, there is a surge of players at the start and many of them drop off at the end of the first month. But if you told those players that the game would close at the end of the month, the vast majority wouldn’t buy it at all .. even though they know full well they probably wouldn’t play for much longer than that.

I think it’s because we still think of an MMO as being like any other computer game, most of which we probably don’t play for over a month either. It’s just that with the MMO, there is always the possibility that you’ll want to make it your second home, and with other computer games, the decision as to when to play is in your hands. Also, with other computer games, you don’t feel an obligation to check the developer’s financial position before you buy the game, just in case.

So I think APBs swift failure, whether it was a moral failure on the part of the management or not, is unfortunate for future online games. After Hellgate London, players might justifiably have gotten more nervous about buying ‘lifetime subscriptions’. And now, after APBs failure, players might be more nervous about buying an MMO from a company that hasn’t any track record of running one previously.