Inside Realtime Worlds: A look at APB

“Come on, admit it. You must be insanely bored by now.”

It’s 2 am in a hotel bar in Dundee, Scotland. I’m trying to get Ben Bateman, Community Officer at Realtime Worlds, to admit that after spending hundreds of hours playing All Points Bulletin over the last year or so, the game is starting to lose its lure. It’s just a job after all, right?

But he’s having none of it. For Ben and the rest of the 300-strong team involved with creating APB, the prevailing mood is excitement. After 5 long years in development, numerous rethinks and one abandoned platform, the PC-exclusive, ultra-urban MMO shooter is almost done. It’s good, and Realtime Worlds know it.

Bateman says that the beauty of APB is that, thanks to the game’s open-world multiplayer design, anything can and invariably does happen. Outstanding, hilarious or just plain cool things occur on a regular basis. It’s this that keeps him eager to come back for more.

I’ve listened to similar statements from other members of the team. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking this was simply the company line. But he’s being honest. Several of the hotel barman’s dodgy cocktails have ensured that.

Just hours earlier Ben had given a group of us a guided tour of the Realtime Worlds studio. As someone who has never visited a studio before, it lived up to all my speculative assumptions.

Entering through a reception area encrusted with BAFTA masks and other industry awards, the bottom floor opens out into a large recreation area with comfy sofas, consoles and a The Beatles Rock Band set-up, the walls festooned with APB concept art, beautifully rendered in the game’s bold graffiti style.

But it was also empty, testament to the last few feverish weeks of beta testing and fine tuning before APB goes live. It’s crunch time.

Upstairs the various departments go about their business. Artists, designers and engineers all locked into their monitors, quietly click away at their desks, surrounded by concept art, location photos and action figures. In one room giant projectors cast impenetrable stats onto the wall, live updates of God-knows-what. It’s incredibly impressive.

Later we are ushered into a large dark room. Several ridiculously powerful Alienware PCs are arranged on a massive U-shaped desk that swoops around the space, framing yet another humongous projector. If the Death Star had a games room, this is exactly what it would look like.

It’s here that we are given a quick tour of APB‘s features. The customisation options impress most; a ridiculously deep set of tools that allow you to create bespoke designs for cars, clothing and guns, as well as short death themes your opponents hear when you kill them and even logos that can be graffiti’d onto buildings, a territorial mark of ownership. People will come up with – and sell via the in-game marketplace – some astoundingly detailed penis designs.

But what of the game itself? Well it’s easy to see why some have lazily tagged it the GTA MMO. The open-world urban environment, the car-jacking, the third-person perspective and the criminals-versus-enforcers stylings see to that. Plus, of course, there’s the presence of Dave Jones, one of the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series. But the GTA MMO tag is hopelessly reductionist. It plays nothing like it.

Instead APB plays a little more like a proper shooter, albeit one without headshots. On the face of it this is a baffling choice, but actually play the game and the reasons become apparent. APB is fast-paced enough as it is. Quick-kill headshots would deny the player the extended showdowns that APB specialises in, those glorious moments when small scuffles escalate into full-scale war and utter chaos ensues.

Nothing, however, is written in stone. APB is an MMO (of sorts) and as such is in a constant state of flux and iterative improvement. Realtime Worlds know that if it is to be successful, it’s the community they are going to have to listen to.

It’s a notion that shines through at the round-table Q&A held after our play session. Pretty much every question about the future direction of the game is met with an “if the community wants it” answer. Will there be a turf-control expansion? A 50 v 50 no-holds barred PvP area? How about a city full of zombies? A fishing mini-game?

“If the community wants it.”

It’s terrible answer for a writer looking for headlines, but fantastic for those that will actually be playing the game day-in day-out. Realtime Worlds know that without the support of the community, their efforts over the last half-decade will be wasted. They’re listening.

This is supported by the presence of the other visitors to the studio that day. APB Evolved, a fan forum set up in 2007, were also represented. Founder Stephen Lynch was joined by the site’s moderators, flown over from America for a once in a life-time opportunity to see exactly how APB is being made. They could hardly believe their luck.

Towards the end of the round-table the guys from APB Evolved throw question after question at RTW, faithfully relaying the queries coming at them thick and fast over IRC. The collected developers happily discuss weapon balancing, car handling and all the other minutiae of a title which has already won over an army of beta-testing fans.

Not many developers would be willing to do this during such a crucial time.

Back in the hotel bar later that night, as the forum kids, journos and bloggers enjoy RTW’s hospitality, I’m still failing to get Ben Bateman to admit battle fatigue. He simply won’t be moved. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” he says with a big broad grin on his face. Based on what we saw of APB and the Realtime Worlds studios that day, it’s hard to disagree.